the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

Woman on the Golden Hind

I’m reading a fascinating novel just now. It’s On Wilder Seas by Nikki Marmery. What an absolutely fabulous cover!

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The narrator is Maria, an enslaved woman who shares her experiences of living on the Golden Hind for nine months.  Meticulously researched, Nikki Marmery allows Maria to live and breathe where nothing is noted about her in the records besides the dates she boarded and left the ship. The action takes place in 1579 during Francis Drake’s circumnavigation voyage.  Maria is a lone woman amongst eighty sailors. Determined to become free, Maria uses tenacity and quick thinking to her advantage.

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Many of you will know there is a reconstruction of the English galleon that has been  berthed at St Mary Overie Dock in Southwark since 1996. Whenever I walk past this full-size reconstruction of Golden Hind I am reminded of how compact the ship appears. Goodness knows how Maria coped! Since the launch of the  reconstruction in 1973, the galleon has sailed  more than 140,000 miles to San Francisco, Japan, the Caribbean and other destinations.  Impressive!

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I will be interested to meet Nikki Marmery online when we appear alongside Karen Havelin on the Debutants panel at the Stockholm Writers’ Festival on Friday 22 May 2020. We are all previous attendees of the festival and have had our debut novels published in the last year. Join us at what is now known as the #StuckHomeWritersFestival here.

 

 

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(unusually) ahead of the technology game

Now everyone is using video technology to keep in touch during lockdown, I’m proud to say I’ve been using this throughout my VSO placement in Uganda to continue writing collaboratively with friends at 3-She. Our comedy writing trio began in March 2017 when Sarah Scally, Maria Pruden and I attended a comedy sketch writing workshop. Our sketch Killer Ladybugs was then selected for a scripted reading scratch night at the Marine Theatre in Lyme Regis.

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Flyer from the event in 2017

We continued our comedy writing journey at Sweet in Brighton, where Killer Ladybugs was staged as part of Cast Iron X, the tenth collection of short plays from Cast Iron Theatre. You can read about the experience here.

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Screenshot from WritersDuet of Killer Ladybugs

As we worked on new material, travelling across Dorset to meet up became very time consuming so we started using WritersDuet. This professional screenwriting software enabled us to draft our comedies collaboratively while discussing content during WhatsApp video calls.

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Impro on WhatsApp!

We’re still collaborating in this way and we are hoping to have a new sketch show ready for rehearsal whenever lockdown restrictions are lifted.

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E-volunteering and working as an author

Now that I’ve returned to the UK from my VSO volunteer placement at Bidibidi refugee settlement in Uganda, I’m getting back into the swing of my writing life. You can read about how I am collaborating with illustrator Fiona Zechmeister on a children’s picture book called Pan-de-mo-nium here. But I’m not yet willing to relinquish my experiences in Uganda, so I’m very pleased to share the news that I’ve been appointed as a Psychosocial Support and Emotional Learning Expert E-volunteer. This appointment followed an online application and interview. I have a job description and an E-volunteer agreement which last six months and is renewable. I am very impressed with the thorough application process and the support offered by VSO in my new role. I’m also finding this work dovetails very well with my current writing project.

As part of my E-volunteer responsibilities, I’ll co-ordinate a task group with a focus on mental health, psychosocial support and emotional learning to help children and families in the poorest countries. Proposed work includes adapting advice material for parents to support the emotional wellbeing of young children during the Covid 19 lockdown. Already there is very relevant material published to support parenting, please see an example poster below:

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There are six posters altogether covering issues such as managing behaviour and providing structure for children during the Covid 19 lockdown. Click here to access these in a worldwide range of languages.

I’m also part of a storytelling task group and from my experience as an author of a children’s picture book, I hope to contribute fully.

During the Covid 19 restrictions, there are challenges in terms of coping with lockdown but also opportunities in extending virtual support to others. It’s a time of working out what’s important as an individual, as a family member and as part of a wider community.

How have you found Covid 19 has affected your outlook?

 

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Collaboration: writing and illustrating

I’ve been busy this week working with illustrator Fiona Zechmiester on a children’s picture book which has the working title ‘pan-de-mo-nim’. The main character is a purple panda called Peta. Because of her colouring, Peta is camouflaged and she causes chaos at her home in a department store. When one of the shop assistants notices she’s up to no good, Peta is made to look like all the other pandas which puts an end to her tricks. How can Peta become a cheeky panda again?

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Early sketches and exploration of colour

Fiona lives in Austria but studied in the UK and was awarded an MA in publishing from the University of Derby.  She works on a freelance basis and has been appointed by Victorina Press to illustrate my book which targets three-to-eight-year-old children. In Fiona’s work, the process of illustrating animals begins with a study of anatomy.

