Archive | March, 2014

Alison Lloyd Williams – Liberia – In Place of War

18 Mar

 As one of the artists put it at the end of one of the pilot weeks, “I could see in their faces it made them proud to write their own story”

I’ve recently returned from a six-week visit to Liberia as a Theatre for Development consultant, providing pro-bono support to Children in Crisis in partnership with In Place of War (IPOW), a project based at the University of Manchester that researches the arts and creativity in sites of armed conflict. My role was to provide training to Liberian performance artists in theatre and drama techniques that they can use with groups of children as a means of encouraging them to create their own stories. The stories the children generate through this performance work are then written down and turned into storycards which form the basis of a ‘library’ of reading materials aimed at promoting literacy among rural communities. This unique and very special project is taking place as part of Children in Crisis’s Our Words Library programme in Rivercess County, a remote and hard-to-reach region in southern Liberia. Literacy rates in the county are particularly low, although Children in Crisis has already begun tackling this problem via their teacher training programme. The Our Words Library project is a next step in this venture, providing the resources and training to embed literacy activities into the curriculum, as well as promote a reading culture at home and school.

The children of Jazohn devise their story, The Dangerous Forest, during a story-making workshop

The children of Jazohn devise their story, The Dangerous Forest, during a story-making workshop

After initial training and preparations in Monrovia with staff at FAWE, Children in Crisis’s Liberian partner organisation, the staff team and I moved to Rivercess. Here, we held a week’s intensive training with the nine artists selected for the project at Children in Crisis’s Vocational Training Centre (VTC) in Cestos City, Rivercess. This was followed by a two-week pilot where we trialled the work in two different communities close to Cestos City. During these pilot weeks, we spent every morning out in the community working with the children, returning at lunchtime to the VTC for an afternoon of feedback, analysis and further planning.

I became aware that for many of the artists this project was an entirely new venture and something of a step into the unknown. Their own experiences and backgrounds were highly varied in ways that were significant for a project that focused on the use of theatre in education and development. Some, for example, had worked as schoolteachers while others had barely been to school – indeed, one of the artists told us that she had been inspired by this project to return to education. Some had worked extensively as professional performers, particularly in the area of traditional dance and drumming, but many had never taught performance arts to children or used theatre in an educational context. I was extremely impressed, however, by the responsiveness of the artists to the training and encouraged them to take a reflective approach to the work we did, talking together each day about what we had learned, what questions the work raised and how we could put the concepts into practice.

The artist/FAWE team heads to the field for a pilot project. Pictured are (left to right): Back row: George Njanjaine (FAWE Community Mobiliser), Adolphus Seekie, Cephas B Williams, Moses J Tarpeh, Alison Lloyd Williams, Satta Gbelee (FAWE Trainer – Community Mobilisation) Middle row: James Harris, David Chea, Comfort Ward, Edward Slewion, Christiana Weah, Christian Plakar (FAWE Trainer – Literacy) Front: Karwah Kopah (FAWE Community Mobiliser) (Photograph taken by: Juliet Matthews, Children in Crisis/FAWE Literacy Specialist)

The artist/FAWE team heads to the field for a pilot project. Pictured are (left to right):
Back row: George Njanjaine (FAWE Community Mobiliser), Adolphus Seekie, Cephas B Williams, Moses J Tarpeh, Alison Lloyd Williams, Satta Gbelee (FAWE Trainer – Community Mobilisation)
Middle row: James Harris, David Chea, Comfort Ward, Edward Slewion, Christiana Weah, Christian Plakar (FAWE Trainer – Literacy)
Front: Karwah Kopah (FAWE Community Mobiliser)
(Photograph taken by: Juliet Matthews, Children in Crisis/FAWE Literacy Specialist)

It became clear that a key aim of this project – encouraging children to generate their own ideas through performance, rather than directing them and scripting material for them – was a new concept for the artists. This isn’t surprising given the top-down approach that still dominates the educational culture in Liberia, as in much of sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, a central focus of Children in Crisis’s current teacher training programme is the promotion of more child-centred approaches. We therefore did a lot of work around building the artists’ skills as facilitators. This included practising how to listen and respond to the ideas that the children put forward, as well as how to use follow-up questioning techniques in order to build a more dialogical approach to learning and generate a more open approach to story-making. At the end of the first pilot week, the artists spoke enthusiastically about the children’s capabilities. They were genuinely impressed at how the young people could, as one artist put it, ‘come up with their own ideas’. This discovery that ‘the children can do it themselves’ really drove the energies of the artists from this point on. I could see their belief in the children’s abilities and they worked hard to further encourage, support and extend their learning through the work.

