The Camel Bookmobile
Harper Collins, New York, 2007
This novel has an odd, but quite descriptive title. The story revolves around a camel carried bookmobile that operates out of Garissa into Kenya’s northern reaches. The delivery of books to isolated nomadic villages brings into play the tension of the novel - the clash of worlds. Modern Africa and America represented by the books and the warm-hearted do-gooder young New York librarian on one hand and the tradition bound villagers of Midima on the other.
Books turn the village topsy turvy. Some welcome the introduction of new ideas and wider windows on the world. They – a teacher, a progressive grandmother and many youths – see that change in Kenya is inevitable and that the village or at least some villagers ought to join the outside world. Elders and cynics scorn the effort seeing it realistically as undermining the culture, tradition and bush knowledge that sustained the tribe for generations.
Our heroine Fi Sweeny brings her naiveté about Africa and western values to bear. She gets caught up in the inner tensions of village relationships where she herself is a catalyst interrupting the predictability of rural timelessness. As is true with PCVs, Fi learns more about love, hope, and life than she gives in her exchanges with villagers. The engaging story plays out against the backdrop of impending drought where the very survival of the semi-nomadic people is menaced.
The various elements of the plot and characters permit the author to observe alternatively cynically or sympathetically about the intrusions of the modern world into traditional life, the role of women and motivations behind humanitarian good works. The various characters are nicely developed. The village setting is authentically rendered. The story has good pace and keeps the reader guessing until the end.