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Joanna Skelt

It is with great sadness that the Department of African Studies and Anthropology (DASA) announces the loss of Jo Skelt, a colleague, poet, and friend. Full of life until the very end, Jo lost a brief fight against recurring cancer. Her family was with her when she passed away in Birmingham on 31 January 2018.

Jo joined DASA as a PhD student interested in literature and reconciliation in post-war Sierra Leone. Supervised by Stewart Brown and Reginald Cline-Cole, she completed her PhD on ‘The Social Function of Writing in Post-War Sierra Leone’ in 2014. After her PhD, Jo worked as a Research Associate in the Institute for Applied Health before returning to DASA in 2016 as a Teaching Fellow in African Studies and Anthropology. In her role as a Teaching Fellow, Jo stood out as a colleague who brought a huge amount of energy and optimism to her work. Her vitality, which characterised both her teaching and her engagement with others, helped make the Department a better place. 

Jo was not only an enthusiastic scholar of literature and poetry but also a poet herself, and in 2013-14 she was the Birmingham Poet Laureate. On selecting her, the panel described her as a passionate and thoughtful poet with a love of place, whose writing blended the personal with the social.  Jo brought this passion and creativity to her teaching in DASA and the School of History and Cultures more generally, where she also encouraged many students to develop their own creative writing skills.

Jo will be greatly missed by her family, but also by her many friends in the UK, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere, as well as by her colleagues and students at the University of Birmingham. 

It's so very sad to hear this. Jo was so much alive. When she performed her poetry she was like a flame leaping up.  I think that vitality and creativity will live on in her Sierra Leone book, her poems and in all of our memories of her. 

Jo brought her unique combination of passion and pragmatism both to the classroom and to everyday interactions with friends, colleagues and students. She was a force for good, and the department will be a different place without her. I will especially miss her talent for meaningful conversation, because it was founded on her conviction that the right word can both illuminate and re-conceive life. This is of course true:, and Jo's description of Birmingham as a 'hot-potch city as if built by scattered lego blocks’ is the perfect example.

Jo chose a creative life. She found purpose in engaging with the world as a creative being. In doing so she elicited creativity from others and reminded them of their own humanity, whether they lived in hardship or privilege, and whether she encountered them in their moments of pride, joy, grief, despair or delight.

Sometimes life smiled back at Jo, and she received praise, recognition and resources for her work. At other times, she encountered obstacles. But Jo did not bend easily to anyone else’s agenda. She knew the difference between moving targets and real purpose. She also knew her own worth and the value of her closest relationships. This gave her great dignity in the face of a terrible struggle.

Thank you, Jo, for choosing the creative life and for living it so well.

Jo was so very much alive. I will always remember the joy she brought to our 2009 Cadbury event, 'Ohun Titun: New Directions in African and Caribbean Writing', and the passionate beliefs and feelings she brought to everything she did. She will be so much missed, but like all bright shooting stars her traces will be with us for many more moons.

My husband, daughter and I met Jo and her beautiful daughter, Konya, on holiday in Bulgaria last summer, on a day trip no less and as we all got on so well (even in such a short space of time), we planned to meet up in Birmingham in November. We were all devastated when Jo emailed me with the news that the cancer had returned and so sad that we couldn’t meet up again.

Jo (and Konya) had made such an impact on us, we all just clicked....the conversations we had about the history and culture in Nessebar were great...all of us laughing, dancing and enjoying the traditional Bulgarian evening still remain in our memories too....Konya and our daughter, roughly the same age, developed a lovely friendship too that Neve will never forget either...

God bless you Jo....we will always remember you...big hug Konya...

I first met Jo at Centre for West African Studies, University of Birmingham as PhD students and we quickly became firm friends. While starting her doctoral studies Jo was writing poetry and running her own NGO with irrepressible enthusiasm and energy that I was soon to recognise as a characteristic trait of hers. To describe all the projects and initiatives that Jo started or became involved in during our friendship would take many pages. She worked in schools, organised arts events, took up the saxophone and played in bands, wrote poetry, worked for publishers in West Africa all while finishing her studies, teaching and researching.

