Thomas Mlanda


Enriching the fabric of education

Thank you for inviting me here today. It may surprise you to know that, despite numerous invitations from the likes of Leeds, Reading and Glastonbury, this is in fact the only festival I have spoken at since taking up post at Ofsted.

And I’m delighted to be here. I have been to Wellington many times, to listen as well as to speak, so I can say from experience just how useful it is to hear from the engaged and eclectic group of people that this festival brings together. So, if you don’t get chance to ask a question in this session, do come and talk to me or to one of my colleagues – Sean Harford and Luke Tryl – who are here from Ofsted as well.

Having space for reflection is important in any job. As you wind up this term and prepare for next year, most of you will be taking time to think about how this year has gone, with all its challenges. And this may be a good time for me to contribute to your thoughts about the future.

Now, perhaps this future isn’t quite the one we thought it was going to be just a few weeks ago. The changed landscape at Westminster has clearly affected the direction of education policy already. This, in turn, has a bearing on all our work. But my hope is that Ofsted, as an independent inspectorate and regulator, can be a source of strength and stability for the years ahead.

Looking back to my first speech as Chief Inspector, not so long ago, I said that I would use Ofsted’s power responsibly and intelligently, not just in my own personal approach, but in the whole way Ofsted inspects and regulates.

This means, among other things, inspecting and reporting on the things that really matter for good education. It means using the evidence we gather to inform and advise and combining the feedback we get from inspection with evaluation of our frameworks to improve what we do. At all times, I want Ofsted to be a force for improvement in education.

Greater than the sum of our parts

For Ofsted to continue being a force for improvement, we as an organisation must be more than the sum of our parts. Yes, of course, we must never lose sight of our core activity, which is providing fair, valid and reliable judgements about the performance of individual institutions.

But we have evidence from thousands of individual inspections on the ground, as well as a bird’s eye view of the entire system. It would be an unforgiveable waste of the unique position we occupy if we thought that our job was done when we publish an inspection report. I believe Ofsted adds real value when it aggregates insights, triangulates its findings with existing research and evidence and produces robust analysis of what is working well, both at the national level and in individual school practice.

This is why I am expanding Ofsted’s research function. We’re going to be looking at the validity and reliability of our inspections, making sure we look at what really matters in education and that our judgements are consistent and reliable.

And, more generally, we are thinking about how evidence is used across the whole of Ofsted.

We particularly want to capitalise on the enormous wealth of information out there on how we, as an independent arbiter of standards, affect the sectors we inspect. That means seeking your views – the views of parents, teachers, governors, the government and all the other users of inspection outcomes and reports – on how well we inform and advise. We already do a lot of this, but we want to do it better. And we want to make sure the totality of our work leads to real, tangible improvement.

I also want us to have a much greater engagement with the wider research community. My hope is that, by sharing and analysing more of what we find, we can play a larger role in informing education policy. Not a role that is based on personal prejudices or hobby horses, but on proper evidence from the ground.

And beefing up our research means we can have more influence on practice too, particularly through our thematic reviews. I am clear that being able to comment on what works requires our inspectors to see the full range of practice, including what is happening in outstanding schools.

Many people have told me that there is value in our focused thematic reviews and survey reports, as well as in our individual inspections. Done well, this research can be used by all of you to celebrate the good and stop the bad before it takes hold and, most importantly, to throw light on areas that have sometimes been neglected.

The substance of education

One of the areas that I think we sometimes lose sight of is the real substance of education. Not the exam grades or the progress scores, important though they are, but instead the real meat of what is taught in our schools and colleges: the curriculum.

To understand the substance of education we have to understand the objectives. Yes, education does have to prepare young people to succeed in life and make their contribution in the labour market. But to reduce education down to this kind of functionalist level is rather wretched.

Because education should be about broadening minds, enriching communities and advancing civilisation. Ultimately, it is about leaving the world a better place than we found it. As Professor Michael Young wrote in his article, ‘What are schools for?’:

Schools enable young people to acquire the knowledge that, for most of them, cannot be acquired at home or in the community.

Yet all too often, that objective, that real substance of education, is getting lost in our schools. I question how often leaders really ask, “What is the body of knowledge that we want to give to young people?”

As one head, Stuart Lock, put it during a typically insightful thread of tweets:

Most schools don’t think about curriculum enough, and when think they do, they actually mean qualifications or the timetable.

And I have become ever more convinced of this, as a visitor to schools and as an observer of some of our inspections. In some of those, I have seen GCSE assessment objectives tracking back into Year 7, and SAT practice papers starting in Year 4. And I’ve seen lessons where everything is about the exam and where teaching the mark schemes has a bigger place than teaching history.

That is not what will set our children up for great futures. Nor will the growing cannibalisation of key stage 3 into key stage 4. Preparing for GCSEs so early gives young people less time to study a range of subjects in depth and more time just practising the tests themselves.

We have a full and coherent national curriculum and it seems to me a huge waste not to use it properly. The idea that children will not, for example, hear or play the great works of classical musicians or learn about the intricacies of ancient civilisations – all because they are busy preparing for a different set of GCSEs – would be a terrible shame. All children should study a broad and rich curriculum. Curtailing key stage 3 means prematurely cutting this off for children who may never have an opportunity to study some of these subjects again.

But none of this is to say that GCSEs, and qualifications more generally, are not important or that there is anything ignoble about making sure young people leave school with a set of excellent exam results. On the contrary, having spent 5 years as Chair of Ofqual, I know better than most quite how high-stakes these qualifications are as passports to future success.

But – and I need to be clear here – if you are leading a school that enters 90% of young people for the European Computer Driving Licence – a qualification that can take only 2 days to study for – then you must ask yourself whether you care more about the school’s interests than about making the most of pupils’ limited time at school. If you don’t encourage EAL (English as an additional language) students to take a taught language at GCSE because they can tick that box with a home language GCSE instead, then you are limiting their education.

Again, if you are putting more resources into providing exam scribes than in teaching your strugglers to read and write, or scrapping most of your curriculum through Year 6 to focus just on English and maths. If you are doing any of those things then you are probably doing most of your students a disservice.

This all reflects a tendency to mistake badges and stickers for learning itself. And it is putting the interests of schools ahead of the interests of the children in them. We should be ashamed that we have let such behaviour persist for so long.

But unacceptable though they are, these behaviours are easily explained. We have a highly transparent system and performance data is valuable for many purposes, including holding schools to account. But most of us, if told our job depends on clearing a particular bar, will try to give ourselves the best chance of securing that outcome.

And that is why leadership and management are so important. At a time of scarce pupil funding and high workloads, all managers are responsible for making sure teachers’ time is spent on what matters most. This means concentrating on the curriculum and the substance of education, not preparing your pupils to jump through a series of accountability hoops.

I am glad that these problems are starting to be acknowledged, and I welcome the work of the sector to address this. For example, ASCL (Association of School and College Leaders) has recently established a Committee on Ethical Leadership, of which I am now a member.

And, as a regulator, we at Ofsted have a responsibility too: to make sure that, if schools focus on the right things, then a good inspection outcome will follow.

So I believe we have vital role in balancing the accountability system. What we measure through inspection can counteract some of the inevitable pressure created by performance tables and floor standards. Rather than just intensifying the focus on data, Ofsted inspections must explore what is behind the data, asking how results have been achieved. Inspections, then, are about looking underneath the bonnet to be sure that a good quality education – one that genuinely meets pupils’ needs – is not being compromised.

Doing that isn’t easy. At Ofsted, we are all too aware of the challenge of interpreting data wisely and placing it in its proper context. And we are particularly conscious of the changing exam landscape and all the increased volatility of results in periods of transition.

