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The Camel Bookmobile

February 1989 - Mididima, North Eastern Province, Kenya

Scar Boy

The child, wide-legged on the ground, licked dust off his fist and tried to pretend he was tasting camel milk. Nearby, his father spoke ardently to a thorny acacia while his older brother hurled rocks at a termite mound. Neither paid him any attention, but this didn't change the fact that for the child, the three of them existed as a single entity. It was as if he drank dust, talked to a tree and threw stones all at once. He took this inclusion, this oneness, for granted. Separate was a concept he was too young to recognize. Nor did he know of change, or fear, or the punishment of drought. All of life was still predictable, and forever, and safe.

Now, for instance, this child-father-brother unit was enveloped in the reliable collapse of day, when the breeze stiffened, color drained from the sky and shadows tinted three sets of cheeks simultaneously. The child welcomed this phase. The texture of the graying light, with its deepening power, transformed faces. It made people, he would later think, resemble charcoal portraits.

Something disturbed this particular dusk, though, tugging his attention away from the intimate comfort of his tongue on his skin and the dust's piquant flavor. Out of the gloom of nearby bushes rose a rigid, narrow object, standing frozen but quivering. This was odd. Everything in his experience either walked or dashed or flew or was blown by the wind or planted in the ground - in other words, it plainly moved or, less frequently, it didn't. What could he make of this harsh immobile shuddering, this tense and stubborn suggestion of flexibility? He crawled closer, then sat back to look again.

From this perspective, he spotted another object, small and round to the other's long and narrow. It was the color of a flame.

In fact, there were two.

"Aha," he thought with satisfaction, the puzzle starting to shift into place. Eyes. Eyes, of course, moved and stayed still at once and could flicker like fire-light. So the object must be human. Or maybe animal. Or maybe ancestral ghost.

Whatever it was, he understood from somewhere, an inherited memory or intuition, that he needed all of himself to meet it. So he called to his other parts, his father-brother.

"Here I am," he said, a gentle reminder. Even as he spoke, he didn't look away from the eyes and the rigid tail; because of that, he saw the object begin to grow larger. And then it lunged. It joined him, as if it too wanted to be part of the son-father-brother entity.

He was unaware of pain. Instead, the moment seemed unreal and confusing, like drifting off to sleep in the midst of one of his father's sung tales and losing track of the story. What had already happened? What was happening still? He would have to ask his father in the morning.

Only one part remained distinct: the sound that would echo in his mind until death. The wet, high-pitched ripping of his three-year-old flesh as the spotted hyena, never a kind beast and now mad with hunger, dove onto his leg, chomped at his waist and then reached his face and gnawed, grunting with pleasure.

Later he would hear how his father turned, killed the beast with a miraculously aimed knife, scooped his son into his arms and began running, the child's blood weeping down the father's arms. He would learn that all this took less than five meditative breaths - but he would never quite believe it. In his memory, the crunching of bone and tearing of flesh stretched over a decade of sundowns and sunups, disrupting all patterns, making everything separate and fearful and dusty and fleeting forever.

"Mosquitoes' lives may be ephemeral, their deaths almost always brutal. But during their transitory span, absolutely nothing will stand in the way of their two formidable guiding desires: to soak up human lifeblood, and to reproduce." -- A Mosquito's Life, J.R. Churin, 1929

December 2002 – Brooklyn, NY

The American

Fiona Sweeney shoved a pair of rolled-up jeans into the corner of her purple duffel bag. Outside her bedroom window, a siren's wail cut through the white noise of a wet snowfall. Sirens, those eerie moans that signaled trouble, were a ubiquitous part of New York City's aural wallpaper, but Fi noticed this one, perhaps because she knew she wouldn't be hearing them for a while.

She still had space in her bag. What else should she take? She picked up the framed snapshot of her mother as a young woman wading into a stream with rubber boots and a fishing pole. Fi loved the photograph; in real life, she'd never known her mother to be that carefree. But her mother wouldn't want to go to Africa. In fact, her mother wouldn't want Fi to go. She put the picture face-down and scanned the room, her attention drawn to a worn volume of Irish poetry by her bedside. She tucked it in.

