Paris Lit Up: the Trials of the ‘JC’

My Paris Lit Up debut, 20 October 2016.
My Paris Lit Up debut, 20 October 2016.

A few days ago, I made my second appearance at Paris Lit Up: a cool, slightly anarchic, gathering of poets, writers and assorted other creative types (mostly English-speaking ones) who spend Thursday evenings reading – or otherwise performing – to each other in a bar called Culture Rapide.

The first time I went, I read War, Blood Diamonds, and Now the Ebola Virus – a piece I wrote for the Greenbelt Festival’s website in 2014. This time round, I decided to share some more thoughts on the experiences of a Sierra Leonean living overseas. And so I wrote a piece specially for Paris Lit Up, which I titled the Trials of the JC. Here it is:

Weird things happen to a Sierra Leonean on re-entry after spending any amount of time in the First World. For starters, nobody seems to want to converse with you in the native languages any more. The number of times I’ve gone into a shop in Freetown, and ended up yelling at the shopkeeper – “Man, ah beg – talk Krio to me! PLEASE – NO MORE ENGLISH!!”

You walk along the street, minding your business, enjoying the heat, and you notice someone giving you a friendly smile. You smile back – I mean, it would be rude not to. So he says hello. “Yay! I’ve made a new friend!” you think to yourself. So you say hello back… and then he replies with: “Dollar or pounds?” They never say “Euro”. Missing a trick there, if you ask me…

Encounters like this happen every time you set foot out of your door. Eventually you realise what’s happened: You, my friend, have become a JC.

Yes – a JC. That’s the special name the locals in Sierra Leone have for me and my kind.

JC. Just Come. Just two letters, but they carry a lot of weight. To be fair, everyone from overseas who comes to Sierra Leone is a JC. But the word takes on a whole extra level of meaning when it’s applied to people like me. People who have Sierra Leone in our blood, but clearly haven’t lived here for a very long time – or maybe never lived here at all. Your JC status becomes apparent the moment you step off the plane at Lungi Airport. Now that I have a nice green passport – dual citizenship rocks – I don’t get the dirty looks at immigration any more. But I’m still expected to tip folks for smiling at me.

But the real fun begins when you hit the mainland and start to mingle. There was this one time my two uncles took me to a nightclub. They waited until we were seated round a table, a thousand watts of Afrobeats blasting in our ears, and then one of them pulled me to one side and said: “Oh, George – the rule here is that the JCs buy the drinks for the homebased.”

Ah, lovely. If your ‘homebased’ ass came to London, I’d consider you a guest and I’d buy drinks for you. Now you’re telling me that I’M the guest and I have to buy drinks for the host?!?

It always amazes me how quickly people can tell that you’re a JC. Alright, maybe we do give ourselves away when we get into a taxi and put the seatbelt on. And walking about supping from a bottle of Evian you just bought from a supermarket; nobody else does that. I can see that now. But even when you don’t do any of those things, the locals can still pick you out from a mile away. Them’s some mad skills there.

To be fair, those skills aren’t restricted to Sierra Leoneans. I can recall sitting on a beach in Gambia once, and having an unsolicited conversation with one of those fly guys who comb Gambia’s beaches looking for tourists to hook up with:

“So, you’re from England, yeah?”

“No, I’m from Sierra Leone.”

“Yes, but what part of England are you from?”

HOW THE HELL DOES HE KNOW – AND WHY WON’T HE GIVE UP!!

At first, I resented being called a JC. “How dare you!” I used to think. “How dare you belittle a huge, formative chunk of my life? I may not have been born here, but I came here as a child and left here as a man. I haven’t ‘just come’; this is my home too!”

I’m not sure I went through all seven stages of grief, but I can definitely say that I’ve moved on from anger and have arrived at acceptance. I now hold my head up and say my name is George, and I’m a JC. JC and proud.

But even though I accept that I’m a JC, I’m not buying the drinks when we go to a club. It’s the principle. I’m your guest, for God’s sake…

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Why the zero?

You may have noticed that the little blue square on the side of the page (the one under “Novel-writing madness”) says zero. And you may be wondering why. After all, for the past seven years, the number has risen steadily throughout November – and the final figure proudly displayed for a year.

