Iben’s emotive depiction of the day sums it up beautifully. Iben, thank you for taking the time to educate, encourage and inspire the African youth. We are most grateful, not only for your time but also for sharing what you took away from the experience.
“It was an incredibly moving experience teaching storytelling to some local children. My husband and I drove to the community with our ranger Benson, where two female teachers relaxed in plastic chairs underneath a big tree in front of the school. Seven children aged 13-14, who were interested in writing, came out on a Saturday for the spontaneous lesson. They shook hands with us and were as shy, as I was nervous.
Coming from a country where most children from the age of ten have their own cell phone and computer, it was almost heart-breaking to see how grateful these children were to borrow a pencil. I felt my heart sink. Here I was on an expensive safari. I felt too rich, too spoiled, too privileged. I felt ashamed of my wealth. At the same time, I knew those thoughts wouldn’t help me or them.
Sure, I was rich and they were poor, from a strictly economical point of view. But I had to focus on the fact that I had come to give them some of my knowledge on how to write a story, not get depressed over the inequality in the world. If I could help them just a tiny bit further in their ambitions to tell their stories, help them to find their own voice, or give them tips on how to improve their storytelling, well then I had succeeded.
I have done some teaching, but not a lot. Only a few times have I taught young people and always from my own culture and in my own language. This time I had to speak in English, in very short sentences while Benson translated, and at the same ti,me I had to imagine their world and their dreams.
In my part of the world, children their age have seen thousands of hours of television and film. They have read stories from all over the world in books, magazines or on their tablets. They have PlayStation and Nintendo. Children in my part of the world know what New York looks like and they can tell what ingredients make up a crime story or a love story. I know their frame of reference and can therefore build on it.
But here, I was lost. I presumed that access to television was limited, that going to the cinema was not an option, and that books were limited to schoolbooks and magazines too expensive to be bought first-hand. I also presumed that living in their world meant something completely different to living in my world. I had to rely on my knowledge about their world, which was perhaps as restricted as their knowledge of my world.
So I stumbled my way around, telling them that stories are the same all over the world. At the core of it all, stories are always about feelings, hopes and dreams. Most of all, it is about people wanting something and having a hard time getting it. I told them that in order to be a good writer they had to feel everything in their hearts, that they should write about things and experiences that mean something to them. Then I asked them to each write me a small story. We left them for an hour so that they could have time alone to write.
Returning to the school, much to my surprise, they were all still writing. At first, I thought it was because they had trouble finding a story they wanted to tell. I have seen this before with Danish children. But it turned out to be the opposite. They had so much to write that they didn’t think they’d had enough time, but they handed me their stories anyhow so that I could read them.
Some were written in English and some in Zulu, which Benson translated. All were written in the most beautiful handwriting, much, much more nicely written than what I’ve seen young people in my country manage. As for the stories, the language was fluent and with almost no spelling mistakes. What surprised me the most, however, was that their stories were extremely well told. They had understood what I told them. They had constructed the most beautiful short stories about hopes and dreams; about friendship and about wanting to be accepted; about football and about the killing of rhinos.
One girl, in my opinion, could be an excellent journalist. One boy had so much humour and fantasy that Disney could have chosen his story. And one girl had written a heart-breaking story about a desired pair of running shoes that made my heart melt.
I gave them individual feedback and I told them how impressed I was with their very high quality of storytelling. I told them that each and every one of them had a lot to give the world and that I hoped they would keep on writing and that one day they would be able to share their stories with the world.
I went to this village to teach some children about my craft, but as it turned out, it was me who learned from them. I realised that talent, imagination and creativity only need three things: a pencil, paper and a desire to tell.”