SAHARA DISCOVERY and SAHARA SURVIVAL now available for pre-order

Reading Planet is an exciting new reading programme from educational publisher Rising Stars. Aimed at Reception and KS1, it is based on the latest literacy research. My new books SAHARA DISCOVERY and SAHARA SURVIVAL are in the Galaxy strand of the programme.

SAHARA DISCOVERY is non-fiction. It introduces some of the people who live in the vast Sahara, in particular the Tuaregs. Discover what it is like to live, play and work among the Tuareg people and their camels.

SAHARA SURVIVAL is fiction. Ali and Amira are excited to help their dad deliver a plane, but they have no idea that their journey across the Sahara desert is about to turn into a fight for survival. (Because it’s written for six and seven year olds, both the plane crash and the ‘fight for survival’ are pretty gentle).

Both books are illustrated by the talented Egyptian-born illustrator Hatem Aly and they fall in the Purple level of the reading series (see below). They can be pre-ordered individually on Amazon or direct from the publisher as part of a reading pack.

Five years since the occupation of Timbuktu

Even though the word Timbuktu is often used as a metaphor for a primitive place far from civilization, Timbuktu is a real city with a glorious history. When Europe was languishing in the Dark Ages, Timbuktu was a centre of African civilization, trade and scholarship.

The city’s recent history has been less glorious. This week marks five years since Timbuktu was invaded by Tuareg rebels and Al Qaeda militants. Five years since the town’s Sufi population began to suffer the imposition of sharia and its ghoulish punishments. Five years since the town’s famous librarians started an ingenious smuggling operation to save thousands of priceless ancient manuscripts from destruction.

Today there is both good and bad news from Timbuktu. The bad news is that bandits and radical Islamists are still present in the region, launching sporadic attacks on the town and its peacekeepers. The reach of extremist teaching throughout the Sahara is expanding, not contracting.

The good news is that in Timbuktu itself, many of the World Heritage landmarks have been restored. Local craftsmen have rebuilt many of the shrines to the saints of Timbuktu, and the instigator of their destruction imprisoned for nine years. The exquisite ‘Door of Heaven’ in the Sidi Yahya mosque has been repaired. The values of Timbuktu, its so-called ‘seven gates’, remain intact: tolerance, honour, dignity, generousity, hospitality, honesty and justice.

And what of those famous manuscripts? Currently in exile in Mali’s capital city Bamako, the manuscripts are being well looked after. The Herculean task of cataloguing and preserving these ancient texts continues.

Blood & Ink is fundamentally a thriller and a love story. As a thriller it contains chases, smuggling operations and a locked-room mystery. As a love story it features a Malian Romeo and Juliet, drawn together in spite of their cultural and religious differences.

And yes, as a piece of historical fiction, the novel by necessity explores the theme of violent jihad. I had the honour of participating last month in the Cologne literary festival, where I read and discussed the novel with teenage festivalgoers. Their questions went right to the heart of the matter. What are the causes of radicalisation? Is religion itself to blame? Was I nervous about the controversy my book might cause? Finally – and essentially – what is the solution to Islamist extremism?

At a recent conference in Vienna, Timbuktu’s chief librarian Abdel Kader Haïdara was asked this same question. He replied that he looks for solutions in the Timbuktu manuscripts themselves. ‘Many of these ancient Islamic manuscripts deal with conflict resolution, including many which have not yet been translated or published. I am hopeful that the manuscripts will one day foster a better understanding of the world of yesterday and the world of today, as well as the promotion of tolerance and a culture of peace.’

I am not nervous about the controversy my book might cause. Controversy entails discussion, more useful than any awkward silence. My highest hope for Blood & Ink is that, like the Timbuktu manuscripts themselves, it might foster understanding, tolerance and peace. My rather more modest hope is that it proves a gripping, exhilarating read.

This post was written as a guest post for the Aladin Verlag blog: link

The Locust Curse

David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II continues to fascinate and instruct. Last week’s extraordinary footage of a locust swarm in Madagascar brought back horrific memories of the 2005 locust invasion in the Sahel, including our area of Burkina Faso. The locusts destroyed the crops of many thousands of people, prompted a huge relief effort (most of my work in Djibo that year was with the Red Cross and the World Food Programme) and inspired my second book Sophie and the Locust Curse, a story of creativity and resourcefulness in the wake of catastrophe.

“Watch out! The locusts are coming!”

