Fabedougou in Burkina Faso

The Domes of Fabedougou must be one of my favourite places in Burkina Faso. They are located in the south-west of the country, in a desolate spot between Bobo Dioulasso and Banfoura. These striking egg-shaped formations are very similar to the Bungle Bungles in Australia. They date back 1.8 billion years and were probably covered by water for much of their history, hence the peculiar layering of the rock.


I came here with Charlie the day after we got engaged back in 2006, and again two years later as part of a larger group. The convenient hand and footholds all the way up the domes make them very easy to climb, and the view from the top is breathtaking.

For our forthcoming picture book ALL ABOARD FOR THE BOBO ROAD, illustrator Christopher Corr has painted the Domes of Fabedougou beautifully, both on the cover of the book and on one of the inside spreads. Pink, purple, brown, ochre and yellow stripes cut across the orange domes of rock. Once again, Chris has given us a real feast for the eyes.

ALL ABOARD FOR THE BOBO ROAD comes out in the UK on 7 April 2016, published by Andersen Press.

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.

Burkina Faso Popular Uprising


The riot shield war trophy was one of yesterday’s iconic images. There were many, of course. Parliament burning. The Rond Point des Nations Unies obscured by tear gas. Angry young men in the TV station. 24 hours later, the uprising already has its own Wikipedia entry: 2014 Burkinabé uprising.

It has been brewing for a long time, of course. Any president who hangs onto power for 27 years must expect to become increasingly unpopular.

Living in Burkina Faso on a tourist visa, a guest of the state, I always had to be very careful what I said about President Blaise Compaoré. My references to him in my books tended towards the cryptic. The powerhungry villain of SOPHIE AND THE PANCAKE PLOT was Alai Crepe-Sombo, an unsophisticated anagram. My last novel OUTLAW was dedicated to journalist and novelist Norbert Zongo, who was one of the President’s most courageous and outspoken critics.


There seemed to be some ‘mission creep’ going on yesterday. What started as an action to prevent Parliament from changing the constitution turned into an all-out demand for the President to resign with immediate effect. His refusal to do so has angered protesters, who are still occupying many of Ouagadougou’s most important landmarks. We shall see what today brings.

To my Ouagadougou friends and erstwhile neighbours, bon courage. Tomorrow we’ll discover what our God in Heaven has in store! One more dawn. One more day. One day more!

Update (Friday, 1330): A few minutes after I posted this, Blasie resigned as President, calling for a 90 day transition and then elections. This is a huge moment for West Africa. Blaise has defined an era, not just for Burkina Faso but further afield as well.

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.


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.

Burkina Faso Algeria rumour – a strange half hour in Ouagadougou

Last night Burkina Faso played Algeria in their last World Cup Qualifying match. If they had won or even drawn, they would have been sure of going to Brasil for their first ever World Cup. They lost.

This afternoon I went into a hardware shop to buy a mousetrap. The shopkeeper was not concentrating. He was looking over my shoulder at someone talking in the street outside.

‘I need a mousetrap,’ I repeated.

‘We’ve got it!’ he yelled.

I thought his excitement over having a mousetrap in stock was a little extreme.

A moment later, the shop was full of young men and women, punching the air and doing complicated ‘Ouagadougou finger-snap’ handshakes on each other.
‘Calm down,’ said the shopkeeper. ‘We need to check this on the internet.’
A moment later he made an announcement almost too good to be true. FIFA had held a post-match inquiry. Algeria’s goal had been disallowed. Therefore Burkina had qualified for Brazil 2014!

Twenty butchers in the abbatoir gave a massive cheer and started hugging each other and dancing. Two of them leaped onto the back of a third, and hared off down the street in a joyous double-piggyback. In the tailor’s workshop opposite, a massive amplifier was switched on and celebratory reggae filled the air. Women at their market-stalls started dancing behind their bananas and watermelons.

Ko jemma boni fu, weetan,’ remarked an old Fulani man, sitting cross-legged outside the mosque. Even if the night is bad, morning comes.

Spot on. Burkina Faso had passed a night of crushing disappointment, and that made the sudden good news all the sweeter.

Local radio stations were talking of nothing else, so it was not long before Ouagadougou’s heaving lanes of traffic had heard the news as well. Those in cars started beeping their horns. Those on motorbikes opened up their throttles and flew. Some weaved from side to side, some stood up on their footrests, some rode with their metal bikestands down, creating a fizz of sparks along the tarmac.

Half an hour later the joy subsided, as quickly as it had begun. People sat down in small streetside groups and listened with their heads in their hands as radio stations dispelled the rumours they had themselves begun.

Le Faso, c’est un pays qui aime les rumeurs,’ commented a university student wryly.

Burkina Faso is a country which likes rumours.