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.



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.

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.

Historical Fiction for Children: Introduction

I always liked historical fiction. The classics—The Secret Garden, Johnny Tremain, The Witch of Blackbird Pond—basically made up my reading.

The main characters had heart, and that fact talks to how reading feeds the writer in us. Fiction notwithstanding, their histories were my histories. I was the protagonist. It was my chance to learn how another society worked and try to succeed there. With each turn of the page I begged the author not to let me down.

Now, I want my student authors in Sierra Leone who are putting their personal experiences onto paper to feel that link: Your experiences are histories, too. There’s a reader out there identifying with your family’s stories; your character’s trials. Draw them as they were. Paint the colors and sounds of that long road. Show how your mother turns to wave.

I’ve been looking at what could be called multicultural children’s historical fiction, written for 8-12 year olds, set in other countries than the US but commonly found in US school and public libraries. I have a list of 25 such books. I’m standing a few against each other to see what elements they have in common. One is that it seems any part of the world could provide a rich setting for historical fiction. Six are set in the UK, three in Rome, two in France, two in Korea, and one each in Russia, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Japan, the Netherlands, China, Ireland, Cambodia, India, British East Africa and South Africa. In four of these (including both African books) the main character is an expatriate in the country where the story takes place.

We’ll be looking for more books set in Africa, but from this alone, I’d say the continent is a bit under-represented—wouldn’t you?

A Place to Write and Re-Write

The nonfiction title A History of St. Edward’s Church, Kent, Sierra Leone, 2nd ed. appeared last month just in time for the 170th anniversary of the church. It’s fun gathering feedback: I am enjoying what widely varied pieces of information readers find interesting.

I’m also looking forward to finding new documented information from original sources—to correct errors or imbalances or bring more insight into how this church developed. Hopefully, enough will come to light to warrant producing a 3rd edition.

I see each blog entry here as a living piece of writing, something to keep adjusting just as I do the book. A way of joining an ongoing conversation that perhaps you are already engaged in. If so, let me know. . .