A terrifying army of locusts is devouring crops in one village after another. Gidaado’s village is next. When the locusts arrive, Gidaado will need all his wits about him. He will need his friend Sophie, his three-stringed guitar, and an albino camel as fast as the harmattan wind.

Don’t Spill the Milk artwork

Back in September I enjoyed visiting Bishop MacKenzie in Lilongwe, Malawi. It is now Book Week there and Year 4 have been doing some wonderful paintings inspired by DON’T SPILL THE MILK. Well done, all of you!

If art is your thing, you may also enjoy these ALL ABOARD colouring sheets, drawn by Christopher Corr. Click on an image to download a printable pdf.

colouring1

colouring2

Jihad etc.

In March 2012, my friend Mohammed Ciise came to visit me at home in Djibo, Burkina Faso, on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. His face was grave.

‘A time of violence is coming,’ he said. ‘Many of my people in Mali will flee Timbuktu and come to stay with my family here in Djibo.’

‘Many of my people’ turned out to be an understatement. Over the course of the following weeks, Mohammad’s hospitality was tested beyond breaking point by the arrival of fifteen thousand Tuareg refugees on overloaded lorries and bush-taxis. The women and children set up their makeshift tents and prepared themselves for a long stay. The men returned to Timbuktu to fight the Malian army.

This was not the first time that Tuareg rebels had taken up arms in the name of independence, but the difference in 2012 was their ill-judged alliance with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM) and other militant jihadi groups. Within a week they had invaded and captured Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, the three most strategic desert towns in Mali. As soon as the jihadis were in control of these towns, they betrayed their Tuareg brothers in arms and forced them to leave.

The invaders imposed a harsh form of sharia law on the townspeople of Timbuktu, not unlike what we are seeing in parts of Syria and Iraq today. Music, dancing and football were banned. The full veil was enforced for girls over the age of ten. Men and women were forbidden from talking in public. Famous shrines to the medieval holymen of Timbuktu were destroyed in iconoclastic fervour.

Across the border in Burkina Faso, my Muslim friends and neighbours shook their heads in dismay. ‘Those AQIM fighters are not fit to call themselves Muslims,’ they muttered. ‘A thug who prays five times a day is still a thug.’

‘They are not thugs,’ piped up a young Qur’anic student sitting in the marketplace. ‘They are good people, applying God’s law to the letter. In the name of God, hear this: I hope they come here and do the same in Djibo.’ On hearing this, a small group of bystanders turned on the hapless student and beat him soundly for hoping such a thing. ‘Islam is not a violent religion,’ they told him.

During thirteen years of living amongst Fulani Muslims in Burkina Faso, I saw hundreds of Osama bin Laden T-shirts, but very few of the wearers were actually in favour of waging war on infidels. My family were welcomed warmly and we made close friends. We attended naming ceremonies, weddings and funerals. I spent many hours sitting on grass mats with Muslim religious teachers, finding acres of common ground as well as expected points of difference.

I did meet a few jihadi sympathizers. They were usually ‘garibous’, teenage boys who had been sent far away from home to study with a Muslim religious teacher. These lads spent their days collecting firewood, making ink, and begging door-to-door for food. They spent their nights writing and reciting Qur’anic verses around a roaring fire.

I remember talking one afternoon with Mustafa, Ali, Boureima and Adama, four garibous from the far north-east of Burkina Faso. They were warm, good-humoured lads, whose conversation ranged from goat-herding to religion to the fortunes of Real Madrid. But one afternoon, when the conversation turned to the subject of 9/11, these good-hearted boys were oddly jubilant. ‘Praise be to God for the victory of our brothers,’ cried Ali. ‘Did you see the towers fall? It was glorious.’

Ali and his friends had swallowed a ‘Clash of Civilisations’ narrative, which in their eyes was entirely compatible with the Book they had been memorizing.

I protested, of course, and tried to make my brothers see sense. I encouraged them to imagine what that day was like for the families of those who died, including the families of the hijackers. Imagination is a powerful tool. Within five minutes Ali declared fervently that the killing of innocent civilians in the Twin Towers was every bit as inglorious as the killing of innocent civilians in US drone attacks.

I do not imagine that the task of deradicalisation is always so easy. I doubt I would have lasted long in Al-Qaeda occupied Timbuktu. But in the case of Ali and his friends, it helped that I spoke their language and that I had spent many hours in their company, drinking gunpowder tea and herding pygmy goats with them. It also helped that I knew their families and that I spoke from a vantage-point of faith myself.

