I’m collaborating with the Read to Feed project this year, which is organized by the fabulous charity Send a Cow. The project is about nurturing children’s love of reading, raising awareness of Africa’s diverse cultures, and giving families a helping hand to lift themselves out of poverty. Do please like and share this video so that plenty of schools get to know about this fun new initiative. Being given a goat (even a naughty one) can really help a family to make ends meet.
One of my favourite things to do in Burkina Faso was to visit remote cattle-herding settlements and listen to folk stories told by ingenious Fulani men, women and children. Many of these stories were ‘trickster’ tales, where a small cunning rabbit succeeds in outwitting larger, fiercer creatures. The downfall of the big creatures tended to be provoked not just by the rabbit’s cleverness, but by their own greed, pride or anger.
Last September my new book for schools came out. Published in the Harper Collins ‘Big Cat’ series, it is a collection of four traditional Fulani tales in which the wily rabbit pits his wits against Hyena and Crocodile. It is illustrated by Steve Stone, who has brought the tales wonderfully to life.
Fulani folk tale workshop
This year I am offering Year 4 workshops based on the book. The format of the session is as follows: we start with a quiz that highlights the importance of the ‘trickster’ figure in ancient and modern storytelling, from Anansi to Puck to Robin Hood to Bart Simpson. Then we use concrete examples to tease out general characteristics of trickster figures. Finally, children work in twos to create and present their own trickster characters. This workshop is a great introduction to stories from other cultures. See my school visits page for details, or write to me at email@example.com.
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.
Before I left Burkina Faso last year, I filmed several short sketches with the ‘Laawol Dartingol’ drama group. The sketches explore different issues in Fulani society. In this one, Inna Moumouni’s money has gone missing, and she suspects her husband of stealing it. I miss these people, they were such fun to work with!
#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.
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.
Answer: they eat nyiiri hoy – millet dumpling with sauce.
And here’s how it’s made.
More on this over at SAHEL Design: How to cook with millet the Fulani way
A Fulani engagement party is the ultimate exercise in playing hard to get.
It starts with the man and his friends/uncles turning up at the mother-in-law’s compound and being served a cornflour drink with lots and lots of salt in it. The man and his comrades have to demonstrate their good intentions by drinking the calabash dry.
Then a series of women are brought out, covered by a big piece of cloth. The man has to say whether each one is his girl, or not! For each wrong guess, he has to pay 5000 Francs.
The sun is getting hot, and the man has still not found his loved one. He remonstrates with one of the girl’s aunts, who says ‘Not my problem!’
Finally, the girl is guessed correctly and revealed for who she is. Now the real negotiations can begin.
The friends of the man go to the formidable aunts on bended knee to beg on the man’s behalf for the girl’s hand in marriage.
An accord is struck, and the dancing begins.
Finally, the happy couple can be said to be engaged. The wedding will follow in a few months, and this time the cornflour drink will be sweet, not salty.
My wife Charlie has been working with Ussman for a couple years now. He’s the best weaver in the province of Soum, producing fine cushion covers and blankets on a loom made of twigs and twine. Now, thanks to his involvement with Charlie and SAHEL Design, Ussman is building a teaching centre to pass on the skill of traditional weaving to future generations.
A few years ago I wrote an article for Nthposition entitled Garibous of God – a shapshot of the lives of young Qur’anic students in the north of Burkina Faso. This year I made a five-minute documentary in a similar vein, following two ten year-old garibous through a typical day – and night.