Coming Soon: BLOOD & INK


I’m really excited about my new book, BLOOD & INK, which is coming out on 4 June 2015 and is already available for preorder. It might be the best thing I’ve ever written. It is certainly the riskiest. At the heart of the novel is the 2012 invasion of Timbuktu and the foundation there of an Islamic Caliphate. It’s part thriller, part love story. All of the characters in the novel call themselves Muslim.

I finished writing BLOOD & INK long before the emergence of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, but the novel is scarily relevant to current events there. I in no way intend to glorify the horrifying actions of Islamic State and similar groups. If anything, I hope that this novel will contribute to an understanding of that historical situation, and the many faces of Islam.

The final cover was unveiled today. It was designed by the ubertalented artist Joe Cruz. And here is the back cover blurb.

The town is Timbuktu.
The year is 2012.
Ali, 16, is a mujahid, a holy warrior. His battalion is massing in the Sahara Desert, preparing to invade Timbuktu.
Kadija, 15, is a daughter of Timbuktu on the verge of becoming a Guardian, a keeper of the town’s mysterious ancient manuscripts.
The two of them are now set on a collison course. Ali hates Kadija’s spirit and her outlawed passion for music. Kadija scorns Ali’s confident, ruthless fanaticism. So when they find themselves falling for each other, they try desperately – and hopelessly – to resist.
BLOOD AND INK is an unflinching glimpse into the heart of jihad.

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.

Security in the Sahel – reason for optimism?

A Gallup World Survey rates Burkina Faso as having the most optimistic people in the world. 95% of its inhabitants rate their future lives better than their present ones. This, opines the author of the report gloomily, ‘may simply be because people can not imagine that their lives could get any worse’. Nonsense.

A Burkinabè policeman once told me the following story. A boy climbed a tree to pick mangoes, whilst his friend stayed on the ground to catch the fruit and put it in a basket. When the boy in the tree got to the top branch, a boa constrictor slithered up his arm and began to entwine itself around his body. ‘Au secours!’ (Help!) yelled the boy. And his friend on the ground shouted back in wonderful Burkinabè French, ‘Ca va aller!’ (It’ll be all right!).

My policeman friend was poking fun at the unfailing positivity of his Burkinabe compatriots, who are always determined to declare peace where there is no peace. Peace is laafi in the local Moré language, ani in Jula and jam in Fulfuldé. How did you sleep? Peace only, we chant. How is your wife? Peace only. How is your health? Peace only. How is the security situation in the Sahel? Peace only.

Peace only. Clean-shaven Frenchmen parachuted into Mali, did they not, and drove those naughty Islamists up into the Ifoghas mountains, where now they languish with their scrawny goats and their spent rocket launchers. The women of Timbuktu cast off their veils and danced for the TV cameras on every street corner. Crates of hastily buried beer were dug up and cracked open. Libraries of hastily hidden ancient manuscripts were discovered safe and sound.

Peace only. Our Horizons teams were efficiently evacuated from their places of ministry to their respective capital cities. They swapped mud huts and paraffin lamps for airy villas with ceiling fans. Cotton pickers became city slickers, and plunged headlong into exciting urban projects: hairdressing, literacy, dentistry, radio work and business. While some grieved for what they’d left behind, others felt (secretly) relieved.

Peace only. For as long as I can remember there have been good interfaith relations in the Sahel, and generally speaking there still are. The Sahel is not a hotbed of extremism. Its religious leaders are moderate Sufi marabouts, like the one who famously invited a Horizons missionary to come and preach in his mosque. It was poverty rather than idealogy which attracted a minority to the black flag of jihadism, and most right-thinking Sahelians want nothing to do with it. A twenty-one year old Quranic student in Djibo recently prayed in public that Al Qaeda would invade the north of Burkina Faso and impose Sharia law. His listeners reacted strongly. They told the student that Allah hates all violent expressions of Islam (although, ironically, they then proceeded to beat him up).

Peace only. In January a group of forty prominent Malian musicians recorded a song of peace for Mali. ‘Notre Mali, sèche tes larmes, nous t’aimons!’ they sang. Our Mali, dry your tears, we love you. ‘On veut la paix, la paix. En Afrique la paix ! Dans le monde entier la paix !’ We want peace, peace. In Africa, peace ! In all the world, peace !