We know, for example, that it is particularly difficult to predict outcomes this year in the new English and maths GCSEs. And as Sean Harford said, in his update to our inspectors earlier this year, no one in schools – however good – can predict Progress 8 this accurately.

So both Sean and I have been really clear that our inspectors aren’t expecting these predictions. Instead, we will be looking at whether schools know that pupils are making progress and, if they are not, whether the management team is taking effective action.

And after this summer’s results, we will also be briefing our inspectors on exactly what inferences can and, crucially, cannot be drawn from this year’s results and from comparisons with previous years.

Moving on to the data we use in inspection, it would be far safer for Ofsted to rely solely on what is recorded in national data sets. But if Ofsted’s sole purpose was to wrap narrative around a set of figures, it would be fair to ask what purpose we are serving and whether or not the £40 million or so that we spend on school inspection a year could be better spent elsewhere.

Which is precisely why our judgements are not simply a reflection of performance data, but instead give a more nuanced picture of a school. And it is here that I believe we can do more.

Our inspection framework doesn’t yet fully capture the substance of education. But we know that great teachers can’t be fully effective if that substance, the curriculum meat, isn’t there. Curriculum can end up getting lost, as just one in a long list of areas that we inspect under the leadership and management judgement. Rather than carrying the weight it should, alongside teaching, assessment and leadership itself, it can end up as a needle in the haystack.

That is why, earlier this year, I started a review of the curriculum – the main research project of my first year. This project is looking at curriculum practice in hundreds of schools across the country to see what is actually going on. We are also being advised by a group of experts, including the likes of the assessment specialist Tim Oates and Professor Sam Twiselton.

Once we have collected the first wave of evidence, we will look at whether routine inspection needs rebalancing in favour of the curriculum. If it does, we’ll be able to reflect this in the new inspection framework we are developing for 2019.

I am excited by both the project and by the positive external reaction to it so far. Sean Harford is talking about it here today. For those who are interested (and by the way this project covers all phases of education, from early years through schools through to colleges) his talk is at 2:10pm, in South Front 1. And I’d urge as many of you as possible to go to it.

Defending our values

Of course, the curriculum doesn’t just mean a set of national curriculum or GCSE subjects, important as these are. It also means what is snappily titled: ‘spiritual, moral, social and cultural development’.

And, within that, one area where there is room to improve is the active promotion of fundamental British values in our schools. Recent attacks in Westminster, London Bridge, Manchester and Finsbury Park have brought into stark relief the threats that we face.

In the coming months, I am sure we will see heated debates about how to improve our security without impinging on the liberties that are central to our British way of life. But just as important as our physical safety is making sure that young people have the knowledge and resilience they need to resist extremism of the sort peddled by those who, as our former Prime Minister David Cameron said, seek “to put hatred in their hearts and poison in their minds”.

Teaching the young about British values is critical to developing that resilience. And by that, I do not mean superficial displays or tick box exercises. We’ve all seen it: the Union Jack in the corridor, the pictures of the Queen.

But, instead, ‘the active promotion of British values’ means giving young people a real civic education. The sort of education that teaches young people not just what British values are, but how they were formed, how they have been passed down from generation to generation and how they make us a beacon of liberalism, tolerance and fairness to the rest of the world.

Through this curriculum survey, we hope to find good examples where schools have mastered this teaching, so that others who have struggled with the new requirements can build on their work.

And when it comes to tackling extremism through inspection, I have exactly the same zeal and passion as my predecessor. Ofsted will carry on looking for illegal, unregistered schools where young people are being put at risk, and where we find them, we will do everything we can to make sure they are closed.

Recognising challenge

Turning to the successes of recent years, it is fair to say that the performance of schools in England is transformed even from just 20 years ago. Most remarkably, heads and teachers in schools with significantly disadvantaged intakes have succeeded not just in turning around those individual schools, but also in reviving a sense of aspiration, sometimes for entire communities which had been in decline for decades.

I know from my time at ARK Schools, from the very sharp end of school improvement, just how much energy and focus is needed to transform education in our most problematic schools. But even the most intractably difficult schools, where children have been getting a very raw deal indeed, can be turned around so that all children receive the high-quality education they deserve.

In doing so, these schools thumb their noses at the idea that poverty inevitably leads to lower standards or that certain types of children are incapable of achieving. Right across the country, there are school leaders, managers and teachers who have refused to accept any idea of pre-destiny and, in doing so, have unlocked real social justice.

But we should also recognise that the scale of the leadership challenge in these schools is necessarily greater than that of schools in more affluent areas. The level of ambition, organisation and effort needed to get pupils to make the same amount of progress can be higher. We’d be fooling ourselves to think otherwise. With that in mind, I am conscious that we at Ofsted must not play a part in deterring the best teachers and leaders from working in the very schools that need them most.

Last year, the Education Policy Institute released a study on Ofsted judgements, finding “a systematic negative correlation between school intakes with more disadvantaged children… and with favourable Ofsted judgements.”

At the time, I said that schools with more disadvantaged intakes had more to do to reach the same levels of progress for pupils so that, if you put staff teams of identical size and calibre into schools with relatively disadvantaged and advantaged intakes, and keep other things constant, the absolute quality of education experienced by a given child will likely be higher in the advantaged school.

How should Ofsted recognise that challenge? There are some who would have us lower the bar on our overall judgements for schools in these circumstances. This is not something I am prepared to countenance. At best, it would mean our judgements failed to reflect the quality of education young people actually receive. And at its worst, it would legitimise lowered expectations for disadvantaged children. I can’t imagine anyone really wants that.

What Ofsted can, and does, do is to recognise the performance of leadership and management teams in overcoming that challenge. As I have said, I have no doubt that it requires stronger leadership and management skills to achieve the same outcomes in schools with much more disadvantaged intakes.

And if you look at our grade profiles, that is precisely what we recognise. The most deprived schools judged requires improvement overall by Ofsted are two and a half times more likely to be graded good for leadership and management than the most affluent in the RI category. Similarly, the most deprived schools judged good are nearly twice as likely to be rated outstanding for leadership and management than the most affluent schools judged good.

So Ofsted really does recognise the leadership challenge in tough schools. However, I’m the first to admit that we haven’t always done a good job in communicating it. And I can see how our failure to do so may be acting as a barrier to attracting good leaders. So we will do more to publicise this approach and I want to ask for your help to do the same: to make clear that no head, manager or teacher will be penalised by Ofsted for working in a challenging school.

But part of this responsibility lies with those who use our reports. It is easy to think that only the overall inspection outcome matters, but in fact each of the four constituent judgements convey important information. If you are the organisation responsible for a school, whether a local authority, a faith group, governing body or a MAT (multi-academy trust), the leadership and management judgement may be the most relevant. It may actually be more important than the overall inspection outcome for the decisions you take following an inspection.

Valuing management

Finally, on the subject of leadership and management, there is a further change of emphasis I want to make. That is to make more of that second word: ‘management’. We’re all used to hearing the tales of the hero head, transforming schools and changing lives. And in almost every case these heads, and many more, are thoroughly deserving of this praise, though I’m reluctant to name names here, as so many have come to grief after public praise and I don’t want to be the person to jinx any careers.

But it is equally true that, in most cases or, dare I say it, all, transforming a school involves more than just one individual. It needs the work of a whole team. Schools are transformed when these teams work well together, make use of everyone’s strengths and build robust processes.

Of course, the head matters. But they should be concentrating on the overall direction of a school. They need strong deputies and assistants looking after curriculum and behaviour, as well as good department heads, effective business and finance managers, making sure the school balances the books, and, of course, governors providing strong support and challenge.

