Friday 18 April 2014

A visit to St Werburgh school in the Bvumba by Bryony Rheam

The Bvumba is a special place for me: as a child, my family spent many holidays there and I have lots of special memories of long walks through the jungly terrain, sitting next to a huge open fire in the evenings and watching the mist rise as the sun came up in the morning.  In 1981, we lived for a year in Penhalonga, not far from Mutare along the Mozambican border.  I remember going to school in a very old bus, chugging up Christmas Pass and then that wonderful sense of almost freewheeling it down the other side into Mutare where I went to school.  It was a time of great transition in Zimbabwe: black children were allowed into what had predominantly been white government schools, and many white people were leaving for places such as South Africa and Australia.  The war in Mozambique was still in full force and, for all that we were so near, we may as well have been on a different planet.  The only interaction we had with the country was through the itinerant border jumpers who came across to sell the food aid they had received from West Germany: tins of fish which they couldn’t open.

Years later and here I was in the Bvumba once again, attending a Caine Prize workshop.  Towards the end of our time there, we were divided into groups of four and sent off to different schools to give a talk about our writing. St. Werburgh is situated on the Burma Valley Road, on the other side of the mountain that dominates Leopard Rock.  It is an Anglican school, started in 1897, but it receives no funding from the church.  Originally situated on white commercial land, from whom it received some financial help, the school is now on its own, relying on US$25 a term school fees from its 900+ pupils.  

The other groups of writers went to secondary schools to give talks whereas we were invited to speak to the primary school’s Young Writer’s Club, a group of 8-12 year olds.  That the school had such a group was of great interest to me as an English teacher.  From my own experience, such clubs are attended by few and usually run out of enthusiasm quite quickly.  However, the 40 or so children who all trouped into the classroom to meet us proved that this was a writing club with a difference.  Luckily, it is headed by teachers who are keen to teach and share their ideas with the children in their care.

We were shown their writing books in which they had recorded details about their families  - many of them are being brought up entirely by their mothers – and about trips away to a nearby waterfall and the museum in Mutare.  They had also written an imaginative story; one about a rat who ate the back of a man’s coat sticks in my mind.  The man wore the coat, not knowing that the back was missing and everyone laughed at him as he walked down the road!  

What really struck me as I read the children’s work was how good their English was.  I work at a private school in Zambia where school fees are between US$3000-5000 a term (depending on if they are primary/secondary and boarding/day-scholars) and yet the standard of English is incredibly poor.  The pupils I teach are not all first language English speakers, but they all speak English at school.  At the age of fifteen, they struggle to hand in an essay which is more than one side of an A4 page long and which has a clear beginning, middle and end.  Yet these children in a remote government school in Zimbabwe have already got to grips with the basic structure of a story.  

Another thing which impressed me was the ease with which the children could stand up and recite poems to the audience.  Not many students I teach could do that from memory or they would mumble and look self-conscious and try to slink off without being noticed.  

It is a generally accepted fact that if anyone wants to be a good writer, they have to be a good reader. I give talks to parents about the importance of reading to their children because more and more children are writing within a vacuum.  They have nothing to stimulate their imaginations because no one is reading to them, including teachers, who often don’t value reading as it’s not ‘part of the syllabus’.  At St. Werburgh the problem is a different one.  They don’t have any books to read to the children.  Unfortunately, the suggestion to download free books off the internet, was not a particularly practical one in an area with no cell phone signal, never mind internet access.  

The children sang for us and we were also taken on a tour of the school before being offered mealies to eat.  On the tour, we saw the IT department and the special needs class.  There is also a class for children with autism and downs syndrome.  One of the girls is brain damaged after being hit by a car.  What I saw in the classrooms is some very progressive teaching practice.  There is a rota on the wall for cleaning the classroom; the children are taught skills such as knitting and the teacher plays music through her cell phone to provide stimulation.  She says that ideally they would like a CD player and I can feel that hint in her voice that hopes I might be the provider of such a machine.

I was impressed by the amount of pictures on the wall, some standard Ministry of Education posters about cholera and the importance of washing hands, but also handmade ones, some out of old corn flakes packets – vowel sounds and times tables.  It occured to me that the reason these children’s English is of such a good standard is because the basic teaching practice in Zimbabwean government schools still focuses on spelling rules and multiplication tables.  This is something that has been forgotten in many private schools and only recently has its significance re-emerged in the UK.

