The Seli River Writing Project

Let me share my fundraising campaign on GoFundMe Charity, in support of Sentinel English Language Institute writing activities in Sierra Leone.

Give if you can, and do share in any way you can think of! The Seli River Writing Project means a lot to both the teachers and students involved in it. Several of the teachers have confided that their writing facility brought about by experience with process writing in the club, has earned them peer respect and in some cases, senior positions in the school.



The Bechdel Test

Several people have told me that in both of my children’s books, City Girl and The Heritage Keeper, the main (female) characters have strong personalities. It always surprises me.

I’ve just come across “The Bechdel Test” which is apparently being used to advocate for better representation of girls and women in literature. The three steps of this test might be the yardstick these commentators are using. If so, it’s pitifully skimpy! In “Girl Talk” on page 8 of the July/August 2018 Writer’s Digest, Laura Zats states that a book or film that passes this test

  • Has two women in it …
  • who speak to one another …
  • about something other than a man.

Since this happens everywhere around me, why would I conjure up a story in which it didn’t? Or is it that in my world, all the women are strong?


I play Scrabble online with a phone app that offers a seemingly unending supply of potential partners. At any one time I am probably playing two dozen games. Whenever I have free time, I open up to the contacts listed under “Your Move,” and dive in.

A personal conclusion I’ve drawn, now that I’ve been playing with so many people, is that there are generally two sorts of competitors—achievers and constructors.

The achiever is generally focused on getting the high-scoring letters to hot points on the board or connected to other high-scoring words. Achievers score big early on in the game. However, games with them tend to coagulate; the reason being that their goal can be accomplished with short words fit tightly together like a crossword puzzle. Before long you feel like you’re trying to push another piece into a Rubik’s Cube, and to that frustration is added the stress of working with one-syllable, unpronounceable “words.”

What I call constructors, on the other hand, are players whose goal from the beginning is to maintain an edge-to-edge framework that will sustain the game from beginning to end. They’re usually trying for the longest meaningful word they can play, and won’t discard it to play a 2-3 letter grunt at a hot point unless they’re really desperate for points. They see themselves duty-bound to extend as far as possible into blank areas, to give both partners more room to play.

Achievers, of course, usually win the game. I think a good number of governmental agencies are made up of a preponderance of achievers, not connected to the public as you’d think they would be or driven to build infrastructure for the public good. They hold out until they can move on projects through which they will personally gain. Before long, the agency they build becomes a glutinous mass, devoid of meaning and letting no one else in.

Kent Boy

Beginning in 1989 I intermittently recorded the recollections in Krio of William Africanus Beckley, a family friend, in Tengbeh Town.  Mr. Beckley was born in 1916 in Kent village in Sierra Leone, a century after its founding and a century ago.  He lived there until 1934 when he moved to Freetown.  Although he never returned to live in the village he always thought of himself as a “Kent boy” and wanted this to be the title of his book. As is the nature of conversations, topics would appear, disappear, and reappear again, unpredictably.  I typed out the scripts, and then organized them into chapters, attempting not to insert any words of my own.

William Beckley photo b
William A. Beckley

In January, 1994 I finished a draft of Kent Boy and read it aloud to Mr. Beckley, who was an avid reader in English but did not read Krio. He suggested some changes.  That same year I gave him copies of this book and a book of his proverbs.  He left work not long after that time, and died in January of 2001, at the age of 85.

Read A History of St. Edward’s Church, 3rd edition. Nonfiction. 54 pages. CreateSpace, 2016. $5.95. ISBN 9781530581177 [in English], to learn more about the history of Mr. Beckley’s village.

Kent Gate from inside for book
Gate from inside of King Wall in Kent Village


When and Where was the Annie Walsh Memorial School founded?

There is certainly a lot of conflicting information about the founding of the Annie Walsh Memorial School on the internet! Filomena Steady’s article in Hafkin and Bay’s Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change states that it “was founded in 1849 by the Church Missionary Society [CMS], succeeding the Female Institution established two years earlier.” (p. 218)  Hadi Bah’s posting on Sierra Leone 365 asserts that the school was founded not in Charlotte (as some people seem to be claiming) but in Freetown, and includes interesting information about its foundation stone.

However, it is stated both in Walker’s book from 1847, The Church of England Mission in Sierra Leone, p. 575 and on p. 174 in Sibthorpe’s The History of Sierra Leone, which first appeared in 1868, that the CMS Female Institution opened in Regent with eight pupils in 1845 under its first superintendent, Miss A.C. Morris. CMS schools at that time were only for those born in the colony; that is, they would accept (among others) the children of Liberated Africans, but not Liberated Africans themselves, whose education was the responsibility of the Government. When Miss Morris married Rev. Smith in 1845 and took up duties in Bathurst where he lived, the wife of the resident missionary at Regent, Mrs. Denton, filled in for her part-time until her replacement, Miss M. Sophia Hehlen, arrived at the end of December, 1846. In 1850 the Institution moved to Kissy Road where the present parsonage stands. Miss Julia Sass soon became superintendent (she is referred to as carrying on, or continuing, the charge of the Female Institution but not initiating it) and was looking for more suitable accommodation for the school when she left temporarily for reasons of ill health.  It was during her absence from 1853-55 that construction began on the school’s current site, paid for by the Walsh family for whom it was eventually renamed.