Well, there’s a simple explanation: I didn’t do NaNoWriMo this year. I didn’t start and then give up; I just didn’t do it. I did write stuff, but there were just too many other things going on for me to focus on NaNoWriMo as I have in previous years. So even though I did do some work on a novel during November, I couldn’t honestly call it “doing NaNoWriMo”. Besides, it’s common practice in some professions to have a sabbatical once every seven years, so let’s think of 2016 as my NaNo sabbatical year.

To all my mates who did do NaNoWriMo: well done – especially if you did hit 50k. And to everyone who’s said to me this year, “I’m going to do that nano thing you’re always going on about”: they always said I’d be a bad influence…

(Only kidding. Seriously, I feel really chuffed to know that I’ve inspired someone to do something creative, so thank you)

Thinking Pink in Sierra Leone

“Cancer shouldn’t be a death sentence. It isn’t a death sentence in the West; why should it be one in Sierra Leone?”

Cremelda Pratt, founder of Thinking Pink.
Cremelda Pratt, founder of Thinking Pink.

Who’s asking? Her name’s Cremelda Pratt, and she’s the founder of Thinking Pink: an NGO dedicated to fighting breast cancer in Sierra Leone.

A Business Administration graduate with a major in Marketing, Cremelda lived in the USA and worked for the Federal National Mortgage Association (‘Fannie Mae’) until a trip home for a holiday in 2008 set her on a new path.

“I’d travelled via Accra,” she recalls. “I noticed that there was a lot of breast cancer awareness in Ghana, just as there was back in the US. But when I arrived in Sierra Leone, there was nothing. And yet I knew that friends of mine had died from breast cancer.”

In 2012, Thinking Pink’s office opened in Freetown’s city centre. In its first two years, some 3,000 women (and a handful of men) walked through their doors. More than half of them had some form of breast cancer.

“We saw girls as young as 12 and 13 with lumps,” Cremelda says. “A 21-year-old had a mastectomy with no reconstructive surgery. Losing a breast is a big deal. And dealing with that with no reconstructive surgery or even a mastectomy bra is devastating. I’d see the tears every day, and I’d cry with them.”

And then Ebola hit. “Breast cancer basically got ignored during the Ebola outbreak,” Cremelda says. “Early detection became late detection; late detection became death. Since the outbreak ended, we’ve been seeing three to five people a day. We’ve noticed a surge amongst younger women; we’re seeing a lot of college students. A lot of teenagers too.

“I want to see a day when we have a dedicated cancer hospital, rather than the current situation where we only have one mammogram in the whole country, no oncologists, and cancer patients are in general wards in our main hospitals. We want to see palliative care happen too. Why should women suffer and die worthlessly? If we had a palliative care centre, at least people would have their dignity up until death.”

The challenges Thinking Pink faces are enormous. When I first met Cremelda (in 2014, in the very early days of the Ebola outbreak), Thinking Pink had a staff of five – including a patient liaison officer who was a breast cancer survivor herself. They’re now down to three. “I’ve had to drop people because there aren’t enough funds to pay wages,” she says, “and I’ve dipped too deeply into my widow’s mite. Without help to sustain the foundation, we might have to close doors. I could go back to the US, but where would these women go? We trust that things will turn around – but it’s on all of us. In Sierra Leone, women make up 51 percent of the population. We’ll keep knocking on doors, and hope that someday soon, somebody will hear us.”DSCF8134

Back on the water

I’ve just got back home from my first windsurfing session for this season – my first time on a board since last October. It was an ideal day to do it; so warm and sunny we didn’t need wetsuits, and a wind that varied from “just right for a beginner wanting some light practice” to “Help! I’m arm-wrestling with my sail – and it’s winning!”

Now in my third year of doing this, all the things I struggled to grasp in previous years are beginning to fall in place: upwind, downwind, tacking, gybing, steering properly and maintaining hold of the board. I’m doing much longer runs than before (my instructor Martin says), and staying on the board longer – though I did fall in twice today. One of those falls was EPIC. It was also a great laugh – and proved that those swimming sessions have paid off!

My confidence on the water is getting better, although that initial reticence to go on the water in the first place is still there (maybe that’s just something one has to live with). But hey, the instructor says I’m improving, and he’s going to draw up a few courses for me to tackle over my next few visits. Then I can get a few signatures in my log book and start working properly towards a certificate or two.