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Fiona’s research sketches

She then looks at details of a panda that are relevant to the story. Fiona has experience of using many different mediums for her illustrations but the story behind the picture is the guiding principle of the work.

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Fiona’s research sketches

As the illustrations have developed, I’ve redrafted the story and together Fiona and I decided on fonts and sizes for the text on different pages in the book. As much of my time as a writer involves working alone, this opportunity to work in collaboration has been a fantastic experience. I’ll be posting further illustrations as the picture book gets closer to publication with Victorina Press.

I previously worked with Fiona to design the cover of my debut novel The String Games. This cover won a finalist badge in the International Book Awards 2019. Voting is currently open at The People’s Book Prize where The String Games is a finalist in the fiction category 2020. Please pop over to the website and give my novel your support so that The String Games has a chance to receive further recognition in this prestigious competition. (If you voted in the earlier round, thank you, please vote again now the novel is a finalist.)

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Podcasts: stay-at-home journeys

I returned from  Uganda three weeks ago and I’m still living in a limbo space. I’m not yet willing to relinquish the experience of volunteering at Bidibidi refugee settlement and not ready to launch into a new project. So what am I doing with my time? While overseas, I started listening to podcasts and this is something I continue to enjoy. Before I left home I downloaded BBC Sounds and while I was away, began to also use the podcast app on my phone. Every time I went to a hotel or restaurant with good internet access, I downloaded as many episodes as I could. As it became dark in West Nile around 7:30pm, I was usually in bed an hour later. Although there was electricity in the evening until around midnight, my eyes were often too tired to read, so I’d lie down and listen to a podcast.

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There are some fabulous journalists who have turned their hand to creating podcasts and I became absorbed by many different stories including Paradise. In this series Dan Maudsley and Stephen Nolan investigate the deaths of British backpackers, Chris Farmer and Peta Frampton, who were found murdered in Guatemala after getting on a boat in 1978. Although there were witnesses to the murders, it takes thirty-eight years to arrest the only suspect. Why?

Another story I followed while overseas was The Missing Crypto Queen where Jamie Bartlett traces the whereabouts of Dr Ruja Ignatova who persuaded millions to join her financial revolution. Interestingly, episodes of this podcasts are recorded in Uganda, to illustrate the spread of her deceitful operation.

Now that I’m back at home, I’ve continued to listen to podcasts and can recommend Girl Taken by Sue Mitchell. The story shares the relationship between Rob Lawrie, a British volunteer at the Calais refugee camp and Reza who hopes to start a new life in England with his daughter Bru. Reza’s account of his experiences is not entirely truthful but Lawrie is taken with the idea of saving this refugee family. Both men make impetuous decisions that have consequences.

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I’ve listened to quite a few cold case stories from North America where journalist try to crack unsolved crimes. One of the most interesting is Missing and Murdered: Finding Cleo, where Canadian journalist Connie Walker unravels the story of a child believed to be murdered. Cleo, a young Cree girl, was taken by welfare workers from her home in Saskatchewan and put up for adoption in America. This shameful period which tore families, siblings and communities apart became known as the Sixties Scoop. But what happened to Cleo? The answers are obtained after a nugget of information is revealed during a late night internet search. (Incidentally, I could listen to Connie Walker all day. She has an easy-on-the-ear voice and is an empathetic interviewer.)

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A wish for South Sudan: enduring peace

Before I left the UK to begin my placement at Bidibidi in Uganda (a settlement where refugees from South Sudan are offered a chance to rebuild their lives) a friend recommended I read Emma’s War by Deborah Scroggins. It tells the story of a young, glamorous aid worker, Emma McClune, who went to Sudan in 1987 with an ambition to do good. She embraced her role at Street Kids International and passionately worked towards improving access to education for children. Emma was also impulsive and headstrong: she married Riek Machar, a warlord, and became embroiled in politics. By the time of her death in 1993 in a car accident in Nairobi, Scroggins suggests that for all her courage and commitment, Emma did little to change anything.

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The backdrop to Emma’s story is the complex historic, social, cultural and political situation in Sudan. Following years of civil war, South Sudan became the world’s newest nation when it gained independence from Sudan in 2011. Peace was short lived and civil war erupted in 2013 when President Kiir sacked his entire cabinet and accused Vice President Riek Machar of supporting a failed coup. An agreement to halt the conflict collapsed in 2015 and fighting continued, primarily in Yei River state. This is the area from which many of the refugees in Bidibidi fled in 2016. In Yei, the National Salvation Front (NAS), continued to fight government forces. By 2018, a power sharing agreement was signed between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar which led to the signing of a Unity Government agreement on 20 February 2020. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called upon members of the Transitional Government of National Unity to “fully adhere to the letter and spirit of the Agreement”, so that the people of South Sudan can finally realise the benefits of durable peace and stability they deserve.

