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.

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.

Gap Year good, Gap Yah bad

Gap Yah

Great ‘Viewpoint’ piece by Daniela Papi on the BBC website this morning, entitled Is ‘gap yah’ volunteering a bad thing? At the time of writing, Daniela’s piece is both the ‘Most Read’ and also the ‘Most Shared’ article on the BBC site. Her criticism of the gap year industry has clearly touched a nerve.

Papi argues that gap year volunteering is designed to make gappers feel good about themselves, that the opportunities to serve are contrived, and that we are encouraging unskilled, inexperienced, clueless volunteers to dabble in development work, with results that are at best neutral and at worst damaging. We are setting ourselves up for monumental failure.

The article is well argued, a devastating critique of the ‘gap yah’ abroad. As a one-time ‘serial volunteer’ herself, Papi does not doubt the good intentions of those volunteering. But she thinks it could be done better if the emphasis were on learning to serve rather than on serving. “It’s a small change in vocabulary,” she writes, “but it can have a big impact on our futures.”

Here are a few disjointed comments by way of response. I write as someone who took a ‘gap yah’ myself, and now as a long-term crosscultural worker in West Africa who regularly receives and mentors ‘gappers’.

  • I once talked to a lad who grew up in Mexico. He said he dreaded the arrival of gap year volunteers. When they left, he and his friends would have to tear down the wall the gappers had built and build it again – properly this time!
  • British nationality – or any other kind – does not qualify us to save the world. Being an influence for good is more about your heart than your passport or your education.
  • Cross-cultural exchange is valuable in and of itself.
  • I like receiving gappers. They bring energy, inspiration and fresh perspectives. Nothing keeps me on my toes like continually being asked ‘Why did you just do that?’
  • My friends and neighbours in Djibo like receiving gappers. It’s true. Koyngal woni endam (lit. The foot is fellowship – Being visited is honouring).
  • The best gappers have been those who helped with the washing up and played tag with kids in the yard and asked millions of questions, many of which I couldn’t answer.
  • All the long-termers I have met in Burkina Faso started out as short-termers. Clued-up-ness grows from cluelessness.
  • Effectiveness is born out of uselessness.
  • Gappers who come humble leave wise. Those who come wise leave jaded.
  • As Daniela says, training is essential. Often this means learning how to learn. The World Horizons training programme (brief plug!) is excellent for ‘learning how to learn’ language and culture.
  • I question those in the comments section below the BBC article who say ‘Stay home and donate your gap yah funds directly to charity’ – it seems like wisdom, but it is monochrome, reductionist, armchair wisdom of the worst sort.
  • A woman once anointed Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume, and Judas (of all people) got upset and said ‘That perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor.’
  • Perhaps we need to develop a theology of waste. Perhaps we should we smile a little less knowingly and talk a little less condescendingly about those bright-eyed young things washing cars to raise money for their plane tickets.
  • Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up (1 Cor.8:1). ‘How will it look on my CV?’ puffs up. ‘How can I stay involved?’ builds up.
  • Not one of our gappers have ever said ‘And then I chundered everywhere’. Yet.

Kindles for Africa – are they a good idea?

The Camel and Hassan Djiwa

The news that Worldreader.org is giving Kindles to children in Ghana must have passed me by last year. At the time it seems there was some debate raging over at the Huffington Post about whether or not this is a good idea.

This year Cricket Magazine has put together a nice-looking Kindle ebook called ‘The Realm of Imagination’, including a short story I once wrote for them called ‘The Camel and Hassan Djiwa’. This will be among the books that Worldreader has acquired and that kids in Ghana and Kenya will be able to download on their Kindles.

So far as I’m concerned, if the ebooks and the gadgets themselves give some kids some pleasure, then that’s great. It’s easy to be snarky about other people’s development efforts, and to witter Why-do-k-when-you-could-do-l-or-m-or-n. That way madness lies.

Anyway, back to Hassan Djiwa…

Hassan Djiwa of Gorom-Gorom was a bad man. He was not all bad – he loved his mother and he hardly ever forgot to feed Haroun, his pet aardvark. But he was mostly bad – he would lie, cheat, steal and make pirate cassettes of copyrighted music.

The Camel and Hassan Djiwa was one of the first stories I ever wrote (in my adult life at least) and has the distinction of being “the weirdest story Cricket magazine have ever published”. Hooray!

weirdest story ever published

I hope Ghana and Kenya enjoy Hassan Djiwa and his amazing Arabic-writing camel. And best wishes to you, too, Worldreader.org. May your supply of Kindles never dwindle.

On a more analogue note, FAVL (Friends of African Village Libraries) is also doing excellent work in this area. They are working with communities to create and equip physical libraries full of papery books. They have a readable and oft-updated blog, curated by clever Michael Kevane and his busy team. Definitely worth a visit.