Jo had an urgent desire to engage with the world and a resilience to follow that engagement through.  Once Jo had committed to something she did it with good grace and humor whatever the challenges. This engagement with the world was expressed through many forms of creativity, be that music, writing or painting. Her spirit, passion and joy for life were infectious. Meeting up with Jo invariable left you feeling that life was full of opportunities to be grasped and enjoyment to be squeezed out of every venture.

Jo was someone who drained every drop of life from every experience even while she was ill. She was indefatigable in seeking to experience as much as possible of life. I was last in touch with Jo a week before her death and she was still playing the saxophone, had joined a choir and was writing to reflect on her experience of cancer.

Her words and the indelible imprint she has left on so many lives shall live on. Jo, thank you for sharing your creativity, kindness and wonder at life with us.

I am so shocked and saddened by this news. I met Joanna when we were sharing a house at Nottingham University. We met over a cup of tea and became instant friends. We laughed, we disputed, we drank, she smoked and we pulled apart the world and built it anew.

I haven't seen her for too many years. A spark has left the world. So sad that you have left so soon amazing woman. You will leave a large hole.


As others have already said, Jo was so full of vitality – it stands out to me as perhaps her defining characteristic. I first knew Jo when we were both doing our PhDs at DASA (then CWAS) and it was a real joy to me when Jo returned to DASA as a Teaching Fellow and I had a chance to get to know her better.  

Jo brought a lot to DASA: not only her poetry, her research on Sierra Leone, her experience of life in West Africa, her connections with NGOs and communities in Birmingham and beyond, and her love of the written and spoken word, but also a kind of wisdom, experience of the world and ability to see things in perspective that I know her students valued, and that I personally found deeply reassuring. She was utterly unique in that way; it felt to me as if she had a special warm strength to her that was almost tangible. As well as being loads of fun to be around – she had a brilliant laugh and a no-nonsense approach to life – so often, she took time out of her busy day to give me wise advice, and to listen to me with a non-judgmental perspective and plenty of good humour. Even when she was seriously ill, she still made time to ask me about my life and to give me the benefit of her experience and advice. I am sure she did exactly the same for many others, too. I loved hearing stories of her varied and full life which stretched far, far beyond the walls of the university, all around the world, and I only wish there had been more time to hear more. 

When Jo came to teach at DASA she was determined to encourage and develop creativity. She went above and beyond to organise class trips and guest speakers for the first year course on African cultures that we co-taught, so that our students could experience African arts and culture first-hand. On both of the trips I accompanied her on, she either brought friends with her or bumped into friends by chance, which I'd imagine was typical of how good she was at making connections and drawing people into her life.  

While teaching at DASA, Jo set up a creative writing group that anyone was welcome to join, no matter how experienced or inexperienced they were. Through this, I gained a new sense of Jo’s particular perspective on life: she encouraged us to see the world as something alive, to pay attention to every moment, and to find joy in nature, the seasons and our senses. As well as nurturing our group’s creativity, and finding an encouraging word to say about anything anyone had written, Jo’s emphasis on being alive to the wonder of the world, both natural and man-made, made an enormous difference to me at a time when I really needed it.

Karin used the metaphor of a flame to describe Jo and I think this is completely apt; it describes both Jo’s poetry and her approach to life, which were both so alive and so strong, and the way she brought warmth and light to those who encountered her, while being unafraid to stand firm and true to what she believed in. Thank you, Jo.  

