by Helen Savage, Heritage Officer
Alo-Wa was a black women’s Oral History group in Southwark, they formed in January 1990 and ran until 1991. Members of the group were seven women in total, all from African and Caribbean descent, and all living and working in Southwark at the time. They were based at the Southwark Women’s Centre, 2-8 Peckham High Street.
At Southwark Archives, we first came across the group through a selection of photographs from the Phil Polgaze collection. These photographs document a writer’s workshop specifically for black women, taking place during Black History Month in 1991, where some of the Alo-Wa group attended.
We have been able to speak to two members who were part of the group, Marion Desouza and Gillian Walters, to find out more about the group’s history and activity. The story of Alo-Wa begins with the Southwark Women’s Centre, 2-8 Peckham High Street. Women who formed the group were attending the centre, and were already acquainted with one another.
Alo-Wa formed through an invitation from Wendy Francis. Francis was employed by the Willowbrook Urban Studies Centre in Peckham specifically to carry out oral histories. She had heard about the women’s centre, and went down to invite black women to form a new oral history group. The Willowbrook Urban Studies Centre was a community education project based in Southwark who worked with schools and adult groups to reflect on changes and issues in the borough. The centre was located 48, Willowbrook Road, Peckham.
The group started by meeting once a week on a Sunday, coming together at the Women’s Centre where they would share food, and look at the inspirational stories of women such as Mary Seacole, Claudia Jones and Nanny Maroon. When they began to turn to their own stories, they started to use a tape recorder to document their conversations. Marion said, “Wendy was good; she got us to tape everything. It was a good time in our lives.”
ALO-WA’s name comes from the Yoruba term for Our Story. The name of the group sets an expectation for a collective form of storytelling. The group’s main aim was for “self-appreciation and appreciation of others, self-understanding and understanding of others”[i]
During the sessions, they asked questions about one another’s families, and Gillian said it was much about understanding parent’s stories, in order to understand their own. Gillian remembered that a point of inspiration for her was how Lillian had taped her father before he died:
“Her father was of African heritage and came here when he was 19; that was also quite an interesting aspect. The majority of us had Caribbean parents. That was a tie in regards to looking at things to help us understand each other differently. Some of us were from different islands. Therefore, that also incorporated our understanding of people’s experiences and expectations.”
Some of the questions they asked were documented in a book they went on to publish called Our Story (1991).
The Alo-Wa group existed in a wider context of woman’s activity. The international women’s liberation movement of the 60s, which went on well into the 70s and 80s, brought direct attention to women’s histories, and women’s lives.
Marion Desouza was the Afro-Caribbean worker at Southwark Women’s Centre from 1990- 1992, where the Alo-Wa group met. At the Women’s Centre, Marion carried out various sessions to encourage women to get together and discuss women’s issues regarding sexuality, race, and offence. Marion told me it was a very inclusive space. There was also assistance to help women gain access to housing, benefits and pregnancy testing.
The Southwark Women’s Centre was the result of active work during the women’s movement. It was set up through the Southwark Women’s Actions Group linking up with the Southwark Women’s Equality Unit to find premises. A local housing association had four empty commercial units on Peckham High Street, and they said it could be used for the Women’s Centre. This created a very accessible space for women to drop in, whether that be on the way home for work, or, as it was a child friendly location, during the daytime. Alo-Wa’ s Gillian said that she would head there in-between work shifts and that Southwark Women’s Centre allowed her a place to rest, relax and be amongst other women to talk.
Alo-Wa produced Our Story in 1991. They had a book launch, attended by Harriet Harman and the South London Press and, it took place during Black History Month 1991. To produce the book, Wendy Francis ran writing skills workshops for the women, and worked with them as an editor during the project.
During the project, the group applied for external funding which they received and put towards the cost of producing a book to document the group’s activity, and tell stories through writing. In both conversations with Marion and Gillian, they stressed to me that the oral aspect of the project, the live moment of the storytelling and the interactions and relationships that grew within the group, was though the real work and activity:
“We came from a place of being able to verbally say these things, and now you are asking us to write them down and put them in a book. When we spoke to Wendy afterwards, this is about us maturing as people and we stepped into an area that we had some understanding of, Lilian had a small understanding. The rest of us possibly had none. It was about putting it down on paper, in a way that can be visualised by other people. When you tell a story, when you tell a good story the person is having a visual experience of when they read the words. We had never done that, we always used our voices.”
The women went to Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden, where they were shown how to use computer software to work out the layout and graphics for a book. After this, they discovered that Southwark had its own printers, and this is where they did the printing for the book. They were shown around behind the scenes and learnt about the paper, grades and ink, and able to see the printing process in action.
During the conversations with Marion and Gillian, they both stressed that the relationships have been long lasting, and that a few of them have managed to stay in touch across the years. This seems like a testament to the group’s activities. Gillian said:
“It would be interesting for all of us to be coming together again. However, would it be that people would wish to be in the format together again, and what would we be discussing? The thing about it is, life goes on. The truth of it is, it was a fantastic experience.”
During the few years in which the group was active, they also worked with the well-known social historian Anna Davin, were interviewed for a BBC radio show by, Nerys Hughes, a copy of which we are still trying to track down. They worked closely with Jackie Holder, from the Willowbrook Urban Studies Centre and alongside others Brenda Ellis, the LGBT worker at the Women’s Centre, Nashmin Sukasad, and Madhu Patel – both at Southwark Women’s Centre. They also worked with Peckham Black Women’s Centre located at 69 Bellenden Road.
At Southwark Archives, we are in the process of digitising a booklet containing texts the group used to inform their autobiographical writing, which may have influenced the writing in Our Story.
Southwark Archives are facilitating a creative writing session on Tuesday 5 October 2021 as part of the Poets in the Archives series, taking inspiration from Our Story.
[i] Our Story, Introduction