On the importance of management in effective organisations, I recently saw an interesting study from Harvard. Among a sample of 1,000 high-performing investment analysts, almost half did not replicate their outstanding performance when they moved to another bank. The study hypothesised that their previous success was in many cases to a considerable extent a result of the team and strong organisational structure around them. I would similarly hypothesise that you’d find the same kind of results if you repeated the study in schools.

And while Ofsted’s inspection process has always recognised the importance of management, our public pronouncements haven’t. I want to change that. I know that a focus on well-functioning teams, rather than ‘visionary’ individuals, doesn’t lend itself to easy print copy or to gushing profile pieces. But it does reflect the reality of how good schools are run. And more importantly, it gives us models of management which others can replicate, rather than trying to emulate charismatic individuals.


So, looking to the immediate future, despite all the pressures from funding, I am hoping that I have given you some reasons to be optimistic. We have an education system full of talent and some space and time for consolidation of so much that is good. I very much hope that I will be able to reflect very positive trends in my annual reports as chief inspector.

Thank you.

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I am born with wings

“You are much more than what you think you are, and you can achieve much more than you are achieving now”.
Tiya ? a parrots journey home?. By Samarpan

I am happy to visit the Shemford School, Dehra Dun and address and interact with the students of different schools of this region and teachers. My greetings to teachers, staff, students, members of the school management and distinguished guests. Dear friends, the ignited mind of the youth is the most powerful resource on the earth, under the earth and above the earth. Today, when I am with you young friends, I would like to share a few thoughts on “I am born with wings”.

Criteria for achievement for youth

When I see you young friends, I thought of sharing an ancient poem and modified to suit the occasion. Can you all repeat with me?
Wings to Fly
I am born with potential.
I am born with goodness and trust.
I am born with ideas and dreams.
I am born with greatness.
I am born with confidence.
I am born with wings.
I am not meant for crawling,
So I won’t, I have wings,
I will fly, fly and fly”

My message to you, young friends, is that education gives you wings to fly. Achievement comes out of fire in our sub-conscious mind that “I will win”. So, each one of you assembled here and elsewhere, will have “Wings of Fire”. The Wing of Fire will indeed lead to knowledge which will make you to fly as a Doctor, or an Engineer, or a soldier, or a teacher, or a political leader, or anything you want to be.

How does achievement come? There are four proven steps; having an aim in life before 20 years of age, acquiring knowledge continuously, hard work towards the aim and perseverance to defeat the problem and succeed. Now you know, how the unique personalities got evolved and also you realize how to transform yourself into unique you. Above all, what you need is: “will power and confidence” to achieve great deeds.

Can you transform – “Unique You”

Dear friends, look up, what do you see, the light, the electric bulbs. Immediately, our thoughts go to the inventor Thomas Alva Edison, for his unique contribution towards the invention of electric bulb and his electrical lighting system.

When you hear the sound of aeroplane going over your house, whom do you think of? Wright Brothers proved that man could fly, of-course at heavy risk and cost.

Whom does the telephone remind you of? Of course, Alexander Graham Bell.

When everybody considered a sea travel as an experience or a voyage, aunique person questioned during his sea travel from United Kingdom to India. He was pondering on why the horizon where the sky and sea meet looks blue? His research resulted in the phenomena of scattering of light. Of course, Sir CV Raman was awarded Nobel Prize.

Do you know an Indian Mathematician who did not have formal higher education but had inexhaustible spirit and love for mathematics which took him to contribute to the treasure houses of mathematical research ? some of which are still under serious study and engaging all-available world mathematicians? efforts to establish formal proofs? He was a unique Indian genius who could melt the heart of the most hardened and outstanding Cambridge mathematician Prof G H Hardy. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that it was Prof. Hardy who discovered a great mathematician for the world. This mathematician was of-course Srinivasa Ramanujan for whom every number was a divine manifestation.

Do you know the scientist who is famous for Chandra Limit which describes the maximum mass (~1.44 solar masses) of a white dwarf star, or equivalently, the minimum mass for which a star will ultimately collapse into a neutron star to black hole following a supernova. Two of his students got the Nobel Prize before him. It is of-course the famous Nobel Laureate Chandrasekhar Subrmaniam .

Friends, there was a great scientific lady who is known for discovering Radium. She won not one, but two Nobel Prizes, one for physics and another for chemistry. Who is she? She is Madam Curie. Madam Curie discovered radium and she was doing research on the effect of radiation on human system. The same radiation which she discovered, affected her and she sacrificed her life for removing the pain of human life.

When I described to you young friends, these historical eight events, you all jumped. The scientist, technologist and great human being, who created the event, are unique personalities. Young friends, can you join such unique performers of scientific history? Yes, you can. Definitely, you can. Let us study together, how it can be made possible?

Friends, I have, so far, met 20 million youth in a decade?s time. I learnt, “every youth wants to be unique, that is, YOU! But the world all around you, is doing its best, day and night, to make you just “everybody else”. At home, dear young friends, you are asked by your parents to be like neighbours’ children for scoring good marks. When you go to school, your teacher says “why not you become like the first five rankers in the class”. Wherever you go, they are saying “you have to be somebody else or everybody else”. Now, dear young friends, how many of you would like to be unique yourself.

The challenge, my young friends, is that you have to fight the hardest battle, which any human being can ever imagine to fight; and never stop fighting until you arrive at your destined place, that is, a UNIQUE YOU! Friends what will be your tools to fight this battle, what are they: have a great aim in life, continuously acquire the knowledge, work hard and persevere to realize the great achievement.

Now dear friends, how many of you feel confident that you will become a unique personality in whatever field you choose.

How to make impossible possible?

Dear students, it is said, “History has proven that those who dare to imagine the impossible are the ones who break all human limitations. In every field of human endeavor, whether science, medicine, sports, the arts, or technology, the names of the people who imagined the impossible and achieved are engraved in our history. By breaking the limits of their imagination, they changed the world.”

Let us study a few creative minds who made ‘impossible’ to ‘possible’ by their indomitable spirit. Human flight is nothing but creativity of human mind and it undergoes several struggles to achieve excellence. In 1895, a great well-known scientist Lord Kelvin, who was the President of Royal Society of London said, “anything heavier than air cannot fly, and cannot be flown.” Within a decade, Wright Brothers proved man could fly in 1903.

On the successful completion of Moon Mission in 1969, Von Braun, a very famous rocket designer, who built Saturn-V, to launch the capsule with astronauts and made moon walk a reality, in 1975 said “If I am authorized, I will remove the word impossible”.

In ancient days, Ptolemaic astronomy is a widely used system in calculating the dynamics of various stars and planets. Assumption by then was that the earth is flat. What a scientific struggle had to take place to prove that the earth is spherical in shape orbiting around the sun. The three great astronomers Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler had to give a new dimension to the world of astronomy. Today we take it for granted that earth is a globe, orbiting around the sun, and the sun orbits in the Milky Way. All the technological advancements we have today are the outcome of scientific exploration of scientists of earlier centuries. At no time, man was beaten by problems. He strives continuously to subjugate impossibility and then succeeds.

Dear friends, what lessons do we learn from all these achievements? According to the laws of aerodynamics the bumble bee should never be able to fly. Because of the size, weight, and shape of its body in relationship to the total wing span, flying is scientifically impossible. The bumble bee, being ignorant of scientific theory, goes ahead and flies anyway. Because it wants to fly and it is flying. I would like the youth assembled here to take a lesson from these examples and work to make everything possible, because they are unique.

