Exploring the meanings of citizenship
From the moment the Book Festival’s communities team first met with the Saheliya Champions back in December 2020, we knew that we wanted to work with them on Citizen. Citizen is our long term creative engagement programme which explores place, belonging and what citizenship means today. Saheliya supports and promotes the positive mental health and well-being of Black, minority ethnic, asylum seeker, refugee and migrant women and girls (12+) in Edinburgh, Glasgow and other parts of Scotland. It seemed like a perfect match of project and participants, and I couldn’t wait to get to know these women better, to work with them and listen to their stories.
After various lockdowns and unavoidable delays, we finally began the project in May. Each week for five weeks, we gathered on Zoom to exchange stories and engage in discussions facilitated by Eleanor Thom, our Citizen Writer in Residence. As with all online groups, initially it can be tricky to get the conversation going, but sharing stories is an amazing way to get to know others, and Eleanor worked with creative prompts to begin the sessions. Once we started chatting, it was such a joy to hear the Champions share their experiences, memories and views. We spoke about wide-ranging topics from food (celebrating jollof rice, egusi soup and recipes handed down through the generations) to the different clothes we all wear, including some women reflecting on the experience of wearing trousers for the first time, on moving to the UK. Having to wear many layers to cope with the Scottish winter is a habit that resonated with everyone…
During our time together, by listening to each other’s experiences, a sense of community was quickly established. In a particularly moving moment, we discussed the protests surrounding the forcible removal of two men from their homes in Kenmure Street, Glasgow, during Eid celebrations. We reflected on what it means to be a neighbour, a good neighbour, and how the communities around us can support us to live better lives. The women had not been able to gather at Saheliya’s beloved garden at St Rollox House in Glasgow for many months, so getting together online was the next best thing. To counteract digital exclusion, the Book Festival ensured everyone who didn’t have WiFi could join us by using a pre-loaded top up voucher.
Not many of the group had tried creative writing before, and each individual’s confidence in and experience of writing in English varied hugely, so Eleanor chose to make this a place for creative conversations, rather than a writing course. Dinna Likonde, the Champions Project Lead, explained how these relaxed sessions, which focused on story telling, helped the participants to express themselves and sometimes helped to circumvent taboos: ‘We are from refugee backgrounds so we have so many stories to tell… We need to tell stories in a safe way, because some of the issues we go through are really hard to talk about.’ As a celebration of the project, and a memento for everyone who took part, we plan to create a zine with a graphic novelist, to capture conversations using illustrations and storyboards, which will be the first time we’ve marked a Citizen project in this way.
Another first was using an experimental poetry exercise, inspired by R-Words, a mass participatory poetry project founded by Ross Mackay. While the original project idea is based on different people each writing a line of the poem and passing it on, with the Champions, we worked together to contribute one line to the same poem. The starting line the group chose to work with was by poet Hannah Lavery: “I find myself saying your name”.
The discussion resulted in a beautiful group poem which you can find on the R-words website, and a fruitful conversation on what different names can mean in different languages and cultures, and how our names reflect and inform who we are as individuals. The Champions’ contribution to the R-Words project will be celebrated at the August Book Festival, and you’ll be able to find out more about all of our Citizen events on our launch day, Tuesday 6 July.
In our final session, we reflected on the project and were so pleased to receive positive feedback from the women involved. As one said: “I appreciate you being here, and sharing things, and allowing us to talk about the present and the past. I’m really grateful and I think we are all grateful for this.”
The feeling was mutual: both Eleanor and I left the sessions feeling grateful to the women that had come along to meet us, sharing their insights on life’s big issues, brightening our Tuesday mornings with hilarious anecdotes, and reminding us that citizenship can mean different things to different people. All of this is reflected in this poem, ‘Where we are from’, which was co-written by Eleanor and the group, based our conversations over the five week course.
WHERE WE ARE FROM
Based on George Ella Lyons poem ‘Where I’m From’
We are women from humble beginnings,
from Tuesday mornings and video calls.
We are from welcome smiles, from ‘hi everybody’, and ‘how are you?’
We are from her living room, where a sewing machine clutches cotton, ready for face masks.
We are from her dining table, and the black rug at her feet.
We are from preferring the outdoors, from sweet potato leaves and the waters of the Clyde.
We are from Saheliya, our garden and refuge, and the earth where we planted potatoes, spinach, and chillies.
We are from the longing to hold onto this place.
We are from tights under our first pair of jeans, and five pairs of socks.
We are from year-round scarves.
We are from the red shirt worn at the hospital café, proud of the embroidery that says ‘volunteer’.
We are from fearing the white van that pulls up at dawn,
and watching out for each other,
from the heart quickening ping of whatsapp messages.
We are from unity, from care for our neighbours.
We are from the crowd.
We are from our visit to the Scottish Parliament, the train ride to Edinburgh, the iconic building.
We are from bring a dish: chicken, samosas, pakoras and jollof rice.
We are from newness: tastes, connections, roots, ideas, love.
We are champions for change.
Our huge thanks go to Dinna at Saheliya for making these sessions possible, and to everyone who participated. We hope to work with Saheliya again in the future.
This project is part of Citizen, the Book Festival’s long-term creative programme working with schools, community groups and local organisations. It is funded by the players of People’s Postcode Lottery and the PLACE Programme administered by Creative Scotland.
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