Peace only – and yet, in the words of Nicolas Sarkozy, nowhere in the Sahel can now be considered safe. Guerrilla warfare and occasional suicide bombings continue in Mali’s northern towns. Fifty thousand displaced Tuaregs are frightened to return to their homeland for fear of reprisals. And with the Dark Side’s coffers so depleted by the war, further kidnapping of Europeans is a likely prospect.

How are we to respond to this uneasy, fragile peace that is not quite peace? At the West Africa conference in February, our speakers encouraged us not to depend on BBC news in our decision-making, or even on grassroots gossip, but to seek God’s commentary as well – ‘les infos prophetiques’. Maguy prayed for ‘les intercesseurs qui ont le Mali dans leurs entrailles’, intercessors with Mali in their guts. We have some already; we need more.

Pray also for peace in the Sahel. Not the fake peace of the boa constrictor victim but the unfathomable peace of those who do not fear death. Not the trite peace of swaying celebrities but the pained peace of difficult forgiveness. Not the imposed peace of parachuting Frenchmen, but the kingdom peace of God’s Not Yet parachuting into Africa’s Here and Now.

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.

Tuareg Refugees in Burkina Faso

Stephen Davies, 2008

More than 1500 Malian refugees have entered Burkina Faso, fleeing the Tuareg rebellion, army attacks and civilian reprisals in Mali. Many more have fled to Mauritania, Niger and Algeria.

Here in ______ yesterday we heard of truck after truckload of Tuareg women and children arriving in town and being registered at the gendarmerie, before being taken on to Mohammed’s settlement in ______. There are already more than 600 people there. Déjà vu? Yes, this has happened before. This is the third time that Tuareg families have sought refuge in the north of Burkina Faso. It happened most recently in 2008.

This time it is worse, and much more politically sensitive as well. The Movement for the Liberation of Azawad is no longer a disorganized rabble of Tuareg men with Kalashnikovs, it is now a well-funded militia with a huge arsenal of Gaddafi’s heavy weapons (smuggled into Mali by Tuareg fighters returning from Libya). They pose a serious threat to Mali.

The French army is here as well. My friend Hama told me yesterday that a truckload of French soldiers zoomed past him yesterday on the road between _____ and ______. He was pleased because one of them had given him a thumbs-up sign in passing. He believes that the French soldiers are here because they are helping the Burkinabe army to vet the refugees and make sure there are no arms coming into Burkina Faso. No arms, please, and definitely no AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb) fighters.

Is there a link between the Tuareg rebels and Al Qaeda? The Mali government is keen to say yes, the Tuareg rebels are keen to say no. The truth is probably somewhere in between, i.e. that the Tuareg interaction with AQIM is economic rather than ideological – the best analysis I have read yet is from the Stratfor Global Intelligence website: From African Nomads to Smugglers and Mercenaries.

Can Al Qaeda take advantage of this situation to establish a presence in Burkina Faso? Hama is no security expert, but he thinks not. If AQIM try anything here in Burkina, he mutters darkly, they will soon regret it.

What are we going to do in response to the unfolding refugee crisis in our back yard? Well, it’s tricky. Here are some factors we must take into consideration:

  • Everyone keeps telling us how politically sensitive this situation is. The husbands and fathers of some of these refugees are Tuareg rebels using Gaddafi’s munitions to destabilize Mali.
  • The harvest in Burkina Faso was bad for everyone this year – our friends and neighbours are already struggling to make ends meet. Many people’s millet has already run out and they are being forced to borrow money or sell animals to survive.
  • We can not ignore the 600 women and children in _____. And nor can larger aid agencies. I know it’s political and all, but in 2008 we and SIM were the only ones helping the refugees. Action Sociale and the UNHDR came to ______ brandishing their clipboards and pens and they went away again. As Mohammed commented drily at the time, refugees can’t eat clipboards.

We will continue to assess the situation, and try to find out if any of the larger aid agencies are going to get involved this time. In the meantime, if you would like to donate towards short term aid (food/blankets) for the refugees, please contact me.

Kindles for Africa – are they a good idea?

The Camel and Hassan Djiwa

The news that 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, 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.