"How about the netting?" Chris called from the living room where he sat with Devi.

"Already in," Fi answered.

"And repellent?" asked Devi.

"Yes, yes." Fi waved her hand as though shooing away a gnat - a gesture that Chris and Devi couldn't see from the other room. "Should have kept my mouth shut," she murmured. Early on in her research about Kenya, she'd discovered that the country's annual malaria death toll was in the tens of thousands. It scared her, even though logically, she knew she had pills and repellents and would be fine. Mbu - mosquito - had been the first Swahili word she'd learned, and sometime the insects had even dive-bombed into her nightmares. Eventually, though, she realized mosquitoes had morphed into a metaphor for everything she feared about this trip: all the stories she'd read about a violent and chaotic continent, plus the jitters that come with the unknown. And what wasn't unknown? Nearly all she knew for sure, in fact, was why she was going. Fi's mom had never been a big talker, and sometimes Fi thought that deficiency of her childhood explained why she'd first had trouble with written words and then grown to love them. But despite her silences, Fi's mom was a hero, raising four kids alone. What would Fi do with her turn?

"Fi." Chris, at the door of the bedroom, waved in the air the paper on which he'd written a list of all the items he thought she should bring and might forget. Money belt. Hat. Granola bars. "Have you been using this?" he asked in a half-mock teacher tone.

"I hate lists," Fi said.

He studied her a second. "Okay," he said, "Then, what do you say, take a break?"

"Yes, c'mon, Fi. We don't want to down all your wine by ourselves," Devi called from the living room, where an Enya CD played low.

Pulling back her dark, frizzy hair and securing it with a clip, Fi moved to the living room and plopped onto the floor across from Devi, who sprawled in a long skirt on the couch. Chris poured Fi a glass of Cabernet and sat in the chair nearest her. If they reached out, the three of them could hold hands. Fi felt connected to both of them in multiple ways, and at the same time, she knew she was already partly in another place and period. A soft light fell in from the window, dousing the room in a flattering glow and intensifying the sensation that everything around her was diaphanous, and that she herself was half-here and half-not.

"You know, there's lots of illiteracy in this country," Devi said after a moment.

"That's why I've been volunteering after work," Fi said. "But there, it's different. They've never been exposed to libraries. Some have never held a book."

"Not to mention that it's more dangerous, which somehow makes it appealing to Fi," Chris said to Devi, shaking his head. "Nai-robbery."

Though he spoke lightly, his words echoed those of Fi's brother and two sisters - especially her brother. She was ready with a retort. "I'll mainly be in Garissa, not Nairobi," she said. "It's no more dangerous there than New York City. And I want to take some risks - different risks. Break out of my rut. Do something meaningful." Then she made her tone playful. "The idealistic Irish. What can you do?"

"Sometimes idealism imposes," Chris said. "What if all they want is food and medicine?"

"You know what I think. Books are their future. A link to the modern world." Then Fi grinned. "Besides, we want Huckleberry Finn to arrive before Sex in the City, don't we?"

Devi reached out to squeeze Fi's shoulder. "Just be home by March."

Home. Fi glanced around, trying to consciously take it her surroundings. She'd considered sub-letting, which would have been the most economical decision, but she'd gotten busy and let it slide. Now she noticed Chris had stacked her magazines neatly and stored away the candles so they wouldn't collect dust. After she left for Kenya, Chris had told her, he'd come back to wash any glasses or plates she'd left out, make sure the post office was holding her mail, and take her plants back to his apartment. He'd thought of that, not her. A nice gesture, she kept telling herself. Still. She gave Chris a wicked grin as she reached out to mess up the magazines on the coffee table. It felt satisfying, even though she knew he would just restack them later.

Chris was deep into what his colleagues called "groundbreaking" research into the human brain - specifically the hippocampus - at NYU Medical Center. He wanted a shared home and, eventually, kids. Her siblings thought they were a well-suited couple, but that was hardly persuasive. Her brother's wife's cousin was married to one of her sisters, and that they all still lived within eight blocks of their childhood homes. They considered Fi the wanderer for moving from the Bronx all the way to Brooklyn. They wanted to see her "settled," and she doubted it mattered much to them who she settled with - or for.