Regarding Charlotte, there is documentation that the linguist Hannah Kilham began a school for Liberated Africans in Charlotte in 1830, two years before her death. There was also a long-standing coeducational Government school for Liberated Africans in Charlotte. We know that at least two teachers previously connected with the CMS Female Institution (Mrs. Clemens and Mrs. Hehlen) later took charge of the school of Liberated African girls at Charlotte. The answer as to which school’s ruins can still be found at Charlotte must lie somewhere in this information; one thing we know, however, is that the answer is not the Female Institution / the Annie Walsh Memorial School.

The Rhetoric of Trump

There’s been a lot of talk about Trump rhetoric, but I haven’t heard people discussing Rhetoric in the talk of Trump.

I know of two contrasting types of rhetorical argument: demonstrative and deliberative. You expect to see argument while political campaigning is going on, but with Trump in the picture, both types are easily identifiable.

There are politicians campaigning now who see major issues as debatable. They do not claim to have all the answers. They ask their audience to look at the likely consequences, including personal or emotional consequences, of various actions and they recommend their preference. They use future tenses. They keep focused on choice; the choices that could solve the problem. In other words, they use deliberative argument.

Trump uses a different kind of argument. He presents topics as moral or value-related, and inarguable. To make such pronouncements, you need the present tense. He identifies for you (often through name-calling) who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong. He does a lot of blaming, so he also makes ample use of the past tense.

His rhetoric fits the pattern of demonstrative argument. It’s tantamount to a fight. If you respond, you can choose to meet him on the demonstrative floor for a brawl, or bring him over to the deliberative floor to argue. I haven’t yet seen anyone do the latter successfully.

Historical Fiction for Children: The Protagonist

I work with children in Sierra Leone who are learning to write down their individual true personal experiences. The more they work through successive drafts, the more both their proficiency in English and their writing skills, improve. We would like to see them contribute to the national literature of Sierra Leone.

In trying to help these students convert their experiences to equally culturally-relevant children’s fiction, however, we come up against an obstacle inherent to childhood: children generally are under the supervision of adults. Therefore, most of our students’ true experiences happen while carrying out an assigned task, and their pieces end with how successfully it was carried out. The task, or the goal of the story, is an adult’s. Good children’s fiction, on the other hand, requires that a child be the protagonist—the plots should be driven by what the children need or want, and how successfully they achieve it.

The problem is not for want of goals. Our students are full of ideas. The problem is that the roles they play in their families and communities do not make acting on those ideas possible, so carrying them out could not be written into a culturally-relevant book. Our young authors share this cultural characteristic with the characters in the historical fiction for children I have been reading. By looking at how those authors solve the problem, we ought to be able to help our child authors write fiction for children.

One way to give children independent agency in books is to make them orphans. More than half of the authors of the two dozen or so children’s historical fiction books we’ve been looking at, used this solution; a related twist is in Nory Ryan’s Song (Patricia Reilly Giff) where the child spends the entire book waiting for her single parent to return. The longer protagonists stay outcast, fugitive, homeless, solely-in-charge of younger siblings or otherwise left to their own devices, the more options they have to act. However, once they are taken into homes, orphanages, apprenticeships or servitude, they are again closely monitored and we know the authors will find another way to give their child characters the freedom to act.

Essentially, authors use only one other device: subterfuge. How else can the protagonist buy time alone? Lying works: In The Ravenmaster’s Secret (Elvira Woodruff), Forrest says he needs to spend a night in the shed with his pet raven. In Akimbo and the Elephants by Alexander McCall Smith, Akimbo says he wants to spend a few days with a friend. Another ruse to buy time is physical disguise: there is the choirboy outfit Alice wears in A Murder for Her Majesty (Beth Hilgartner), the Jewish holiday costumes Sashie’s family wears in Kathryn Lasky’s The Night Journey, and the switched identity strategy Forrest uses to get Maddy out of the Tower of London.

Kathryn Lasky, especially, exposes us to the possibilities of deception on more sophisticated levels. If you use night, why not fog (“Scarves of mist swirled around them”)? And what about using parts of an object (the samovar) for unexpected purposes to disguise both the object and yourself?

I need to make these books available to my students, and devise distancing activities to help pairs of students fictionalize their experiences along these lines. Can’t wait to start.