I’ve written before about things windsurfing has taught me about life. Today’s big lesson was this:
“There’s no such thing as stationary.”

Last year, I used to take a lot of breaks mid-sail. I’d run for a bit, then drop the sail and sit on the board for a while before starting again. Yes, I needed a breather. But the downside of that is that by the time I decided to get started again, I’d have drifted off somewhere I didn’t want to be. Because this is the way with stopping things: everything and everyone else around you is moving on (and in this case, the water is moving on and carrying you along with it). Even when there are loads of you staying still, time is still moving on. Yes, there’s a time for rest. But maybe – just maybe – that time isn’t when you’re on a board floating on a lake.

But if today’s session is anything to go by, my strength on the water is building up and those breaks are getting fewer. That’s not too shabby…

Did it again…

Winner-2014-Web-Banner

November 2014 has been and gone; another stress-filled November in which I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

I won (again – yay me!), but I’d be the first to admit that this year it was a struggle. But I have learnt a few imortant lessons from the experience – the main one being that I am not a ‘pantser’.

If you’re unfamiliar with the ins and outs of NaNoWriMo, you’ve probably looked at the last word in that previous paragraph and wondered if I’m on something. I’m not (although as a writer, I reserve the right to make words up when I feel like it). In NaNoWriMo-speak, there are two types of writers: Planners and Pantsers. Planners have a clearly thought-out idea, have sketched out a few characters, and have some idea of the plot of their story is going to go. They’re prepared, basically (the level of preparation may vary from one to the other).

Pantsers, on the other hand, don’t have time for all that. They rock up to this thing on Day 1 with nothing prepared in advance; they face the blank page/screen, and fly by the seat of their pants (hence the name).

After three years of going into NaNoWriMo with an idea kind of thought out in advance, I decided this year to see how the ‘blank canvas’ experience felt. Even the title of my novel alluded to this blankness (I named it The Person Who Did a Thing – backhanded tribute to my favourite Swedish authors, Jonas Jonasson and the late Stieg Larsson, whose book titles can all be reduced to that).

So far, so vague- I mean good. I started off well; I aimed to do two thousand words a day, and for the first week, I pretty much succeeded. But then I missed a couple of days and things started to unravel. Nothing much was happening with my characters, and it wasn’t until I decided to switch from telling the story in the third person and made it a first person narrative instead that words started to flow slightly more easily.

Again, the social/community side to NaNoWriMo helped me stay on track at the hardest times. I went to as many of the ‘write-ins’ as I could (usually in a Costa near Oxford Circus) and to the ‘Literary Lock-in’ – an all-nighter at the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green. That really helped. Writing from 7pm to 7am in a small bookshop with about 40 other people sounds daunting. But by the end of it, I’d done 6,000-plus words and was on track once again. I finally hit the 50K target on the very last day.

At the end of a gruelling NaNoWriMo, I now have two characters (plus half a dozen anciliary ones), tons of mostly self-reflective musings on anything and everythng, and a few ideas that could make a few decent short stories at the very least. So nothing’s been wasted.

What next? Well, after a short break, my plan is to pick up Refugees & Renegades (the novel I won NaNo with in 2011) and give it that long-overdue rewrite and edit. Of all the characters I’ve created so far, Braima, Ed and Alvaro y la Familia Montes are the ones I feel closest to (probably because of the amount of time I’ve spent with them). It’s time to finish their story and get it out. Once that’s done, it’ll be either Yebu and Yasminka (last year’s winning ladies) or the two Bens (from the year before). Either way, there’ll be at least one manuscript done by the time NaNoWriMo 2015 rolls round – and I’ll probably use that time to rewrite one of the other two.

Emmanuel Jal: Keeper of the Key

Last night I went to see Emmanuel Jal performing at the Forge arts centre in Camden. As gigs go, it was an exciting performance in a space which at times seemed too small to contain all the energy that was raring to burst out. Support came from members of his backing band who have their own solo careers: vocalists Tanika Charles and Clinton ‘Roachie’ Outten, and Afrobeats artist and multi-instrumentalist Silvastone. Emmanuel’s own set consisted mostly of songs from his latest album, the Key.