I can do it

Friends, when I was the President of India, I met the group of tribal students from Lead India 2020 movement on 28 Aug 2006. I asked all of them one question: “What you want to become?” Out of many responses, one visually challenged boy studying IX class got up. His name is Srikanth, he answered me “I will become the first visually Challenged President of India”. I was very happy to see his vision and ambition. Small aim is a crime. Hence, I congratulated him to realize his vision and told him to work for realizing the vision.

Thereafter he worked hard and got 90% in Xth class and 96 % in intermediate and he set a goal to study Engineering in MIT, Boston USA. His relentless hard work not only secured seat but he got full fee waiver from MIT, Boston. Srikanth?s achievement has brought changes in many change agents of Lead India 2020 and inspired to set high vision. The training he took under the initiative of Lead India 2020 has set a high vision for him. Seeing this impact of Lead India 2020 training, Lead India 2020 movement and GE volunteers have funded Mr. Srikanth for his travel to USA. Today he is pursuing his studies at MIT, Boston. When the GE offered him a job on his completion of graduation, he told them that he would certainly come back to GE, if he couldn?t become the President of India. What a confidence that boy has amidst of difficulty and the challenges in his life by being visually challenged.

Recently, when I met the physically challenged students meet organised by Tamilnadu Govt and Lead India 2020 at Coimbatore, I had a chance to meet Mr. Srikanth and his teacher who brought him up. I found in him, he is doing 4th year in his graduation of B.S Computer Science and Management. Within this 4 years, he has started one company which produces consumer packaging items using bio-degradable materials and other social imitative that he started is a skill development training to the youth. He gave an extempore speech on how to overcome the disability and to have a strong mind and will power to overcome the challenges and succeed. The message is, my young friends, it doesn?t matter who you are, if you have a vision and determination to achieve that vision, you will certainly achieve.
“When you wish upon a star,
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you”

Friends, teachers create beautiful minds. Beautiful minds are creative and many times with indomitable spirit.

Will-power can defeat any problem.

Friends, recently, an incident which took place in Harali village, Kolhapur District in Maharashtra where I met over 2000 of students hailing from different schools. When I was about to get down from the stage after finishing my lecture and interaction, a young boy about 18 years of age, held in the arms of his mother cried to meet me. I called both of them on to the stage. The polio affected boy could not walk, but he was strong in will power. He told me, “My name is Shailesh and I am from this village Harali. You told us to have a dream. I am here to tell you my dream. I am a chess player. I will work very hard and someday I will become a Grand Master”. I wished Shailesh all the best, who has a strong will power and said ?You will succeed. Definitely, God is with you.? Dear friends, the message is the “Will power can defeat any problem”.

Knowledge equation

Dear students, what you will acquire during your studies in your schools, a great friend is accompanying you. Who is that friend? That friend is – knowledge. Now, I am going to give the knowledge equation.
Knowledge = Creativity + Righteousness + Courage
“Learning gives creativity
Creativity leads to thinking
Thinking provides knowledge
Knowledge makes you great”

The next component of knowledge is righteousness. Righteousness is described in a divine hymn.
Where there is righteousness in the heart
There is beauty in the character.
When there is beauty in the character,
there is harmony in the home.
When there is harmony in the home.
There is an order in the nation.
When there is order in the nation,
There is peace in the world.

Now the question is: How do we inculcate the righteousness in the heart. In my opinion, there are three sources which can build a youth with righteousness in the heart. One is mother, second is father in a spiritual environment and the third and the most important is the teacher, particularly primary school teacher.
The third component is courage, which is defined as follows:
Courage to think different,
Courage to invent,
Courage to travel into an unexplored path,
Courage to discover the impossible,
Courage to combat the problems and succeed,
are the unique qualities of the youth.
As a youth of my nation, I will work and work with courage to achieve success in all the missions.

Wherefrom you will acquire knowledge? Home, good books, teachers and teaching environment, coming into contact with good human beings, teaching websites in internet. When the schools teach the students to use the knowledge with creativity, righteousness and courage, nation will have large number of empowered and enlightened citizens, which is vital for the growth of the individual, growth of the family, growth of nation and promotion of peace in the world.

Teacher as a facilitator of innovation

I am sure, the teachers assembled here would be great facilitators of learning and innovation. Friends, teachers have to emerge as facilitator of new ideas and lead to lifelong innovative thinking in the young minds. This reminds me of a poem “The Student?s Prayer” by a Chilean biologist Maturana. I will narrate a few lines from the poem.
The Student?s Prayer”
Show me so that I can stand
On your shoulders.
Reveal yourself so that I can be
Something different.

Don?t impose on me what you know,
I want to explore the unknown
And be the source of my own discoveries.
Let the known be my liberation, not my slavery.


Finally, in conclusion friends, I would like to ask you, what would you like to be remembered for? You have to evolve yourself and shape your life. You should write it on a page. That page may be a very important page in the book of human history. And you will be remembered for creating that one page in the history of the nation ? whether that page is the page of invention, the page of innovation or the page of discovery or the page of creating societal change or a page of removing the poverty or the page of fighting injustice or planning and executing mission of networking of rivers. I will be happy if you write your thoughts to my email id

I am sure, dear friends, definitely you can become partner in the national development with the message that “I can do it”, “We can do it” and “India will do it”.

My greetings and best wishes to all the students of Shemford School and other nearby schools, for success in their mission.

May God Bless you.

Oath for the Youth

1. I will have a goal and work hard to achieve that goal. I realize that small aim is a crime.

2. I will work with integrity and succeed with integrity.

3. I will be a good member of my family, a good member of the society, a good member of the nation and a good member of the world.

4. I will always try to save or better someone’s life, without any discrimination of caste, creed, language religion or state.

5. I will always protect and enhance the dignity of every human life without any bias.

6. I will always work for clean home, clean planet Earth and clean energy.

7. As a youth of my nation, I will work and work with courage to achieve success in all my tasks and enjoy the success of others.

9.My National Flag flies in my heart and I will bring glory to my nation.


An essay of the female characters in  The River and the Source

By Charles. O. Okoth

NB: This articles is the first in a series of others that explore the use of stronger female characters in the novel The River and the Source by Margaret A. Ogola. This first part focuses on Akoko Obanda. 

Inasmuch as male readers complain about the book, pointing out its female chauvinistic aberrations, one must excuse the writer for her stylistic modus operandi. One aim of the book is to illustrate the native sagacity and initiative of African women, especially when there is no man in the picture. The author calls it the spirit of the undefeatable womanhood of Africa.


Thus it is a stylistic imperative for a man in a woman’s life to be conveniently removed, mainly by natural attrition e.g. that resulting from war, carelessly swallowed fish bones, disease, and the like.

I wish to examine the female characters, to see how effectively Dr. Ogola succeeds in painting a picture of a cognitive category that portrays essence and permanence.

The title, The River and The Source, is essentially a reference to women. A river is a source of water, which is very essential for livelihood. The author thus wishes to portray the view that without women, there would be no life. This is essentially factual; as someone once asked rhetorically: don’t they give us birth?

But the author’s concern is not just the biological consideration. It is something more deep rooted than that.

She is concerned about the unique abilities of women to not only sustain life, but to survive even if the odds are heavily stacked against them.

I will examine some key female characters to try and bring out this point.

Akoko Obanda

For all intents and purposes, Akoko appears to be the Source of all the Rivers in the book.

The daughter of the great chief, Odero Gogni, she is born in the very first sentence in the book, as befits a source of all this. Even her first cry is very powerful, making the father think that she is a boy. That sets ground for a unique, powerful woman, full of strength and character.