But even Devi, who arrived in Brooklyn via Iran, agreed about Chris.

"He's a scientist who studies the part of the brain that processes memories, and you work for an institution that does the same, if you think about it," Devi said once. "How perfect is that?"

Remembering it, Fi took a gulp of wine. The assumptions people made about one another were invariably wrong, she'd found. Yes, she was a librarian; yes, he was a researcher. But Chris was disciplined and logical where she was - well, what she liked to think of as whimsical. Eventually, she suspected, her spontaneity would start to drive him batty, and his take-charge confidence would curb her style. Sometimes Fi suspected that Chris became a researcher so he could immerse himself in a definable world he could analyze and, to some extent, control. That's not what she sought from her work. Books allowed her vicarious tastes of infinite variety, but they didn't supplant the need to venture out into the big and the messy. In fact, just the opposite. Books convinced her that something more existed - something intuitive, beyond reason - and they whetted her appetite to find it.

Occasionally, though, she felt a shock of fear that made her legs ache. She was thirty-six, after all, not a kid, and what she sought - this "something more" - seemed so amorphous, even to her. What if, through inertia and social pressure, she ended up with Chris, and children, and backyard barbecues, and everything except the loose house-dresses, and then what if she woke up to find herself somewhere on the gentle slope past middle-age, gazing over her shoulder at a life respectable and well-organized but too narrowly lived? A life that didn't fit her. Couldn't that happen? Didn't it happen to people all the time?

"Well, here's to the Camel Bookmobile." Devi raised her glass.

"Bringing literacy to the African bush."

"Hear, hear," Fi agreed. "It's going to open up whole new worlds for those people." For me, too, she thought, though she didn't say it. She felt light-headed with anticipation.

"My little library evangelist," said Chris in an ironic tone, shaking his head.

"Come on. Toast the project," Devi urged him.

"Okay, okay," Chris said. "To Kenya. To the camels." From the end table, he picked up a book on camel husbandry "a joke gift from Fi's colleagues," and lifted it with one hand, raising his wine glass with the other.

February 2003 – Mididima, North Eastern Province, Kenya

The Girl

The sun had not yet spit its first spray of dusty gold into their home when Kanika woke to a vicious buzz. Mbu. Not just one – a whole swarm, thronging within her belly. She’d never heard of mosquitoes invading an abdomen before, but there was no other way to account for vibrating drone coming from within. How in the name of her blessed ancestors had the mosquitoes gotten inside? She pictured the bloodsuckers breeding in her veins, dumping eggs along her ribcage, their heads drooping as they guzzled down her precious moisture at its source.

“Nyanya,” she called, frightened, pressing a hand to her center, the curve of her flesh, to try to determine the numbers within. This was not the work of ten or twelve. There were a hundred and twenty at least, plenty enough to rob her of life.

Her grandmother Neema, asleep next to her, opened her eyes a little, then wide, then sat up. She reached out for Kanika.

And in that moment, Kanika remembered. The hum came not from insects, but from an obscure emotion – one rare enough to frighten her. Anticipation. She rubbed her eyes and laughed at her own foolishness. “Lie back down,” she said.

Neema shook her head as though to clear it. “You wake me to tell me to sleep?”

“A tickle inside scared me. But it’s only the books.”

“The books.” The answer satisfied Neema enough to allow her to lower her head, but she kept her eyes open, watching Kanika.

This was Library Day. The day the books would arrive, borne in wooden boxes on either side of a camel’s hump. Soon Kanika would be fondling covers and running her fingers over random words before settling on the two volumes she was permitted to borrow. Then she would grasp them possessively, carry them home, put them in the center of the room and delay opening them as long as possible to stretch out the delicious pleasure. Finally – sometime before nightfall, she knew – she wouldn’t be able to wait longer, so she would give up and dive in. Endless words in English or Swahili spilling one atop another, metamorphosing into sentences and paragraphs, leaping to life as Kanika deciphered them, revealing secrets that left her lightheaded.