My recent book BLOOD & INK is set in occupied Timbuktu and is narrated from two alternating viewpoints. Ali is a shepherd boy who has become addicted to the adventure of jihad. Kadija is a daughter of Timbuktu who loves singing and dancing, even though such things are outlawed by the radical new regime. The novel charts their relationship from straightforward enmity to something approaching love.

Authors of YA are not known for shying away from controversial themes. Today, with young people in Britain facing real risk of radicalisation, we need more and better YA books about the battle for the soul of Islam. We need books that will subvert the Clash of Civilizations narrative and replace it with a more nuanced understanding, maybe even hope. Imagination is a powerful tool.

How to Spend a Week’s Wages on a Book

If you read my blog you know that I love Africa. But I will say this: the books there are a bit pricey. In Burkina Faso where I lived, an average new novel (when you can find one at all) has a cover price of 11,000 francs. It sounds like a lot, and it is. For most people in Burkina Faso, 11,000 francs is more than a week’s wages.

That’s right. A week’s wages for a book.

Think of it in UK terms. Minimum wage, £6.50. A week’s wages, £273. Can you imagine spending £273 on one book?

We are fortunate to live in a place where we have access to bookshops, school libraries and public libraries, Kindles and Nooks. We are blessed that we can buy and borrow books without spending a fortune on them.

If you want to spend a fortune on a single book, the place to go is of course Ebay. As you know, there are some very optimistic sellers on ebay. At the time of writing:

  • £273.41 can buy you all 4 volumes of Moral Theology, published in 1713
  • £273.97 gets you a Handbook of Herbs and Spices, published in 2001
  • £273.33 buys you a used copy of Ray Mears’ World Of Survival
  • £271.99 would buy you The Accountants Bad Joke book OR Lumbosacral and Pelvic Procedures

Most of the ludicrously expensive books on Ebay are non-fiction, but I did spot a novel, too. Robert Harris’s thriller The Ghost is currently available at a Buy it Now price of £271.82. The seller of this used book is called Fortune International Ltd (not kidding) and in the smallprint they say: ‘Our company is dedicated to providing you with the best quality, lowest cost products on eBay.’

You can spend a week’s wages on a book if you want to, but thank goodness you don’t have to. We have affordable books all around us. All we have to do is read them.

What do I here myself?

The Phaeacian sailors deposited the sleeping Odysseus on the shore of Ithaca, his homeland, to reach which he had struggled for twenty years of uspeakable suffering. He stirred and woke from sleep in the land of his fathers, but he knew not his whereabouts. Ithaca showed him an unaccustomed face; he did not recognize the pathways stretching into the distance, the quiet bays, the crags and precipices. He rose to his feet and stood staring at what was his own land, crying mournfully: “Alas! And now where on earth am I? What do I here myself?”

(Homer, The Odyssey)

Reentry shock. They warn you about it, of course. They tell you that you will snivel unaccountably in supermarkets, tremble uncontrollably in traffic, and yawp ‘Alas! Where am I?’ over the unforgiving rooftops of your fatherland. But nothing quite prepares you for it.

The low point for me on returning from fourteen years in Africa was getting stuck on a narrow one way street near Sainsburys, Nine Elms, facing the wrong way, an object of contempt and wrath to six oncoming drivers. Deep breaths didn’t help. I heartily wished I had stayed in Africa, where no street is one way and everyone smiles from dusk till dawn.

I rang my wife Charlie, as I am prone to do at moments of raw befuddlement. ‘Do you want me to come and get you?’ she said. I thought about saying yes, and then I remembered Odysseus. He struggled with reentry, but struggled manfully. “Be strong, saith my heart; I am a soldier; I have seen worse sights than this.” Great Odysseus, man of many wiles, would not have wanted his wife schlepping across London to rescue him from Sainsburys. So I did what Odysseus would have done. I stiffened the sinews, summoned up the blood, and executed a slick twenty-seven point turn using forward and reverse gears.

Things have got better since the Nine Elms Debacle, imperceptibly at first, and now markedly. Our flat at the top of Battersea High Street is quickly becoming a home – amazing what a lick of paint and a pot of Japanese bamboo can do. And now, after a month of visiting family and friends, I’m buckling down to work: writing books for young people. There are lots of exciting projects in the pipeline, which I shall share over the coming weeks. And lots of school and library visits, too. Which reminds me: if you would like me to visit your school, do get in touch sooner rather than later to avoid disappointment.

