Although I am a science fiction writer (as well as clinical psychologist), November 2020 still felt slightly surreal, as I prepared and delivered a series of writing workshops over five consecutive days, Monday to Friday, via a Zoom projection across 6 000 miles – from London to Cape Town. The workshops were for five smaller classes (broken down and socially distanced) of the “bridging year” group from the South African Environment Project (SAEP). The whole experience felt – well, positively science fictional!
The bridging year of the SAEP consists of township students who had failed to achieve their tertiary educational goals after leaving (usually severely under-resourced) schools – and the bridging year curriculum provides a way of salvaging and supporting their educational goals. Under Covid-19 restrictions, class sizes were reduced to five classes of 10 socially distanced learners, 50 in total across the week.
As reported in the SAEP’s annual general meeting on 15 May 2021: “Dr Nick Wood, a past volunteer and now a clinical psychologist and author based in London, ended the year with a series of virtual creative writing workshops on the theme of ‘Facing Covid’. The focus was on telling stories (both fact and fiction) to help students cope better and imagine a future when Covid is gone, or everyone is vaccinated.”
However, I was wary of imposing an agenda from the outset, so I focused on initially eliciting the spontaneous and current stories of workshop participants around Covid-19.
Nosisa Mhlathi and Andile Ngoko were the SAEP co-ordinators responsible for containing and facilitating activities throughout the morning. Their expertise was central to the success of the workshops, and especially during initial activities, when many familial stories of hardships and distress were shared. We focused on what had enabled them to survive too, in a bid to emphasise and share stories of resilience – as well as mutualising strategies for survival.
The creative writing section of the workshops was framed with an outline of “What is a story?” and how to start making one up yourself. I started with fun warm-up writing exercises (“Imagine you are an animal and try to write an account as if you were that animal, without naming it!”) and then I introduced the notion of African speculative fiction (SF).
African SF has been booming for the better part of the last decade and has been variously named, but is commonly termed African Futurism (this is Nnedi Okorafor’s term; Nnedi is the Naija Queen of African SF).
As we moved towards the end of the morning, participants were asked to create their own African SF short story based on depicting a near-future, post-Covid South Africa, when (for a specified reason) the world has become a better place.
Nerine Dorman, the South African lead for the African Speculative Fiction Society, kindly judged the stories written and submitted to Nosisa Mhlathi. The winner’s story? Inga Sengo, on the new robot police, ensuring a safer environment for all women in South Africa.
The community and social psychology (CaSP) division of the Psychological Society of South Africa is thankfully acknowledged for their seed grant – funds went towards workshop materials, books, writing equipment and internet costs. Furthermore, there were cash prizes for the top four judged entries, along with award certificates.
From all accounts this was a success. I have been asked to repeat this later this year, but Nosisa and Andile proved so good with this, I am sure to be phased out in due course! Unless a robot teacher gets to replace me first?
Entries are now open for the 2021 CaSP Seed Grant Competition