How can a piece of writing build trust across continents, cultures, and contexts? How can the process of asynchronous writing consultation be flexible enough to account for multiple forms of busy-ness and other priorities, yet sturdy enough to endure for years at a time?
In the summer of 2021, Faridah Naimana attended a virtual Herstory Writers Network memoir writing workshop facilitated by Alison Turner. At the time, Faridah was a learning facilitator in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, supporting students enrolled in college through Jesuit Worldwide Learning (JWL), a virtual program that connects students living in refugee camps around the globe with tertiary education. After attending a single Zoom workshop, Faridah continued to write for more than a year, sending a piece of memoir to Alison, who sent back responses. About six months later, Faridah’s piece was published on the website. In this essay, Faridah and Alison share their anxieties, self-doubts, and amazement at this process from workshop to revisions to publication of Faridah’s story. They hope that showing what happens behind the scenes on a single piece of writing might inspire other cross-cultural writing partnerships.
Note: this two column set of stories is best viewed on a computer
Part I: The Herstory Memoir Writing Workshop
Location: “Zooming” in from Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya; Dzaleka Refugee Camp, Malawi; various sites in Afghanistan; and Denver, Colorado.
As a facilitator who works at the camp, I wake up at 7:00 am ET to prepare myself to go to work. I took a bath that morning, applied my favourite lotion, and put on my tight blue jeans and a JWL t-shirt. I boarded a motorcycle and went to work but while I was on the motorcycle, my mind was focused on just one thing, which was reaching my target for the day: course delivery for students. Reaching work by 8:30 am, I picked up my laptop and opened it. A message popped up on my phone. It was from my site coordinator asking me to go and see him in his office.
I always admired his office, wishing that I could have the same type of office in the future. He was not yet in; I moved around looking at the images that were on his office walls. The room had a very good pineapple aroma that I loved. I inhaled it but immediately the door opened and he asked me to sit. I sat on the office chair and it was very comfortable compared to our wood chair in the staff room.
He told me that he has sent an email with more details on the workshop that has been scheduled for the female students. That workshop is called Herstory and I should mobilize the Diploma female students to attend it. He gave me airtime (communication bundles) for calling students and asked me to send them each an email. I left and went back to my seat in the staff room. I opened my email and I received several messages but I specifically opened his because I knew it was very crucial.
I saw the date that the workshop was to be conducted and started messaging the students. Since I was in charge of the female students at the learning centre, I also had to participate since I had to write a report on how the workshop was and how helpful it was for the students. That meant that I had to attend. After sending them the messages, I sat back and felt bored since I was not wanting to join in this workshop because I had a lot of work on my table.
Two weeks later, it was the day of the workshop. I was up and down that day ensuring that I mobilized all the female students. For those who were not able to access the internet at the centre and could attend from home, I had to send them airtime (communication allowance) to buy data bundles. These female students are very brilliant and they always inspire me a lot. They were so excited to join the workshop and, thus, that was why I had to encourage each and every one of them to join because I knew it would benefit them. I provided them with all the support that they needed to make that day a success.
The clock was tick-tocking and I was so angry because it was just a few minutes to the start time and most of the students had not even reached out or communicated. But while I was lost in my anger, it was finally time. I went back to my table and opened my Zoom link.
When it was open, I only found one person who was the host. “Alison”: the name appeared on my screen. I heard her voice saying hello but I didn’t respond because I first had to prepare myself psychologically before I could respond to her. Remember, I was mad at students and also I didn’t want to attend so imagine that situation and the mood that I was in during that day. I had provided them with all the necessary support that they needed to join the workshop, they had the link and also data bundles to join the workshop.
I took my earphones and finally unmuted myself and said hello to her. We started introducing ourselves when I saw that other students and facilitators from other JWL sites like Malawi were also present but my students had not joined yet. I was so disappointed, but before I knew it I saw almost all of them popping in. I started counting and eventually I had 12 students from Kakuma that had joined. I felt happy and I became so active. The training began and there was full participation. When questions were asked, I found myself answering everything, and that is when I started feeling motivated and I started loving the whole program. I have always wanted to write and share my stories and I didn’t know that God had already given me a chance to start writing. At the end of the workshop, we were asked to write a brief story so that we could post it and get feedback so that at the next workshop, she would be able to comment and continue with the Herstory training. We logged out and I was feeling very happy since I was able to see that this was not a waste of time but a very rare opportunity that I finally got a chance to join.
