BISSAU, GUINEA-BISSAU - The Guinea-Bissau Writers Association gathers dozens of people from different backgrounds who share the same goal: to improve the literature of a small West African country with one of the world's lowest literacy rates.
The authors and poets trickle in one by one, to the meeting of minds taking place at a plain-looking educational building. Among them is a dancer. Another is an officer in the country's military.
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Despite their differences, they are all here for the Guinea-Bissau Writers Association's poetry gathering. At these regular meetings, the nearly 40 members come to share their thoughts and help one another hone their craft. Many hope this will, in turn, help develop their country.
But with only a 55 percent literacy rate, it is hard for authors to reach a large audience, say association members.
"The reading community is not that big, so we cannot expect to make money writing books, at least not for a living," said Abdulai Sila, an author and the association's president.
First step: Imagine it
Sila said that despite the challenges, the writers' shared vision of improving their country and forging a national identity through literature keeps them going.
"For someone to be able to fight for something, first of all he needs to be able to imagine it," he said. "One of the tasks of the writers association and the writer is to draw that image that then can be shared by the rest of the citizens. If you are able to imagine something, you can be able to fight for it."
The former Portuguese colony has been plagued by military coups and instability since its independence in 1974. Today it is ranked among the bottom 10 countries on the U.N. Human Development Index. Currently, the country's president and ruling party are locked in a political battle that has left parliament out of session for more than two years and caused stagnation.
Of the 40 members of the group, at least half are poets — a style that meshes well with the region's rich history of oral storytelling. The genre also provides a practical platform for shorter works for those authors who are busy with day jobs.
One of those poets is Manuel da Costa, a major in Guinea-Bissau's army.
Da Costa began writing during the country's fight for independence, and more recently he has also written about drug trafficking in the country. The military officer said the genre allows him to be subjective and leave things open to interpretation. When asked whether he thought that writing about trafficking conflicted with his day job as a member of the military — a branch often implicated in the country's drug underbelly — he said he did not worry about getting into trouble because of poetry's nature.
"Poetry language is subjective. When are you writing, it's only you who knows what you are writing. Anyone who is reading it can have their own interpretation," he said.
Da Costa, as most other poets in the group haved done, chose to write in the country's Portuguese-based Kriol language.
Association member and author Antonio Afonso Te has just published a book focused on how to write in Kriol. He said learning how to write in Kriol and integrating that into the national education program can help develop the country — and its literary scene.
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"Kriol should be introduced for education in Guinea-Bissau, because most people speak Kriol. And another thing that is important is the teachers," Te said, adding that they have more mastery of Kriol than the other languages that they use for teaching.
Whether it's poetry or novels, in Kriol or Portuguese, the writers of this country say they hope they can use their craft to help Guinea-Bissau turn a new page toward improved development.