The father alludes to the Source, by saying that a house without a daughter is like a spring without a source. And thus are we set to look upon her as the Source.

How does she justify that position as the book progresses?

    • She is from a good family.  ‘…Her antecedents are peerless….” (p. 21)
    • Being beautiful in the ways of the tribe, she attracts admiration from all. She is thus a source of pride to her parents, and her people. She also inspires her age mates, who are wont to look upon her as a role model. “Everyone remarked that she would be a very determined person one day.” (p.14).
    • She is hard-working. Even before marriage, she gains this reputation. Laziness was frowned upon in her community. She is a source of wealth to her father, who is paid a lot of cattle for her, due to the antecedents mentioned above.
    • As a wife, she portrays a very positive character. She is obedient to her husband, and her mother-in-law.
    • At her marital home, she works very hard, and gains a lot of property for her husband. In an essentially patriarchal society, she shows she can survive well, without depending on her husband for upkeep.
    • Even though she has only three children, she is able to justify her position as an only wife by being a treasure to her husband, who doesn’t see the sense in marrying another wife. Akoko does this without using witchcraft, or threats. She is not jealous.
  • When she loses her loved ones, she takes it very well. Though she regrets it, she is strong enough to realize that such things as death are a natural imperative. That shows a certain amount of pedigree on her part. She could be referred to as a ‘oner’. She is thus able to help her daughter Nyabera cope with the deaths of their loved ones; father, two brothers, and son.
  • Her greatest strength is seen after her husband’s death. She has to reckon with the antipathies of her bother-in-law and mother-in-law. The bother-in-law not only usurps the chieftaincy, but takes all the cattle belonging to Akoko. But she does not give up. She decides to go to Kisumu and report the injustice to the colonial administrators, who conduct investigations and facilitate Akoko’s regaining of her wealth.
  • After getting back her wealth, she takes the initiative to leave her matrimonial home and return to her own people in Yimbo. This shows a unique strength of character. A lesser woman would have stuck to her matrimonial home, to face the suffering from bad in-laws quietly, and probably die in poverty after all her property has been taken over.
  • She excels herself even when she is at her father’s place, among very understanding relatives. She still prospers, and is able to reward her brothers with cattle.
  • When her daughter very reasonably decides to go and stay with missionaries, to facilitate her gaining religion and education for her child and nephew, Akoko agrees with her and joins her at the mission. This results into education for Elizabeth and Owuor. As a result, the latter becomes a bishop, the former a successful teacher and parent.
  • She succeeds in educating her grandchildren, looks after them, guides them; in effect, forms their character, for them to become successful in the future.
  • She still manages to work hard, even at 50 seasons, and is able to create wealth at the mission, the place of her sojourn.

All these justify the claim that Akoko is indeed the source. If she had been otherwise, Nyabera, her daughter, would not have been what she became. She would not have been a woman of means and power, and her family would have been a non-entity. As the wise say, a (wo)man is not judged by the wealth they possess, but by the sort of family they bring up.

(Next essay: Nyabera and Elizabeth). 

Charles Ohoth is a Principal Lecturer, teaching at Kingandole Secondary School, in Busia County. He is also the author of High Tide at Shibale, which won the CODE Burt’s Award for Literature in 2015. The book High Tide at Shibale can be acquired online at ( or contact him through


The Death Motif in The River and The Source

A thematic essay

By Charles O. Okoth


Inarguably, death is one of the most powerful entities ever. It is also supremely emotive, due to its very nature: a phenomenon that changes the course of history by shutting its victims up forever. Even the bible designates it as such, referring to it variously as the Sting, Sword, Eternal Sleep, Wages of Sin, and a thesaurus of other equally frightening appellations.

Death in literature. 

In literature, death is used for various purposes.

One is to portray the true nature of living things. Human characters must be seen to be normal; doing what human beings do. They have to eat, drink, sleep, love, be biologically functional, portray human emotions, and the like. They also have to be born, and to die, if the context so demands. A reader will then identify such characters in everyday life: drunkards, prostitutes, politicians lying away, gluttons, the pious, and the like. Such a reader will find the situations in the book real, as contrasted to surreal. (In saying this I exclude books about heroes who don’t die, like Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, and the like.)

Another reason writers kill off characters is to ‘humanize’ them. This notion must be viewed differently from the one given above. By it, I simply mean that a writer wants to bring a bad character down. That is why Chinua Achebe kills off M.A. Nanga in A Man of the People. The reader in this case exults due to such a death. It is like removing an eyesore from the scene.

A third reason is to play on the emotions of a reader. A writer may aim to stir up readers against an entity, e.g. the government. That can be done by making the government kill a very good man in the society, thus portraying it as callous. People will then sympathise with the victim, and hate the government.  The victim becomes a martyr; a hero who died for a course.

But by the very nature of the death motif, it has to be used sparingly. There must be no overdose. The reader must not be fatigued by the frequency of deaths in a story.

What is the scenario in The River and The Source, vis-a-vis the subject of death; what I am calling here the Death Motif?


Let’s look at the deaths of the male characters.

Any reader will take note that male characters in the book die very easily. One is left wondering if the writer wanted to paint males as being so weak that their life expectancy is very low. It can even be said that open bias is shown against them.

Death of Odero Gogni

To illustrate: we have the sad case of Odero Gogni’s death. This is revealed only because Akoko, his daughter, wanted to name her child. A reader just has to gasp and ask, ‘when did that happen? What happened?’ after all, wasn’t Gogni the patriarch of  Akoko’s family? Wasn’t he a famous chief? How can the author obliquely give the impression that the death of such a tribal colossus was inconsequential? She should have emphasized the tragedy of such a death. She should have told us how it went to change several events in the book; how it touched and affected various people.  We should have been shown the picture of a whole community praying for the welfare and health of their sick patriarch. Gogni’s death should have emulated Mandela’s, with people praying outside his house. That is how a great leader should die; surrounded by love and well-wishers. Gogni died we don’t know how.

Death of Akoko’s sons. 

Then there is the death of Akoko’s two sons. One foolishly goes off to fight in a war his people know nothing about. This is in spite of the fact that he was to be the next chief. This portrays him as some unreasonable, unrealistic character who ought to have known better. One is left saying: ‘just like a man to be so foolish’.

The other son, who would have been chief instead, dies very easily, just by carelessly swallowing a small fish born. Though such deaths happen, one wishes the man would have been more careful while eating fish.

Death of Chief Owour Kembo

Then Akoko’s husband, Owuor Kembo, dies when he is in middle age. Well, at least the author strikes him with illness, from which he is too weak to recover. He was a worthy man, and a great chief, but he dies anyway, probably to prepare the way for Akoko to show her fighting spirit when she is left a widow. The author wants to show that this Luo woman can beat the odds stacked against her, minus her husband. If Owuor Kembo would have lived, Akoko would have had to survive in his shadow. He has to die to bring out Akoko’s strength.

The other death that is treated so casually is that of Mark, the patriarch of the most progressive family in the book.

Mark married Akoko’s granddaughter, Elizabeth. They brought up a wonderful family. He was principled, and worked very hard to educate and sustain his family in all ways. Yet his death is only alluded to. We don’t even nurse him in sickness. We don’t weep for him. He is left lonely after his wife’s death, and we are only told that ‘…he was to follow her within the year….’ it could be a ploy to inform us that Mark could not survive without his wife, whose death and funeral are high profile phenomena, elaborately chronicled.

So much for the downplayed theme of the death of weakling men.

Now the women.

Start by noting that the women in the book are both the Rivers and the Source.