I wear sweatpants and my nice top with the green blazer that a friend gave me. I almost always chicken out wearing the green blazer because it’s on the far side of my comfort zone. Facilitating writing workshops is also on the far side of my comfort zone, and because someone told me that you have to fake it before you make it, I am fake-faking it, looking as ready as I can.
The writing workshop is on Zoom and starts at six am. I have been told that this is the latest time that we could meet because any later would mean that students attending the workshop from learning centres around the world would return home at dusk, putting some of them at risk. This workshop is for women living in refugee camps, and it is meant to provide a platform for telling their stories; it is not meant to put them physically at risk.
I get up at four to make sure that I’ve had enough coffee to clear the confusion. I review my PowerPoint slides and practice saying a few statements out loud. The workshop is about memoir-writing for social justice, and the participants are college students living in refugee camps in Kenya, Malawi, and Afghanistan. They are in a virtual program that is staffed locally and connected to volunteer instructors and professors from around the world. This workshop is one of the extracurricular offerings on Wednesday afternoons: last week, APA citations; this week, memoir-writing. I feel ridiculous in my privilege.
The time gets closer and closer. When there are three minutes left I run to the bathroom, which is what I always do before long Zoom meetings, and it always makes me two minutes late. I have a mug of herbal tea next to me and a thermos of hot water so that I can fill and refill throughout the workshop. When I click the link, my stomach begins to flutter. I should have eaten something.
But it is too late, and now my head fills one of three squares patching up the screen. I already know the faces in both of these squares: they are the two American administrators who helped organize the workshop. They both care deeply for the students in this program and advocated for a memoir-writing space for women using words like empowerment, agency, confidence, creativity. At first, I wondered about making this exclusive to women—is it not men who need to hear the stories of women more than anyone else? But my administrator-partners have story after story of meetings where women sit in the back and men lean into the front of Zoom screens. We all agreed that what this workshop needs to do is provide a space for women to talk to each other, uncensored, uninterrupted.
A fourth person logs on. The two administrators say a name that I can’t catch. “…in Kakuma,” I hear. I realize I have been mispronouncing Kakuma my entire life. A few other squares fill the space: “here’s Malawi,” they say, and “Afghanistan.” Before I know it, I am talking about memoir, social justice, and the power of storytelling, speaking mostly into gray squares since students have their cameras off. People around the world are hearing me speak, I think, but what the heck are they thinking? I try to stop often for “go-arounds,” asking each square to voice their thoughts. Sometimes, a camera turns on to a room of eight or nine women, many of them cut out of view, only an elbow or the top of a forehead showing. I try to take the time to learn the name of each person. I wonder if there are more people in each room that I cannot see.
As the workshop continues, I worry that I am not communicating well. When I ask for images and scenes that bring listeners and readers into a person’s life, writers respond with sentences like “It is important for women to write” and “We need to begin speaking.” They are responding with topic sentences to essays, which is how I learned to write in college, too. Surely I am not explaining well the difference between an essay and memoir: maybe I am using words that don’t click, or maybe I’m speaking too quickly, I must be speaking too quickly—yet how can I tell if people hear me when the cameras are off? I begin to doubt that memoir is the best way for the women in this room to speak. Are they in rooms with others who believe that they shouldn’t speak? Are they holding back in telling their stories because of who might hear or because what it will feel like to say?
I believe in the importance of these memoir workshops, but sometimes I wish I were leading exercises in fiction writing, in the imagination, in writing about what is interesting and colourful and fun and happy.
Sometimes I have to remind myself that these pieces are part of memoir, too.
Part II: Writing, Revising, Responding
It was on a Friday morning that I had just woken up not feeling well. I remember not being able to get out of bed and I decided to go back to sleep but before I could even close my eyes, I remembered I had to write a story and share it with Alison, our mentor.
I immediately stood up and went to take a shower and prepared myself to go to the nearest café and try to write. I reached the café and opened the desktop. I opened a Word document but to my surprise, I was unable to come up with a title or begin to write.
