For author James Page, helping Congolese-born Sagamba Muhira tell his experience of fleeing war and ethnic violence is about recognising every refugee who arrives in Australia has a personal story.
Their short story ‘Out of Africa’ was recently announced as the joint winner in the prestigious national Banjo Paterson Writing Awards, bringing them a step closer to their goal of publishing the book-length version of the winning story next year.
Dr Page, a Southern Cross University alumnus and an Australian educationist, has been working with former Congolese refugee and now Australian citizen, Sagamba Muhira, to tell the story of his journey from war and devastating ethnic violence in the Congo, and his arrival in Australia as a refugee with his sister in 2011.
Their piece was a named joint winner of the Short Story Section of the national award, alongside ‘Laughing like Children’ written by Carmel Lillis, of Yarraville, Victoria. Two other award categories included Contemporary Poetry and the ABC Radio Children’s Awards.
The Banjo Paterson Writing Awards commemorate the legacy of Australian writer and journalist Andrew Barton Paterson (1864-1941), otherwise known as Banjo Paterson.
The competition judge, author Kim Kelly, wrote in her comments on the winning entry: “the narrator’s steady, gentle voice takes the readers into the beauty and plenty of Sagamba’s homeland, but as his story unfolds within the carefully crafted, sparse prose, readers are given just enough political and geographical information to make sense of the senseless: a vicious eruption of hatred that results in his legs being broken and all of his family killed – apart from his sister.”
“Throughout, the narrator’s steadiness and gentleness remain. His reunion with his sister is as simply, directly told as all other events in the story, avoiding all emotionalism where no emotion can adequately describe what it must have felt like in reality to lose everything, and to live in such ceaseless fear. Equally poignant in simplicity is the narrator’s eventual arrival in Australia, where he is ‘safe and free’, and where he now has ‘a wonderful wife and two beautiful children’,” Ms Kelly said.
Co-author Dr Page says that the story functions as a memoir, but also part of a wider ethnographic project aimed at retelling refugee experience through a personal lens.
“More than ever before, we now have a wider ethical responsibility not just to refugees but to all those countries where there is conflict. We live in a global society, and caring for others is both a moral and practical imperative,” he said.
For the co-authors, the story has been a decade in the making.
“I first became involved with Sagamba through the Romero Refugee Centre in Brisbane, and we’ve met up many times since then to write this story together. It’s been a long-term project and we’ve come to know each other well,” he said.
“We are both very pleased to receive this award for something we’ve been working on for so long together. Writing about very difficult experiences in itself can be very challenging, and it’s a huge responsibility to help someone tell their story, but one of things Sagamba and I wanted to do was not only focus on the violent aspects of the Congo, but the positive aspects as well.”
Dr Page is an Australian educationist and anthropologist, and a recognized authority within the field of peace education. He completed his PhD in peace education in 2006 at Southern Cross University, and was a tutor from 2002 – 2006, teaching within ‘Peace, War and International Politics’, a social science unit offered in five of the University’s undergraduate degrees.
Dr Page said that the next major challenge was to complete the final editing of the full-length version of the book, set to be released in 2022. The working title of the full-length book is ‘When Elephants Fight’, from the Congolese saying ‘When elephants fight the grass gets flattened’. The flattened grass in this case are the innocent people killed and injured in war.
A link to the award-winning short story version titled ‘Out of Africa’ can be accessed here: http://www.cwl.nsw.gov.au/2021/07/31/banjo-paterson-writing-award-winners-3/
Media contact: Jessica Nelson 0417288794 or firstname.lastname@example.org