I’m a sucker for all those ‘Where I Write’ pieces in the glossy weekend supplements, so I thought I’d share with you this picture of my brand new writing station. It is located in a cosy nook behind the stairwell, and it is the only piece of furniture I have ever built. If you can call it furniture. Or building. It’s a piece of MDF painted white and screwed into the walls. It’s in a corner of the living room, and Charlie is keen for me to keep it tidy. Watch this space – she certainly is.

Before
Before
After
After

And while I’m uploading photos, here are some highlights from the last few weeks.

Packing the chequered bag

travel bag

#YouAintAfricanIf is trending on Twitter at the moment, and the chequered travel bag earned several retweets. Ours is sitting across the room from me as I write this. It’s full of clothes and ready to go.

On Wednesday, God willing, my family and I go to Ouagadougou airport and fly back to England. I’ve been back to England several times over the course of the last thirteen years, but this time it’s different. This time I am not planning on coming back. Or rather, if I do come back, it will only be for a short visit.

I will take with me many memories, the good and the bad and the just plain strange. During the course of thirteen years in Burkina Faso, I learned Fulfulde, followed a cattle drive, grew rice, rode a horse to a distant naming ceremony, travelled around Niger and Mali, wrote some books, recorded radio dramas and music videos, lost my faith, found it again, got malaria and typhoid (at the same time), herded goats, drilled for water in a dust storm, got married, acquired two daughters and made a few good friends.

It feels like the right time to be leaving Burkina. We’ve had a good innings, but with the passing of years we have felt the increasing tug of home. And yes, England still feels like home. Ko leggal ɓooyi e ndiyam fu, laatataako nowra. Even if a log lies in the water a long time, it will never become a crocodile.

We plan to be living in London, and I am going full time as a children’s author. I can’t tell you how excited I am about being able to spend more time writing. It feels like an absurd luxury and I can’t wait to get started.

Nomadic people groups have many phrases to ease the parting of ways, but none of them have much finality. Leaving my Fulani friends will be hampered (or perhaps eased) by the fact that there exists no word in Fulfulde for goodbye. We will make do with phrases like Alla moƴƴin laawol (May God make good your road) and Alla wan njiiden e jam (May God enable us to see each other again in peace).

Last week I said goodbye to my friend Zachariya Bah and his family. I was able to honour a promise I made to him a long time ago, to film a music video of him and his family. One of the songs we filmed is called We Ask for Strength.

Here is a rough translation of the lyrics:

We ask God for the strength of the prophet Moses. We ask God for the strength of the prophet Noah. We ask God for the strength of the prophet Jesus. Why do we ask God for strength? Because the world is hard. Why do we ask God for strength? Because the difficulties are many.

Africa is a horrifying continent and a wonderful one, too. Sometimes it feels like there is more horror than wonder, but what would I know? I must learn not to generalize or romanticize or demonize. I must learn (along with everyone else) not to talk nonsense about Africa, particularly when in a stage of transition.

Because there are no generalities, of course. No sooner do you say ‘#YouAintAfricanIf you don’t have a chequered travel bag like this’ than a million people chime in to say ‘We’re African and we don’t have one’. Or rather, they would if they were on Twitter.

There are no generalities. There are only specifics. Yesterday I said goodbye to the old woman with the big nose who sells tomatoes in Zogona market. ‘Take me with you’, she said, and I said ‘Yes, okay’. She forgave my inanity, and I hers, and she handed me an extra tomato.

Drilling for water in the north of Burkina Faso

My wife Charlie started the ethical fashion label SAHEL Design, seeking to celebrate and revive traditional crafts in Burkina Faso. This week we are thrilled to be working with Friends in Action, drilling for water in the far north of Burkina Faso, in two of the villages where SAHEL Design is involved. Yesterday we were in the village of Ousmane the weaver.

Last night we arrived in the village at about 7pm and started drilling. The night was long and very dusty, but at about 2am the dust stopped billowing out of the bore hole, which I gather is an encouraging sign! Ko jemma boni fu, weetan goes the Fulani proverb. Even if the night is hard, morning will come. Many thanks to Mark Collier and Tim Wilson for their tireless work.

Today we are going to the settlement where the leatherworkers live. Please pray that we find water.