This week, we celebrated the book birthday of The Wooden Camel. To mark this special day, I called the book’s talented author, Wanuri Kahiu, and learnt about her home country Kenya and her delight in camels. She also told me about her version of heaven…
Congratulations on your first picture book, The Wooden Camel! Can you introduce yourself to our readers?
My name is Wanuri Kahiu and I am a storyteller — a filmmaker, mostly. And I live in Kenya.
What is The Wooden Camel about?
The Wooden Camel is about a little boy who really, really, really wants to race camels but he’s too small. So his sister whittles him some wooden camels that he dreams to life, and rides them.
What are three things you think everyone should know about Kenya where The Wooden Camel is set?
We are a really generous people — we are very, very affectionate and loving. We have the most stunning landscapes on the face of the planet. And if you are accepted into a family, you are in that family forever and ever and ever. So if you are ever adopted by a Kenyan, it’s the best thing that could happen to you.
Why camels? And what made you decide to write a story about the Turkana people?
I’ve always been fascinated by the Turkana people, especially now since they are in a very challenging situation. Lake Turkana, the largest freshwater lake in the desert, is about to completely wither away because one side of the lake that supplies water is being dammed. The lake is on the verge of extinction. I’ve always felt a very special affinity towards that place and people, and so I try to draw awareness towards what’s happening in Turkana whenever I can. And why camels? Because I think they are one of the funniest creatures on earth. I think they have the silliest faces. And they spit, and they are long! They’re just the most curious creatures and I love them.
What do you think of Manuela Adreani’s illustrations for your book? Do you have a favourite illustration?
Oh my gosh, I love love love her illustrations. I LOVE them! I think they are so awesome and my favourite in the book — and I really want to frame it for my children’s room — is the one where Keti and Etabo are sitting in the tree. It’s so cute! You can have a boy and his goat, his best friend, in the tree at the same time and I just love it.
You are one of this year’s TED Fellows – congratulations! Can you tell us a bit about what this entails and what it means to be a role model for African girls & women everywhere?
I am really, really excited to be a TED fellow. I think it’s such an honour and it’s something that I have actively worked towards. I’ve been wanting to be a TED fellow for a long time and I never thought I could until I was ready. So I finally applied and I was amazed that I got in! Being a TED fellow is a dream come true. I don’t know if I’m a role model. I certainly hope that the work I do inspires. I’m excited to share my stories, especially with my children. They keep calling The Wooden Camel, ‘the camel book,’ and they keep asking to see it and when they’re going to get it. More than anything, I want to be able to leave work behind for my children so that they have an idea or a bit of an understanding about what I think about the world. So hopefully my work inspires them.
Can you tell me more about what it is you think about the world? What message do you hope children will glean from your story?
I have a friend who says that whenever he’s asked what his version of heaven is, he points to his work. I really believe in that. I believe that I create the people that I like in situations that are complicated and where they’re faced with such bravery and such courage. I feel like just the attitude itself is like a breath of heaven in the sense of a utopia, not necessarily a religious heaven, where we’re most at ease and most in sync with each other and we’re in harmony with the world and with the planet. In The Wooden Camel, I hope readers see that we all have dreams, and whether or not we know it, sometimes they’re fulfilled in ways we don’t foresee and they are fulfilled in ways that are not necessarily expected. So, it’s an encouragement to dream but to look for ways that dreams manifest because they don’t always come to you in the way that you expect — they don’t always manifest in the way that you imagine.
You have won many awards for your work as a filmmaker. What made you decide to write a children’s picture book? Can you share something about the differences between writing a picture book and writing a film?
I think writing a picture book is quite extraordinary because you’re sharing the story with the illustrator. So, when you begin to write and imagine, you do so without knowing how much the world will come to life, or how much more of the story can be told, not through words but through the illustrator. So it was this amazing orchestra of images and words that I had never expected that is kind of similar to film, because when you start writing film you don’t know what the final image is going to look like. You start to breathe one life into it, but when it’s taken on by the people that you’re working with, it becomes a completely different thing. And I think that’s the same thing that happened with The Wooden Camel.
Etabo dreamed of being a camel racer. Have you always dreamed of becoming a filmmaker?
I have always dreamed of becoming a filmmaker. It happened when I was sixteen. Before that, I wanted to be a nun, because I was in Catholic school, and a doctor, because my mother’s a doctor, and I wanted to be so many things. And then I realised that you could make film and it combined two of my favourite passions — being a telly addict and reading. And I was done! It’s a done deal.
Do you think it’s important that children have access to books that represent cultures other than their own?
Absolutely, and I can’t wait to get the whole Lantana collection! We already have Chicken in the Kitchen, and that was autographed by Nnedi [Okorafor]. My children love it. I think that if the very first sense of travel they have is through books, I would love that. I would love to introduce them to different places through what is being written by artists of those places.
And finally, can you give our aspiring authors any tips for their writing?
I think that the best thing to do when you’re an aspiring writer is to just write, and to write, and to write, and to write. I strongly encourage anybody who can to write and to find ways of writing. And even if you think that your story has been heard or is not original — whatever doubts you have, I still think you should write because you will always find an audience. And your first audience is yourself.
Thanks, Wanuri! You can find out more about Wanuri and her amazing work here. Watch her inspirational TED talks here. And to buy your copy of The Wooden Camel, please click here.