Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Readwritephilic Workshop Project



A couple of weeks ago, I travelled over a hundred kilometers to my alma mater, Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College Fontem to facilitate my writers workshop, the “Readwritephilic” writers workshop with the intention of inspiring the students to read and write not just fiction but also plays, poetry, creative nonfiction etc. I arrived on a Friday night and went straight to school where I planned the workshop schedule with the principal, Ms Clelia Ferrini. I spent the night at the Mariapolis centre in Nveh near the school. The next day, I went to school early in the morning and had breakfast in the principal’s house prepared by her! We then proceeded to the makeshift hall where the Junior students (Form 1-3) had gathered with books and pens waiting to write notes from the writers workshop. Their Literature teacher, Madame Victorine was there to assist me, together with the discipline master, Mr. Talla. Ms Clelia introduced me to the students and I took off from there, telling them about myself as a writer and how my writing journey all began seriously in high school in Saint Francis College Kumba, where I was the student editor of the college magazine, to university and all the way to the prestigious Caine Prize writers workshop which I attended in Ghana last year. I encouraged them to read more and then write. I advised them to read Teju Cole’s “Eight letters to a young writer” which I’d emailed to the principal to print and keep in the library.

I then read from my children’s illustrated book, “The Golden Baobab Tree” and the story was well received. I halted reading towards the end to ask them the lessons they’d learnt from the book and I was amazed at the quality of their brainy responses. “Oh, maybe you guys are smarter than the kids in this story I’m reading,” I commented. The students were really engaged throughout my reading. Well, except the very young Form 1 kids who just lowered their heads on their seats and went straight to sleep like they’d drunk 100 kg of sleeping pills. When the short story ended, they said they wanted more, so I was compelled to read my Caine workshop story, “Wahala Lizard” which bored them to ‘death’ because in their words, “the level of the story and the English language there is so high” Lol. I told them I had no intention of reading it because I had anticipated that it would bore them and only did so because they asked for more. I informed them about literary opportunities like the Caine prize, Writivism in Uganda, SSDA, The Golden Baobab Prize, Chimamanda’s Farafina workshop in Nigeria and encouraged them to submit stories to writing competitions and apply to Chimamanda’s workshop online. Almost all of them had not heard about the opportunities I was sharing with them.

I gave them a short guided imagery writing exercise to do. While they wrote, I was presented two stories written by two Form 3 students, Nguefack Doré (coincidentally my classmate’s kid brother) who wrote “Fetching wood” about a father and son’s wood fetching expedition in the forest. The second story was written by a moslem student, Baba Ibrahim inspired by Roman mythology, a story about a man who owned a minotaur that killed a boy’s family and the boy grew up to kill the minotaur and revenge the killing. When the writing exercise ended, I collected the papers and enjoyed reading the range of the short exercises and noted that, they liked writing about imaginary animals. Many of them went off topic while there was raw talent from other kids like Ricardella etc. The first workshop session ended and I donated about a dozen books to the school library and to the two students who shared their works with me, Baba and Doré. We went on to get some group pics. I went back into the hall to have a post workshop literary discussion with anyone and some of the students were so interested in my chat they decided to skip lunch completely. They asked me all sorts of questions about writing and Literature in general. I responded to all the questions and talked about reading and writing. Their reading taste was diverse, from African Literature; Chinua Achebe, John Nkemngong Nkengasong to Jules Verne and Greek mythology. Another young exciting prospect who joined me during my lunch discussion was Form 5 student, Gertrude who presented me her write up. I read it and told her she definitely had a gift for writing plays. The dialogue in her writing was enjoyable.

My second workshop session was with the Form 4 & 5 Lit students in Form 4 class. I read my Caine Prize anthology comedy story, “Wahala Lizard” and it had them laughing so hard so no one needed to tell me they enjoyed the story. There was very little time left so I didn’t give them any guided imagery writing exercise to do but I gave them writing and reading advice I’d learnt from all my accomplished writer biggies like Pede Hollist, NoViolet Bulawayo, Sumayya Lee etc. I also directed them to Teju’s “Eight letters to a young writer” in the library. When my workshop session finally ended, they told me they had come to class not anticipating much but I’d opened up different perspectives in their minds and they were happy about my visit. I was also happy I’d shared with the students the writing opportunities/tips I never had while I was studying there. I’d developed the interest to read and write in SWC all alone. We had interesting conversations, those kids and I. Thanks too to my name sake, Mr. Sylvestre Atemnkeng who went wherever I went capturing all those beautiful moments with my camera.

After the workshops , I went with him to Menji together with Madame Victorine to eat and have a drink since we were all exhausted and famished. While eating in Menji, Mr. Sylvestre introduced me to a very popular Congolese medical doctor based in Fontem, Dr. Michel with whom I had a very interesting conversation about the our educational system vs the Congolese educational system, African football specifically Samuel Eto’o and Congolese Rumba music and its premier artists like Papa Wemba, Werrason, J.B Mpiana, Koffi Olomide and of course, swag boy, Fally Ipupa! At dusk, Dr. Michel and I descended to the Mariapolis Centre in Nveh on the same bike. When we got there, the okada man refused our payments because, guess what! Dr. Michel had treated his parents at Mary Health hospital in Nveh and he was of course, still grateful for the lifesaving act and held the popular doctor in high esteem.