In The Camel Bookmobile, by Masha Hamilton, Fiona Sweeney is a New York librarian who goes to Africa to “make a difference in the world.” She becomes part of a new literacy program, “the camel bookmobile,” that bring books to the nomadic tribes of Kenya via camels.
“Of all the places you might have gone,” he said, “why here? Why Africa?”
She didn’t answer immediately. A mixture of expressions crossed her face at such speed that he wished to stop and freeze each one until he could decipher them. “I believed the bookmobile could change lives in settlements like this,” she said finally. “I still believe that. But it was personal, too. I knew something existed beyond my world, something important. Like a flavor I have to taste if I wanted to be fully alive.”
What Fi discovers is that life is much more complicated than she realized in these nomadic tribes, and that despite all her good, but naive intentions, the program creates a conflict of cultures and a serious debate between the members of the tribe. Many of the people in the tribe become fearful that the old traditions will be lost, that “the young will begin to think the words of the books are more important than the words of elders. And then we will slide into a world that you would say holds greater learning, but that I would say holds less.“
This story is told from the point of view of each person involved with the camel bookmobile, so you really get to understand the issues and concerns from all different angles. It is a fascinating look at cultural differences, a sensitive portrayal of the strengths and struggles of nomadic life and of the changes facing the members of that culture today.
Her immersion into this very different culture from her own was a profound learning experience for the main character, Fiona. And I really respect the idea that that came out of the story for me: that the American way is not always what’s right for the rest of the world.