The symbolism of a river is a connotation of perpetuity. Rivers in Luo Nyanza rarely dry up, and the sources are permanent. Dr. Ogola (oh, how I wish she had lived to give an opinion!) wanted to create a notion of permanence. Save for Mark’s daughter, Becky, (ok, ‘Elizabeth’s daughter), the women live long, focussed lives, and die full of years and achievements. This tends to underline their strength, as contrasted to the men.

Akoko dies a very old woman, after achieving a lot. She had cattle without number, and gave good guidance to her charges. She fights with men and wins every single battle and skirmish. She actually dies in joy, after seeing her granddaughter’s husband-to-be.

Her daughter, Nyabera, also lives a long life. She dies after several spectacular achievements, including bringing up her two children and educating them. Okay, so one was the nephew; but both were like her children, since her brother died so long ago. Note that she dies after her daughter marries and gets many children, and her nephew becomes a whole bishop. Her sickness, death and funeral are fully told, so that when she dies, we heave a sigh, and get the opportunity to condole with the bereaved.

Nyabera’s daughter, Elizabeth’s death has already been alluded to. She is a woman who has achieved much. Her family is successful, what with children finishing various courses in the university and establishing a hospital; and many other things. The author prepares us for her death by showing us a satisfied woman watching her grandchildren sleeping all over the place, soon after a family function. She has left her husband sleeping and gone to look upon this spectacle. She nods is satisfaction. ‘I have done it, in this life,’ we can almost imagine her saying; ‘Lord, now latest thou thy servant depart in peace.’

The next day, she dies peacefully. An elaborate funeral is held, and the reader can’t help but marvel at the grandeur of it.

All in all, one tends to see the bias portrayed against male characters. One would have expected that some amount of equality would have been shown in death. But the author had to downplay it, lest some semblance of strength be attributed to men. I feel this was unfair and surrealistic. At least, the biblical ethic of death being the social equalizer should have been applied.


Charles Ohoth is a Principal Lecturer, teaching at Kingandole Secondary School, in Busia County. He is also the author of High Tide at Shibale, which won the CODE Burt’s Award for Literature in 2015. The book High Tide at Shibale can be acquired online at ( or contact him through

How to use the blog.

1. Click

All literary analysis posts will appear at a click; in a simple, clear and professional layout for easy navigation. The short stories The War of the ears, Twillight Trek are also available. Articles will be posted at the rate of 1 or 2 per week, to facilitate maximum intake of content and sufficient engagement of the parties on a case subject. The articles will be structured in a ‘do it yourself’ manner, which furnishes the student with just enough content to invite them to the centrality of the critical thinking process.

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A click on Forum will lead to the board room, which is a virtual interaction platform, much like any social network site akin to Facebook. In the initial visit, one will be asked to register a profile, with the basic details of name, profile photo and a brief description of themselves. After registration, one will only be asked to input their login details. YOUR PASSWORD IS PRIVATE AND ONLY AVAILABLE TO YOU, AND SHOULD REMAIN SO. Once registered, anyone can interact with others in the discussions that are periodically posted, and even post discussion questions themselves. A virtual class can also be conducted at the Forum, with the facilitator engaging a ‘group’ of students, writers, teachers, etc.

 Twillight Trek

Sefi Atta


Gao. An agent hands me a fake passport – my name is not Jean-Luc, I am not from Mali and I am definitely no Francophone African.

I am fluent in English though, and luckily the agent can communicate in Pidgin. He leads me through a haze of smoke to a mud hut where I will hide until nightfall. The smoke is coming from the compound where a group of old Malian women are cooking a mid-day meal. The women are shrouded in robes. Being such good Moslems, you would think they would invite a stranger to eat. Anyway, I am happy to go indoors instead of sweltering in the heat like them. I do not care to know the town of Gao. The further north I am in Africa, the more one place begins to resemble the other.

Like me, other travelers in Gao have come from somewhere south. We will cross the Sahara to get to Morocco, and from there cross the Mediterranean to get into Spain. We are illegals. It is not that we do not have enough money to fly overseas; it’s just that the foreign embassies do not grant Africans like us visas.

Half my fare is hidden in my sneakers. To raise the full amount, I sold marijuana. I was not making much of a cut, so I duped my boss. He threatened to send a gang to slit my throat, after they had raped me. I knew I had to leave town immediately. Death, I could live with, but I could not afford to be tampered with like that, against my will.

When I was young, my mother used to smear lipstick all over my face. ‘’Keep still,’’ she would order as I struggled. ‘’See how pretty you look.’’ She oiled my hair with pomade and braided it into cornrows like a girl’s. In the afternoons, after school, I would beg her to let me play football with other boys in our neighbourhood; she would make me sit on a stool and watch her roasting groundnuts. She would be singing that awful nursery rhyme:


                             The birds have come home


                               One black, one red


                               Their tails are touching the ground



Instead of clapping, I would be frowning at her huge crusty feet. Even with those feet, my mother managed to walk the streets in high heels and solicit all sorts of men: rich, married, handsome, fat – white sailors like my father. One day she introduced me to a Lebanese man who was known for liking light-skinned boys. ‘’He’ll only only touch,’’ she promised. I ran away from home after that, lived on the streets, played football with a group of louts and discovered just how professional I was at the sport. In fact, for a while, before I warned them to stop understating my talent, my football friends were calling me – what’s his name? – Pele?





In the hut, there is a prayer mat. I fall asleep on it. In my dream, my mother’s face appears as I remember it: two thick penciled-in lines for brows, a chip in her front tooth, and pink rouge on her cheeks. Her feet are the roots of a tree, with dry bark for skin. She cannot move, and yet she is able to hunt me down and find me, wherever I am, even here in Gao

She tells me that, all things considered, to trek overseas is reasonable. A man she knew hid himself in the wheel well of an airplane that flew overnight to London. It could have been the low temperature or high altitude that finished him. Immigration officers discovered his body two days later. By the end of the month, they had deported him back to his family for burial. 

She says the lesson to learn is that the world is round, which means that if I run too fast I might end up chasing the very homeland I am running from. She lecturers me even in my dreams, my mother. She is the daughter of a schoolteacher, lest anyone forget. 




When it is dark enough, I come out of the hut. My stomach is fed up with grumbling for attention it is in a silent sulk. I buy myself bread and sardines to eat, enough to last the journey. I buy drinking water, bottles of it. I meet a pretty girl called Patience at the depot where the agent instructed me to wait with other travellers for our transportation out of Gao.

Patience is skinny with a bit of a backside. Her trousers are too tight. Her hair is curly and greased back. She wears a silver hoop in her nostril. She claims to be from Mali, but she has been living in the capital city, Bamako. She says this as if it is some sort of achievement, as if it separates her from villagers who are happy to stay in Africa herding their cattle, hoeing their land or whatever.

‘’You have a man in Bamako?’’ I ask her.

‘’Do you know how old I am?’’

‘’Sweet sixteen at most?’’

‘’You small boy! Don’t cheek me! How old are you yourself?’’

She laughs and swings slaps at me. I am a year older than I was on the day I left home, is all she needs to know. African women are proud of their ages. I bet patience is taken by my looks. I bet she has taken rubbish from men not nearly as good-looking as me. I bet she is used to it. In my old neighbourhood, a pretty girl like her would have been beaten up several times by her man.

Our trucks arrive while she is still busy trying to snub me. They are small trucks with tarpaulin covers. We do not scramble for them. We all believe we will get in one way or the other. Our guides are Tuaregs with indigo cloths wrapped around their heads. They know the desert routes. They will drive us through Mali, Algeria and beyond. There is talk that travellers are sometimes attacked by bearded Moslems and bandits; that trucks often break down and there is no guarantee that gendarmes on patrol will arrive on time to rescue us. This makes a few women turn around at the last moment, especially those with children. I hop into the same truck as Patience and sit by her.