I remembered how we’re told that in Herstory, we share our own stories and do not come up with new stories. Eventually, everything came up so clearly and I felt so happy in my heart but at the same time very sad because the story that I wanted to share was so emotional to me that I had to write about it. What gave me courage was how happy I could feel if others also got to read my story and have hope for the future, especially the victims of rape. It took me 3 hours to write and finally I was done with the first draft. I sent it and I was always looking at my phone to see an email notification and was very nervous. I was very nervous because I thought maybe my story could not be accepted if my writing wasn’t good enough. I had all these negative thoughts running in my mind every day.
Only three women who attend the workshop send me a story and want to keep writing. In the body of the emails, they don’t tell me anything about themselves, only a short sentence like Here is my story. I don’t know where they write from, only that they are a student who must have been behind one of those grey squares, and that they are probably writing from a computer in a learning centre, which I imagine as a room with fans and a short row of computers, perhaps in a building but maybe also in a tent.
There is something upsetting about the phrase Here is my story since each writer sends only a few paragraphs. Yet these emails feel like miracles: somehow, across time zones and shaky internet and blank Zoom screens, an email comes with an attachment and in that attachment is a story written by a woman who wants so badly to write that she finds a way.
Faridah sends one of these emails. She spoke more than anyone during the workshop and had given an example for an opening scene that helped other students understand. She is a learning coordinator, which I understand better afterward, and which explains how she knew how to communicate with students.
She has written several paragraphs titled “My Body, My Mask.” She uses gorgeous images that make me see a mask across a face, a mask covering an entire body. And yet this story itself is also a mask, covering up something specific that simmers, that maybe boils over, sometimes, when she is alone with no one there to see.
My Body, My Mask
Masks have hidden a lot of things from people to truly know the truth about you. What you look like, how you feel and how you even act. Due to this pandemic, people can now all feel what it’s like to suffocate inside but yet you can sometimes not expose it due to fear, law, culture and sometimes religion. My body is my mask. It has covered a lot of sorrow, pain, anger and even hate. Hate to the world for being born in my community, sorrow for no one to know how I feel in this mask that I am wearing, pain for not being able to fight against the plights that I go through in this mask and anger, for not being able to remove this mask and maybe change it with something I would love due to some laws that people have created.
When I feel pain in this mask, no one knows. When I cry secretly in this mask, no one cares. When I try to remove this mask for change, I am asked to put it on and just remain the way I was taught to behave. Refugee Women, we are facing many problems in this mask but have no one to talk to, raise our problems to, and most importantly, change this mask. I hope the world and people out there will be able to ensure that change and solution to fight these masks in unison.
After 6 days I was able to receive an email and when I saw the send, my heart skipped. I was happy and at the same time very nervous. I opened my email. I read through the feedback and I was so happy that my story was good and I was asked to develop it more. The comments in the comment box were so encouraging and I was glad that I had gotten this opportunity to share my story with others.
Using the feedback that I had received from Alison, I was able to build on the story and also expanded on it, and sent it again. We had several back-and-forth emails on that story and I was very happy with how I was able to write this exciting story and the feeling was killing me inside because it was like whenever I was writing, it felt like some knife was piercing my heart. But I had to stay strong because I wanted something to be done. I wanted to prevent more of this from happening to someone else. I wanted the world to know that things are happening but nothing is being done. So would there be someone who could strongly stand and intervene in this community?
Finally, I received an email saying that the story was now ready to be published and I couldn’t believe it. I always wanted to share with people how we are facing some problems and we feel helpless since even the community doesn’t support stories to be shared out. They consider it betrayal and if you could be heard or seen sharing such stories it could lead to so many consequences. But I said, to hell with it. I will share my stories so that even others can learn from me and come out and speak.
I write to Faridah and to the two other writers who sent stories. Sometimes it takes weeks to hear a response, and sometimes it takes me weeks to respond. I try to write emails to each writer along with the feedback. I try to make these emails show how I’m trying to listen, as if we are sitting at the same table learning how to work with each other. But there are so many layers built in between Word documents, Track Changes, weeks between emails. Every time I send feedback, I immediately worry that I wrote too much, that I didn’t explain a reason for a suggestion well, that I should have asked more questions about content rather than focusing on grammar. I try to make grammar last so that the important stuff can be first.
Faridah’s second draft was more than three pages long. In this version, she takes off the mask. Though we sent this version back and forth several times, the heart of it was there from early on. The other two writers stopped responding. Busy, I imagined, with classes and the work they surely were expected to do for their family, their children or parents or neighbours.
But Faridah kept writing.
