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


  1. aahhhh but exactly what is "western culture"? Many isolated communities are, as we speak, poised naked beneath the tidal wave of globalism that is just about to wipe them out. I forget the figures but each year a frightening number of languages die out. Without them, cultures evaporate.

    I'm not sure what languages Sweeney was attempting to bolster. Were her books in ENglish or...? Were there issues with literacy at all or...?

    At any rate those who often are there to help small cultures cope with the arrival of globalism are often mistaken for being "impositors of western culture" which is very often the opposite of what they're actually there for.

    And I myself hope to be one of these people within a year or so.

  2. I understand what you are saying and I'm not one to deny that good intentions are almost always associated with any kind of "westernization" project. It's all a matter of degree, IMO. Certainly some tribes and their customs are doomed and it is good to offer them an alternative means of survival. But the particular tribe in this book was not threatened with disintegration in the near future (unless, that is, the expected drought caused them to move to the city for survival) and Fiona's efforts may have hastened the process despite her efforts to save it.

    The books that were carried by the camel bookmobile were in English, a language that the tribe's teacher was teaching the children. Fiona did vow to bring them books in Swahili and other tribal languages eventually. Some of the children were learning to read quite well in English...others not.

    I wish you the best in your future work because I know how difficult it is.

    I spent 10 years in Algeria working very closely with the Muslim Arab population there (and with a group of non-Arab Kabili Algerians as well) but I don't believe that I ever saw myself or the U.S. through their eyes. It is extremely difficult to take off those cultural blinders when you need to and not to go to the other extreme by placing anti-West blinders on instead.

    Culture clashes come with the territory and the best of intentions are not a safeguard against doing more harm than good.


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