Bootsie stroked Rahma’s hair. The long black strands were scattered across her lap. Her fingers felt numb, as though she was grasping clouds. She was terrified of checking whether Rahma was still breathing. Her daughter’s small head felt like it was getting heavier and heavier every minute, and she had not stirred in hours.
Bootise had lost track of the days. She no longer knew how long they had been floating in the middle of the ocean. The scorching days had melded into freezing nights. The screams had turned into hums and now all human sounds had stopped completely.
She’d given up on looking into the horizon. Seeing land felt as elusive as the dream they’d once all had at the beginning of the war. That Bashar al-Assad would step down. Now, as she stroked Rahma’s hair, all she dreamed of was filling her lungs with Hamza’s powdery smell, wishing she could have bottled it for the journey. She dreamed of walking through the cool alleyways of the Citadel, brushing her hands against the coarse rose brick walls, collecting its dust for safekeeping. She dreamed of winged ships that would carry her people to the moon so that they would not die at sea.
And then, she did not dream again.
#WriterPrompt is a flash fiction event run on our Facebook page. We spoke to #WriterPrompt 8 winner, Maïmouna Jallow. She turned out to be one of our more experienced workshoppers with a background in media and the performance art arena.
Thank you for taking part in #WriterPrompt. You have quite the CV – radio producer for the BBC World Service, managed Regional Communications for Medécins Sans Frontières (MSF) and currently working as a freelance writer for publications like The Africa Report. How have your life experiences fed into your writing?
MAÏMOUNA: I have had the privilege of living in many places. I call it a privilege now, but there was a time when I yearned to just have one home. I grew up in Togo to Spanish and Gambian parents, studied and worked in the UK and then lived in various African countries. I think that travelling and being outside your comfort zone forces you to actually look at the world around you over and over again with ‘new’ eyes. It also gives you the opportunity to see yourself as ‘other’ and interrogate what belonging and identifying really means. Many of my favourite writers are African, perhaps because I recognise my world in their work, but I also love South American literature for example, because I can recognise my emotions in the human relationships they depict. So I think a nomadic lifestyle is great fodder for writing.
You said: “Words Matter! They help shape our world – how we conceive it and understand it.” You have spoken on this subject at a variety of literary festivals. Please tell our readers a bit more.
MAÏMOUNA: Words matter because they can literally shape the world around us. Just look at how the relentless racist vitriol published day after day in some of the British press around the Brexit issue has resulted in an increase in violent attacks on minorities there. That is how powerful words are. If they are used for good, stories give people a chance to travel worlds, to encounter different cultures, to access new ideas without having to bounce around the world as I’ve done. Equally important, especially for kids, is to see themselves reflected in stories, which is why I’m so excited about the amount of great writing coming out of Africa at the moment, although more is needed, particularly for teens.
On a personal level, nearly two years ago, I gave up my day job as a journalist and later as a media manager, to embark on a journey to explore traditional East African storytelling. This has taken me down many alleyways, and I have gone from wanting to collect folktales to trying to re-imagine them for contemporary audiences because I realised how important it is for the stories of our past to still resonate with youngsters of today.
I’ve also ended up performing the stories, which is not something I ever imagined I would do. I am petrified of public speaking, I never did drama at school, and yet when I got on stage for the first time and became ‘the character’, it was exhilarating. And then, to see non-book lovers queuing up to buy the books after the performance just because it had been presented to them through storytelling, an art form that is part of our DNA, felt like two magical worlds meshing into something new.
Lastly, what current writing projects are keeping you busy?
MAÏMOUNA: I am currently working on a collection of stories about contemporary Africa sheroes. We often speak about our great African heroes, like Kwame Nkrumah or Patrice Lumumba and then lament that we have no heroes today. But that is not true. We just don’t know about them, or perhaps we have a narrow view of what we consider to be an achievement or who we consider to be special. So yes, I do believe that it is important to celebrate the brave men and women who fought against slavery and colonialism. But what about the Kenyan runners who get gold medals at every marathon? Or the women journalists imprisoned by African regimes for their work? Who are they? What is their story? What can we learn from their journeys? I’m trying to explore this more in my writing.
Maïmouna Jallow is a storyteller, writer, and journalist who uses poetry, prose and radio to explore questions around modernity & identity and all that exists in the cracks between. She is passionate about preserving traditional oral storytelling and has performed at various festivals, including The Storymoja Festival, The Hargeisa International Book Fair and Somali Heritage Week.
She recently directed a ‘contemporary storytelling performance’ called "And Then She Said", a re-adaptation of five novels by African women authors. Her fiction and poetry has been published in the Fifth Draft and Fresh Paint anthologies.
Participate in #WriterPrompt by following Short Story Day Africa on Facebook.
Interview by Tiah Beautement a.k.a. @ms_tiahmarie