The Farende Writers’ Society is only three weeks old, and our participants are already making steady progress in improving their creative writing skills. Of equal importance, I have begun interviewing students, adults, a woman who studied history at the University of Kara, and teachers about youth culture and literacy, in order to better understand the cultural context in which my project has taken root. My interview with Alice, a lady who studied at University of Kara, was invaluable in helping me see the practical value, in the local context, of learning to read and write well. Most university graduates who remain in Togo, she said, hope to get well-paying jobs for the Togolese government or NGOs. In order to be selected for these jobs, the university graduates have to do well on a written exam in French. French is everyone’s second language in Togo, so students who love to read and write, and who have had a lot of practice starting at a young age, will have a much easier time with understanding the questions and writing articulate answers. French literacy is key to “moving up the social ladder” in Togo, and the Farende Writers’ Society can help students discover a passion for reading and writing while they’re still young.
Three students are regular participants in my writing classes, and we welcome drop-ins, in the hopes of increasing in number. The students began by turning in bi-weekly writing assignments about their daily lives, which we read aloud and discussed seminar-style. Obviously, their lives in Farende are very different than my life in the U.S., so their choice of subjects never ceases to captivate me, whether they write about participating in a funeral ceremony, cultivating a field, dancing at a Christmas celebration where men and women cross-dress, letting a baby get too close to a fire so he or she will learn from experience not to touch it, or a love interest who cooked one young writer some delicious fou-fou after a study session. Once we got started, the first order of business was helping the writers improve their descriptions. We practiced describing objects as if we were blind, to encourage them to employ all five senses in their descriptions. We have also practiced using metaphors, similes, onamatopea, and synesthesia, as well as rhythm, poetry, and the different phases of the writing process. Right now, we’re working on brainstorming, free-writing, and creating first drafts. A couple of the writers have already improved significantly, and I am heartened that they keep coming back with more original writing to discuss.
Last week, I realized that researching youth culture and literacy is important in order for me to understand my project in its cultural context and work toward its sustainability. I began by interviewing random people in the market, asking simple questions such as, do young people in Farende read for pleasure? If not, why not? What do students read in school? What’s your favorite subject? Do you have to share books with other students? What do you like to do in your free time? Would you check out books from a library if Farende had one? Another new component of my project is cataloguing the 300-some books that Eli, the local entrepreneur who first envisioned Farende’s internet café, has stashed in his office and hopes to turn into a functioning library. In order to get youth into the library, I’d like to collaborate with teachers who could assign students book reports and research projects. I also need to ask teachers what they think the current selection lacks—most of the books were published between the 1950s and 1980s! Along with the rest of Duke Engage in Togo, I would love to help the internet café become a center for writing competitions, typing classes, chess or Scrabble tournaments, and the village’s hub for educational programming.