‘’You again?’’ she says.

I wink. ‘’I’m just here to protect you.’’

There are seven of us under the tarpaulin. I check out the others while cracking my knuckles: passenger one, tattered shoes; two, greasy skullcap; three, lopsided headscarf; four, chapped lips; five, gold chain and red eyes. Nothing new.





How long can I bear this god-forsaken place? We can only travel at night when the cold winds blow. During the day, the sand – you cannot understand – is like needles in my eyes, ants in my nostrils, cobwebs in my chest. It is everywhere. I eat bread and crunch on grains. I gulp down water and grit gets stuck in my throat. I cough so hard my head could detonate.

I am telling you, in the most crowded cities, I have ridden in taxis with wobbly wheels and no doors, hitched rides on highways in lorries that bounce from one pothole to the other. I have slept in villages where dogs will not stop to take a piss, had bouts of diarrhoea, fever to get to Gao. I cannot understand these Tuaregs. Only camels are meant to survive in the Sahara.

At first, Patience would say, ‘’Mr. Protector, how now?’’ and I would mumble, ‘’Cool.’’. Then I could not be bothered to answer because my tongue started to swell. Then she stopped teasing me, perhaps because she realized that joking around might eventually exhaust her.

Now, she is choking away like everyone else in our truck. We spit where we crouch. We reek badly. Our legs are cramped. The man with the skullcap says he is suffering from piles because of the constant jolts. His wheezy wife complains that she cannot breathe. ‘’Shut up!’’ I want to shout.




Day two. We stop for a rest, finally. I fall out of the truck and roll underneath to avoid the afternoon sun. There is sand even in my underpants.

Patience slides next to me. ‘’Are you alright?’’


‘’Sorry I teased you earlier.’’

‘’Don’t worry.’’

‘’It’s just that, to me, you’re young. Too young to be on your own crossing the desert.’’ Her breath smells of sardines.

‘’I’m not that young.’’

She stretches. ‘’You know, in Bamako, I heard that this is the same route the Arabs used to traffic African slaves in the olden days.’’

Who cares? I think.

‘’Do you have someone to meet overseas?’’ she asks.


‘’What will you do when you get there?’’

‘’Play football.’’


‘’Yeah, and I’ll be famous, then I’ll get a white woman. I hear they’re less trouble.’’


Sometimes I am too afraid to think, especially about my mother and that Lebanese. Perhaps that is why I am this way: braggadocious. Perhaps that is why it is impossible for me to worry about where I will end up. Patience pulls a white Bible out of her pocket and begins to tell me about Moses who led the Israelites. It is a good story. It puts me straight to sleep.



Again, my mother finds me. This time, she wants to know if my girlfriend is aware that she is reading a testimony passed from generation to generation. She says if only we Africans take time to compile our stories in a holy book, we might just learn from our past. How many of us have sought the Promised Land and ended up driving taxi cabs, guarding buildings at night, washing dirty plates and toilet seats, sleeping in cold ghettos and on streets?

She says she knows of African women overseas who are recruited as domestic servants and service their masters in bed. She says she has heard of African men who will marry any sort of woman for the sake of being right with immigration. These men call their wives darlings, eat their bland stews, father their children. Yet, they cannot open their mouth to talk because their wives are liberated. Their children have rights too, so if a father dares to raise his hands to discipline his son, he might find himself sleeping in jail. She says she hopes I will not become that type of African man, a whitewashed African. 

I wake up so fast Patience says my eyes look like they are about to pop.




That nasty Tuareg is making us pay him extra. I cannot believe the lunatic. He beckons that he is about to drive off. He pats his palms, all dried up like beef jerky. He wants more dollars or else he is leaving us here, stranded in the scorching desert. He is yelling in bloody Berber or whatever. The wheezy woman is pleading that she is suffocating; can he not take pity on us? Her husband with the piles begins to weep. I could punch him. Why do we Africans make spectacles instead of fighting for ourselves?

Patience says, ‘’Look here, Mama and Papa, I want to get to Morocco. I don’t want to die in the desert. Pay the man, you hear?’’

The Tuareg calms down when we give him an extra $100 each to continue our journey. How I wish I could curse him to his face, but his eyes never seem to blink.

As we set off, I see the sun setting through a tear in the tarpaulin. It is orange and sliced in half by the horizon. We pass two trucks almost buried under the sand, like giant carcasses. I shiver, not because of the wind. For the first time, I think we might not make it to Morocco after all.

Two birds, I keep humming. One black. One Red. Their tails are touching the ground. Their tails are…





Tangier. Well, almost. The Tuareg drops us at the foot of a mountain. It is the end of his own journey. He has driven us hundreds of miles and none of us is thankful to him, the cheat. We have prayed, cursed, and crossed the border with our fake passports. Our feet are numb, and now we have to walk to a camp in a forest on the mountain where travellers stop.

Patience says it is unfair. Climbing up a mountain is not what she bargained for. She is meant to be in a guest house somewhere in Tangier, overlooking the Mediterranean. ‘’I am not doing it,’’ she says, bursting into tears. ‘’I did not leave Bamako to sleep in a bush like a common villager.’’

Three women surround her. The wheezy one rubs her back whispering, ‘’Sh, it’s okay.’’ Patience gasps as if she is expelling something bitter. ‘’All right,’’ she says, wiping her tears with her thumbs. ‘’I’m ready now.’’

Her trouser seams have burst; her hair is so covered in sand she resembles an old woman. I am surprised she is capable of crying. Every drop of water I have drunk is dried up after the desert. My brain is like fried gizzards at this point. It is almost evening and I think I might have forgotten how to fall asleep. If someone shows me the sea and says, ‘’Here, walk over it,’’ I will. Still, I want to give Patience some assurance, so I reach for her hand.

‘’No, no,’’ she says and eases mine away.

She hobbles up the mountain like the rest of us.



Honestly, it is like finding an open sewer when we reach the camp. People sure can stink whenever we are like this: in deep rot. I fit in well, I am in a shirt that has not seen soap since before I got to Gao. The people here are not like any villagers; they are like refugees on television, squatting under plastic sheets: men, women and children, mothers nursing their babies. They are coughing, scratching, and slapping their arms and legs.

‘’I can’t’’, Patience whispers, and collapses by the root of a tree. She begins to sob again. This time she says that fleas are biting her all over. She gets on my nerves. While she sits there with her head in her hands, I build a tent for the two of us. One good thing: the others are willing to help. They give me a plastic sheet and show me how to tie it to a tree. They tell me to be prepared for thieves, the Moroccan security forces, and to look out for conmen that will take my money. Even the air we breathe may carry plagues.

All they want to do is work. They would work in their countries if they can; they will work overseas. They have worked in Casablanca, in Tangier. It is easier for me to venture to the port, they say, because I am – you know – a mulatto. No one will suspect I am from pays-z’amis – you know, black Africa.

I lie under my new tent and catch what conversations I can in English: who has reached Ceuta, who was caught by the guardia civil and sent back before they could make it to Ceuta. Before I can find out where Ceuta is, I fall asleep with my sneakers on, just in case they get stolen.




This place is no stop, my mother says; it is the anteroom to Hell. It is where spirits wait to pass to the other world. It is the only time left for those who have stopped living and are yet to be pronounced dead; the ground between madness and reason; the Mountain of Babel where Africans speak in foreign tongues and nothing they say makes sense, so I need not listen. How is it possible, she asks, that I can be denied asylum in Spain, when this place resembles the aftermath of a war zone? 