I met Jo at the beach in Freetown Sierra Leone. She was a fast swimmer. She was an extrovert and so do I. Therefore, it was easy for us to connect. We became friends and she stayed with me at my house in Freetown, Sierra Leone on her next visit. She used to begin her day by playing her saxophone in the morning. She left for Ghana where she met Joe. She called me from Ghana and shared her experiences with me. She was blessed with Konya whom she named after the war in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone was just emerging from war when Jo started visiting. Her loved for Sierra Leone never stopped her from going there even with the fear of danger among Sierra Leoneans themselves.She used the “Mende” tribe (one of the local languages in Sierra Leone ) and coined the “Mende” word “koi” which means war into Konya. She gave the name Konya to her lovely daughter (depicting strong child of war).

Jo liked African culture and was easy for her to adapt to the African culture. This made her easily adjusted and enjoyed living the live she loved. Jo will be missed by many. Sweet memories in the minds and hearts of so many people like me. Even when I immigrated to the United States Of America, distance did not hinder our closeness. We connected via emails. Recent plans was for her and Konya to come visit me In the US and vice versa. Not knowing we were not going to accomplished that plan. What a world we live in? We are all strangers and passers by.

Sleep on Jo, sleep on my friend till we meet again.

The Afro-Saxon girl for Joanna Skelt

I had written about her ,long ago, when I first encountered her.
Even though she had grown up with only a touch of sunlight-
which did not prepare her for life's daring ventures -
she came like golden radiance to a placewhere the sun was enchanting, and the ocean roared like thunder.

Bold incandescence, she did not hesitate to test new landscapes,
whether of East or South, but darted often, and put
new wines to her lips; then danced marvelously
to rhythmic sounds, before nestling under famed baobab,
while others, seemingly more adventurous than she,
were timid, and only buried their toes in safe tourist sands.

Replanted from an English soil, she was our crowned local.
But we loved her enough to share her with that cold breath
of northern season, even after we had changed her from primrose to brilliant jacaranda!
Golden hybrid of light; it was hard to tell whether she was more of
the north than of the south. But it did not matter! She was Jo-anna:
a modern Joan of Arc who loved all humanity!

Now the numinous gods, generous with love but seldom explicit
in other deeds, have called her to a dance greater than the wide Atlantic's rhythms.
Under a benevolent moon, may they guard her as she enters,
with firm steps, into that labyrinth where they keep the good alive always!

Syl Cheney-Coker

I am so sorry to hear of Jo's death! I worked as an Occasional Lecturer in CWAS (now DASA) in 2008 and on and off for some years after that and so I was lucky enough to have had some conversations with Jo. She was an inspiring scholar and was always so friendly! I remember that we talked about the Second Congo War once. During and after that conversation, she inspired me to go on learning about it. I owe her a great intellectual debt and I will miss her very much.    

We write this with great sadness.  Jo was a researcher on an Arts and Humanities Research Council project entitled Representing Communities: developing the creative power of people to improve health and wellbeing.  Using arts and delving into people’s ordinary everyday cultural practices we worked with community representations of place that could challenge some hurtful and misleading policy and media narratives.  Jo was the researcher in Hodge Hill (particularly Alum Rock), a place that she soon grew to love and where people responded to her ability to use poetic narratives to say something different, illuminating and creative about place.  Jo was not the only person to be affected by serious illness in our project and we reflected on what we might say about the wellbeing of the producers of the research within a project that concerned itself with the wellbeing of others.  Early in 2017 she sent us some reflections on her role as an artist researcher in Alum Rock. We would like to share with you the final two paragraphs of a piece, written after her initial recovery from breast cancer, about how her illness connected her to the people she worked with.  She called it My Unexpected Journey and within it she was intending to insert an excerpt from her poem with a similar title.  The space for the poem still remains.

My experience brings me close to (and beyond) the most marginalised of participants in Alum Rock –  a cancer patient on low income, a single mum, living in a deprived inner city area. I feel closer to people who are in dire straits: chronic diabetes, depression, all manner of life threatening conditions. In these contexts, I believe how we frame and narrate our circumstances has a huge impact on our ‘wellbeing’ and ability to survive. I am fascinated by the relationship between narration and agency and how we can endure trauma and even find a joy and wisdom, at times, within the journey. I have also reflected on being English in a predominantly migrant community and I started to write creatively about this. Rather than choose fatalism and victimhood and sit with my head in my hands, I chose to redefine my situation and be an active, strong and creative working mum determined to find colour and ingenious ways through a set of challenging circumstances.  

