By the date, you can tell I haven’t written in a while. This is because I’ve been trekking through West Africa doing field research for my book (for my non-fiction writing job).
I can say one thing: it’s humbling as hell to see so much natural beauty juxtaposed with evidence of such an incredible level of poverty. It makes the fiction I write seem like a load of self-indulgent wank. How could anyone care about stories when there are toddlers without clothes drinking untreated water from the river everyone bathes in?
Unfortunately, when I feel bad I write to cheer myself up. Amid a few bouts of self-loathing I’ve been doing a lot of scribbling. The words come easy while I’m sitting on dusty bricks and writing next to burning trash heaps with the village’s young children crowded around me, fascinated by my foreign appearance and daring one another to poke me or pull out a hair.
Finally, the eldest of the children worked up the courage to ask me what I was writing. As I was explaining the characters and their main conflicts, the crowd of children drew closer, elder ones shushing the young. I slowed down and used smaller words, explaining the conflicts with body language so that the children whose English wasn’t so good could still understand.
When I had finished, the children shrieked with delight and asked for another story. Instead of telling them another one of mine, I asked for one of their stories. The children spoke among themselves and I caught a few stray words, and they took my hand and pulled me toward the center of the village. “Come, come. We show you.”
They took me to what looked like a swimming pool that had seen better days. Along its rim, three women were doing laundry, agitating big basins of soapy water with hands hardened through a lifetime of washing. They laughed when they saw me sheepishly pulled through a herd of goats to the pool’s edge by a group of exuberant children.
“One day there was dragon here,” one of the barefooted girls began.
“This big!” said a smaller girl with her hair in many neat Nigerian-style braids, holding her hands apart as far as they would go.
“That sounds scary!” I said.
And so the children told me the story of the twin villages, separated by a creek, and how the men of one village were very cowardly and would not slay the dragon, while the men of their village were brave and smart and figured out a way to best it.
It grew dark soon after, and despite the protests of the children I had to go. When I got back to my room at the guesthouse and the electricity was down, I sat in the dark and realized that while I hadn’t got any work done, I had just had one of the best days since embarking on this trip. And I think the children enjoyed it a lot, as well.
That’s when it dawned on me that exactly here, exactly now while poverty is epidemic, do people need stories. Stories provide hope, and a way to process experiences, feelings, and thoughts. They are a vital outlet, and they are free. Stories belong to everyone, rich or poor, in Africa or in the US.
I am still devastated about the poverty in West Africa, but am incredibly humbled that among the poorest of the poor I learned to not be ashamed of my writing. Not every story can be deep, and not every story can get to the heart of universal truths; but every story can get me closer. Time spent writing is never time wasted.
I write now more than I ever have, and I thank West Africa for this.