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Is it a good thing to spread literacy among peoples without direct contact to cultural institutions? I see you nodding your heads, yes, of course, what a question. I would have reacted in the same way had I been asked before reading The Camel Bookmobile, but now I'm not so sure any more. Can't the Western values seeping into traditional cultures via books and magazines destroy traditions which have kept tribes together for thousands of years?
I don't know what made Masha Hamilton decide to write a novel after travelling to Kenya and riding with a real Camel Bookmobile, I can imagine, however, that these questions triggered off the idea. Instead of discussing the arguments in a dry essay - thesis, antithesis, conclusion - she dressed them up so-to-speak, she thought up characters incorporating opposing ideas and let them interact in a story. It's a fact that ideas impress us more and we can remember them longer when they're associated with sentiments. Now let's see what she's come up with.
Fiona Sweaney, a librarian from New York, intent on doing good abroad and stuck in a stale relationship, goes to Kenya to work on a project taking books to settlements in the North East of the country by camel caravan. The remotest settlement is Mididima where a tribe of 175 half nomads live, 'half' meaning that they're not constantly on the move but sometimes stay at one place for several years.
Mididima becomes especially dear to Fiona's heart because she's got to know some eager readers there. Her Kenyan boss, on the other hand, would like to delete this destination from the list rather sooner than later, it's just too far away and hard to reach; even the lead camel regularly plays foul tricks in order to delay departure if it's Mididima where they're to go. The settlement has been chosen because there's a teacher teaching the children English and Swahili - without books, paper or writing equipment.
One day it so happens that a boy doesn't give back the two books he's borrowed two weeks before, he refuses to give any reasons. The camel caravan leaves after futile discussions, Fiona's boss is furious, the rules are strict and the future of the Bookmobile coming to Mididima is threatened. As Fiona is famous in her New York library for tracking misplaced books, she offers to go to Mididima alone for four days to clear up the case. She's intrigued by the boy's stubbornness but there is also the teacher who attracts her, and this not only intellectually.
The tribe has been divided on the cause of getting books from the outside world from the beginning, the elders are strictly against it fearing the slow but sure to come erosion of their traditions. What they have to know to survive in the desert and live a decent live according to their standards they do know. What does it help anyone to learn 'How to Survive an Avalanche'? Yes, this book is one of the odd mixture of reading material donated by American sponsors that has found its way to Mididima. But not only the elders are against new ideas, also some of the young ones refuse to learn to read and write, the teacher's wife being one of the fiercest opponents.
Fiona's stay in a world that doesn't resemble her own in the least bit, how the disappearance of the books and the ensuing scandal affect the tribe's life, why the boy refuses to explain his deed, what comes of the attraction Fiona and the teacher feel for each other make up the story. The title I've chosen for this review may help you guess the outcome.
It's a good read written in rather simple English which seems to me to imitate the tradition of telling each other stories typical for illiterate peoples. The descriptions of the landscape and the settlement are lively, we see, hear and smell how the nomads live. The characters aren't wooden and only representatives of ideas but come over as real people.
What about the questions from the beginning? In my opinion it speaks for the author that she doesn't give a clear answer, if she did, the book wouldn't be a novel but a treatise. The 'primitive' tribes people have as convincing arguments as the sophisticated New Yorker, the lines between who teaches and who learns are blurred. The novel doesn't only raise questions concerning spreading literacy among illiterate peoples, there's also the wider question of what good foreign aid does and if the many, often naïve, do-gooders shouldn't rather stay at home and focus their energy on the problems in their own countries. But can the wheel be turned back or is it already too late for the few peoples not yet 'civilised'? Maybe they're already condemned to perish and it's only a question of time when this will happen.
So many questions that stay in the reader's mind after finishing the book - that can only mean that The Camel Book Mobile is a good read.
RRP 6.99 GBP