Sonnets for the Horn of Africa - Part 1

| by Deanna Rodger

Spoken word poet Deanna Rodger was part of a creative team working with young artists from Ethiopia, South Sudan and Sudan on new poems inspired by Shakespeare's sonnets. In part one of our blog Sonnets for Africa, she reflects on her experiences in the first few days of the workshop.

In the last week of April the British Council hosted a unique project in the Horn of Africa as part of Shakespeare Lives, a global celebration of Shakespeare commemorating the 400th anniversary of his death. The programme used Shakespeare’s sonnets as a catalyst to look at the lives and experiences of people living in the UK, Sudan, South Sudan and Ethiopia today. It explored Shakespeare’s language, images and ideas through workshops with spoken word poet Deanna Rodger and facilitators Dan Boyden of Change Collective, and Dan Tsu of Lyrix Organix. Participants from the region came together in Khartoum, creating original poetry and performance pieces that take inspiration from life in the region today and Shakespeare's poetry written over 400 years ago. This culminated in a final performance by the participants in front of a thousand strong audience. The trip has been documented by filmmaker David Fitzpatrick of Broken Toy Films.    



Group Piece by Sonnets for Africa participants


I am the golden ancient victory

I am made of many jigsaw pieces

the drop of rain that never met the sea

I am the paradox, desolated ­

and integrated at the same time.

I stand so tall and speak my mind with pride

‘Africa the birth place of all mankind!’

Once depressed now I have no need to hide.

I am seeking to give back, it’s my call

I have come further than education

A soul humanising skinned vehicles

I am peace of this current moment

I am currently a human being

I am a professional human being


‘Air My Breath: The Poet’s Story’

By Deanna Rodger 


Here we are then! Fitzy and I have got three days to meet, greet and generate some poems before Dan and Dan (Tsu and Boyden) arrive.


Just the Queen’s Birthday Party. We meet Mustafa Khogali at Acropole (our marvellous home away from home). Mustafa is Director of programmes and partnerships at British Council Sudan. He is also a brilliant drummer and poet and takes us on a quick look around of Khartoum before we make our way to the British Embassy.

The British Embassy is a world in itself, filled with a whole host of interesting looking people. Fitzy and I begin to break the ice, encouraging guests to read a line of Sonnet 18 to camera. After an hour or so it’s my time to take the stage - I perform ‘To Taliesin’ a self penned poem inspired by the nature of earth, and Shakespeare’s own Sonnet 18, after all it is his anniversary as well!



As usual I’m over-thinking the workshop plan; ‘begin with’, ‘say this’, ‘don’t do that’. Earlier in the day, Fitzy and I had taken a cab to Omdurman Market. Strolling around in the sun, getting lost and rediscovering familiarity had been grounding and calming.

Suddenly, they’ve arrived, they are downstairs. Oh gosh! Am I ready? Ok yes go now, go say hello!

Names gently thrown, my mind kicks into gear. Here we are in Khartoum, Sudan - us from UK, they from Ethiopia. 7 names committed to memory. We are similar in age, we are full of energy, we are excited and focused. We are so lucky!

Arriving at the space, the Sudanese group are there. I’m brimming with excitement - here we go, here we go! Perform a poem, state the theme “How identity changes with time’, generate group poems, watch them perform. Write, write, write. CELEBRATE. African Voices - what a collective! 

9I2A0014 Deanna Blog 2 web


We have a few new group members to represent South Sudan. Testament to the collective for a seamless expansion.

Jump start stop clap, warm up. Not too much movement - it is already pretty warm - just enough to reawaken us. The sessions are 4-8pm. A whole day has been lived before entering the space. Some have college, others work and despite this we are all here.

So ‘Sonnets! What on earth!?’ is the title I wrote on my plan. I am very excited about this part of the workshop. Sonnets have a particular structure which lends itself beautifully to forming and expressing opinions. Asides from the rhyme scheme (ababcdcdefefegg) and the iambic pentameter (di-dum di-dum di-dum di-dum di-dum), Sonnets are written in four parts.

1st four lines = idea, 2nd four lines = idea expansion, 3rd four lines = volta (a twist), final two lines = resolution.

I have an idea to create united sonnets.

- Think of 7 words and a rhyming partner for each e.g. ‘illusion’ and ‘resolution’

- 10 minutes and 14 Post-its each, to write a line which ends with each word e.g. ‘the blue sky is a giant illusion’ or ‘the clock’s movement is our resolution’

- Go shopping! Following the rhyme scheme, browse all the lines that have been written by the groups and patch together a form of sonnet.

- If you love it, work on it!

Bizarre and effective - we are three pieces in.

For homework I ask, ‘in 140 syllables, if you could change one thing in this world, what would it be, why, what would prevent this and how would it be resolved?’

Deanna Blog 3 web


‘How Old Is Africa?’ Keen to explore the continent, and using ‘All the Worlds a Stage’ as inspiration, we highlight all the milestones of a human ageing. We then list various points of Africa’s history. Independently the group are asked to explore their own thoughts on Africa’s age and life so far. The results are outstanding!

After three days we have a body of work, grown and nurtured within the space, honoured and considered and brilliant. A festival’s worth of poems to share - but we only have three hours of show time… We make a list of all we have with the aim of developing the pieces we love, thinking about what we would like to share with Dan and Dan when they arrive tomorrow.

We celebrate our creative selves and space, and together sing a delightful song: ‘Air my breath and fire my spirit, earth my body, water my blood’.

Tomorrow we are ready to take shape…


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4



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