Monday, December 23, 2019
Published April 2007 by HarperCollins
Source: checked out from my local library
Fiona Sweeney wants to do something that matters, and she chooses to make her mark in the arid bush of northeastern Kenya. By helping to start a traveling library, she hopes to bring the words of Homer, Hemingway, and Dr. Seuss to far-flung tiny communities where people live daily with drought, hunger, and disease. Her intentions are honorable, and her rules are firm: due to the limited number of donated books, if any one of them is not returned, the bookmobile will not return.
But, encumbered by her Western values, Fi does not understand the people she seeks to help. And in the impoverished small community of Mididima, she finds herself caught in the middle of a volatile local struggle when the bookmobile's presence sparks a dangerous feud between the proponents of modernization and those who fear the loss of traditional ways.
Fresh off Jojo Moyes’ The Giver of Stars, I didn't set out to read another book about bookmobiles traveling out to spread literacy to under served areas. But this one came to my attention as I was browsing for books for my book club and I tend to grab up books from the library as soon as I see them to save myself the trouble of adding them to my TBR. And I’m a fan of Hamilton. Masha Hamilton is a journalist who has traveled all over the world and always brings a sense of the global community to her books, something I always look forward to when I read them.
In Moyes’ book, it never occurred to me to question the rightness of bringing books and literacy to the hill people of Kentucky. Of course, they should learn to read; as the world changes they need to be ready to change with it. But Hamilton wants readers to look at this idea another way. In The Camel Bookmobile, that choice of what books will be brought to them is not given to the villagers. Instead a corporation, more interested in doing something that will make for good PR than something that will be beneficial to the people of Africa, sends a collection of books to be used for the camel bookmobile without regard to what might be of interest or even comprehensible to the villagers.
Further, it doesn’t occur to anyone outside of the villages that these books may do more harm than good to the villages. When it comes to people who have survived hundreds of years in harsh environments, who are we to tell them that their oral knowledge and history isn’t enough? On the other hand, shouldn’t those young people have every opportunity? We need look no further than our own small towns to see how brain drain impacts the viability of a community.
As I read this book, I kept thinking of my friend, Mari, who loves books about Africa, books that explore the culture and lives of its people. This book is full of interesting characters, details about life among a semi-nomadic tribe, and the battle between tradition and modern life. Hamilton paints a world where every night a fence is drawn around your town, fires are light, drums are beaten and songs are sung all in an effort to keep wild animals from attacking the village as it sleeps. Her characters live in a place where a shortage of water is a constant concern, a lack of food normal, and everyone must be ready to pack up and move on at a moment’s notice. Yet Hamilton also makes it clear that these people want the same things out of life that we all want (minus the material desires). I very much enjoyed this one and I’m looking forward to having my book club read it next month and getting to talk to other about it.