Patience is under the tent with me when I open my eyes. Miraculously, she has magicked a tin-pot and is cooking over burning sticks.

‘’What are you making?’’ I ask, stretching.

‘’Chicken,’’ she murmurs.

Four feet. They are boiling in a sort of frothy broth. My stomach groans.

‘’That’s why I like my women African,’’ I say. ‘’A white one will be of no use here.’’

‘’I’m almost old enough to have given birth to you,’’ she mutters.

So much for your kindness. She brings up my mother.

‘’I’m not that young,’’ I whine like a girl.

‘’Sorry I lost my nerve earlier,’’ she says after a while.

‘’It’s all right,’’ I say. ‘’I suppose you’re used to the good life.‘’

She shakes her head. ‘’In Bamako, I was a prostitute.’’

I do not know what to say to that. I remove my sneakers to air my blisters. She stirs the chicken feet.




There is a Nigerian here called Obazee. I think he fancies himself some kind of a village chief. He has a university degree. He lays down the laws of the forest, he and his cronies. Patience will not come to consult him though. She says it is only God that can save us now. She is reading her bible again.

Nigerians are an arrogant lot. This Obazee, all I do is call his name without adding a Mr., and he comes so close to me, with his chest hairs all matted like dead flies.

‘’Mr. Obazee to you,’’ he says. ‘’Who’s asking?’’

‘’Me, Jean-Luc.’’

‘’Don’t you know how to respect your elders?’’

‘’I’ve crossed a desert.’’

He could give me that, at least. There are tribal marks on his cheeks and sores have eaten up the corners of his lips.

‘’Parlez-vous Francais?’’ he asks, tilting his head.



He laughs. ‘’You’re no Jean-Luc, but whoever you are, just be careful how you mention my name next time. None of this shouting Obazee, Obazee, all over the place, or I’ll conk your little head.’’

I have decided. I hate him.

‘’How long have you been here?’’ I ask.

‘’Six years.’’

‘’Six,’’ I yell.

He frowns. ‘’What? People have been around longer, for over ten years even. Time is not the object.’’

‘’Why don’t you just cross to Spain?’’

‘’You think it’s as easy as that?’’

‘’I have to cross.’’

‘’You think you’re the only one?’’

‘’Then why do you stay?’’

‘’Come,’’ he says beckoning. ‘’Come before the sun goes down, and see for yourself, since you think we are all fools here.’’

Again my legs carry me, snapping on twigs and stamping them into the mud. Obazee walks too fast. I follow him through the camp, past a group of people singing, ‘’When shall I see my home? When shall I see my native land? I will never forget my home…’’

‘’When I first came,’’ he says, ‘’I used to stay in Tangier, in a guest house near Petit Socco. It’s not easy like that anymore. The security forces, if they find you, they will deal with you; then they’ll send you back to Algeria. You’ll die before you ever see Gao. I moved here to avoid them. I’m trying to sneak overland into Ceuta. It’s what all of us are waiting for. They have a centre there. You’ll get meals. They will decide if you deserve asylum. The trouble is, they have barbed wire around the place, and the guardia civil patrol it. They keep catching me. The last time they beat me up well, well.’’

He stops and lifts his shirt. There are scars on his back.

‘’I swear,’’ he says. ‘’I would have died if not for Medecins San Frontieres.’’

He takes me to a cliff. From there we can see Spain. The lights on the coast are so bright; the houses in the port of Tangier are pure white.

‘’See?’’ he says. ‘’It’s tempting, isn’t it? Twenty miles only. El Dorado. You can cross anytime if you have enough to pay a samsara to take you. The pateras carry more passengers. The dinghies are cheaper, but they capsize. People have drowned.’’

I can barely hear my own voice. ‘’Which way is better, Ceuta or sea?’’

‘’I’ve given you the options,’’ he says. ‘’Take your pick.‘’




I relieve myself in the dark and wipe myself with a leaf. When I return to our tent, Patience is still reading her Bible. I want to tell her all I have found out from Obazee. I want to find out if she has enough to pay a samsara.

‘’Bad news,’’ I announce.

She shines her flashlight on a page and says, ‘’Listen. ‘I have heard the complaints of the Israelites. Tell them at twilight they will have all the bread they want…’’

‘’I’m tired,’’ I say.

Fairy tales can’t save us.




So, my mother says, my girlfriend turns out to be just another woman of the night. Why then is she reading her bible and going on about the Israelites of the past? Here are real stories from a modern African exodus, she says.

One man from Mali, he could not afford his fare. He crossed the Sahara on foot. It took him several years. The Moroccan security forces got hold of him when he reached Tangier. They repatriated him straight back to the border with Algeria and told him to find his way to Gao. Yes, with the same two legs that brought him to their country. 

Another man from Rwanda came by truck with his family. This was long before the barbed wire was erected around Ceuta. The family got into Ceuta all right; then they were kept in detention for months, waiting for their lawyer to prove that they were really from Rwanda. 

What about the Sierra Leonean who, shortly after the barbed wire went up, tried to scale it several times until his skin was practically shredded? He decided to swim across the sea to get to Spain. He had only one hand by the way. The salt water stung his skin; he still made it to the shore. His missing hand was there to prove that he was fleeing a civil war. 

What about the Nigerian who secretly regretted that her own homeland was not war-town, and hoped that the baby in her belly would be considered worthy of asylum. The baby came out two months too early, right here in the forest. Mother and child never made it to the next day. 

Then there was the Senegalese. She could not swim. She found a samsara to carry her by dinghy, and it was not that the dinghy leaked or capsized. It was the samsara: he said he could not get too close to the shore; the guardia civil might catch him, so he ordered her to jump out of his dinghy into the sea and find her way somehow. 

Perhaps Africans should not compile these stories in any book, my mother says. Who wants to save such stories for posterity? No, she says, these stories are worse than any nightmares, so considering what may lie ahead, it is better that I continue to sleep for the rest of my journey. 





The night is so chilly we sleep curled up like a couple of crayfish. We wake up to the sound of thuds, shouting, pots clanging, babies crying. It is dawn and the sun has not yet dried up the dew.

The commotion is over Obazee and his Nigerian cronies. They have decided to move the camp further into the bush, to hide from the security forces. Some people are protesting that they do not want to move – actually protesting over their little hovels. They follow Obazee as he marches ahead of them saying, ‘’I’ve given you the options. Take your pick.’’

Patience and I watch those who are already untying their tents. I have no doubt how we must leave the camp now.

‘’Do you have money left?’’ I ask.

‘’For food.’’ She slurs.

She is sluggish. She took painkillers. I run my tongue over my teeth and spit. My mouth tastes bitter.

‘’It’s 500 dollars each to go by dinghy and 1000 dollars each to go by pateras.’’

She slaps sand out of her hair. ‘’Who said?’’

‘’Obazee. You should have come. Yesterday. He showed me the shore. He said we can go by sea or wait for months to sneak into Ceuta like people around here.’’

I tell her what I know. I know exactly what she is thinking. She has put her trust in the Lord.

‘’Do you at least have enough to get to Tangier?’’ I ask.

She pushes out her bottom lip. ‘’Mm-mm.’’

‘’How did you intend to get to Spain without money?’’

‘’I don’t know.’’

Perhaps she is waiting for a hand to come down from heaven and part the sea for her.

‘’Where are you heading for after Spain?’’ I ask.


‘’What will you do when you get to Rome?’’


‘’What work?’’