I think everyone was unsure at first as to how engaging in theatre and drama was going to translate into the production of written stories. However, through carefully sequenced activities that invited the children to create settings and characters and then improvise different narratives, the groups were able to develop their own unique tales. Along the way, we built in literacy activities that took the work from stage to page and back again. This process included the creation of what we called ‘word walls’ that encouraged the children to describe the characters, places and events in their stories. The first group created a story called ‘The Dog and the Market People’ that featured a very aggressive canine called ‘White Teeth Black Heart’ whose owner needed some lessons in how to look after her pets! The second one was called ‘The Dangerous Forest’ and centred on a hunter who got into a scary situation when he decided to hunt in the late afternoon, when apparently the animals can get a bit lively….

Children perform their story, The Dog and the Market People, in Darsaw Town, Rivercess

Children perform their story, The Dog and the Market People, in Darsaw Town, Rivercess

As well as learning how to run these ‘story-making’ workshops with the children, the artists were asked to devise what we called ‘message dramas’. These were short sketches that conveyed positive themes about the value of education and reading, particularly for girls. These dramas were not only a fantastic showcase for the artists’ acting talents – some of them are natural comedians! – but they also served as a great way of introducing the project to each new community and inspiring children to want to take part in the story-making.

The pilot work was extremely well received in the communities. The children in particular absolutely loved being involved. They turned up everyday for the workshops on time (often before us!) and stayed behind afterwards to play more games and take part in dancing and music workshops that were extended to the whole community. We all felt they would have been happy to keep playing all day! The adults in the community also responded very positively to the work and enjoyed the children’s performance of their story, as well as the artists’ message dramas. We created the opportunity for audience discussion after the performances and adults from across the community commented that they had seen how being illiterate as a parent is not a barrier to supporting your child to read.

Artists perform their message drama in Jazohn, Rivercess

Artists perform their message drama in Jazohn, Rivercess

Artists run a dance workshop with the children of Darsaw Town, Rivercess

Artists run a dance workshop with the children of Darsaw Town, Rivercess

The artists and the FAWE team also spoke positively about their experience of this project and we are already in discussion about ways to take the work further during the second phase next year. I am personally extremely grateful to the team for the support they gave me during my visit. Children in Crisis is lucky to have a Programme Manager in Charlotte Morgan-Fallah and Literacy Specialist in Juliet Matthews who both demonstrate great vision with respect to the aims and methods involved in this project. The organisation is also fortunate to be supported on the ground by a FAWE staff team who show considerable energy and commitment to the values of education and community development.

Having been back at home for a month now, I have had the time to reflect on how much my own work as a Theatre for Development practitioner has been enriched by this experience. I learned a great deal and look forward to learning more – about Liberian arts, culture and education, about working in community settings, about teamwork, about story-making. Above all, however, the work affirmed for me the value of this kind of performance work in creating a platform for children to voice their own ideas, to develop their imagination and creativity and demonstrate their abilities to the rest of their community. Theatre is an incredibly powerful medium for young people to narrate their own lives and imagine new and different worlds – and taking part in theatre activities of this kind can be therefore a most empowering experience for children. As one of the artists put it at the end of one of the pilot weeks, “I could see in their faces it made them proud to write their own story”. Everyone involved in this project should be proud of their achievements so far and I look forward to reading more of the stories in the future.

Read more about the Our Words Library Project here.

Learn more about our partners and pro-bono supporters In Place of War: www.inplaceofwar.net

In Place of War Logo

 

Advertisements