Following the announcement of a peace agreement, the South Sudanese refugees I knew in Bidibidi remained cautious. None were ready to rush back to their homeland but instead adopted a ‘let’s wait and see’ approach. One of the caregivers (a teacher of young children) I worked with, Beatrice, talked about her life before becoming a refugee. She married young, had two children then was widowed when her husband was killed in a motorbike accident. Her father owned some land where she was able to develop skills of cultivation. She grew cassava, maize and beans. Then she married a second time (had two further children) and she continued to cultivate the land of her husband’s family. ‘My life at that time was very nice. I made money and paid for my children to go to school, paid for them when they were sick. I bought clothing for myself and my children. I had a very happy life in South Sudan. Then the time of war started and I had to save my life and my children. I lost everything: my land, my house, my garden. We were afraid as any person could attack you, rebels were everywhere. They would grab anything you have. They took things from my garden saying it belonged to them. If you don’t have luck they kill you, if you have luck they just let you go.’

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On a road to somewhere

At a time when we’re restricted in our movements due to Covid19, it occurs to me that travelling by road is now something to savour. And there have been many journeys I’ve taken by road that are worth revisiting. From unsealed routes to highways, roads are symbolic of progress, a life path, even a map to the future and a way back to the past. But it’s the physical experience of travelling by road that I’m interested in exploring here. If you’ve followed my recent posts, you will be aware that the journey from Koboko to Yumbe in Uganda is along a red dust road. Travel behind another vehicle and visibility becomes a huge problem. Other hazards include cows (they always have right of way), motorbike taxis called boda bodas (which slip in the dust) and the inevitable potholes. The drive to Bidibidi refugee settlement is even worse especially when riding pillion on an off road bike. It felt like we were driving over corrugated iron and it was hard to believe the conditions could get any worse… but they did. With the arrival of the wet season in March, rivers of rain gouged deep tracks in the paths and on more than I occasion I got off the bike to walk rather than face negotiating another gully.

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Other occasions when I’ve walked alongside a vehicle include a journey from London to Kathmandu in 1981 with Top Deck. The travel company was started in the 1970s by a group of Australians who converted Bristol Lodekka buses into touring vehicles by fitting a kitchen and seating downstairs and installing bunks on the upper deck for sleeping.

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photo: Philip Wadds

On the mountainous roads across northern India and into Nepal, we were frequently required to walk in order to lighten the load on the vehicle. Doug Foskett’s footage shows instances of us doing just that. Another perilous road, this time covered in snow, was negotiated with the use of only two snow chains for the wheels. As we approached the Turkish border with Iran, the bus slipped and slid so much we passengers were like crew on a dinghy, lurching from one side to the other in order to keep the bus steady.

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photo: Philip Wadds

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Crazy few days

We rushed back from Bidibidi refugee settlement to the main town in Yumbe, Uganda on Wednesday 18 March to listen to President Museveni’s address. It had been a busy day  at the settlement where I delivered activities to parents of village 15 and 13. The sessions were particularly enjoyable. I distributed loops of string so that we could share string figures. The purpose was to allow refugee parents to reconnect with their cultural traditions in order to build psychosocial wellbeing. I also taught the English string figure ‘cup of tea’ so that we could reflect on the challenges of undertaking new learning for adults and for young children.  It isn’t easy teaching a string figure to a group of over one hundred participants so I relied on parents who grasped the process quickly to be able to help others. The session was an amazing success. Discussion focused on how we learn best and we talked about observing demonstrations, listening to instructions, following illustrated guidance contained in handouts, having one-to-one support and how moving our muscles can help us to learn. We then related this to children’s learning and how parents can best support learning in the home. Women in the group ululated when participants showed string figures they knew and I felt everyone went away from the session having learnt something. I had four further sessions to deliver that week, so I was looking forward to more positive experiences, but first we needed to know what President Museveni had planned in response to Covid19.

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There was the usual power shortage in Yumbe, so my colleagues and I went to a cafe with solar power in order to watch the address on television. The restrictions announced weren’t exactly a surprise, but the email I received during the speech was. My flight home had already been brought forward from 2 April to 26 March and now there was new advice from VSO Uganda to take the Emirates flight to Gatwick leaving on 20 March. That meant I had to start packing for departure to Kampala the next morning in order to catch the flight the following day.

So that’s what happened. Yumbe to Kampala is over 600km and the road is unsealed for the first part of the journey. I said goodbye to my colleagues at the office in the morning, then set off.

