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“We are making an impact on local communities”

Interview with Mohamed Sheriff. This Story belongs to the Sierra Leone Centre.

By Ginevra Avalle

London, 21st September 2018

Mohamed Sheriff is the President of PEN Sierra Leone, as well as a member of the PEN International’s Board. Born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, he writes short stories, novellas, children’s stories and drama for the stage, radio and television. He has been awarded international prizes such as the ECOWAS Prize for Excellence in Literature for his novella for teenagers Secret Fear. He also produces audio visual material for entertainment and development projects in Sierra Leone.

G.A. What is your role in PEN?

M.S. I am president of the Board of PEN Sierra Leone. At the moment we do not have an executive director, so I work actively in running the Centre, together with the Administrative Manager, who deals with the everyday work of the Centre. I assist in the implementation of projects and giving support and guidance to the Secretariat.

G.A. How did you first hear about PEN and when did you join?

M.S. I heard about PEN International long before I joined, long before a centre was established in my country.  In 2002, the first Executive Secretary of Sierra Leone PEN, Michael Butscher who had had some contacts with some PEN International members took the lead in establishing a PEN Centre in Sierra Leone. The main goal then was to promote literature in various ways and to support writers both collectively and individually. We used to have a national writers association, called Sierra Leone Writers and Illustrators Association, which performed a similar role but had become dormant. The establishment of PEN Sierra Leone gave us an opportunity to bring the writing community together and promote writing and writers. Mike needed my support in reaching out to other writers. After several meetings we established the Sierra Leone centre and in 2003 we were accepted as member of PEN International.

G.A. Who were the founding membres of your Centre?

M.S. Apart from me, the following writers were among the founding members: Mike Butscher who was the first Executive Secretary, Talabi Asie Lucan, a leading female writer who was honorary president, Julius Spencer, a leading dramatist, Nathaniel Pearce, the current Secretary General, Osman Conteh, an international award winning writer, and Esme James among others.

G.A. How many members does your Centre have today?

M.S. Today we have roughly 100 fee-paying members, but we have a longer list of people who signed up to be members but are not very active and regular. These would normally attend important PEN functions like literary evenings and award ceremonies and consider themselves members.

G.A. What are the key moments of the history of your Centre?

M.S. We organised a National Literary Award Ceremony in 2005 to recognise people who had contributed to Literature in Sierra Leone. We gave certificates of recognition to a number of literary figures in the country. We also used the occasion as part of our membership drive. It was the biggest function we had held uptil then. We’ve continued to organise literary competitions and award ceremonies, though not as regularly as we would have loved to because of funding limitations.

In 2007 we launched the PEN School Club Project to promote reading and writing in schools. Starting with just five schools, it has become one of our flagship projects with up to fifty schools actively participating.

G.A. Can you tell me an interesting anecdote about your Centre?

M.S. We produce children books. One of the challenges we’ve had is to produce in large quantities and distribute to as many children as we can. An opportunity came when our ministry of education put out a call for publishers or any interested body to submit a tender to produce six children story books for primary schools, for kids aged one to three, written and illustrated by local writers and illustrators. The funding for the project was coming from the World Bank. They tender called for the production of two million copies and specified that potential bidders should provide evidence of having produced children books with local contents in the past. We were excited; we saw a chance of going big as an association. We saw an opportunity to reach out to two million or more readers. We were among the most qualified if not the most; we knew no other organisation in the country producing children books written and illustrated locally and with local contents. We teamed up with a publishing company outside Sierra Leone to back us up financially. We did a joint tender and got shortlisted together with another organisation. We thought we had in the bag. We started planning what we would do with the money before even having it. We wanted to invest in the Centre, do a bigger library and a bookshop to sell our published books and those by other Sierra Leonean authors and publishers.

But when the result of the bidding was announced, we lost. Thinking back, it was very disappointing, we worked very hard. The book samples we submitted were of excellent standards, tried and true. Our rival competitor in the bidding process had never done books before; they supplied stationary and other office materials to government and other institutions. We knew something wasn’t right; we suspected foul play, but there was nothing we could do. We would have called for a revaluation with a different panel, but the call for tender document stated clearly that the decision of the evaluating body was final. So we lost the opportunity to reach out with our books to what would have been our largest number of readers to date. As the saying goes, don’t count your chickens until they are hatched.

I would like to mention another anecdote. We work with writers of all ages. Among the first set of books we published was one written by a retired manager of a government agency who was 70 years old. He had always wanted to write; he became a member of PEN when he retired and took part in one of our writers training workshops and went on to write a book which we published. By the time we launched the books he had suffered a stroke, but he wouldn’t miss the occasion for anything. He attended the function on a wheel chair with his family to receive his personal copies.

GA. What would you like to see achieved with the Exhibition of the PEN Centenary Archive Collection for your Centre? How would your Centre use it?

M.S. I would like to see it as an opportunity for PEN International as a whole to get to be better known – for the world to know the remarkable things the organisation has achieved in the last 100 years. Also the exhibition should provide an opportunity for PEN to explain to world what the organisation does and how it works at present. We do a great job defending freedom of expression and protecting writers, apart from promoting literature. Every corner of the world must know about this. At present PEN International is still not known around the world as a freedom of expression organisation among other things, as for example, Amnesty International. We need to be known for all the great things we do, because that is going to help PEN gain more recognition around the world and make it more effective in fulfilling its objectives. Our centre would use the exhibition for the same purposes. I think that it would be good if individual Centres had their own celebration of the Centenary of PEN. Doing local events in 2021 would help promote publicity and give PEN more recognition  individual countries.

The exhibition should inspire those centres without archives to start putting materials together for one.

G.A. What can you tell me about you before joining PEN?

M.S.  I am a playwright, novelist, short story and children’s book writer. In addition I am a producer and director of plays for radio, stage and screen. I was fully engaged in all of these activities before joining PEN. I am the artistic/executive director of Pampana Communications. Pampana is an art-based media communication and production establishment. It specializes in the production of short films, documentaries, drama, spots and jingles for radio and TV, community theatre, and posters and other print education and information materials in English and local languages for the purpose of public awareness and dialogue, and information, education and communication for social change. I oversee the design, development, implementation and monitoring and supervision of company’s productions, community mobilization, public awareness campaign and social change projects.

G.A. Why do you think PEN is important?

M.S. PEN International is important because it brings together some of the greatest minds from all over the world, writers and thinkers, to promote, support, advocate and defend some very important causes to help make this world a better place for all humanity, like international cooperation, freedom of expression, support to persecuted writers and the advancement of literature.   By extension our national centre is contributing to these same causes besides addressing our own specific needs and challenges like reviving the culture of reading for pleasure and enlightenment and facilitating the production of more home grown literature.