I’m lucky. I have a sister who worked as a nurse with Concern in Bangladesh at the same time, back in the mid-80s, that I worked as an english teacher with APSO in Sudan.
After we both came home to Ireland we were full to the brim with stories: “I was in the market one day” she would begin ” when I met…” My parents, my brother and sister, their eyes began to glaze over after a few weeks. Or they would tease her in a sing-song voice: “Oh, when I was in the market…” But my eyes lit up: tell me more, tell me more! And it was the same with my stories. After a few weeks of interest their attention became polite, but her eyes lit up: tell me more, tell me more!
Unlike the rest of the family, and most of our friends, my sister and I had a frame of reference for the lives we had lived in those years when we were away. We recognized the similarities and were fascinated by the differences. She wore shalwar khameez almost all the time; I lived in pre-Sharia Sudan and could wear pretty much what I wanted. I had to learn the rules and codes of dress, whereas she was given them, carved in stone. She worked at a clinic and saw chronic malnutrition; after the English teaching I worked in a “famine camp” on the Ethiopian border, where I counted death by the hundreds. And so it went on: what we wore, whom we met, what touched us, what brought us to tears, what drove us crazy, what made us laugh, what we learned, what stayed with us.
We both had someone in our lives who wanted to hear our stories. But for many returned development workers it’s different. There is no one to hear, and over time the stories seem to grow dry and shrivel up. But they don’t die. They are still inside us, whether our journey lasted three months or half a lifetime; whether we returned home last month or twenty years ago. What’s more, the stories that matter most have already been chosen by memory, and shaped and polished to a sheen.
Twenty five years after I taught English in Sudan, and after a long dry period as a writer, I joined a writers’ group in Bundoran. On my first night there I wrote a story about a girl marrying a boy, a boy she liked but didn’t know. About the dancing in the kitchen the night before the wedding, the older women teaching the little girls how to move their hips, just so. About the patterns of henna that were painted on her feet, and the smell of sandalwood. About the money given as a gift as each of the guests arrived, the amount called out for everyone to hear. About the girl’s contradictory feelings: her liking for the boy, her sense of fulfilment, her lack of choice, her joy, her fear.
I can’t remember what the writing prompt was that night, but the prompt didn’t much matter. This was the story that was burning to be told, that was poised on the tip of my pen, waiting for me to start writing again. And although I didn’t write an essay about gender and culture, or about the education of girls, all that I had ever learned about these things formed the warp thread against which I moved the shuttle of my pen, weaving my story out of memory and imagination.
I have had this same experience again and again. I am attending a writing workshop, or I am leading one. I have no particular idea in mind. The writing prompt is revealed, and suddenly I am back in Sudan, or Ethiopia, or Angola, writing a piece of memoir, or an imagined story, or a poem. I once wrote about getting on a plane to go to Sierra Leone and watching a little girl with rainbow coloured beads on her plaits, who kept turning her head from side to side to hear the sound they made: CLACK – CLACK. I once wrote a poem about the sense of sacredness I felt at the Murambi genocide memorial in Rwanda, and another about the terror I felt when I visited Ntarama. I have written about the screaming row I had with the World Food Programme official who insisted that I take bags of maize out of his warehouse before opening them, even though he knew and I knew that the entire consignment was infested with weevils. And I have written about the fat Turkana chief who danced like a dragonfly skimming the surface of the water, like a man who didn’t know that he was fat.
Whenever I am among RDWs I can hear their stories bubbling in the background of their lives, glimpsed in a framed batik or an unusual, off-the-tourist-trail wooden carving; sometimes closer to the surface, in the shimmy of their hips or the shake of their shoulders as they dance to Aster Aweke or Miriam Makeba. And sometimes I hear the stories themselves, told at the end of a meal after the second glass of wine.
And when I hear those stories, in the background or in the foreground, I want to say: tell me more, tell me more! And don’t just tell me, write it down and show me. Show me what you heard, smelled, touched, tasted, felt, and let me feel it too. You don’t have to be a “writer” to do this. Anyone who has ever told a story and who has the gift of literacy can write. And what to write about? Barbara Kingsolver, the author of The Poisonwood Bible, has said that there are only two basic storylines in all the world: “I went on a journey…”; and “A stranger came to town…” If she’s right, then RDWs have in their memories a storehouse of treasures that any writer would envy.
I dream of some day putting together an anthology of writing by RDWs, filled with stories, memoir and poetry as rich and varied as the experiences of their authors. Would people want to read it? I believe they would, despite what I said a few paragraphs back about family and friends, and their eyes glazing over. There is something different about the written word, about the way, as writers, we select and polish our stories. I know that when I write in workshops about my work and travel and life in Africa, and then read what I have written to the group, there is, in my listeners, a deep fascination and curiosity, a hunger to see past the stereotypes, to learn and to understand.
There are essays to be written about “development”, papers to be written, proposals and reports, arguments to be made to advocate for justice and change, and these all have their necessary place. But there are also stories to be told, stories that, whatever else they may be about, have at their root a vision of our shared humanity that cannot be argued against. As Pat Schneider, the author of Writing Alone and with Others, reminds us: “No-one can argue with story”.