A Crime to Others but A Taboo to Me
By Faridah Naimana
Hear Faridah read her story on Soundcloud
When I woke up in the middle of the bush, I thought maybe it was a dream. I was so cold, covered in rainy water and when I looked at the ground, I saw blood mixed with the rainwater. At first, I didn’t know what had happened and when I tried to stand up from the ground, I felt a sharp pain. I sat back. I remembered being sent to the shop to buy bread at night and at that time the weather outside was so windy and it had not started to rain.
The wind was blowing so heavy when I left home. I ran towards the shop because the distance was far. I wanted to make sure I came back early to avoid weather. The sound of the wind covered all other sounds. I remember reaching the shop and buying bread.
On my way back home, people had already left, and it had started raining. I saw few people on the street who were under shades to prevent themselves from getting drenched. Since I was a little child, I was told that if it rains, I should never find shelter in anyone’s house since they might be man-eaters or killers, a warning that prevented me from asking for shelter. I took my bread and started my journey home. When I was halfway home, I heard footsteps. I thought maybe that they were also rushing home because of the rain and I didn’t pay attention. The last thing I remember is that someone came from behind my back and placed a cloth on my mouth and I blacked out.
I sat for some time and finally got the strength to stand and move slowly until I reached home. I found my mum and grandma waiting for me in a panic because it was already late in the middle of the night. Everywhere was so quiet and the whole village was asleep. It was so dark outside but the moment my mum and grandma saw me, they knew what had happened and they immediately ran towards me.
They told me not to make any noise because they didn’t wish anyone to know what had happened. It was taboo and it was considered being an evil omen to be raped in this village. I felt confused, disappointed, and asked myself if what I was experiencing or seeing in front of me was true. I felt I was not loved at that moment and I rushed in the house and closed the door behind me.
They took me to the fireplace. It was so warm and still burning. I laid down on the mat. They cleaned me and my grand mum prepared some herbs for me to take. On placing the cup on my tongue, the herb was so bitter and smelled so terrible that I wasn’t able to drink. I was told that was the only way that the herb will help reduce the pain and I would heal faster. I took it and went to sleep.
In the morning, I was not able to go outside due to pain and yes, my family said that I could not step outside because I had to hide until I was in a good position to walk properly and face the world again. At this moment my world stood still, I could not believe what I was seeing, hearing, or even experiencing. Everything had ended for me from that day. No school, no friends, no playing even just stepping outside was the end of it all. I gave myself hope that everything would be alright in a few days.
Time passed and I realized I hadn’t seen my periods. My period began at the age of 11 and every month I saw blood. I told my grandma about this and they told me not to tell anyone or share it with friends. I didn’t know what they meant. One month passed and that morning when I woke up, my grandmother told me that we will be traveling very far in the forest and we won’t be able to come back soon. All along I was not allowed to move or be seen outside. I was like a prisoner and all this is because my culture prohibits rape and considers it a bad omen for the family. If anything like this happened, the family is banished from the community, even their belongings are burnt and the land is left for others to cultivate.
It was very early in the morning. Even the birds had not started singing outside when we began the journey with my grand mum. My mum just told me everything will be fine and that my grand mum will explain everything when we reach where we were going. Having said all that, she took us to the riverbank and left. We crossed the river and proceeded to the forest. The ground was so wet, the smell of the forest wasn’t pleasing to the nose, and the birds on the trees were singing each song. We walked until the middle of the day when my grand mum decided that we should rest and eat something. We sat under a very big “muvule” tree to eat. When we were done, I asked my grandma where we were going, and she told me something that happened a long time ago to our own family.
She began by saying “a long time ago, one of my grandmother’s sisters called Evelyn was loved by the king’s son but she had no feeling for him. She always refused the gifts and she never paid attention to him because she had someone that she loved so much. Her boyfriend was a hunter and a very good fighter known in the village and he was every woman’s dream to marry but he only loved and cared about my sister. This went on for a year and the king’s son started to threaten the hunter and thus he decided to leave my sister and got married to someone else. The king’s son thought that because of this Evelyn would accept, but the result was always the same, she refused. One day he decided to take revenge for being humiliated and being refused. He decided to follow Evelyn when she was going to the river to fetch water alone. He went with his bodyguards and they forced her into the forest and raped her. The son knew that my sister could not report this to the king because it was something that was not to be heard in this community. My father sent her and my mother, she was called Teresa, to the far village to migrate there. That is how she never got justice and the victims are being punished due to the cultural beliefs that govern our community.” After she said all that, I immediately asked her if we are going into the same village and she nodded her head.
