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Davies, Stephen; Outlaw. : Clarion Books, 2011. $16.99, ISBN ISBN 9780547390178 / 0547390173. .

Note: The children of Britain's ambassador to Burkina Faso, fifteen-year-old Jake, who loves technology and adventure, and thirteen-year-old Kas, a budding social activist, are abducted and spend time in the Sahara desert with Yakuuba Sor, who some call a terrorist but others consider a modern-day Robin Hood.


The setting of the novel is Burkina Faso, a West African nation and former French colony that used be called Upper Volta. It is located in the Sahel at the edges of the Sahara Desert with diverse ethnic groups including: The Mossi, the Senufo, the Mande, the Gurunsi and the Fulani. The majority are Muslim, others are Christian or follow indigenous religions.

As the story started in England, I thought that the adventure would develop in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya or another former British colony but not in Burkina Faso. An adventure starting in France and ending in Burkina Faso at first appeared to be more  normal.  However, upon further reflection, it was better to have the main character be English or another nationality rather than French. A French boy would come with a heavier colonial baggage and this would lead to a completely different narrative. All the characters in the book are well thought out. Jake, the main character and his sister Kas are sympathetic, likeable and interact well the people of Burkina Faso. However Kas is much more socially conscious and is the only character who is aware and who consistently cares about the plight of local people. Interestingly enough, Kas, a word-play from the French word casser meaning to break, is a pseudo-name given to people who break the status quo, in another word, a rebel. The name Kas seems to fit the young lady's character well.

Jake and Kas'parents are typical European diplomats in Africa, full of privileges, always upholding the European image at the detriment of local culture and fairly detached from the local population. The characters of local Burkinabe (Burkina people) are realistic, a few are shady characters, most are upright people. Given the fact that the country's name, Burkina Faso means  "land of upright people," it is pleasing to note that the Burkinabe hero in the story, Yakuuba Sor displays the characteristics of an upright person.

There is another angle to consider. Although it may not be the intention of the author to allude to historical relationships between Europeans and Africans, it is a well known fact that unruly and undisciplined Europeans were often sent to Africa and to the Americas. In Africa, these Europeans frequently developed friendships with shady local characters that appeared to be protecting their interests, such as, the story's Commissaire Beogo. Greedy people like Beogo are only interested in themselves and building their wealth. They are able to seduce the Europeans and gain their favor to the detriment of the true heroes who are interested in helping their fellow Africans. The typical misjudgment and disapproval of Africans by Europeans is the stuff of legend but with the most unfortunate circumstances. They ally themselves with the ruthless and the greedy and contribute to the persecution and mistreatment of the good guys who have the real interest of their people at heart. This case is illustrated by the author in the characters of Commissaire Beogo -- the bad guy and of Yakuuba Sor -- the Fulani hero. Commissaire Beogo and his acolytes use any current issue and "mediatized" opinions to get money ("...we have applied to [the British] for emergency anti-terrorist funds and access to relevant surveillance technologies. Such equipment is vital if we are to effectively search that vast southern region of the Sahara Desert"(73).

The Fulani characters, Paathé, Mariama, and Yakuuba Sor and the descriptions of their locations are fairly credible. I also appreciated description of herding cattle by Fulani shepherds, since I have had similar experiences. The author gives a brief description of the villages and towns of Burkina highlighting a few daily activities without delving too deeply into the negative and strange aspects of Africa which western writers have a tendency to do. We appreciate authors who avoid showing or telling too many hair-raising horrible stories about Africa.

The villages of Burkina Faso have all the makings of a classic remote African culture--many kids, domestic animals all over the place, subsistence farming, straw-roofed houses, and rituals to the spirits and ancestors. However, the author shows that village life is in fact a mélange of the modern and the global, intermingled with aspects of colonial and postcolonial history, but also with  indigenous  or local traditions. He also shows that traditional societies are not static but dynamic societies, open to the  outside  while combining the modern as well as the traditional.

It is a regular practice among the Fulani to preface ideas, conversations, arguments or explanations with Fulani proverbs. The Fulani proverbs Davies uses are appropriately placed and well said. For example, when Jake drank all the water his rescuers gave him without leaving a drop for others, the Fulani boy fittingly said tubaako ala semteede (white man has no shame, 108).

Adventure books set in foreign lands can generate great teaching moments. In the case of Outlaw,there are several teaching opportunities: the country of Burkina Faso itself and its neighbors, the Fulani language and culture, and the vital importance of rain in the Sahel. Frequent droughts in Burkina Faso and other countries in the Sahel keep the region in almost permanent food deficits, causing poverty and great misery. As Outlaw accurately shows, these conditions can make villagers vulnerable to shady religious characters and greedy merchants.

The Fulani people constitute the largest nomadic group in the world. Located in about 18 countries mostly in West Africa, they have rich and beautiful traditions. Yakuuba Sors camp is near Jibo, an important city of the Jelgoji Fulani, a people with a brilliant and noble history. With great humor, the author has captured them and one of the most notable traditions of Fulani people, i.e. praising nobility and ancestors with song and poetic words accompanied by the ngoni (guitar) or a "billilal" (flute)(151).

One interesting point is the evolution of Jake's character. When his school in England sends him to Africa, Jake, a child from a privileged family who never lacked anything, never experienced adversity (13) is without purpose. He is an undisciplined misfit who will not follow orders. His school headmaster describes him as a suffering from  rule allergy  (12). The son of an ambassador, he has never been hungry, thirsty, in need, never had to choose between food and medicine. (13). He is merely an aimless consumer trapped in the life of privileges and electronics. Africa transforms him. There through an exciting adventure filled with dangers and discoveries he wins the admiration and respect of his sister Kas (259), gets new friends, and finally finds himself. It is remarkable to see that both heroes, Jake from the British high society and, Yakuuba, an extraordinary Fulani young man from a poor hamlet in Burkina Faso are so similar. As revealed towards the end of the book, they share positive character traits, identical aspirations and possess the basic ingredients for a long lasting friendship. Davies cleverly gives the boys, names that mirror each other (Yakuuba is the Arabic version of the Biblical Jacob). By accentuating their similarities rather differences, Davies appeals to the likeness and unity of the whole human family.

The book is readable, fun, action filled and entertaining. I recommend it to both young and adults. I propose translating the book into French and Fulfulde, the language of the Fulani.

Published in Africa Access Review (January 26, 2013)

Copyright 2013 Africa Access

Rating: R Grade: M / H Type: Book

Reviewed by: Hamé Watt

Subject: West Africa / Burkina Faso / Fiction