Kanika could read as fast as locusts devour, thanks to lessons from her grandmother, who had also grasped the gift when she was a girl. For years, though, Kanika’s sole book had been a tattered copy of the Bible in English that a British missionary once gave Neema’s mother – the first of Kanika’s family who had been taught to read. For Kanika, the book had nothing to do with religion; she believed, as did her neighbors, in the Hundred-Legged One and in the spirits that lived in everything. Nevertheless, by the age of nine, Kanika had reread the stories of Adam and Abraham and David more than fifty times. That was the year she realized she couldn’t stand to read them again – nor the ones about Samson, nor Joseph, nor Cain and Abel, nor any of the others. She’d had enough of abandoned sheep and feuding brothers and mythically flawed men. She thought she was finished with reading forever.

Now, five years and five months later, what unexpected wealth!  True Stories of Grizzly Bear Attacks. A biography of Nelson Mandela. A history of Nigeria. And most recently, Mosquitoes, Malaria, and Man: A History. Still on her back, she flexed her feet and reached to touch the tome featuring on its cover a magnified mosquito, head hanging, body ballooned with blood. The cause, obviously, of her waking imagery. All right then. No more insect books. She could see the wisdom of that, as long as there were other words to read. The camels had been lumbering into Mididima not quite four` months, and already their cache had become essential to her.

Of course, they’d delivered more than books to Kanika, more even than knowledge of the outside world. They’d elevated her status. As a child, she’d spent so much time with Neema’s Bible that her neighbors had dismissed her as a useless oddity. Words on a page were acceptable, barely, as an occasional idle distraction. But to be obsessed with them? If she wanted to read, the elders had told her many times, far better to learn to read animal scents on the breeze, or the coming weather in the clouds.

The library’s arrival had made a leopard’s leap of a difference, marking the start of a real school. Matani had always called himself a teacher and tried to gather together the children to write letters in the sand. But how long could sticks and dirt hold their interest? Now, though, all the children were given books to explore, and being taught to chant the alphabet in Swahili and English and to translate squiggles on paper, and Kanika had become Matani’s helper. “The assistant teacher,” he called her. “With all these books, I cannot educate everyone at once, Kanika. Not even with help of the cane.”

Kanika had never before been given a title, let alone thought to be someone who had knowledge of value. Before, she’d been considered nearly as out of place, in her own way, as Scar Boy. Now, though, tiny bodies with sour-scented skin pressed close to her over open pages. Mothers watched with a mixture of envy and resentment as she shared some mysterious secret with their offspring. They didn’t respect her any more than they ever had. But they were afraid of her, she knew. Of the skill she possessed that they didn’t. 

She yawned and stretched and thought, then, of Miss Sweeney, the American who would, by the ancestors’ blessings, arrive with the camels as she always had. Kanika extended a hand to pick up the flat, round object she kept next to her grass mat. Miss Sweeney’s gift. A miracle smaller than a clenched fist. A dry water puddle that could be carted around and gazed in whenever one wished. A mirror, Miss Sweeney called it. None of the girls of Mididima had ever seen one before. She shifted it so that she could examine, in the dim light, her eyes, her cheeks, her effusive mouth.

“The sight of yourself pleases you,” her grandmother said with a generous chuckle.

Kanika shook her head in protest. “What pleases is that I can see myself at any time. I won’t be left wondering who that is when I catch glimpse of myself in a splash of rainwater.”

Neema nodded, serious now. “There’s magic beyond our world, it’s true.”

Moved by something in her grandmother’s voice, Kanika turned, tempted to reveal her plan. But she stopped herself. Better to act before talking. And act she would, as soon as the camels arrived today.

She would hurry to Miss Sweeney’s side and use the hem of her own kitenge to polish each book. No matter that she personally found no offense in the sunset-colored dust that wasted little time in laying claim to everything that entered the bush. Unimportant if she, like her neighbors, believed it irresponsible to use up hours struggling against grains of earth. The powder bothered Miss Sweeney when it settled on the books, and that was enough. Kanika had watched Miss Sweeney stroke the books clean with her soft, pale palms. This time, Kanika would do that for her, quietly yes, but ostentatiously enough to be noticed. The act of cleaning would be something more than an effort to ingratiate herself; it would be like a book’s prologue – not the story yet, but a suggestion of the story to come.

