The Camel Bookmobile is Masha
Hamilton's third book following her excellent 2004
The Distance Between Us. 36-year-old New
Yorker, Fi Sweeney, is on a mission to find meaning
in her life by "making a difference". Next stop
Kenya, to take a job as titular head of the camel
bookmobile. Fi knows about books and means well, but
she knows very little about Kenya, and even less
about the semi-nomadic tribes that the mobile
library serves, who are a mystery to most
city-dwelling Kenyans, let alone to foreigners.
The reality of bringing literacy to Africa is turning out to be quite different to her rose-tinted vision - the library head is unresponsive to her ideas for improving the program and she finds some of the library's rules overly stringent. In fact, she's effectively excess to requirements in every respect, except when it comes to appeasing the Western sponsors of the program who want an American involved.
Fi's favorite stop on the book mobile's journey is the village of Mididima, where she gets to know some of the inhabitants on a superficial level. Luckily for us readers, we get to know the key characters in the village far better than she is able to, and thus are privy to the rising tensions in the village caused by the mobile library. Just like in any small town, opinion is split along multiple dividing lines - some of the villagers are wholeheartedly against the library because they fear it will threaten the oral traditions and cohesion of the village; a few are wholly in favor; but many are caught somewhere in between, have hidden agendas, or are simply apathetic to the program.
The Camel Bookmobile raises important questions but, happily, does not feed us pat answers. The central question is not so much whether it is a "good thing" to replace ancient traditions with modern education, but how to do it in such a way that the new education adds to the mix without throwing away valuable knowledge and traditions. It would seem that there is simply no one size fits all answer. As we can see from the varying perspectives of the villagers who narrate the story, the mobile library changes the lives of all the people it touches to some degree, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. The camel bookmobile, and it's real life counterpart (see sidebar), provide an oasis of potential knowledge in a parched land, but people need to be given the choice as to whether to come and drink in their own time.
A secondary question is how much should the "developed" world be involved in spreading written knowledge to people such as the nomadic tribes of Eastern Kenya? On the basis of Fiona, who comes across as tiresomely naive and idealistic much of the time, Hamilton's answer would appear to be "not a lot"; at least, they should not be involved at ground level. However, when it comes to providing funds to enable programs to be implemented, us rich Westerners can be of enormous value - as can be seen by Hamilton's own efforts (see sidebar).
As a reading experience, The Camel Bookmobile is less satisfying that Hamilton's excellent The Distance Between Us (set in Israel and the Gaza Strip). Nonetheless, it certainly qualifies as a "good read", and a must read for anyone who is, or plans to be, involved in literacy drives for developing countries.
This review was originally published in April 2007, and has been updated for the April 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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