Former Liberian child soldier writes biography, with focus on immigration and asylum system in the UK
Article and interview taken from Foreigners in UK’s fortnightly newspaper for the African and Afro-Caribbean community: The AfroNews
25 March 2011: We normally proudly display faces of the people whose stories capture our attention and deserve to grace the cover of our newspaper.
For the first time, we are publishing a cover story without fully displaying the face of the featured person. We are doing so because we respect and would like to help protect the life of Mr. Joseph Spencer, a failed asylum seeker in the UK who has an extraordinary story to share with the world. He is currently living in destitution.
Joseph says that the beginning of his life of unbearable uncertainty was on that fateful day in 1990, when he was only ten years old, living in Monrovia, Liberia. Some gunmen attacked the villagers and took children away with them. Joseph and his twin brother John were also taken away.
“A couple of weeks later, my life had changed in almost unbelievable fashion. I was no longer a child but a man in a deadly game of war. We were toughened up through military trainings, and were made to realize we were in a battlefield between life and death, and taught how to assemble and dissemble AK-47 machine gun in a very short time, and how to use different kinds of guns in different shapes and sizes. But those of us whose hands were not strong enough were given a shorter, lighter gun, with pieces of cloths around our palm and taught how to maim and kill whoever we felt was the enemy,” Joseph recalls.
He later on managed to escape and went through some African countries before finally reaching the UK in 1998.
Joseph hides his face because he fears for his life. “I do not want to reveal my face to the Liberian warlord government due to my political activism against the warlords’ regime,” he says.
The former child soldier says he learnt to hide his face after discovering that “Liberian activists are prone to suffer the popular fate of being killed wherever they may live.”
Even though Joseph lives in the UK, he doesn’t feel safe without hiding his face from the public.
Having been a child soldier and experienced what child soldiers undergo, Joseph has been actively involved in the campaigns raising global awareness of the plight of child soldiers.
He is currently advocating for the establishment of a war crimes Court in Liberia, convinced that many senior officials of the Liberian Government are warlords. “They are refusing to obey the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that was apparently set up in-replacement of a war crimes court.”
Now that the TRC report says that there should be a war crimes court instead, Joseph says that these senior government officials should resign and be prosecuted.
But they don’t seem ready to do that. They “continue stealing and corrupting the system,” Joseph says.
Joseph reveals that he has had a terrible experience with the Home Office and the UK’s legal system.
He has in fact written his biography, a fascinating story revealing in detail how he has suffered under the hands of some officials and how the justice system has denied him justice.
The manuscript is ready, but since Joseph is a failed asylum seeker, he is not authorised to engage in any paid work, so he can’t raise the £950 needed to professionally edit and proof-read his manuscript before looking for a publisher.
We hope that this manuscript will find its way to the bookshelves so that it can contribute to the debate about asylum system in the UK and shed more light on the fate of child soldiers.
Reading Joseph’s story will certainly leave the public wondering why a person who has gone through a similar experience should be denied asylum in the UK and forced to live in destitution.
Here’s the interview Joseph granted The AfroNews.
Drama of life spent from one calamity to another
If you’ve known or met with the mysterious activist with a hat that hides his face from public on Facebook, you won’t be fooled by his gruffly manner, scruffy stubble and imposing defiant outlook.
Mr. Joseph Spencer has long been dangling under the UK-system, as one of those many migrants widely talked about.
When I met the 30 year old man, we both thought it ironic that despite being a descendant of the freed American slaves residing in Liberia before the Liberia war of 1989, he now spoke in a completely different accent.
“I fled Liberia in 1993 when I was twelve years old,” explains Joseph, shivering at the memory; “I arrived in UK from Africa in 1998, when I saw the opportunity to escape from Liberia and its problems,” he says with a British twang.
Joseph is a former child soldier and a political activist who has a firm stance with the UK Border Agency. He is one of an astonishing number of people who are failed asylum-seekers in the UK. It is a scenario reminiscent of Paul Mazursky’s film, “Moscow on the Hudson”, cast in 1984, which starred Robin Williams, as a Russian sax player, whose home life does not compensate for his feelings of repression and lost opportunity in his native land. Upon his arrival in America, he suddenly announces his intention to defect, where he begins to make the slow and sometimes painful transition from Russian to American citizen.
However, what is happening in the life of Joseph is not the stuff of Hollywood fiction. The fact is that he feels his situation has been raped by the UK immigration system. He tries to make plans for the future, but that’s difficult when you have next to nothing and live rough. Yet most of the time, he tries to portray to the outside world he’s happy. “I don’t really see a different future,” Joseph admits, slowly and in a quiet voice. “I try to count my blessings. I don’t do drugs, I don’t do alcohol, I don’t smoke, and I don’t have any mental problems. I am not down and out, yet. In fact, I could be living like this forever.”
In this interview, made by Baba Ajay he shares with us how he’s been getting on with writing his story for publication.
Joseph, what prompted you to write your story?
For me, the effect was therapeutic, as a catharsis or healing for myself. Most importantly, I see writing my story, as a good way to set the record straight. I’ve heard rumours abound about certain events that I was involved in, which can be really upsetting. But, this is my own version of the truth.
What did you write?
I picked incidents that stand out. It is the high and low points in my life that I recorded.
How did you manage to do it?