Part III: Going Public
When my story was ready to be published, I had a call with Alison and she asked me “how are you feeling that your story is going to be shared with other people”? At first, it was so hard for me to express my feeling and tell her how I was feeling because tears were running out of my eyes I was so happy that finally, my hard work was going to be seen by others and also I would be able to see more people who are in the same situation stand up and share their stories with the world.
After receiving the information and giving my consent, the story was published. This is the email I received from Alison.
I hope that you are well!
We have published your story, congratulations! Right now it is available on an email platform that Herstory uses, and it has been sent out to the entire Herstory Network. Soon, it will have a more permanent place on the Herstory website.
I couldn’t believe it, I lost words that I could tell her. It took me a little while to write back to her about how happy I was and how grateful I was for how she was able to help me not only oversee my writing but also help me correct my grammar. I wasn’t able to construct sentences but now since starting to write with the Herstory workshop, I can construct sentences very well. On a scale of 10, I can say I am at 6.
When Faridah and I both felt that her story was ready to share—ready, according to whom? Ready for what? To share with whom?—I asked if she would meet over Zoom. Those layers of tech and time between us made me nervous. What if sharing her story about rape culture in the Kakuma camp is physically dangerous to her? What if my breezy encouragements of congratulations and “readiness” were a crossroads for her, a risk she’d have to take, a jump into some kind of water with her eyes closed.
But when we talked, her eyes were wide open.
“No one talks about this,” she told me. “But everyone knows about it.”
I feel myself asking stupid, shallow questions. I am in a house in Asheville, North Carolina, which is not where I live. I sit at a large table next to a kitchen full of colourful appliances and cheery dish clothes. The table faces a wide window through which the sun is starting to rise over a field. The sky is purple with streaks of pink. I am safe with another mug of tea. What was this writing process like? I ask. Another stupid, shallow question. I roll my eyes at myself. It is in the afternoon for Faridah, and I hear the noise of animals and children. The call is interrupted half a dozen times when the internet can’t hold us any longer—each time it takes more than five minutes to reconnect. But we keep trying.
This journey was not easy either but it all takes courage and endurance to be successful. I was struggling with how I could have access to a laptop to write my story and thus I had to access the device from where I was working. This meant that if I was not able to reach the learning centre, I wasn’t able to write. I shared this challenge with Alison and she came up with the idea of us using the story to raise funds to buy a laptop so that I can write with ease.
When the story was published, I shared the link with friends and other people. This is some of the feedback that I received from well-wishers:
I hope you and your family are well. Congratulations on getting your story published! You are so right, our tests become testimonies that help others in their journey. I am so very happy for you. Let me know where to go to review and support you.
This was so touching, I felt like I owned the whole world at that moment. One kilogram was added on my weight that day. I was just smiling to myself without a reason. Every time anyone could see me they asked what had happened to me and instead of explaining, I was just smiling back because I was indeed very happy that people loved my work. This encouraged me to continue and work on another story and share them to get feedback.
Currently I am working on three more stories. The procedure is still the same. Writing, sending and receiving feedback from Alison.
I learn that she often revises her drafts on her phone. I cannot imagine doing this. How tiny and tight everything is on a phone, how limited the options for movement of text. I think about what this means for Faridah as a writer, and I admit to myself that I’m not sure that if I were in her shoes I would keep writing.
During our call, I avoid for a long time saying the word “rape.” I worry about triggers and privacy and trauma. Just because she has taken the mask off her story, showing us what happens beneath the surface for women in her community, doesn’t mean she wants to take that mask off on a Zoom call.
But she does.
At the end of our conversation, I ask her where she would like her story to be published. I can already tell that the Herstory website will not be enough. I think again, and again and again, about the irony of community literacy work. So many people speaking and writing, and not enough people listening. How can we inspire people to listen?
“I want people in my community to see this story,” she says. I realize how much I was not thinking of her community. How much I was thinking of the people I know thousands of miles away from her who already do, and who I think should, care about people living in refugee camps. But maybe that is what this partnership is. Faridah knows how to find readers in her community. How can I find more attentive readers in mine?