I am frequently asked where I find my story ideas. Sometimes a specific place will spark my imagination, or an overheard phrase, even the face of a particular child in a crowd. When I first read a newspaper article about the Kenya National Library Service using camels to deliver books to camps and orphanages in the wastelands of Northern Kenya I was intrigued. I knew that Somalis had fled to camps in this area because of civil war, famine and drought. I also knew that the Somali people were direct descendents of camel herders who entered the Horn of Africa two million years ago and slowly developed a rich Islamic culture and self-sustaining nomadic lifestyle. As the story took root I chose not to differentiate between Somali or Somali Bantu or clan allegiences, but rather to concentrate on the loss of this significant nomadic life. It was not the library system itself that caught my attention, but curiosity about the children to whom these books were being delivered. And the article reminded me of long-ago history/geography lessons as a schoolgirl in England, when Britain still maintained colonies all over the world, including Somaliland.
Cecil Rhodes, British diamond magnate in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) said, after discovering that his horses died of thirst and disease in the hot dry desert - 'I am willing to defray the cost of the purchase of twenty camels and six camel drivers.'
It was satisfying to know that a hundred years later camels were still a necessary part of life on the Kenya/Somalia border. I began to imagine a young Somali boy struggling to find his place in the world. Who was he? Where had he come from? What did he crave most in the world?
I pondered these questions for a long time before a specific child took shape in my mind. Gradually Muktar began to share with me memories of his nomadic life in Somalia with his beloved family, and his great love of camels that had provided for their every need before events completely destroyed his centuries old way of life.
Muktar became a child I cared about deeply. He was a dreamer. He loved camels. It was vital to make some connection with the life he had lost. And I knew his need lay not with the delivery of the books but with the well being of camels. I had my story at last.
Although I obviously was unable to visit Kenya or Somalia to do research, I think those lessons of my childhood served me well in terms of an understanding of the nomadic way of life. I hope so anyway. And I used films such as Lawrence of Arabia to observe the gait of camels and how they sound moving through sand. The local zoo was also invaluable resource.
All my very best wishes to the brave Somali immigrants in the U.S. - and a fervent wish that peace will eventually come to their homeland.
Janet Graber is also the author of Resistance, a young adult novel set during World War II about a 15-year old French girl drawn into the Resistance movement by loss in her family. Please scroll down to the next post for sidelines on camels and the Kenyan National Library Service which are featured in Mukhtar.