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I started writing stories for my niece Sakina since she was about 6 or 7 years old. They've always been short enough to fit inside a birthday card.

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Haji 2003

[Octonauts is a television programme for children on the BBC]

“Abbas are you still watching Hottentots?” asked Abbas’s Dad coming into the kitchen

“But Baba, my breakfast isn’t finished yet!” said Abbas, pointing to the few scraps of omelette left on his plate.

“It’ll soon be lunchtime, so I am taking away laptoppy and you can finish breakfast all by yourself,” said Baba, “and remember to bring the battery-start with you.”

“Baba, why do you call Octonauts Hottentots?” asked Abbas, as his dad took away the laptop.

“Because Octonauts sounds like Hottentots.” came the reply.

Just then the doorbell rang and Baba opened to the door to let in Sakina and Zehra.

“Dot, haven’t you changed your clothes yet?” asked Zehra, pointing to Abbas’s nightclothes.

“I was having my breakfast.”

“And very slowly too, by the looks of it,” observed Sakina. “Where’s Mimi?” She must be on the desktoppy.”

“Because Octonauts sounds like Hottentots.” came the reply.

Just then the doorbell rang and Baba opened to the door to let in Sakina and Zehra.

“Dot, haven’t you changed your clothes yet?” asked Zehra, pointing to Abbas’s nightclothes.

“I was having my breakfast.”

“And very slowly too, by the looks of it,” observed Sakina. “Where’s Mimi?” She must be on the desktoppy.”

“It’s probably an Abujan word, like doogi-doogi.” answered Sakina with an air of authority.

“But Baba said that it was because Octonauts sound like Hottentots, so are Hottentots another cartoon or are they real?” asked a puzzled Abbas.

“I think it’s because the name Octonaut sounds like Hottentot,” replied Zehra resignedly.

“But what is a Hottentot?” asked Abbas.

“It’s definitely a sound,” said Mimi.

“But is that all it is?” Sakina wondered out aloud.

“It’s a special kind of sound,” interrupted Abujan. “Hottentot sounds like the language the southern African tribe the KhoiKhoi speak and that’s why the Dutch, when they entered Africa, called them the Hottentots. It also sounds like Octonaut, so that’s why I called the Octonauts Hottentots.”

It took the four kids a little time to take it all in. In the end Abbas observed, “So, it wasn’t a made-up Baba word?”

“Yes the word wasn’t made up, but I think the explanation was,” smiled Sakina.

Abbas was getting confused, “So the KhoiKhoi aren’t real?”

“Yes they are real and the Dutch did call them Hottentots, but Abujan deliberately calling Octonauts Hottentots because of it, that I am not so sure about.”

“But the explanation sounds good,” added Mimi.

Zehra peered at the screen of the desktop. “What are you doing Abujan?”

“I am writing an email to a friend, princess.”

“What are you writing?”

“After children leave the big, secondary school they go to university and at university they have to do research projects. Sometimes when they write about the projects, they’re told to write how they started with an idea and then explain how they did the project and what results they got. What actually may have happened is that they started with an idea, which got changed half-way through the project. I’m telling my friend that sometimes the story sounds better if you changed what really happened to make it seem as if it was all deliberately planned from the start, even though it wasn’t.”

“You mean a bit like the Hottentot story,” Sakina’s voice came from nowhere, but she’d obviously been listening.

Haji 2003

Once upon a time there were three little islands, separated by thousands of miles. One was called Swampy, because for most of its history it had been a swamp. The other was called Rocky because there was a big hill across most of it and Dusty was surrounded by sand.


As you can probably tell, there was not really much on Swampy, Rocky or Dusty to excite people and not many animals went there either. But all three lay just on the edge of large continents and all the other lands and islands around the continents laughed at Swampy, Rocky and Dusty because while civilisations grew everywhere else, nothing much ever happened there.


So for thousands of years as people fought over other lands and rivers and mountains, these three little islands lay undisturbed, except for some fishermen. Because it seemed to anyone who did ever land there, that there really was nothing much worth staying for, let alone fighting over.


Then after thousands of years of solitude, things changed. Swampy, Rocky and Dusty were the same as they had always been. But the people who lived on other lands and islands changed or rather they made changes. They changed their small ships into big ocean going ones and with that came the chance to travel to faraway places. Now Swampy and Rocky were no longer islands on the edge. They were on the route to somewhere and people needed to visit them.


As the visitors for buying and selling grew, so even more people came, because customers love having a choice. But still Swampy was hot, sticky and mosquitoey, because mosquitoes like hot and sticky places. And again someone, somewhere else discovered electricity and as often happens with big discoveries other people invented lots of other things that use  electricity and one of them was the air-conditioner. Suddenly Swampy wasn’t hot and sticky anymore. Actually, by now the people who now lived on Swampy (who were rich from the trading and cool from the air-conditioning) looked down on all those other people who were hot and sweaty, just as Swampy had been looked down on for all those centuries.


What about Dusty? Well Dusty saw all its neighbours grow rich since they were sitting on top of lots of oil, which they could sell to people driving cars. But Dusty couldn’t share in all this wealth because Dusty only had gas and it was impossible to put gas on a ship to send to another country far far away. Then, one day, someone discovered how you can covert gas into a liquid and that can be put on a ship and suddenly Dusty was very rich indeed.


So is that a happy ending?


Well other lands and islands made fun of Singapore (Swampy) and Dusty (Qatar) and Rocky (Hong Kong) for all those centuries and they didn’t see how things can change. Who knows what will happen in the future? Who knows whether the places we think are poor today will one day become rich (because someone somewhere discovers something that totally changes what we think they are).

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