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I arrived in Kampala at 8pm, just in time to grab some dinner at the hotel then head off to bed. I got up early the following morning to complete a couple of reports and finish my work. One of the achievements of my placement involved collecting information on young children with disabilities living in the seven villages with Early Childhood Care and Education centres in Zone 3. With the database complete, I shared it with other NGOs to allow staff to follow up with medical and/or educational assessments. A replacement for my role at Bidibidi has been appointed and the database will also be useful to offer targeted provision to children and families in need of psychosocial support and parenting help.

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Bidibidi Refugee Settlement: activities to support psychosocial wellbeing

This week I began the second in a series of activities offering support to parents of young children attending Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) centres on the settlement. The purpose is to strengthen the psychosocial wellbeing of children by encouraging greater parental involvement. The flight to safety from conflict in South Sudan has created a legacy of loss among families on the settlement. Loss of extended family connections – some have family members remaining in South Sudan, other families are dispersed across different refugee settlements in Uganda. Loss of home and land – some families have heard their houses are now occupied by others; there has also been much destruction of property and land during the conflict. Loss of a hoped-for future – parents who wanted to continue their education or further their careers now find themselves without educational or work opportunities. These losses can impact on the psychosocial wellbeing of parents who may find themselves increasingly unable to parent effectively given the instability of life as a refugee and the effects of poverty. (Although recently there have been encouraging signs of peace in South Sudan following  six years of civil war, refugees on the settlement have a ‘let’s wait and see’ attitude.) In terms of the psychosocial wellbeing of children, there is some research to suggest an intergenerational effect. Even children born in safety may share some of the wellbeing needs experienced by their parents.

As the ECCE centres are at an early stage of development, there are currently no referral systems in place to target specific support. (I am working on a database to address this by collecting information about children using the Washington Group of Questions.) For the time being, I extend an open invitation to my activities for all parents where ECCE centres are located in zone 3 of the settlement. Uptake varies according to the village but one session had over one hundred participants. In order to manage this number, I encourage skill sharing amongst parents so that those who engage with the tasks readily can support others.

‘Why play?’ is the title of the session and it considered the importance of parents taking time to play with their children. We discussed how play builds family bonds, opens lines of communication and trust which help to keep children safe, supports learning in the ECCE centre and is fun for the whole family.

As there are few resources on the settlement or money to purchase them, we focused on games that can be played without materials or using locally available materials. We made rhythms by participating in sound exercises using clapping and clicking games. Parents then worked in partners to do a mirroring activity (one was the leader, the other the mirror so the actions of the leader had to be copied simultaneously to imitate a reflection).

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Coming and going, ups and downs

I arrived back in Yumbe on Wednesday evening after an eventful few days in Kampala. The immigration office refused to extend my tourist visa as my work visa was being processed. Although I didn’t have all the required original documents with me, colleagues at VSO sent me back to the office to claim my work visa. As VSO is a charity and doesn’t pay from work visas, there was a delay in the issuing process. However, I was the first of all the VSO international volunteers in Uganda to have the  work permit stamped into my passport. I believe others are now following a well trodden path to the immigration office to get their work visas after my success.

The next important job involved updating the registration of my Ugandan SIM card. Mobile phones are absolutely essential in Uganda (and other countries in Africa) because this enables access the internet, WhatsApp for messaging, video and phone calls, social media and most importantly MONEY. I have a mobile money account where VSO deposits my monthly allowance and money to fund the activities I run on the settlement. It is an incredible system whereby it’s possible to withdraw money from kiosks located in even the most remote locations. You can also send money to other people, pay utility bills  and OTT. This is a tax levied on the use of social media and can be paid daily, weekly or monthly depending on frequency of use. I’ve taken to carrying my mobile phone around in my money belt as losing this essential piece of kit would be such a nightmare. However, I’ve since discovered that losing access to the SIM is equally horrific.

My tourist visa expired today and something must have gone wrong with the registration of my work visa as my SIM is not working. My first visit was to the MTN service office in Yumbe where they said re-registering would solve the problem. It took forty-eight hours to get this done the first time, so I’m not confident of a quick result. Now I’m using the internet connection at the hotel to try to resolve the situation. Fortunately, MTN is good at responding to direct messages on Twitter – this is a relief as I obviously can’t contact them by phone. While I’m waiting for a response, I sit in reception at the hotel (the only good place for internet access) and type this post.

The drive back from Kampala to Yumbe was long even with sealed roads most of the way. My driver took a wrong turning at the final stage and we ended up at the border with South Sudan. The photo below shows the crossing point and reinforces the idea that country borders are arbitrary – this view of South Sudan looks exactly the same was the rest of West Nile in Uganda.

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I arrived at my accommodation to find no water and no power. The lack of consistent supply is ongoing in Yumbe. I’m so used to the shortages that I’m now overjoyed to find water and electricity available rather than getting ratty when they’re not. Sleeping without a fan is the worst but it’s amazing how it’s possible to get used to things. I now drip sweat all night as well as all day!

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