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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Camel Bookmobile

Masha Hamilton's The Camel Bookmobile was inspired by the real Camel Library that is headquartered in Garissa, Kenya, and which uses camels to carry books to and from readers who live in the remote areas of that country. To her credit, Hamilton did not allow herself to be blinded by the inspirational aspects of bringing books and ideas to readers who had never been exposed to all that books have to offer to those who are willing to turn their pages. Her story also looks at the potentially destructive effects that books, and what they contain, can have on tribal customs and the very way of life that has sustained the tribes for thousands of years.

Fiona Sweeney, a work-frustrated 36-year old American librarian, is thrilled when she is hired to help run the camel bookmobile in northeastern Kenya because it seems like the perfect job for her at this point in her life. Her mission, as she sees it, is to "bring Dr. Seuss, Homer, Tom Sawyer and Hemingway" to a world of new readers who will be inspired to change their own lives for the better after reading the masters. The problem is that Fiona Sweeney, like most of us who have ever traveled to, or worked in, different cultures, is so burdened by the values of Western culture that it is impossible for her to understand the people she is trying to help or the problems that her efforts are causing for those people.

The remote village of Mididima soon becomes Fiona's favorite camel bookmobile stop because of the enthusiasm shown by the village children and its schoolteacher. There she also befriends a bright young woman who longs to teach in the big city and the girl's grandmother, an independent elder who comes to support her granddaughter's ambitions. But blinded by her good intentions, Fiona is never fully aware of the hostility that her presence has created among the village elders who see her influence on the thinking of the village young people as a threat to their way of life.

In order to survive and to complete its mission of visiting as many villages as possible, the camel bookmobile service has to protect its limited number of books. For that reason, its African director has a firm rule that if a village fails to return all of the books loaned to it, the bookmobile will stop coming to that village. It is when one young man refuses to return two books that the entire village of Mididima is thrown into a social turmoil that forever changes the lives of its people and Fiona Sweeney.

Has Fiona Sweeney done the village any favors by exposing them to a world of new ideas and cultures? Has she improved their future prospects or has she inadvertently destroyed the fabric that has held the village together and ensured its survival for generations? Or is the truth somewhere between the two extremes? The Camel Bookmobile is a reminder that Western culture is not necessarily what the rest of the world needs or wants, a lesson that even those with the best intentions need to consider before trying to impose it on others.

Rated at: 3.0
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