We are more resilient than we realise we are. We have to accept our situations and limitations then focus on the short term goals and set rewards to move forward as best we can notching down the days as we get through – like a prisoner does. It makes you take a step back to consider what is truly important: family, friends, the simple steps of daily existence, colour, nature, time to sit and take it all in, the basics we neglect which bring unrivalled joy – especially when life itself is in jeopardy. Tackling illness brings us back to marvelling at the night and the day, the sensation of rain, the stunning spell of autumn leaves falling now which, this year, seem as if in celebration of my recovery.

We are happy to share other pieces she sent to us with family and friends.  Jo had a calm, kind wisdom and we will miss her. Eva Elliott and Gareth Williams, Cardiff University School of Social Sciences

Fresh, and the freshest influence on our lives. Showing how open and how much fun a creative life can be.

Jo first taught me over ten years ago. I really looked up to her. There was a kind of intensity in the way that she engaged with her students: the way that she closely observed our reactions and challenged our perceptions. She was always so encouraging and projected such a beautiful blend of strength and sensitivity.

Last year, I had the pleasure of reconnecting with Jo as a PhD student in the department. Much to my surprise, she remembered me immediately and talked to me as her equal. Despite her many, many achievements, there wasn’t an ounce of arrogance in her. 

Jo supported me recently when screening a dance video that I made, and then took me for a coffee. We talked for over 3 hours and I’m still benefiting from her advice today.

I’m so grateful to have known Jo. She really was one of life’s special people. Although she will continue to speak to us all through her poetry and academic writings, I will miss the conversations that we never had time to finish.

I was so saddened to read that Jo had passed away. I first met Jo doing buggyfit in Rowheath park, which was a great way to meet other new mums, and we would often undo the good work of the buggyfit with a coffee and a brownie in the cafe afterwards! Jo and I liked a good coffee. Our paths crossed again through work when she began a creative research project in Hodge Hill where I co-ordinated the Hodge Hill Arts Forum, and I'm so glad they did as we have worked on a couple of things since. I only wish we had the time to bring to fruition those other project ideas we dreamt up. Jo managed to challenge your thinking without you even knowing it. I admired her intelligence, her warmth and her devotion to peace.

Jo, I loved your last poem on your blog. You will be greatly missed. Your light has been dimmed far to early. We had some great conversations about spirituality and I hope you are at peace wherever you are x

She came to us when the echoes of war still filled the air 
When children clutched trauma like they gript Kalashnikovs years ago 
When flames from the furnaces of war were yet to be quenched 
When the clatter from the clutter of war deafened ears 
When the tags of a.war torn land fluttered like a conquered flag 
When wounded metaphors laid siege for poets in pain 
Then she came with her contagious joy and the twang on the edge of her voice to lift laden hearts;
With passion,a saxophone and poetry she lit fires of hope 
In many children born on the run ,named on the wayside and raised in battlefields and left in orphaned schools 
She voyaged to the womb of our hearts to the place of our verse to tease the muse of our poetry and became the sister we never knew 
Oh! How we sang,danced, and read poetry like there was no tomorrow 
She left the Joy of Jo with us and we joyed as if we were Jo 
We shared her mails,calls and memories wherever we gathered as poet 
Till one day a mail came from a poet to us that said Jo is ill 
There was silence , a spell and another mail said Jo is seriously ill 
Another spell another mail spoke in a heavy voice;Jo's illness is terminal 
We shared the mail that bore the nail like insipid food among ourselves and prayed 
Then the mail with the last nail was mailed to nail a nail in the coffins of our hearts 
As we drown in pain we flailed our heart's arms to catch straws of Jo's memory 
But the Joy of Jo is gone like a fading song beyond the meadows  
Yet the essence of her absence would forever be present in our lives till we meet on the cross roads of both eternities. 