Emmanuel and band soundchecking
Emmanuel and band soundchecking

I’ve known Emmanuel for quite some time; over 10 years, now I think of it. I was one of the first journalists here to help relay the heartbreaking yet uplifting account of his escape from life as a child soldier to the world (that would be in 2003, if my memory serves me well). I was at Westminster with my notebook and camera when he and several other Sudanese people and their supporters staged a ‘die-in’ as a protest against the war in Sudan. We bumped into each other again the first time he played Greenbelt, and at an African music festival in Trafalgar Square. But all that was a long time ago, so it was good to catch up with him again.

Before Emmanuel took to the stage, he and I retreated to a nearby restaurant where I threw a few questions at him…

Interviewing Emmanuel
Interviewing Emmanuel

So much has happened in your life since we last met up. Give us a rundown, please…
Yes, a lot of things have happened. The We Want Peace movement is still going, where I go to schools and share my experiences. I believe that when you share your experiences and stories, it’s like putting on a spotlight in a dark place. When you put a light on in a dark place, evil will perform less.

I’m also still doing charity work with Gua Africa – the charity that I founded, helping families and individuals overcome the effects of war and poverty. I’ve just been in a film called the Good Lie with Reese Witherspoon. And I now have five albums out; the latest one is called the Key.

The Key isn’t just an album. What else is there to the concept?
It all came about when I met Paul Lindley in South Africa. Paul’s the founder of Ella’s Kitchen, a company that makes baby food here in the UK. We started talking about food – but from that I came to realise that Paul cared about children, as I do. And so he suggested an idea: Why couldn’t we make an album about children’s rights? And so we started brainstorming ideas.

Later on, these ideas gave birth to an enterprise. And that was when we formed The Key is E. It’s going to fund small business owners who have a direct impact on children’s lives. It’s going to focus mostly on Africa. The Key is E will be a platform to connect people who want to invest in Africa; connecting the diaspora to local people with ideas, or any other investors who want to go to Africa.

I’ve been doing tours where all the proceeds from the tickets at the door go to the enterprise. All the proceeds from the album go to it too. As for the album, we had lots of people involved. Nile Rodgers did a song called ‘My Power’. Nelly Furtado’s on two songs, and then we have two songs from the album featured on a film soundtrack.

 

 

emmanuellive2emmanuellive1You’ve also started your own record label. What acts have you signed so far?
The label’s called Gatwich Records and it’s based in Canada. In terms of artists, at the moment there’s just me and my sister Nyaruach. But we’re looking to sign others. What we’re going to try to do is focus more on management. It’s not easy to make money from CD sales, so we’re trying to bring 360 deals in.

How did you find the writing process when you did your autobiography War Child?
It was a difficult thing to come out and tell the story. One of the most difficult things is, when you tell the story, who’s going to believe you? And because there’s a political side to it, you could get attacked. People will accuse you of lying.

The main questions are: who’s going to believe you, why are you doing it, what’s going to happen and will it create change? Those four Ws all have to be answered first. After I’d answered them, I just took the risk and wrote the book. But yes – telling it personally was difficult.

What’s this new film you’re in, and how are you finding the acting experience now that you have two films under your belt?
The Good Lie is about the ‘lost boys’ of South Sudan who escaped, and how they survived. Some became child soldiers, and they finally made their way to the US. Reese Witherspoon’s in it, and I brought the musical and cultural aspect to it, together with other South Sudanese, we helped make it accurate. The writers did a fantastic job; the director was awesome. It’s an amazing project – and it was fantastic to have Reese Witherspoon humble herself and help put the message out.

The hardest acting experience for me was Africa United – the first film role I was ever given. It was hard because I was being told to act! But then, the role was that of a child soldier, so that made it easy. I was a soldier before, so I acted as if I was going to kill. Sometimes soldiers act when they’re threatening you.

One of your collaborators on this new album is Nile Rodgers. I’ve been a Chic fan for, like, forever; how did you get to link up with him?
When you’re walking your path and you keep on doing your work positively, you’ll meet a lot of positive people on the way. And that’s how I met Nile. I met him at a UN concert. From there, we kept in touch. He invited me to a We Are Family Foundation event; I supported him; he liked what I was doing – and so we ended up doing a song together.