Then afterwards, she would approach Miss Sweeney, lead her apart from the others, take her hand, perhaps. Little by little – an elephant must be eaten a bite at a time – she would speak of her desires – no, her needs. A way to the Distant City. Or perhaps to even more distant Distant Cities. To leave the bush. To be an assistant teacher somewhere where shelves of books and walls of mirrors and other wonders were as commonplace as sand. If she could teach the children of Mididima to read, couldn’t she teach other children, in places of greater potential?

Kanika knew her plan would sound, to most of her tribe, like a desert nomad’s dream of snow. That’s why she’d told only Scar Boy. He would repeat it to no one, of course; who talked to Scar Boy? And telling him had been enough. That had satisfied her need to press the words into another’s ears, to make her vision real. He’d listened with his whole being. Though he’d said nothing, she was sure he supported her plan. After all, forsaken as he was by his neighbors, with his slow limp and his poor distorted face, he understood about dreams.

Miss Sweeney – clearly a daring woman herself, clearly someone who’d seen snow, perhaps even walked through it – would listen too, and understand, and help. Miss Sweeney, after all, had squeezed Kanika’s shoulders. She’d leaned close enough for her hair to brush Kanika’s cheek, and for her odor – that complicated, ornate scent that some here found disgusting – to fill Kanika’s nostrils. She’d given Kanika the mirror.

Kanika vowed to find the courage to act today, before her great-uncle Elim or others began grumbling again, muttering that she was behind schedule to find a husband, that she must be married before the arrival of summer’s dry winds. Before they trapped her.

A spiraling cord of nerves in her stomach, as well as a morning pressure that needed to be relieved behind a bush, at last propelled Kanika to her feet. She glanced through the open door, surprised to see the day still hovering. She was rising earlier and earlier now that she was assistant teacher, now that she had books to read. It seemed to have satisfied Elim, who’d been less complaining lately. He used to protest that she remained wedded to the earth far too long each day, depending on the sun to pry open her eyes.

“She’s as lazy as a dying man,” Elim told Neema once in a voice that boomed through Mididima, loud as a thunderstorm. It had not been laziness – even now, Kanika flushed at the public accusation. Sometimes, yes, there was a morning’s heaviness after a late night spent talking to Scar Boy while Mididima slept – talks none of them knew about because all would disapprove. But primarily, her lack of enthusiasm for daylight had been born of days carrying too few possibilities. Since the library had arrived, all could surely see that she was far from lazy.

She brushed her uncle’s old complaint aside by flinging her right hand through the air. Today, she would not be disturbed by thoughts of uncles whose minds resembled mud pools, or lurking husbands or pointless chores. She would begin the morning with the speed and joy of a well-aimed spear, and that would make the moments fly faster until the Camel Bookmobile and Miss Sweeney arrived.

The American

In a vacant lot next to Garissa’s provincial library some three hours south of Mididima, two herdsmen struggled to strap wooden boxes filled with books to a camel’s side. They’d been trying for fifteen minutes, and by now an audience of a dozen passersby had collected. Fi stood with Mr. Abasi. She saw the camel blink its long eyelashes against an arrow of early morning light and then shift abruptly with uncanny timing. The boxes fell off. Again. Books thudded onto the ground, the sound reverberating. It was the fifth try and still no success. The camel’s lips turned up in what looked remarkably like a smirk.

One herdsman spewed curses – Fi understood that much even without knowing the words. He picked up a book, Practical Primary English, and flung it in frustration. She flinched as the book skidded on the ground. Still muttering, the herdsman grabbed a second book, How The Pig Got His Snout. Mr. Abasi stood immobile next to Fi. He was, Fi guessed, about 42 or 43, but in his blue striped pants and pale pink button-down shirt with soccer-ball cufflinks, he looked like a boy playing dress-up. He stared dispassionately as the herdsman hurled once more.

These were the moments when Fi, if she allowed herself, could regress to what she thought of as her early period: the days a dozen years ago when she’d been a new librarian and worked the information desk in the children/teens section at the Bedford library branch. “Children! People are reading. Please, no roughhousing here. A library is not a playground – well, it is, actually, but not as you might think of it …” trailing off, giving up, recognizing that she was particularly unsuited to make such reprimands because for them to be effective, one must be able to stick to black and white, while she always found herself slipping into intricate grays of “maybe” and “sometimes.”

