Between 9th and 14th of January 2017, I can safely say I had one of the most life changing experiences during my existence on this Earth.
Late evening of the 8th of January, after a delayed flight, Banjul in Gambia embraced me with open arms, as I visited West Africa for the first time in my life. On the descent from the plane, I momentarily crouched down and touched the Gambian tarmac.
In September 2016, I received a most welcome and at the same time, frightening and exhilarating email from Kadija (George) Sesay, connected to my role as Sable Litmag Poet-in-Residence. The email confirmed my invite to read poetry and deliver workshops, at the SABLE Literary Festival and the Mboka Festival of Arts. The SABLE Literary Festival, is part of the brilliant new collaboration – the Mboka Festival of Arts, Culture and Sport – in warm and delightful Gambia. Mboka means ‘One Family’ in Wolof.
After a 10 year hiatus, the SABLE Literary Festival relaunched, as part of the Mboka Festival, which took place between 7-17 January 2017.
This assignment, in my role as the first Sable Poet-in-Residence, was an honour and complete privilege. But I was forewarned I would be worked very hard and indeed I was.
On 9th January 2017, my second day in Gambia, I was extremely excited and equally nervous to be reading that night, at my first ever poetry event in West Africa. In fact, my first ever poetry reading on the continent of Africa. The reading, where I was also a special guest and highly anticipated poet (apparently my online presence and videos were searched for and watched), took place at the new African Poetry Library, also known as Mango Tree (due to the impressive mango tree in its yard). To top it all, the event was captured for the news on Gambian national television.
I was exposed to many young, talented Gambian poets and spoken word artists, in particular the dynamic poetry outfit and writers’ group ‘The Clouds’. I was deeply honoured to share the stage with them.
I was even more flattered when I was invited by The Clouds to deliver a lecture and talk to them two days later (Wednesday 11th January 2017). My talk focussed on my journey and Life As a Poet since 2001, my role as Sable Poet-in-Residence, plus writing tips they could apply on their own writing journey. This was delivered at their headquarters in Banjul (the capital). I was left very impressed with their business ideas and set up.
Spending time with The Clouds also gave me an insight into the political and socio dynamic background for young people and their desire for a greater entrepreneurial spirit in Gambia. They spoke eloquently about the potential for Gambia, at a time when Gambia itself was experiencing a shift in presidential personnel.
On Thursday 12th January 2017, also as part of the Sable Literary Festival and Mboka Festival, I was programmed to deliver a workshop at The African Poetry Library. After much soul searching, deliberation, hair pulling and brow wipes from my (then soon-to-be) fiancé (and my now husband), I finally prepared a keynote presentation, then took a taxi down to the African Poetry Library. The numbers were small, but the workshop produced great discussion and varied and rich pieces of writing.
Friday 13th January was the showcase for the The Mboka Festival. This was held at the beautiful Senegambia Hotel and included the introduction of our esteemed Kenyan writer and keynote speaker Ngugui Wa Thiong’o, who had only arrived in Gambia from California that afternoon, to a traditional and grand drum, dance and song welcome (which was captured on film and posted on YouTube). As well as myself reading a set of poetry to my own produced soundscape and imagery, the evening contained UK based Numbi Arts and their beautiful collaboration with local artists and musicians, storyteller Nzinga and US based half Gambian academic and poet Rosamund S. King.
On Saturday 14th January, I was gifted an opportunity that created an immense shift in me as a poetry educator. Even though incredibly challenging due to the size of the class, their delay en route due to traffic, the language hurdles to overcome and the different learning needs, I thoroughly enjoyed delivering a poetry workshop to the Jambanjelly Basic Cycle School, again at the African Poetry Library, a.k.a. Mango Tree, in Banjul Gambia. The thirty-five eager to learn, polite, endearing students, aged eleven to sixteen or seventeen, also overcame shyness and came to grips with my Jamaican British cultural nuances, to produce some excellent work. A presentation of their work, as well as recitals of their favourite poems took place out in the yard, under the mango tree. One of the most rewarding experiences of my life, without a doubt. I’ll be eternally grateful to this wonderful school for having me!
Later that evening, after a searching high and low before sampling vegan Lebanese food, we took a couple of taxi rides to see the excellent production of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s play ‘The Black Hermit’, at Ebunjan Theatre in Bakau, The Gambia. Expertly directed by Janet Badjan-Young, she later stated, “It is a very relevant play for The New Gambia.” The Black Hermit was commissioned by The Mboka Festival and was well received.
Sunday 15th January 2017, the early part of our last day in Gambia was spent exploring the beach, packing and saying our goodbyes to the lovely staff at our hotel. With luggage in toe, we went down to the Senegambia again to attend the brilliant talk given by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. His lasting message to Mboka Festival attendees, particularly local Gambian writers and creatives, was his encouragement ‘to nurture and publish both written and spoken Gambian languages’ to sustain their heritage. Prior to Ngũgĩ’s talk, was a book launch for Rosamond S. King’s collection of poems Rock| Salt| Stone, published by Nightboat Books.
My week of delivering workshops and poetry, woven between meeting Caribbean-British recently relocated to Gambia, eating and devouring delicious Domoda with vegetables and African fried rice, drinking refreshing ginger and sorrel drinks, visiting a Gambian primary school and being energised and revitalised by the gorgeous Gambian beaches, was over within a matter of hours. Flickers of wonderful memories matching the blinking city night lights of Banjul, as our plane hovered back to rainy London.
Only two days after we returned from Gambia, the outgoing president conceded defeat and the new President was received, heralding new hope and a new direction for beautiful Gambia.
I will be forever grateful for the trust and belief in me, as well as the mentorship provided by Kadija (George) Sesay and Dorothea Smartt, which enabled me to have such a rewarding, character building, culturally engaging and memorable experience that will stay with me my entire life.
By Patricia Foster McKenley.
A snapshot of The Gambia’s Mboka Festival of Arts Culture and Sport 2017
Posted by James Murua
This article was first published in: ‘Sable Poet-in-Residence Patricia Foster Reads Poetry and Delivers Workshops at Mboka Festival, Gambia, 2017’, June 2017. Link: https://www.peepaltreepress.com/blog/inscribe/sable-poet-residence-patricia-foster-reads-poetry-and-delivers-workshops-mboka