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49 stories, 21 countries, 1 book


Celebrating 70 years of the Commonwealth through the eyes of older people

CommonAge, the Commonwealth affiliated Association for the Ageing is celebrating 70 years of the Commonwealth with the launch of its unique book created as a result of its Story Telling project. Launched in 2017, the project was run in the form of a writing book cover scan hi rescompetition, and encouraged young people to spend time talking with an older person about their life, and then write about their experiences.

Described in a recent review in the United Nation’s International Institute of Ageing journal as ‘a unique addition to the body of knowledge in the field of ageing’, A Common Wealth of Experience: Freedom fighters, child brides and other untold real life stories includes 49 life stories of people aged between 73 and 101 as written by young people.

The book takes readers on an exciting journey across 21 countries, where they learn about natural disasters and wars, cultural influences and other life events that have shaped people’s lives.

“These stories are privileged insights into personally endured experiences over the last 70 to 100 years,” says Dr Ingrid Eyers, co-editor of the book. “It is interesting to see how the importance of education and family feature strongly in many of the stories.”

The storytellers themselves come from a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures. Stories from Africa include Malawian Felistas Muhame describing dancing for rain, from Cameroon, Nini Mary Gha-ah tells of living with the stigma of infertility, while 96-year-old South African Senmathie Pillay explains how she harboured political activists such as Billy Nair.

From Asia, Sri Lankan Mr Laurence de Seram describes his tenacity for education despite coming from a poor background. Dr Ahmad Shamsul Islam from India tells his young author of his love for botany and how he survived a bombing in WWII. In Bangladesh, there are freedom fighters and child brides, while in Barbados, the renowned cricketing legend Sir Everton Weekes tells of the challenges of overcoming racism, Mrs Ada Straughan is described as a ‘visionary nation builder’ and Dame Maizie Barker-Welch as an original trailblazer for women’s rights.

Meanwhile from the UK, 94-year-old Margaret Phillips tells 24-year-old Hollie Lockhart about finding love, living and working in WWII and travelling as an Air Force wife in the post-war years.

Reducing ageist attitudes

As part of the submission process, young authors wrote about what they had personally gained from the conversations, and the responses show the life stories made a significant impression, with several saying they had gained a new respect for the older generation.

Two 16-year-old authors from Cyprus said hearing the life story altered their view on society and its flaws.

A young Maltese author commented on how much more she now appreciated that today Malta is at peace, she has a roof over her head and has food to eat. If it hadn’t been for the sacrifices of people like the older person she spoke to, history and our lives would have been very different she says.

An Australian writer commented on how much she’d learned. “I have gained more knowledge regarding my country, including the names of the many places that June had visited. Throughout writing this story, June and I spoke about each of our lives. It was intriguing to learn about June’s generation and how different it was to mine. During this conversation, I realised that there is so much more for me to learn and discover.”

In Uganda, a writer noted, “Having listened to the story of Mrs Ddangana, I have learned to be a hard working person because there is no gain in simple life.”

An Indian writer spoke to an older lady living with dementia. He compassionately explained that, while his storyteller didn’t remember her life events and fails to recall daily information, as a music lover, she spoke about the many varieties of classical, folk, modern songs and the much loved songs of Tagore.

After talking to Margaret, Hollie philosophically said the most important thing she came away with was she could see Margaret’s point of view. “If you understand why people think the way they do, it gives you a whole new perspective of why people place value on certain things and why they make the decisions they do.”

Annie Waddington-Feather, co-editor also points out, an unexpected aspect of the book is personal details of historical Commonwealth events have been recorded for generations to come.

The editors also highlight that for many authors, English is not their first language; each story has its own very individual style and reflects the personalities and culture of the authors and storytellers.

“We have respected these aspects and have kept editorial changes to an absolute minimum,” they say. “We have been moved to tears reading some of these stories and we sincerely hope readers enjoy reading the stories as much as we have done.”

The book is available to download free of charge on the Commonage website


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