Here, she’d approached it freshly. She’d learned to admonish the herdsmen in Swahili to be careful with the books: “vitunze vitabu!” She’d tried longer lectures, too, with Mr. Abasi as translator. She’d mentioned the vulnerability of a book’s spine, the limited numbers of volumes, the trust of the benefactors. But then she found herself veering off into mentions of the first library of clay tablets collected in Mesopotamia, or the first horse-drawn bookmobile in 1905 in Hagerstown, Maryland, or even philosophical statements about books transcending time and space, and Mr. Abasi’s translations would fade away and the herdsmen would stand silent.

Talk wasn’t working. There had to be another way to infuse them with her own commitment to the bookmobile. Had to.

With both hands in front of him, Mr. Abasi held a brown bag that, she knew after these many trips, contained his lunch. He wasn’t married; she imagined him packing the lunch for himself each evening, setting it next to the door. She reached over, smoothly took the bag from him, then raised her arm and threw it on the ground.

He opened his mouth as if gulping water. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m a visitor to your country, Mr. A.,” she said. “I want to fit in.”

“I—” He was actually sputtering. “I have grapes in there. Do you know how expensive grapes are here?”

She gestured toward the camels. “And books,” she said, “are expensive, too.”

“That,” Mr. Abasi said, waving a hand. “He’s frustrated.”

“Me too. The Camel Bookmobile was started so people living away from towns could learn to read. It can change lives. But if the books are ruined, the program fails.”

Their gazes locked for a full minute. Then Mr. Abasi rotated his long neck and spoke curtly to the herdsman who, with exaggerated gestures, lifted the thrown books one by one and dusted them off, placing them carefully with the others.

“Thank you,” Fi said, bending to pick up the bag. “Your efforts will help our library survive.”

“Along with my lunch,” he muttered. But as he turned away, she thought she saw a glimmer of amusement in his eyes.

Light was seeping into the mushroom-gray sky, the suspended wine-colored dust particles becoming increasingly visible. Fi opened her mouth to take a bite of the grainy air, fragranced with animal dung, dust and wood smoke. Nairobi had perpetually smelled of charcoal fires and diesel fumes, but in Garissa, scents never seemed to linger – they vanished in the aridity. In her Brooklyn apartment above Fleishmann’s Coffee Shop, smells tended to seep up the stairs and plop in her living room like ornery houseguests refusing to leave: bitter coffee wrestling with steamed milk and burnt sugar-dough.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, Fi missed the scents of home. She calculated: in Brooklyn, it was late evening of the previous day. “Going to make a quick call,” she told Mr. Abasi, gesturing with her head toward the library building.

Inside, she used her calling card. The one luxury she permitted herself: weekly calls, usually to her brother or one of her sisters, sometimes to Chris or Devi, always made from the library because there was no phone in the nearby home where Fi had a room provided for by the Kenya National Library Service.

Sometimes, though, she lost track of weekly. Time felt elusive here, where the crocodile-laden Tana River eternally passed on its way to the Indian Ocean and flocks of ugly marabou storks perched atop acacia trees and men hauled carts along dirt roads as they had for generations. The battery on Fi’s wristwatch ran down two weeks after she arrived and she’d taken it as a sign, stuffing the watch away instead of getting it fixed. Devi, hearing that, said Fi better keep calling, because she clearly needed a link to the 21st Century – what Devi dubbed the “real world,” by which she meant Pilates, lattes, organic grocery stores and, everywhere, clocks. 

Fi dialed the number. “Hey,” she said when Devi answered. “You still awake?”

“Fi!” Devi said. “How are you? No malaria yet?”

Fi laughed and reached inside her bag for her water bottle. “I’m so done with worrying about that,” she said, because she was, mostly. “What’s happening there?”

“The sun is up and crime’s down,” Devi said. “Though some baseball star was suspended the other day for using a cork-filled bat. And Lulu the transvestite has the hottest off-Broadway show. Now tell me about you.”