One most important early decision I learnt in my writing course was to work out if my book is going to be written in the first person. As a would-be-writer, you might tire of talking about ‘I, me and mine’ instead of describing yourself in the third person. But I compromised a lot and quote myself, especially when I want to make it personal. The good thing about this book was that I did not need to start at the beginning of my life and go through events chronologically. I did that on my original journal, which only makes the story boring to read with no much suspense to it.
By enrolling on a ‘Writers Bureau’ comprehensive writing course on ‘Writing a Biography’, I was able to learn the professional know-how knowledge of how to list the anecdotes I want to tell, which enabled me to set out some chapter headings. By doing this, I realised how easy it provided me how to structure my work and past events.
I then went on to focus on the periods and events that I wanted to write about on each chapter. I then broke the chapters down into sections. In each section, I made notes to remind me when I was going to tell certain anecdotes, which created the detailed plan that in effect made my story come together much faster.
What’s the scope of your book?
My biography would probably benefit from a focus on immigration and asylum. For ordinary readers, it could be a drama of life spent from one calamity to another. For co-writers and publishers, it could be a life in some particular setting. But I weaved my experiences of a lifetime into a story that only seems to cover a part of my life, which are the moments of unbearable uncertainty that’s still lurked somewhere in my life. Also, I limited the scope of my book to avoid opening certain people’s bad habits in the open. I also thought carefully hard about how best to cast my characters to avoid easy identification of these people. I also tried as much as I could to limit the numbers of people I included, and to focus on the key ones. And that makes my story fit in what most people would want to read, you know.
How did you jog between your African and English characters?
In my thirteen years in the UK, I think I’m qualified to know that the English can be sometimes physically discomfortable at expressing their own feelings. But the Africans, especially West Africans, where I based some of my characters can be very abrupt and confrontational. But I think that is what people would want to read to work out the differences in people, and how our individual communities shaped who we are.
How did you feel when describing these characters in your writing?
This is my story, remember, and I think I’m allowed to speculate how others felt. But I was just very careful that I did not start blaming people, as they might take offence or even sue me, if they are still alive.
I learnt in my writing course that, as a writer, you could say almost anything you like about the dear departed, as they cannot be libelled. And also to be careful not to overdo things in order not to lose the sympathy of your readers, if you come across as a ‘Know-it-all’ character, you know.
In my ‘Writers Bureau’ course, I learnt readers are much more sympathetic to a narrator who is accident-prone and tell tales against themselves. Perhaps, my story would come out to many, as the time to own up to the mystery of the broken window in our legal system, or part of our legal system that seems to be really confusing to understand, unless you go through knowing the system in and out yourself to make your own understandings of it.
What did you learn about the system?
I was forced to make the agonising decision to claim asylum, which created a life and death situation for me. And is still is. If you strongly felt something about something; you should express it like never before. It’s the fallout with the UK Home Office and the Tribunal Court of appeal from my personal experience in the immigration system that drives me to my emotional climax, hence my story to the world to be the judge.
Are you not bothered that most readers could hate some people in your story, because they care about what happens to you?
I don’t really see it that way though. In fact, I even tried to limit the number of lines to portray those certain characters’ essence. I knew if I go into too many details, like I did in my original journal, the pattern of this book would be smudged. If you feel your situation has been raped by a system, then say so, with a concept whose truth can be easily proven. It would provide a clear image against which readers can judge future actions. And it goes without saying that, writing style is a personal matter I learnt beyond the scope of a writing course, but I found it improve once I tried to put myself into my character’s shoes, to see myself through them.
What’s the title of this book in question?
Life of Unbearable Uncertainty
How long is this book?
It’s about 675 pages, 125,000 words, and in 6 x 9 book size.
How long did it take you to write this enormous book?
Well, it took me a long time to write. What started out as a journal, documenting my past experiences down, turned into four-years rewriting and editing publishing material. It was hard work, especially having to come to terms and account to those grim mistakes I made in my life that is now haunting my existence, like bad cholesterol count. In the early stages it was possible to write, ‘as and when’. But putting the story together to make a book took many months of concentrated overnight work. But, looking back now, the end product has made the whole project worthwhile.
Do you have a publishing contract in place and when will the book be published?
Well, due to my current situation with the Home Office and not allowed to engage in any paid work, I’m finding it difficult to raise the £950 needed to professionally edit and proof-read my manuscript, before any publisher could consider to want to have a look in and take it on.
To my knowledge, publishers have this no-nonsense habit of not looking at materials that still have all those little annoying grammatical errors you can find in any unpublished material out there. And it would be a waste of time sending such work to them. I am still working hard to get the funds from well-wishers to professionally proofread my work. And then sort out a publishing contract afterward.
What advice would you give to anyone who would like to write and publish their story?
Please, don’t leave it to luck. Enrol on a writing course to guide you to best write your story. Or perhaps request the help of a qualified ghost-writer to help you tell your story. The job of a ghost-writer is to simply record what you tell them to write, and how you say it. So the ghost-writer isn’t really doing anything besides writing your book for you. In fact, some of the best authors in the world use ghost-writers.
Personally, when I write, I can’t stand the idea of someone else having a hand in it. I have to write it myself, and then contract a proof-reader to help purge out all the little tiny grammatical mistakes. I won’t advise having someone else write a biography, as it loses an aspect of originality. But if you don’t have the time, then I would honestly advise you to contract a qualified Ghost-writer.