Abdul Adan with children from St Werburgh school

Abdul Adan made a name for himself by learning part of a Shona song and also teaching a large group of school children who had gathered round him a Swahili song.  The area the school is situated in is a truly beautiful one and I couldn’t help envying the children for living in such an area.  However, it is also a place of incredible hardship.  Most of the parents who send their children to this school are subsistence farmers.  As they all tend to grow the same crop, maize, the price of a bucket of mealies is dirt cheap.  US$25 a term in school fees may not sound like a lot of money, but it certainly is for these people.  Some of the children faint during the school day as they have had nothing to eat all morning and the school cannot possibly feed them.

It is hard sometimes, considering the history of Zimbabwe in the last fifteen years, to understand why education is still so valued in the country.  Many of the children wrote how they wanted to be pilots or lawyers because ‘that’s how you make lots of money’.  Yet the country wide pass rate for ZIMSEC O level is 16%.  Even if these pupils do go on and get their A Levels, what then?  According to one of the teachers, the best thing to do would be to teach the pupils a skill so that they can actually do something practical, besides farming, when they leave.

Some of the children live as far as ten kilometres away, up the mountain and must not delay in their start to the long walk home.  They walk in groups as there is a danger that, especially girls, may be attacked and raped if they are on their own.  In the past, some children have disappeared, probably taken for body parts, although this hasn’t happened for a while.  

We leave after an exchange of email addresses and phone numbers.  Can I get any of the teachers a job in Zambia?  An average teacher in Zimbabwe earns just short of US$500 a month, regardless of experience and qualifications.  A government school teacher in Zambia can earn around US$1000 a month and they are often given car and housing loans.

As we drive away, I marvel at the resilience of these teachers, people who obviously pour so much of their time and effort into teaching these children and who receive very little monetary recompense for it.  The landscape is incredibly beautiful as the car bumps and bounces down the road.  I think again of our family holidays, how there was always this feeling of security, of knowing what was going to happen.  Today I feel that we spend too much time ticking off places we have gone to. 

Bryony Rheam

Holidays must always be somewhere different, somewhere exotic.  Yet there is something endearingly comforting about having a favourite place.  

It is a long time since we spent those holidays in the Bvumba and much has happened in both my family life and the life of Zimbabwe, and for me the country of my birth is a paradoxical mixture of love and incredible sadness.  I wish in many ways that the workshop had been held elsewhere, in a place with no emotional investment for me.  I think of my story that I have written over the course of the workshop.  It is sad, but it is also about letting go.  I suppose that’s what I want to do really, let go.  But in my heart of hearts, I can’t.  It’s under my skin, you see, and that’s why it’s me who can never really leave it.

Don't you know, little fool, you never can win?
Why not use your mentality - step up, wake up to reality?
But each time I do just the thought of you
Makes me stop just before I begin
'Cause I've got you under my skin.
Yes, I've got you under my skin.

Thursday 10 April 2014

Africa39 and Caine Prize authors by Lizzy Attree

It is inspiring to read the newly released Africa39 list of the most promising writers from Africa under 40 years old and see so many writers who have been involved in the Caine Prize process recognised on that list.  

Cover_Africa 39On 8th April 2014, at a breakfast at the London Book Fair, 39 writers from Africa south of the Sahara and its diaspora were revealed as the authors selected as the Africa39. Also announced was that the official anthology of their work, edited by former deputy editor of Granta, and Deputy Chairperson of the Caine Prize, Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, will be published in October 2014.

The “39 Project” aims to celebrate the most vibrant voices in literature and provides a platform to expand the conversation about the future of literature in Africa. The Africa39 Project, as part of the Port Harcourt (UNESCO World Book Capital 2014) Book Fair, will culminate in the publication of an anthology featuring new writing by selected writers from Africa, jointly published by the Hay Festival, the Rainbow BookClub, and BloomsburyAcross the world, and from 2014 to 2016, a series of events will seek to showcase the Africa39 authors, their work, and the Africa39 anthology.

How was the Africa39 list compiled?
In November 2013, Binyavanga Wainaina2002 Caine Prize winner, founder of Kenya-based literary journal, Kwani?, and author of acclaimed memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place—took on the task of researching and compiling a list of 120 writers from Sub-Saharan Africa for the Africa39 Project. This long-list was sent to the official judges (Margaret Busby, Elechi Amadi, Osonye Tess Onwueme) who then decided upon a short-list of 39. For one month Binyavanga and his team worked to issue calls to Anglo-, Franco-, Lusophone, and Kiswahili literary writers and to publicise the project across Africa.

