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Current affairs on the world scale are presently dominated by the Ukraine, the Mid-East, and currency wars. Granted, you can come up with a list of other concerns, like the regional conflict in the Korean peninsula, or the twin African devils of Ebola and Boko Haram.

Haram means forbidden or sinful in Arabic, and Boko must therefore mean non-Islamic, which I interpret as non-religious, or secular. Secular education is therefore forbidden. Apart from the mystery of why a movement with such a name should attract anyone, there’s the question of how you build an enduring political platform around the concept.

But words are our tools for expressing thought, and I found it difficult that Arabic could express education (and secular education at that) as a four-letter word, and anyhow boko doesn’t sound much like Arabic to me.

And that’s when this story began its twists and turns.

I first found out boko meant book, derived from the attempts by the British to impose Western education on the ruling families of West Africa. Then I drilled down to an article in the Christian Science Monitor.

I confess the CSM is hardly my first reading choice, but the web has that wonderful side to it—on the internet, just like on a 1960s hippie bus, the journey is the destination.

The words education and religion don’t work well together for me. I can accept religious teaching, and when I was at school it was known as R.I., or Religious Instruction—unfortunately I was expelled from the schoolroom on various occasions for bad behavior.

When I went to England it was called divinity—which sounded suitably mystical, and I stayed well away from it. Currently I believe the subject is taught in Western schools as R.E., or Religious Education, and I object to the terms, just as I think Christian Science is an oxymoron.

Nevertheless, during my trip on the magic bus my first stop was at a questionnaire operated by CSM. I did surprisingly badly—how will you score? And more importantly, how many Pentagon generals would pass the test?

But I  also found out boko is a word in the Hausa language of Northern Nigeria, which doesn’t mean book at all, its meanings are connected with fraud. A century ago, the British colonial power imposed Western education in the area, and the use of the Roman alphabet rather than Arabic script.

For the local rulers, this was an attempt to brainwash their children, taking them away from traditional Islamic studies and anglicizing them—no different from an imagined colonization of Massachusetts or Madrid by ISIS and the imposition of the Madrassa system.

The Emirs sent their slaves instead of their children to suffer the delights of the British public (i.e. private) school system, and the emerging message one hundred years one later is that none of this sad tale is forgotten.

None of the above condones the shameful practices of Boko Haram, the abduction of young schoolgirls, and the terror attacks. But it does illustrate how problems such as this are rooted in history, and how poor judgement four generations ago transformed resentment into attacks with weapons and explosives, as the unfortunately named president Goodluck Jonathan has found.

A Boko Haram arms cache seized by the Nigerian Army. Apart from the odd Kalashnikov, automatic weapons are thin on the ground.

A Boko Haram arms cache seized by the Nigerian Army. Apart from the odd Kalashnikov, automatic weapons are thin on the ground.

As I wrote, I described the weapons as state-of-the-art, in a flurry of literary enthusiasm. Then I went back and did the research, and what I found on a Nigerian website was pretty different. The site itself is pretty underwhelming, but it’s worth a peek because I’ve never seen a webpage more crowded with ads.

It’s not uncommon for literary enthusiasm to sweep you off your feet, and in an early draft of The India Road I explained how the Portuguese sailors blown south from the Cape of Good Hope resisted the terrible storms, their bodies wracked by hunger and thirst—until someone pointed out that if the sailors were thirsty in the lashing rain, all they’d have to do was lick the mast.

Dan Brown is legendary for cock-ups of this type, and in my wanderings I found a couple of gems to share with you.

Overhanging her precarious body was a jaundiced face whose skin resembled a sheet of parchment paper punctured by two emotionless eyes.

I love the notion of a precarious body, and of parchment punctured by eyes. Perhaps Uncle Dan was smoking some of that good stuff from the ’60s bus. But for geographical accuracy, this one takes the cake:

Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers glorified the four major rivers of the Old World – The Nile, Ganges, Danube, and Rio Plata.

This ‘old world’ river was first explored by the Portuguese in the early sixteenth century, and the contrast between the sediment transported by the River Plate and the adjacent Atlantic provides this stunning image.

The estuary of the Rio de la Plata, in an image from the NASA Johnson Space Center. Buenos Aires is clearly visible on the right side of the image.

The estuary of the Rio de la Plata, in an image from the NASA Johnson Space Center. Buenos Aires is clearly visible on the right side of the image.

I guess it makes us think how precarious our life here on earth is, and reflect on how lucky we are to be able to glimpse such beauty—while people in all parts of this incredible planet are busy planning who they’ll shoot next, or actually pulling the trigger.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

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