Oumar Farouk Sesay

I will miss the sound of lives unfolding on the word of a mother swift,

Cornish swift, that rare revising soul that overwintered on the wrong end of the banked Atlantic in western Africa

crossing lines to glue together shattered nests with poems of patience and peace; then working light into the hollows of war.

I remember when at Cannon Hill you translated healing from broad ocean into canalised Rea, the swings and roundabouts of a Brummie playground mattering in their own way.

They crowned you with laurel in this place of interlocking rings - Swift made temporarily at home in a metaphor that sings of continuity and hybrid light; and I might

eventually forget at Eileen Road just how that energy was stored in curves of orange, green and yellow plastic lamps and burger phones and astroturf, the kitsch of grounding a moment in fun:

You’d like the sun gilt frost late risen from this gentle hill in Warwickshire. We stand black-coated holding white narcissi as a wicker box embraced by everlasting ivy’s lost to earth...

a paean from the sheep beyond the waking thorn, carries on the wind, the fallen twigs of oak take flight; with nothing to lose, I keep some for you knowing you will come again, seeking home by starlight and bringing news.

Ian Dieffenthaller February 2018

The rice flour pounded by the women for the ancestors 
Has blown over my sister Jo, and she has turned white.

Ah! Mother, when the moon musters minstrels of the night
Tell me if the moan deep in your bones badly bestirs

As for me, Jo’s soul has departed my peal of drums
And I’m left with the ache of a lone song all night long

Oh patriarchs of the black mysteries of the river Jong
Tell me, what’s cut the tongue of my talking drum from Brum?

By Ambrose Massaquoi
Author, Along the Peal of Drums

I met Jo at a Unifest, a Unitarian family festival in the Peak District in October 2017. Our daughters are the same age and stuck up a close friendship over the weekend. They made up their own dance routine which they performed at the event's show time '- I have fond memories of exchanging glances of maternal pride with Jo as the girls spun and twirled around the stage area. My daughters still often mention Jo's daughter and I feel very sad that we won't be catching up at future Unitarian events. Although I only knew Jo for a short time , she was inspirational and I hope to carry with me some of her spirit and strength.

Jo was so very much alive. I will always remember the joy she brought to our 2009 Cadbury event, 'Ohun Titun: New Directions in African and Caribbean Writing', and the passionate beliefs and feelings she brought to everything she did. She will be so much missed, but like all bright shooting stars her traces will be with us for many more moons.

You went too early for all the beauty that you embodied

Too early for us to have fully drank and danced to the music

Your eyes, ears and wind in your wanderings in lion mountains

Brought forth in verse and in the sound of the sax you played.

You went too early for all the beauty that you embodied

Too early for us to have fully drank and danced to the music

Your eyes, ears and wind in your wanderings in lion mountains

Brought forth in verse and in the sound of the sax you played.

We planned and waited to welcome you to this other side of the

Vast seas that hold our Africa in its shape and destiny

We would invite you to run with us on the white sand beaches of

this heaven of peace, swimming in the warm waters before

sending you to Zanzibar to smell the spices and aromas of

a thousand and one nights and histories of shores to shores

Then we heard you departed, unwillingly not complaining

with the sound, the music, the poetry you were still to write

The love that still bubbled in your energy and force and action

for those that were yours and others that would have been

in the connected journeys travelled and paths not yet trodden 

Planned or only in mind; those that were to be with your daughter

when time came and like you she took to the road, to the sea to the

Mountains and to Africa

We did not meet you only your poetry and your story

By those that were gifted with your presence and your time

Yet we meet you amidst other poets, griots and songstresses

Forever building on the verse song and rhythm of the past

such as you carried well till your final finale

I ask did you really depart? But we hear your song

Your call us to write ours to join you in those journeys

that have no end

 You live Jo.

Walter Bgoya

Mkuki na Nyota Publishers