Early on, Binyavanga emphasised that the places on the long-list must be apportioned equitably according to gender. Also important to the project were those authors writing in African languages. In outlining “The Spirit of the Africa39 Project”, Binyavanga made provisions for writers who might be “at risk” or who, for reasons of safety or security, publish anonymously or using pseudonyms. He ensured that as many different types of writers were encouraged to submit including, “[w]riters of children’s fiction, prose fiction blogs, erotica writers, romance,” as well those who have published “writing done in Braille.” The resulting long-list was as diverse as possible, reflective of the complexity of the continent, and populated with “the wild, weird, [African] explorers of the imagination.”
Which Caine Prize writers feature on the Africa39 list?
The 17 authors involved with the Caine Prize, either by taking part in a workshop, as a shortlisted writer, or as a winner of the Prize include: 

adichie-ngozie-chimamandaChimamanda Ngozi Adichie from Nigeria was shortlisted in 2002 for her story "You in America" and took part in the first Caine Prize workshop in South Africa in 2003 where she wrote the story "Lagos, Lagos" which was published in Discovering Home.

Monica Arac de Nyeko from Uganda was shortlisted in 2004 for her story "Strange Fruit", and went on to win the Caine Prize in 2007 for "Jambula Tree". She took part in the 2005 workshop in Kenya where she wrote the story "Grasshopper Redness" published in Seventh Street Alchemy and the 2008 workshop in South Africa where she wrote the story "Night Commuter" published in Jambula Tree and other stories.

Rotimi Babatunde from Nigeria won the Caine Prize in 2012 for his short story "Bombay's Republic" and took part in the 2013 workshop in Uganda where he wrote "Howl" which was published in A Memory This Size and other stories


Jackee Budesta Batanda from Uganda took part in the 2005 workshop in Kenya where she wrote the story "Life Sucks...Sometimes" which was published in Seventh Street Alchemy.


Shadreck Chikoti from Malawi took part in the 2011 workshop in Cameroon where he wrote the story "Child of a Hyena" which was published in To See the Mountain and other stories.  

Tope Folarin won the 2013 Caine Prize for his short story "Miracle" published in Transition magazine.


Clifton Gachagua from Kenya took part in the 2014 workshop in Zimbabwe where he wrote the story "As a Wolf Sweating your Mother's Body" which will be published in the Caine Prize anthology in July this year.  


Stanley Gazemba from Kenya took part in the 2004 workshop in South Africa where he wrote the story "The IOU" which was published in A is for Ancestors

Mehul Gohil from Kenya attended the workshop in South Africa in 2012 where he wrote the story "Elephants Chained to Big Kennels" published in African Violet and other stories.

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim Abubakar Ibrahim from Nigeria was shortlisted in 2013 for his story "The Whispering Trees".  He took part in the Uganda workshop in 2013 where he wrote "The Book of Remembered Things" which was published in A Memory This Size and other stories and the Zimbabwe workshop in 2014 where he wrote the story "Lily in the Moonlight" which will be published in the Caine Prize anthology in July this year.

Stanley KenaniStanley Kenani from Malawi was shortlisted 2012 & 2008 for his stories "Love on Trial" and "For Honour".  He took part in the 2013 workshop in Uganda where he wrote the story "Clapping Hands for a Smiling Crocodile", published in A Memory This Size and other stories and the 2010 workshop in Kenya where he wrote the story "Happy Ending" published in A Life in Full and other stories

Glaydah Namukasa from Uganda attended the Caine Prize Naivasha workshop in 2007 where she wrote her short story, "Then, Now and Tomorrow" which was published in Jungfrau. Glaydah is the current Chairperson of FEMRITE, the Uganda Women Writer's Association.

Nii Parkes from Ghana has been a member of the Caine Prize council for three years.  He was the workshop leader for the 2014 workshop in Zimbabwe along with 2008 Caine Prize winner Henrietta Rose-Innes

Namwali Serpell from Zambia was shortlisted in 2010 for her story "Muzungu" and took part in the 2011 workshop in Cameroon where she wrote the story "The Man with the Hole in his Face" which was published in To See the Mountain and other stories


Novuyo Rose Tshuma from Zimbabwe took part in the 2010 workshop in Kenya where she wrote the story "The King and I" which was published in A Life in Full and other stories


Chika Unigwe from Nigeria was shortlisted in 2004 for her story "The Secret" and took part in the 2005 workshop in Kenya where she wrote the story "Retail Therapy" which was published in Seventh Street Alchemy.


Mary Watson from South Africa won the Caine Prize in 2006 for her story "Jungfrau" and took part in the 2007 workshop in Kenya where she wrote the story "Simon Said" which was published in the Jungfrau collection.