Nile’s an amazing person. He’s like a mentor to many people. Whenever you meet Nile, he will always give you the support you need.

How are things in South Sudan at the moment?
Right now, South Sudan is in a difficult situation. I feel betrayed when I think about the situation, where the people we trusted – the people who fought for our freedom – pocketed our freedom. The war that’s happening in South Sudan now started as a disagreement between people in the same party. The president was questioned by some of the other party members, who said “we have corruption going on; we need to have accountability towards the people we’re leading and towards our party”. They said they needed to be transparent and put institutions in place that would protect all of us. Some of them also said they would like to be able to run for the presidency. That made the president angry – and he fired the entire cabinet.

When that happened, people started to speak out, and the president started putting them under house arrest. He broke the constitution and dissolved the electoral system. His biggest threat was his vice-president, so what he did was arm members of his own ethnic group within the city and made them the presidential guard. That was what led to the conflict. Later, he accused the cabinet that he’d fired of trying to stage a coup. His plan was to silence any opposition. When that failed, those who escaped discovered later that their families had been killed. A lot of young people got angry when this happened, and they thought it was a tribal war. Some of them attacked the government’s barracks; some carried out revenge attacks on people from the other tribes.

According to community research, about 20,000 Nuer people were killed in Juba. We’re talking innocent civilians here – women and children in their homes. My house was burnt down. Sixty people from my family got killed – including my brother and stepmother.

What saved the situation was the widow of Dr John Garang. She spoke on the radio and said, “Look – what happened in Juba is not good.” Her speech on the radio was what prevented the conflict from becoming a tribal one. I give her credit, because without her intervention, genocide could well have happened. A lot of innocent people would have died.

The situation is terrible. We have approximately two million displaced people; thousands killed… Our country spent a billion dollars on arms, while the UN is looking for 1.3 billion to fund the refugees that need food. But now I think both sides are beginning to come to their senses. I hope they find a peaceful solution, and that all those involved in these killings are held accountable.

On Walking on Water (sort of)

It started with one of those dream gigs us writers get every now and then: go on an all expenses paid trip to a holiday resort in Turkey, and write an article about it when you get back. So I did (who wouldn’t?), and amongst the activities on offer at this resort were some free windsurfing lessons. It seemed like a good idea (despite my initial quibbles) and I picked up the basics quite quickly.

On the water in Bodrum last year.
On the water in Bodrum last year.

A whole year passed before I ventured out on the water again – this time on a ‘Start Windsurfing’ course at a watersports centre in Wales. I was a bit rubbish this time (I spent more time in the water than on it), but at the end of the weekend, I returned home battered and bruised – and, more importantly, in possession of my RYA Start Windsurfing certificate. I then found somewhere closer to home (Broxbourne in Essex), where I’ve been having practice sessions at the East London Windsurfing School. It’s now end of term, so to speak; I had my last practice session for this year yesterday and am looking forward to next spring when it all kicks off again.

So, in these past few months, what have I learned about windsurfing – and what has windsurfing taught me about life? A few things…

  1. I’m always going to feel a little bit “oo-er” about going out on the water. Feel the fear and do it anyway.
  2. Windsurfing is a team sport masquerading as a solitary one. Yes, it is just you on your board, sailing solo. But at every step of the way, you depend on others and are encouraged to work as part of a team (it’s much more fun sailing in a group anyway). The ‘Seven Common Senses’ insist that you tell someone when you’re going out sailing, and for how long. Even the wetsuit is designed in such a way that you need someone else’s help to put it on (although I did manage to put mine on by myself yesterday).
  3. Some handy tips apply as much in windsurfing as they do in other areas of life. Looking up helps as much in windsurfing as it does in public speaking. And as Martin the instructor always says, “the more you do it, the better you get”. My piano teacher says that too – as has every book on writing I’ve ever come across…

What else? Oh yeah – if you are going to take up such a sport in Britain, there will be times when you will have to do it in bad weather. Just accept that and move on. And speaking of the weather, there will be days when the wind will simply not play ball. So as well as your sailing kit, remember to pack a book or magazine (or some knitting, or whatever your other favourite means of passing the time is), just in case.

See you out on the water next spring, hopefully…