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Alexander McCall Smith’s wish for Darfur

© Graham Clark

Mma Ramotswe, Isabel Dalhousie and the eccentric inhabitants of the Corduroy Mansions have become much-loved literary characters for millions of readers worldwide. Now their creator, best-selling British novelist Alexander McCall Smith, has become one of 18 acclaimed authors helping to ensure that children living in refugee camps can also enjoy the pleasures of reading. The writers have each contributed a short story to a collection entitled "What You Wish For" and organized by the Book Wish Foundation. All of the proceeds will be donated to UNHCR to build libraries in camps housing more than quarter-of-a-million refugees displaced by the conflict in Darfur. McCall Smith, who is best known for "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," spoke recently with UNHCR's Laura Padoan about "The Strange Story of Bobby Box," his contribution to the collection, and why he believes that books are vital to our well-being.

Excerpts from the interview:

Why did you think it was important to support this project?

I think there's the general importance of supporting people in need and facing often pretty cataclysmic disasters in their life. And this group of refugees is, I think, particularly deserving of support because what they have suffered is particularly acute. So, generally speaking, we should do what we can to help people in need, and refugees are very much in that category.

Can you give readers a preview of "The Strange Story of Bobby Box"?

"The Strange Story of Bobby Box" is intended for younger readers. It's the story of a boy who has a really rather remarkable life, a life which starts oddly and involves a certain amount of deprivation and suffering before things turn out well. He's the victim of cruelty and he has rather a tough time, but he's a bit of a survivor and things work out rather well for him at the end. So the story might perhaps tell the younger reader that things can be difficult, but it's always possible that they will sort themselves out or one will find what one's looking for in this life.

Bobby Box is a boy who finds what he's looking for, which is a home, and that's the general lesson in it. But children don't want to be preached at, so it's meant to be an exciting story of a boy who succeeds against the odds and, in particular, ends up working in a circus . . . When we're young, we all entertain at some point the idea of running away with the circus, and he does, but of course it doesn't quite work out as he'd hoped.

Are there any parallels between Bobby Box and refugee children?

If you look at what refugee children have to put up with, yes there would be parallels. I think that someone in that position has their whole world turned upside down in many cases. Their education is interrupted and they have to cope with very, very difficult circumstances. So, yes, I think there's a fairly obvious parallel. But I think that young readers don't necessarily grasp that there are children who have a tough time and lose all their possessions and end up living in a foreign country – they don't necessarily understand what's entailed in that. So I think that if you tell a story about a fairly vivid childhood or a child who has had that happen, you can do it in a way that gets that message across a bit better.

The book's proceeds will fund a library in a refugee camp in Chad. UNHCR and other agencies provide food, shelter and water to refugees. Do you think that books are also important for people living in refugee camps?

Oh tremendously. I should imagine that books for many people in difficult circumstances provide an escape from the grim reality of their lives. But they also give people an opportunity to pursue their education, to remain in touch with the outside world. Books must be really important in those circumstances. If you look at a charity in the United Kingdom called Book Aid International, that's a wonderful, wonderful thing. They send half-a-million books over from the UK to African countries, and these books are an absolute lifeline. So I think books must make life much more bearable.

Darfur is a very different place from the Botswana that you describe in "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency." Do you feel a need to present a different image of Africa to the one we read about in newspapers and see on TV?

Yes, I think I do. Because, while I recognize that awful things have happened in many African countries and that Africa seems to have had more than its fair share of humanitarian disasters, I think it's also important that people should realize that there's another side to Africa, that there's a very positive side to Africa and that's the side which I portray in my Botswana books. I think that it's a great pity if we see just the negatives.

That also shifts people's perceptions of the continent and I think it would be a great shame if people switched off when they were exposed to images of Africa because they think it's always going to be bleak. I think that by presenting a positive picture in those books I hope that I would encourage people to engage in a very positive sense with Africa and recognize our shared humanity. That would – I hope – help people to realize that when these difficult things do occur, and when we do see these instances of suffering or disaster, that it would encourage them to respond more readily to that. I hope it has that effect.

What is your wish for the refugees from Darfur?

I'm sure that it's the same wish that everybody would have for these people, that the desperate circumstances which prevail in the Sudan should be resolved in a peaceful and just settlement. That's a general wish which one would have for them, which would enable them to return home. I very much hope that the peace initiatives continue, and that the rest of the world starts looking more seriously at issues such as the supply of arms, for example, and I would hope that those who have supported the things which led to this should consider very carefully what they really mean in the region in future. A peaceful solution, the breaking out of peace is what we really want in the region.

To pre-order a copy of "What You Wish For", please click here.