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'It's the imperfections that count' - photography and poetry workshop part 1

In May we collaborated with our partner, Manchester Poetry Library, on a project with 14 women from sanctuary-seeking backgrounds from Iran, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Cameroon.

For the first session, the facilitator Lydia began by introducing herself and her heritage; half Algerian and half English. The workshops were a safe space to talk about personal culture, heritage and connection. The women were put into groups based on their culture and language. Within the room, including Maisha, our project assistant, there were multiple languages histories and heritage. Maisha felt comfortable sharing her experiences and her heritage, Mixed Kenyan and Scottish, and enjoyed how her mixed cultural heritage was of interest to the participants.

Group 1 - Women from Iran

The women introduced themselves, going around the table explaining their name, mother tongue, and why they had joined the workshop today:

  • "I want to gain more confidence"

  • "This is a good program that increases my confidence"

  • "From coming to Afrocats sessions I learn new information and grow my ideas, and expand kindness"

  • "These workshops create kindness between others"

  • "More experience and confidence (personally and with English language speaking)"

  • "Practice English, spending more time together"

  • "What I hope to gain from coming here is confidence speaking English, speaking about our experiences through objects brought from home, using keepsakes and memories."

  • "Curiosity - about the workshop and I’m here because of my love of poetry"

  • "Improve knowledge and experience with new skills"

For the first activity the women took three pictures of their chosen subject using a Polaroid camera; themselves, a friend or an important keepsake brought from home.

The Polaroid camera was very exciting - everybody was thrilled and smiling. Instantly memories came forward and the group were talking. As the objects were shared the women found out new things about each other. For example, there was a Turkish link between two participants that had been previously unknown as usually this group communicate in Farsi. Moments like this indicate that creative Afrocats sessions are a space to be seen and to share more deeply who you really are.

One participant’s keepsake was a detailed sketch of her mother, drawn by herself. Her sketchbook was filled with high-quality portrait drawings, this sparked an idea to get these drawings exhibited in a gallery.

For the second part of the workshop, the women would learn how to do an emulsion lift on watercolour paper. Once in the photography studio, the participants were very engaged watching the instructions from Lydia the facilitator. many participants were very excited to take part, as they had witnessed their parents doing emulsion lift photography when they were children. Everyone was happy with the end result and left the workshop with a general sense of excitement to take part in part two:

  • "You make my past. A long time ago. I see my daddy doing this. Exactly the same. You can put this image on the coffee cup."

  • “It’s the imperfections that count” because that’s life. And tomorrow we can fill these in with poetry, very exciting."

Group 2 - women from the DRC and Cameroon

The women were contemplative and quiet at first. Some were very surprised that Lydia’s father cooked for her Mother. A participant said: “Meeting a man that can cook helps the woman a lot because women have a lot to do”

Lydia told the women, that without her father she would be further divorced from her Algerian culture. Lydia’s PhD research is based on trauma, pain, beauty and resistance to colonialism. Poetry can act as a healing way to process trauma., especially around the systematic dismantling of culture perpetuated by structural racism.

The women had a conversation about patois, and the importance of keeping old languages alive, French wasn’t allowed into the house as a form of protest against colonial rule. In the town, French was spoken, at home and in the countryside patois and Lingala are spoken.

The conversation grew to speak about Congolese culture more widely. One participant speaks confidently about how although Congo is not a monolith, every direction has its own culture and its own version of patois. All the women agree enthusiastically enjoying the conversation around diverse African culture.

Communicating about language and heritage the group began to venture out of their quietness, their confidence growing as stories are shared. The women told Lydia why they had joined the workshop today:

  • "Participants hope to discover new things and gain new talents."

  • “We are happy to be here, to share experiences and learn from this group."

  • “To learn and to share the importance of what I bring to the group."

  • “The group helps with the depression and staying well”

As the afternoon group started on time the women were able to talk in more detail about the precious objects they brought with them.

One woman brought a handcrafted purse which reminded her of her mother who did not have the opportunity to go to school: “god gifted her with the ability to make handcrafts and sell them in the community. Every time I look at this purse I think of her”

Another woman brought a special Pondu spoon which is only used for cooking food from home: “I do not use it for everyday meals, only for when I am cooking Pondu and other food from home”

A third woman brought a sky blue T-shirt. The participant told the group how she was walking through town and had a rip on the side of her T-shirt. Another woman, a stranger she did not know, stopped her and said: "here take mine". The participant was astounded by the generosity of this woman and also believes it is a magical coincidence that it was the right size.

Another woman brought a blue and brown striped knitted hat, another gift in the cold weather, from a friend concerned about the welfare of this woman. The woman told the group how the object is a “hat on the head and in the heart”.

On arrival to the UK from warmer countries, such as the Congo, many women do not have appropriate clothing for the climate. One participant mentioned always being cold and inappropriately dressed in bad weather. Taking advice from a friend participants began a practice of looking at what people were wearing outside on the street and dressing in a similar manner in order to be appropriately warm during UK winters.

This story is of particular importance due to the fact that 10 of the participants did not have access to the Internet and were therefore unable to check the weather online or on television news outlets. Community conversation improved their quality of life.

The objects opened a conversation which demonstrated the deep need for community and having a caring investment in one another. Food, clothing and care are highly prized and meaningful especially when participants see the UK as their second home. Community is seen as a way to connect to self as well as cultures of origin. And by extension, Afrocats is one element of this continued wellbeing community.

  • "Very happy. There was a great explanation from Lydia about this task. I was able to learn a new skill and I’m very happy about having a new experience."

  • "This was great because it was very calming. It was good to be together with the people, and you learn a new skill. I also have a connection with the photograph, thank you."

  • "It was exciting I feel joy, I feel good because of the photos."

  • "A new experience fantastic I like it."

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