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Original Essays

The Camel Library Needs More Books

by Masha Hamilton (2007)
  1. The Camel Bookmobile: A Novel
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  2. Staircase of a Thousand Steps
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  3. The Distance Between Us
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    The Distance Between Us

    Masha Hamilton

The sun felt brutal as we neared the end of the second hour in our trip through the bush. Heat from the sand radiated up my legs as perspiration spilled down my face. The librarians and camel drivers seemed unfazed, but I was relieved when we saw a single rose-colored building emerge from the empty landscape — the one-room schoolhouse that was our destination.

After three years spent writing The Camel Bookmobile, I traveled with the real camel-borne bookmobile in isolated Northeastern Kenya in 2006. My seventeen-year-old daughter, who first told me about the camel library years earlier, accompanied me.

We arrived in the region during a period of drought and famine, so we brought maize and cooking oil to give away, and the further north we went, the more often we saw the rotting corpses of cattle, goats, and the occasional camel who died of thirst.

This arid land is traversed by shifta, armed bandits who cross the border from Somalia. In Garissa town, one man described an attack by shifta that nearly killed him and left him permanently unable to walk far or fast, robbing him of his nomadic livelihood. The illiteracy rate hovers around 85 percent. People traditionally have embraced a semi-nomadic lifestyle, moving once or twice a year in search of a fresh waterhole. The concept of books, let alone a library that lent them, was foreign.

None of this, though, deterred the librarians of Garissa, who started the camel library in the autumn of 1996 with the goal of bringing books where they felt books were most needed — to the bush, where people live in chronic poverty, often on a single meal a day, their homes made of straw and sticks so as to be easily transportable. My daughter first mentioned the unique bookmobile to me years earlier after reading about it in a magazine article for kids. We were in the car, on our way to our local library in Tucson, Arizona, and what she said immediately triggered my imagination. This is not how novel-writing usually works for me, but in an instant, I saw Scar Boy, viciously attacked by a hyena, and Mr. Abasi who thinks his camel is his mother reincarnated, and beautiful Jwahir with disdain for a book she mistakenly calls "A Cat on a Hat" that, she says with derision, comes from the space between one's teeth. I saw Jwahir's husband, the teacher Matani, with his commitment to the same bookmobile his wife rejects and his desire to father a son.

And I saw Fi, the American who, idealistic and sure of her own rightness, hopes to help enlighten a people of the bush — but finds that she is the one who learns the most. Fi in many ways illustrates Americans abroad at their best and their worst: well intentioned, but naïve. She demonstrates that even the best of goals, when coupled with cultural ignorance, can lead to mistakes with tragic consequences. The novel's camel bookmobile changes each character in unexpected ways, and I began to tell my three children the story I was envisioning as I drove. Then I stopped. "Keep going," they said. "What next?" But I thought if I talked too much about it, I wouldn't be able to sustain the energy to write it, and that the well I was drawing from would evaporate. The process of exploring the characters and developing the themes took three years.

I waited until the book was finished, sold to HarperCollins and in the final editing stages before I traveled to Africa to see the real camel library firsthand. I didn't want my journalistic tendencies to kick in too soon with The Camel Bookmobile. I wanted to listen to the novel's characters, and allow the imagined story to take precedence and vibrate with its own resonance, before I saw the real camel library in action.

Once there, I had the chance to interview some elders within the nomadic community, such as grandmother Amina Ali, who reluctantly acknowledged the nomadic lifestyle she loved might be coming to an end. But the most exciting part for me was watching as the camel library halted under an acacia and the people, mostly children and young adults, gathered in anticipation. The librarians laid books out on grass mats and the patrons, in groups according to their ages, were allowed to select a book they could keep for two weeks.

The camel library needs more books, though; that was apparent immediately. As the librarians packed the book boxes each day, they included — out of necessity — books that were about to fall apart. The bush is hard on books and in some cases, families find themselves moving on before the library can return.

We sent a box of books as soon as we got home, of course, but I didn't know exactly how to go about raising additional books for the camel library. The book drive that we began in February was the brainchild of author M. J. Rose, who suggested that we reach out to fellow authors. Writer and editor Susan Ito helped set up a donor website, and within hours, authors — many acclaimed and best-selling as well as generous — were signing on to send five books each to the camel library. Soon, the drive expanded to include publishers, agents, librarians, bloggers, bookclubs and readers. I feel so connected to these generous donors, and so thrilled by the knowledge that, book by book, box by box, we are making a difference for the world's only camel-borne library. For me, it is the book drive that has made the launch of The Camel Bookmobile truly meaningful. spacer

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