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Hidden stories from the First World War

CONTRIBUTION FROM OUR CULTURE: Some of the authors from the Afrikan Heritage Writers group

100 Years Unheard: WW1 and the Afrikan Diasporan Woman is the first anthology to be published by the Afrikan Heritage Writers.

The collection, which remembers the contribution of those from African and Caribbean descent to the First World War, gives voice, through poetry and prose, to those often unheard.

In this case, the voice of the Afrikan Diasporan Women. Based in the Dalston CLR James Library in Hackney, the heritage writers (who were established in 2008) meet once a month, where they share their own individual creative writing while encouraging the contribution and continued development of all newcomers to the group.

PICTURED: the cover of the anthology

Afrikan Heritage Writers founder Ngoma Bishop, who came to London from Barbados aged eight, has seen the group grow in leaps and bounds since its inception.

“Afrikan Heritage Writers is a mutual support group for novelists, short story writers, playwrights, poets and other creative writers of all abilities and experience,” said Bishop.

“Being part of the group offers a unique development opportunity where participants learn from each other through the sharing of ideas and new material, in a friendly and informal atmosphere.”

The fact that the creative writing sessions take place in a library named after CLR James – a Trinidadian historian, journalist and writer who died 30 years ago in London – provides some cultural significance and inspiration to the group, and Bishop in particular.

In 2010, council plans to remove CLR James’ name from the newly built library in Dalston sparked outrage which led to the collection of more than 2,500 signatures in protest.

The Afrikan Heritage Writers are based at the Dalston CLR James Library

As chair of the Black and Ethnic Minority Arts Network, Bishop, 64, led the successful protest. He recalled: “The name CLR James stayed on the library because those of us who cared fought for it to remain while also practically demonstrating through our creative work the continuation of his great legacy.”

On the release of the anthology, he said: “Historically, most of what we knew about the First World War came from a largely white male Eurocentric perspective, with just a few a female voices added later on.

“We felt that we should recognise the contribution of those from our culture to the war effort. While there was some information on those who fought in the war, there was very little on the women and so we decided to base our anthology on the Afrikan Diasporan Woman, doing research whilst also making room for creativity in our writing.”

Pam Williams, 58, a Londoner of Grenadian heritage, joined the group in 2014 after her attendance at its hosting of a Maya Angelou appreciation evening the after the famed author’s death on May 28 that year.

PICTURED: Pam Williams

“I had been writing for many years but had always wanted to join a group where I could share my work with other like-minded individuals. So I jumped at the opportunity when presented with the invitation to join the Afrikan Heritage Writers,” she said.

Since joining the group, Williams a former fashion magazine journalist, freelance stylist and now a school teacher, has received numerous awards for her work – including for her short story Soul Talking, which was highly commended after its publication in Spread the Word’s City of Stories anthology in 2017. In her contribution to this latest anthology, her poem entitled Daddy Gone is written from the perspective of a young girl whose father has gone to fight in the war and her yearning for his safe return.

“Whenever I’ve read it, there has been a strong emotional response to it from the audience, which is something I seek to provoke in my writing,” she said.

Over a century after the end of the First World War, Williams believes the West still has a long way to go in correcting negative images of the continent.

“There is still a distortion and false impression given of Africa and the people who live there through media manipulation and influence of those in authoritative positions, such as major corporations and governments,” she said.

“You might hear about a corrupt leader rather than a highly successful young engineer or inventor in Africa, which demonstrates that things are still very one-sided and biased.”

Bishop argues that not only do negative images of the continent exist, but so do power imbalances that were present at the time of the Great War.

He said: “Through their deaths in the war, our soldiers effected change for us today, enabling us to have opportunities and a degree of freedom that we would not have had before. Most of the places which were colonised during the First World War now have their independence, which on the surface appears to be a good thing.

“However, one can also argue that there is a degree of neocolonialism in place whereby leaders of African states are in place to carry out an agenda which is not necessarily for the benefit of the people belonging to that country, but for those who had colonised those states generations before.”

INSPIRED: Bridget Badoe McQuick

Elewisa Mwhamadu Kuusi joined the writing group in 2014 after already making a name for himself as a playwright and actor in numerous shows with the Theatre Royal in Stratford East. Kuusi, 30, is also the writer-in-residence of the London-based theatre company Burning Flame Foundation.

Among his various contributions to the anthology, he picks out Why I Must Go, a short story about the anguish of a woman preparing to lose her love to the war.

“As there was little information on the representation of black soldiers during the First World War and almost nothing on their wives, daughters or mothers, a lot of research had to be done as well as some creative thinking on our part in giving voice to those often unheard,” said Kuusi.

He added: “With a background as an actor and playwright, I had to tap in to those skills in order to create a story with dialogue which resonated with both the time and the place and the emotions at play from both sides during a time of unrest.”

Bridget Badoe McQuick, 42, also joined the group in 2014 during a low point in her life after a miscarriage.

She is a London-based writer who has a passion for the collection and telling of stories through oral history, performance art and photography.

In A Letter to Chief Appiah, Bridget gives voice to a woman called Abenaa Boateng who would set up the association Women Against The War.

She said: “This was a totally fictional piece, which took inspiration from women’s groups such as the suffragettes, which highlighted the plight of women during times of civil unrest. I wanted to show the strength of women who had to fight just as much as the men who left them did during the war.”

The Afrikan Heritage Writers will be performing from and signing copies of their anthology at The Africa Centre on Friday, June 28. Tickets can be ordered through Eventbrite.

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