Dalston writers tap into their creativity to uncover hidden stories about African heritage women from World War One
PUBLISHED: 11:25 27 June 2019 | UPDATED: 11:25 27 June 2019
Poems and stories about African women’s experiences during the First World War are detailed in an anthology that’s just been published – but the writers had to use their imaginations to pen the tales due to the dearth of historic material.
The 38 tales in 100 Years Unheard: WWI and the Afrikan Diasporan Woman have been written by 16 members of the group Afrikan Heritage Writers.
They meet once a month at Dalston's CLR James Library, and wanted to do something to commemorate the centenary of the end of the Great War.
"Until recently most of the narratives of war time writing were from a white male perspective, and you'd be forgiven for thinking women played a passive role," said Ngoma Bishop, who founded the group in 2008 to support support fiction writers, playwrights and poets.
"About 30 years ago women's groups in England started trying to readjust that balance so that the huge part they played wasn't forgotten, not just in feeding troops but doing jobs previously done by men.
"It was a better reflection but it was about white males and white females," he added.
"Then about 20 years ago there was an effort to make the world aware of the effort African heritage people played.
"But we fell into the same trap. It didn't focus at all on the women and what happened to them when the men went off to fight.
"It tended to be about the soldiers and their treatment, and the racism the West Indian regiments faced although they were fighting.
"Clearly it must have impacted on the women across the Caribbean and Africa.
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"If your bread winner or lover goes away quite apart form impacting on your economic well being there is the emotional impact too."
The writers went to the Imperial War Museum to try to research the topic - but it was a fruitless journey.
"They are getting better, to be fair, and are forever trying to upgrade or refresh their history across the board, but even they had very little so most of it was left to the creative imagination," said Ngoma.
"We decided to tell the stories as those women would have told it had they been given a voice. Some of us are men but all of us are creative writers and wrote from a feminine perspective or as a male looking at the fortunes of all women, and about how we would have felt in that situation and how it would have impacted on us.
"Some of us might have thought: 'Why are they going to fight? What's this war got to do with us anyway?' Others might think: 'All well and good, but if my husband goes of to fight and gets killed what's going to happen to me?'"
Pam Williams, 58, a former fashion magazine journalist who now works as a school teacher, contributed a poem entitled Daddy Gone.
It 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," said Pam, who is of Grenadian heritage and has received awards for her writing since she joined the group four years ago.
More than 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."
One of playwright and actor Elewisa Mwhamadu Kuusi's contributions to the anthology, is the short story Why I Must Go, about the anguish of a woman preparing to lose her love to the war. He said: "With a background as an actor and playwright, I had to tap in to those skills in order to create a story with dialogue that resonated with both the time and the place and the emotions at play from both sides during a time of unrest."
The writers will be performing pieces from their anthology at The Africa Centre at 66 Great Suffolk Street, near Southwark Tube, tomorrow (Fri). Tickets: eventbrite.co.uk/e/100-years-unheard-ww1-and-the-afrikan-diasporan-woman-tickets-61110866246
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