Thursday, 3 November 2011

Writing to Live Again

“As one writer put it, the rapt attention of an audience is like a mirror in front of her, reassuring her that, after all the horror and degradation, she is still, powerfully and triumphantly, alive.” [Sheila Hayman, Write to Life coordinator]

Freedom from Torture’s creative writing group Write to Life was set up by the playwright Sonja Linden eleven years ago. It began with just four writers and a couple of mentors and showed how writing can help survivors cope better with their pasts and with the present.

The group now comprises some 20 clients, all referred by counsellors who recognise that for some writing can heal like no other form of therapy. Their work is truly ground-breaking. Write to Life is possibly the only therapeutic writing group in the world dedicated specifically to survivors of torture.

Many of the writers are in what the group’s current coordinator, film maker and novelist Sheila Hayman, describes as ‘a state of petrifaction’, unable to work, endlessly waiting to hear if their asylum application has been accepted. Writing is something they can do anywhere, at any time. “All it takes is a pen and paper and enough peace to be able to let the words come out.”

We are privileged to be able to bring you a podcast that features performances from seven of Write to Life’s very talented poets. You can listen to the podcast at

I am alive*, by ‘Faith’ (Ethiopia)
I know*, by Tim (Congo)
What belongs to me*, by ‘Saber’
Drifting, by Stephen (Burundi)
I hear a voice, by ‘Uganda’
Glimpse*, by Stephanie (Cameroon)
My Hands*, by ‘Rocher’ (DRC)

The five starred poems can be read here.

I’m alive, by ‘Faith’ (Ethiopia) 

I’m out of the way, far away
From the journey I used to walk
For years and years
In the darkness.

I am now here, bright
Under the light
With my own breath
With my own soul.

Like the giant hand of Atacama
My hand is my sign
Revealing who I am, where I’m going
My existence and my new life.

I’m breathing, growing up again
Like a plant, like a grain.
I have renewed my self,
I’m born again.

The sky is singing, the earth dancing
On the ground my shadow is moving.
This is the sign that I’m alive. 

I know, by Tim (Congo)

I know half a loaf is better than nothing
Sometimes a whole loaf would be nice
I know peace is better than war
Why then is there war all over the world?
I know things will not always look rosy
It would be good if they did
I know life is a journey
It can be tiring, to travel all the time
I know that hope like a blazing candle can be
Put out in a moment
I also know that hope, like candle light
Can lead through dark moments
I know things can fall apart
They can also come together
I know we shall overcome some day
It will take a lot of work…

What Belongs to Me, by ‘Saber’

I came here on a day that nothing belonged to me
except my crutch, which at any time they could take from me
even though I could not walk without it.
On that day, things happened very quickly,
I was exhausted
but the time was very enjoyable
because every hour brought new things.
Bad or sad
Cold or warm,
Hunger and pleasure
New places... New people...New air!
But still, nothing belonged to me except my crutch.

I had brought many things with me;
my stories had a thousand colours, but my face had one, which was the colour of smoke.
I came here with the memory of those starless evenings which I had left; they did not belong to me.
I came here with the frightened smiles I’d found in the back of the lorry; I left them in the interview room; they did not belong to me.
I came here with my key in my pocket, the key of the small dark box which was full of white dreams; it did not belong to me.
Before I left my country I did not belong to myself, and nothing belonged to me.
I was owned by other people.
The day I came here, I owned nothing
and nothing belonged to me except my crutch...
the only thing that gives me direction
wherever I choose to go.

Glimpse, by Stephanie (Cameroon)

Looking around
I see nothing except my burden.
Everywhere seems dark, confined.
Like smoke from the chimney
I want to run out

Without remorse,
Leave everything behind
like birds in the sky
who fly free.
I want to turn my eyes

to a new horizon
fill my lungs with different air.
Like the sun rising
East to West, North to South,
Reaching every nook and cranny

I want to conquer the world
Leave my footprint everywhere.
I am still standing here
unable to cut the umbilical cord
so much to take care of.

But I know I belong here.

My Hands: by ‘Rocher’ (DRC)

Whenever I had done something naughty,
My mother used to shout,
Daughter, have you lost your head?
No mother.
One day, when I came to England
I felt terrible.
In this new country,
with a new foreign language,
there was nothing for me to do anymore.
This time, it was my hand I had lost.
Much as everyone talks about opportunity,
none of them seems to be for me.
I couldn't cook my food any more,
nor have a house to clean.
These hands, although they look like my Dad's hand,
they were no use to me now.

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