Caryl Phillips on Sierra Leone PEN

At May’s Talking Tuesday, speaking about his recent experiences in Sierra Leone, Caryl Phillips told English PEN members that, through the Sierra Leone PEN Centre Appeal , they had ‘qualitatively changed the lives of many writers in this part of Africa.’ When Phillips visited Sierra Leone in 2003, partnered by American writer, Russell Banks, he was driven by concern about the future of literature in a country that had lost so many writers during its ten year conflict. He wondered who was writing about the conflict in what is now officially the poorest country in the world and how any of the young population (50 percent of the population is under 18 in Sierra Leone) could imagine a future as a writer.

Once in Sierra Leone, he discovered that new, unwavering enthusiasm has replaced the lost writing talent. He and Banks joined two Sierra Leonean writers at a panel event about the problems faced by writers in their respective countries. He was struck by the way the Sierra Leoneans spoke about writing ‘in the purest and most humble way, with no expectation of earning a living.’

Phillips first spoke to Mike Butscher, secretary of Sierra Leonean PEN, when he was researching the trip. He found Mike open and welcoming but felt that he seemed to need help. When he eventually visited the centre in Freetown he was shocked by the physical space. ‘There was water under our feet. The phone was broken, there were no books, only past issues of the Guardian Review rotting in the humidity.’

He explained that public facilities for writers are also scant. ‘There are no bookshops or computers. There is a Christian bookshop, which with all due respect, is not a bookshop. Thank God for the British Council Library – although it costs £20 a year to access it and Mike is not a member.’ He also spoke of meeting with Osman Conteh, a Sierra Leonean writer who, despite having three books published by Macmillan, had never seen them, partly because they cost the equivalent of two weeks wages. Phillips brought them over with him from the UK. He said, ‘for Conteh this was a strange affirmation of who he was. Again this was very humbling. I was moved by the determination of these people in the face of overwhelming obstacles, to write: firstly because they have a story to tell and don’t want to abdicate responsibility to others to tell it; and because they have an understanding of the dignity of the calling to be a writer, which is totally divorced from money, celebrity and publicity.’

Phillips had not intended to write about his visit to Sierra Leone but was moved to do so by what he experienced there. What he wrote moved many English PEN members in turn. Susanna Nicklin, Executive Director of English PEN, explained at the Talking Tuesday that a copy of the article Distant Voices he wrote for The Guardian had been sent to every English PEN member. She and Victoria Glendinning (English PEN’s then President) had previously met Mike Butscher at the PEN Congress in Macedonia and they felt that English PEN members would want to help. The response was swift and £5,000 was raised for Sierra Leonean PEN. Mike had asked for £1,000 for a phoneline and broadband internet, £500 for a digital camera and £3,500 for computers. When he wrote to say thank you he apologised and explained that the money had actually been spent on a roof, windows and one computer (see Sierra Leone PEN latest news ).

Phillips concluded by expressing his admiration for English PEN. He felt that the response of members would go some way towards helping the young writers of Sierra Leone reinvigorate the country’s literary and academic heritage as ‘the Athens of West Africa’. He had dreamt up the trip while pondering the future of Sierra Leonean literature in the British Library on Great Russell Street, ‘but’, he said, ‘something practical also needed to be done and English PEN has done that.’


English PEN member Louise Dean also spoke during the evening. She has been working with Mike Butscher on Project REAL, an adult literacy programme. In Sierra Leone 800,000 out of 2.5 million adults are illiterate, yet the desire to read and write is strong, even in communities where these skills are not essential for day to day life. The project is being designed around these desires, rather than being prescribed, and many NGOs have signed up to work in collaboration with Louise and PEN. See 20/04/04: Sierra Leone literacy project for an open letter from Louise to her fellow PEN members on the project.

The Sierra Leone PEN Centre

The Sierra Leone PEN Centre
Sierra Leonean PEN is making good progress. Mike Butscher reports that the centre now ‘has four fluorescent lights, five PEN school clubs, is training several young journalists and has regular meetings.’ It also has more computers as a result of collaboration between American PEN and Computer Aid International. Furthermore, the UK-based Flame Books has teamed up with Sierra Leone PEN for the Book of Voices project – see 06/05/04: The Book of Voices – a Sierra Leone PEN/Flame books initiative for further details.

Our thanks go to PEN members Caryl Phillips and Louise Dean, the President Alastair Niven for chairing the event, and the staff at the Mayfair Library.


Report by Jo Paterson

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