An artist became an activist – Interview with Gavin Weston

An artist became an activist – Interview with Gavin Weston

Gavin Weston is author of the novel Harmattan, (Myrmidon Books) – set in Niger, West Africa – which chronicles the early years of Haoua, a child bride growing up in the fictional village of Wadata. Weston was a volunteer with the American NGO Africare in the eighties and, since 2011, has been an ambassador for FORWARD, a London-based NGO campaigning to end child marriage and FGM. He is a practising visual artist, a lecturer and a former Writer-in-Residence at one of Northern Ireland’s top security prisons.

WTW: What led you to write a book featuring the issue of child marriage?

GW: Living and working in Niger had a monumental impact on my outlook and overview of life and, even though it was quite a long time ago, the realities of witnessing and confronting the hardship and disparities which many people in Africa face every day of their lives has never left me. When I returned to London, and subsequently to Ireland, those experiences influenced much of what I did and the images were never far from my mind: one day you’re living in a place where you witness appalling poverty, corruption and the lives of children being squandered away and the next you’re listening to people complaining about mundane stuff, ‘First World’ problems, and, frankly, sometimes it’s difficult to subdue the desire to commit the social faux-pas of telling members of one’s own family, friends or work colleagues to ‘button it’. I know that sounds unkind, perhaps even a little didactic, but if I’m honest, as I get older and – like many other people – more imprisoned by possessions, these feelings have intensified, if anything.

I grew up just outside Belfast, during a time when people were being murdered on a daily basis. Living on a farm, my childhood was, for the most part, stable, (even then I knew that my family were privileged), but there was always the constant backdrop of suspicion, fear of the unfamiliar and a firmly established societal tendency to look inwards. When my own kids came along, (happily ‘The Troubles’ had finally abated) I wanted to ensure that they had some kind of grasp of the world as a whole, and of its great inequalities. Like many UK households, we were regularly bombarded with appeals from various charities to sign up to child sponsorship schemes. I had retained connections with West Africa and saw sponsorship as a potential means of educating another child, helping another family whilst also educating my son and daughter about a very different culture. When we began corresponding with Ramatou she was a bright six year-old girl living in a remote area of Niger. She started school, learned to read and write and, naively, we hoped that a better future lay ahead of her. My children wrote to her regularly and she began to write back, initially via a translator, but then in her own hand. For six years her framed photograph sat alongside our own family snapshots and we were in no way prepared for the bombshell that arrived, in the form of a letter from the charity which operated the scheme, informing us that Ramatou had been married off, just before her twelfth birthday.

I can honestly say that we were devastated. I phoned the particular organisation, wrote them letters, but we never found out what happened to Ramatou. (Often young girls in such a situation never see their own families again.) Chances are she became a mother soon after. It’s a cyclical problem, firmly linked to poverty, and a huge global issue. Even though I’d lived amongst the people of Niger and knew about the practise of child marriage there, I had assumed that Ramatou was somehow protected. But she wasn’t then, and people should understand that sponsorship schemes still do not fully protect any child. It’s not that I’m totally opposed to such schemes but the current model is a flawed one and, in my opinion, NGOs need to rethink their approach, in particular to educating young girls.

My daughter, Holly, was thirteen at the time, and I couldn’t get Ramatou’s plight out of my mind. I suggested to Holly that she write about it for a school project, but looking back I’m thankful that she found such a life unimaginable. Around then I had been working on a collection of short stories and a column on visual art for the Sunday Times. One evening, in the company of some other writers and artists, an American novelist (a woman) in the gathering threw out for debate the notion of whether or not a male writer could authentically find a voice for a female character. (She thought not.) Soon afterwards the idea of Harmattan came to me and the book kind of started to write itself. I was somewhat apprehensive at first, and I don’t suppose I would have even attempted to construct the story had I not actually lived in Niger, but my first trusted proof-readers seemed to find my character (Haoua) convincing and so I persevered. There was little information available about this horror when I began writing the book, and I found no real ‘voice’ for victims. It was, I think, Toni Morrison who said, ‘If there’s a book that you want to read and it hasn’t been written; write it.’

WTW: Has your family ever sponsored another girl?

GW: No. I’m afraid not. In response to my attempts to investigate the whereabouts of Ramatou, the charity through which we had been sponsors suggested that we get involved with another child, but knowing that there was no real safety net in place for this girl either really made me question the whole viability of such a model. Besides which, in truth, I wasn’t prepared to put my own kids through the trauma a second time. We’re not the only family to have experienced this, of that I’m quite certain, and charities need to be prepared to answer tough questions about committing to alternative approaches designed to provide education and actual sanctuaries for young, vulnerable girls. And, of course, educating boys is critical, because without doing so the war against child marriage (and the closely linked scourge of FGM) can never be won.

