read_warbler (read_warbler) wrote,

The Camel Bookmobile

I read about The Camel Bookmobile, by Masha Hamilton, on another bookblog, realised pretty quickly that it was my kind of book, and was lucky enough to get a copy via the Devon library catalogue.

Fi is an American librarian who isn't ready to settle down yet - is not, in fact, sure that she ever will be. So she applies for a job in Africa, part of which turns out to be taking books to outlying, remote villages in the African bush. The mode of transport is Siti, a rather ornery camel, and with Fi goes Mr. Abasi, a librarian who is not as keen on spreading the word about reading as he might be and who thinks the camel is possessed by the spirit of his dead mother.

The main story takes place in a village known as Mididima; the tribe living there is nomadic but settled for the moment. The people there are split about whether the books that arrive once a fortnight are a good thing or a bad thing. The elders are afraid their way of life is threatened by too much knowledge of the outside world. Others feel the village needs to be more forward thinking. We meet Matani, the school teacher, and his straying wife, Jwahir; Neema and her grandaughter, Kanika, who wants to leave the village to become a teacher in the city - and Abayomi and his two sons one of whom is known as 'Scar Boy' because of an horrific attack by a hyaena when he was a toddler.

The books have been donated by a big American corporation and one of the strict rules is that all books *must* be returned at the end of the fortnight. But two books go missing. The boy borrowing them is 'Scar Boy' and, for some unknown reason, the boy won't give the books back. Fi goes to stay in the village hoping to help retrieve the books but somehow things don't turn out just as she thought they would...

It's for little gems like this that I religiously read other people's bookblogs. I would never have known about this book otherwise and that would have been a terrible shame as it's delightful. The atmosphere reminded me a bit of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books, set in Botswana. I don't think the country is ever mentioned here but there is, apparently, a Camel Bookmobile in operation in Kenya. And, although this does seem at times like a bit of a cosy read, it actually isn't. There are some valid points to be made about the effect of western civilisation upon indigenous tribes and about the role of women in these tribes in the 21st. century. And the answer to the question, 'Are books necessarily a wonderful thing?' is not as cut and dried as you might think. The unexpected ending brought a real lump to my throat and I applaud the author for not going the obvious route. A gorgeous, thought provoking read.
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