Chimera's Reviews > The Camel Bookmobile

The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton
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's review
Mar 13, 2009

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bookshelves: across-cultures, owned

A row of camels bringing the word of books to people who have never had them: an alluring project and story line. “A grabber” as one of the American sponsors put it: “Books for people who never had them before, to encourage literacy in backward places. A novel plan for how to get those books into the bush and one that would make use of a natural community resource – camels. It was a precisely defined concept, a grabber.”

Which is why both the book lover and the potential NGO volunteer in me felt drawn to this novel the minute I heard of it. Yet I found it difficult to get into and now that it is finished I’m not sure what to make of it. It certainly was a enjoyable read and the debate it lays out, about the limits of books, the danger of well meaning development projects, the resistance to change, the importance of understanding that there isn’t only one set of values or way of living… is a fascinating and essential one. But it is such a large one that I feel like it’s only been touched upon in this book, and the question about the validity of the Camel Bookmobile project remains completely unresolved in the end.

The story doesn’t focus on the library itself as much as I thought it would but instead delves into the lives and issues of the different characters. This is of course very positive as it gives us a broader view of the way of life in Mididima and the issues at hand, which is necessary to understand the project. But I felt the story sometimes got lost in the highly predictable relationships between the characters.

…Actually maybe that statement isn’t very fair. Looking back onto it I think the evolution of the relationships shows the way in which, by disrupting the long held daily life and values of this little community, the Bookmobile changed, at least on the surface and for a time, the rules. It gave the characters a sense of ‘possibilities’ which was both a source of hope and a danger.

At first I was surprised to see a request for book donations to be sent to the project at the end of the book… I thought that this account wasn’t really positive for the project and rather a petition to reconsider it. But I guess what the author is getting at is that while the project in itself is good, it has limits and the need for books is not, as we might think, universal. The Camel Bookmobile is shown to be a gift, one that can bring a wealth of new opportunities with it, but one which should not be blindly imposed. Because, in Scar Boy’s words, it is “uncivilized to bring an unsolicited gift from (your own) world and then dictate how it must or must not be used”.

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