WTW: After writing Harmattan, you became an advocate for girls’ rights. Can you tell us a little about that?

GW: Sure. I was enjoying the brief ‘honeymoon’ period of having signed to a new publisher, (Myrmidon Books), but soon after began to feel that instead of just putting the novel out there (in the vague hope that it just might receive enough recognition to help position the issue of child marriage on the mainstream radar) that it might actually be possible to make the text work harder. Don’t get me wrong; I am an artist and I want this book to be considered primarily a work of art, but I see no dilemma in using any art-form to encourage individuals to question, reconsider, learn and perhaps even adopt a more pro-active involvement.

I searched the web and read many manifestos before finally, nervously, deciding to make contact with FORWARD, the London-based African diaspora NGO, an innovative organisation comprised of – mostly – strong, black women with ‘can do’ attitude. I pinged an email to FORWARD’s director, Naana Otoo-Oyortey, and was pleased (and somewhat surprised) when she replied that she would like to read Harmattan. My publisher sent Naana a galley copy and she took it with her on a working trip to East Africa, where she read it and, I am glad to say, subsequently invited me to a conference on child marriage which FORWARD was hosting in London.

Tunaweza Girls Club Member, Tanzania. Copyright: FORWARD/CDF

Tunaweza Girls Club Member, Tanzania. Copyright: FORWARD/CDF

I was delighted when the organisation then endorsed the book (and later hosted the London launch) and it was truly a pivotal point in my life when I was invited to represent FORWARD as an ambassador. Since then I have worked with the team on projects in Ireland, Tanzania and the UK and I continue to do my best to forge new links and contacts wherever I go. Harmattan has also been published in Turkey (one of many other countries where child marriage still prevails) and I hope to take up an invitation to go there to talk about the book and FORWARD’s work in the very near future.

WTW: Do you have any thoughts on why you think child marriage is so prevalent in developing nations?

GW: Poverty is slavery, isn’t it? If you’re in a situation where you have few or no choices, you’ll do what you have to do to survive. (Just look at the vast numbers of people currently fleeing war zones by whatever means.) There are various statistics out there, from various bodies, estimating the magnitude of the problem of child marriage. Suffice to say that the numbers are staggering, abstract; thousands, tens of thousands each day. I daresay most parents who marry their daughters off (often well before puberty) would prefer not to do so, but faced with the prospect of starving or offering a daughter for a dowry or to write off debt, many families succumb.

Then there’s that whole lazy attitude of saying, ‘It’s a cultural thing; not for us to meddle.’ That doesn’t wash. It’s not a question of ‘the West knows best’, rather that we have all been children and those of us lucky enough to have experienced a childhood based on safety, trust, love, education and sanctuary know that without those elements childhood is little other than fear…and no child deserves that. Add sexual abuse and the argument of Custom and Culture and it’s a hard nut to crack. But I always say that just as you would do something, say something if your neighbours’ kids were being abused, then likewise we have an obligation to act on this global matter too. All such children are our neighbours, and without protection many lives are being wasted.

WTW: Is there anything people can do to help with this issue? How can people reading this interview prevent girls from becoming brides?

GW: I’m a fairly cynical person when it comes to the funding and politics of many NGOs, as you may have already gathered. But I’m also an optimist, and having worked closely with FORWARD and witnessed their work first hand, I have absolutely no hesitation in saying that one thing readers can do is to support this small but important organisation. That doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to put your hand in your pocket, but if you choose to do so, that will, of course, help directly. FORWARD runs innovative projects such as the safe house scheme at Tarime in Tanzania. They work in partnership with grass roots organisations such as Children’s Dignity Forum to provide schooling and sanctuary for young child mothers and their own children. This system ensures that these girls are funded, educated and protected, and that they can rebuild their lives to become strong, confident, happy young women with bright futures. I know this because it was my privilege to meet and interview several such young women in Tanzania at the East Africa Conference on Child Marriage in Dar es Salaam in 2013. At the same conference I also met and interviewed a Zambian chief who has all but eradicated child marriage in his kingdom. All of these interviews are available to read on FORWARD’s website.

There are other things that people can do too. Read about these matters. (You could even try reading my book!) Talk. Get involved with groups like FORWARD and Girls Not Brides. Spread the word that this is an immense problem. I recently met (and will soon be interviewing) an amazing Dutch man who has set up and funded an independent orphanage in Kenya in order to protect and educate children there. Of course not everybody has the means to be so directly involved, and it will be many years before the problem of child marriage is solved, but if we all take note and take action, even a little action, then eventually we will win this war.

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