The camel bookmobile is exactly what it sounds like: a mobile library which transports its books by camel. This sounds impossibly exotic but it really exists; the author Masha Hamilton has travelled with it and she gives an address to which book donations for the library can be sent. In the novel American librarian Fi, (thirties, unmarried), decides against the advice of her friends to volunteer for work with the mobile library, taking books and, she believes, literacy and broader horizons to remote villages in Kenya. Not surprisingly, things don’t turn out exactly as she had imagined and not everyone in the village of Mididinga welcomes her or the books.
The author has obviously given much thought to the problems of two cultures meeting and one of the themes of the book is the question of whether the mission is actually cultural imperialism, although that phrase is not used. Conflicts in the village between old and new ways of thinking are represented by different characters; the author obviously loves them but how can an outsider possibly even guess at what goes through the mind of an African peasant? This is a problem and I thought there was rather a rose-tinted view of life in the bush.
Readers are bound to compare this book with Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. For me, McCall Smith’s Africa is better described and more convincing and the books better written. Critics have had fun (see Radio 4’s Dead Ringers) with the slow pace of the chronicles of Mma Ramotswe but I have always argued that the prose reflects the slower pace of life of the characters. I found the same technique applied in The Camel Bookmobile began to pall about half way through the story, when I began mentally begging the writer to ‘Get on with it!’ It was still an enjoyable and different read.