“Mididima,” Fi said.

“’Scuse me?”

“Where we go today. My favorite stop.”

“You have a favorite now?”

Fi leaned her neck back into her free hand and rubbed. “The place rises up out of nothing,” she said. “The people are stunning, with their burnished skin. And they’re not as poor as the others. I mean, they’re poor – my God, everyone’s poor – but they created this irrigation system that I haven’t seen anywhere else, and they never beg, and when the Camel Bookmobile shows up, they’re eager. We’re going to bring them into the modern world, Devi. These are the people I’m here for.”

“They’re eager? That means not everyone you meet is so thrilled to see a white lady and her books?” Devi’s tone poked gentle fun.

“Okay, not everyone,” Fi said. “I mean, the others aren’t unhappy to see us, just puzzled. In most places, they keep their distance, or stare with blank faces. I must seem so strange. And sometimes I do feel them thinking – with everything we need here, what craziness possessed this lady to come with a pile of books?”

“But I already know your answer,” Devi said. “Books, books everywhere. So tell me about Mi–whatever.”

“Mididima. In their tribal language, it means Those Rooted in Dust. I feel more connected to them than any of the others. Maybe because so many of them speak English – ” Fi laughed at herself, “well, three, anyway.” She thought of the girl Kanika, her straight-backed grandmother Neema, and the teacher Matani, whose sudden smiles startled and charmed her. “But all the children are learning, and they practice on me. And there’s one they call Scar Boy, who doesn’t speak at all but cradles books like they could save him. How can I resist that?” Fi reached into a plastic bag to pinch off a piece of peppery-sweet fried bread. It was powdered with soil, and dry enough to require infusions from the water bottle before crawling down her throat. “Mr. A., of course, hates Mididima,” she said.

“Mr. A. Isn’t he the one who thinks you’re a colonist, trying to homogenize the world? The one who hates everything about your project?”

“Especially Mididima, though. Mr. A. says it’s too primitive and too far away. It’s an isolated little pocket. Takes hours to get there.”

Fi had been surprised that Mr. Abasi had any doubts at all about the Bookmobile project, and even more surprised to find that he had enough reservations to fill a small set of encyclopedias. She hadn’t anticipated objections from Garissa’s chief librarian when she’d applied for the consultant position. She’d thought everyone in Kenya, and especially the librarians, would be thrilled with the idea of camels ferrying books to the isolated northeast region.

But, just for starters, Mr. Abasi didn’t even seem to fully trust the semi-nomads. Educated briefly in London, Mr. Abasi sprinkled his speech with Briticisms like “bloke” and “lorry” and acted like he preferred Europeans to either Africans or Americans. He’d spearheaded the imposition of a series of rules that seemed too rigid to Fi, but that he insisted were necessary. “We’ve got to follow a strict policy if we’re going to be balmy enough to take books this far into the bush,” he liked to say. She’d given way in exchange for a measure of his blessings.

“What are you doing in your spare time?” Devi asked now.

“Meeting with teachers, mostly,” Fi said. “I talked with a local government official a couple days ago to discuss future funding.”

“But what about for fun?”

“Garissa is way off the tourist path,” Fi said. “I see giraffes all the time, though, and hippos at the Tana River the other day. I was invited to hear some drummers a few nights ago.” She heard a shout from outside. “I’ve got to go, Devi.”

“You going to call Chris?”

“No time now,” Fi said. “Just give him my best.”

“Your best? You want me to tell him that?”

“You know what I mean.”

“All right,” Devi drew the words out. “Be careful, Fi, okay?”

As she stepped outside, Fi saw one of the herdsmen talking with large gestures and in an agitated voice as his fellow camel-driver nodded. The cantankerous camel was on its knees but bearing its teeth and complaining in a loud moan. “Still no books loaded?” Fi called.

Mr. Abasi shrugged. “The driver calls the beast a fool-brained lump of dung, but I think the camel and I actually agree. It would be wiser to stick our heads in the mouths of lions than to make this trip.”

Fi laughed. “Lighten up, Mr. A.,” she said. “We’re going to the village of Mididima, not hell.”

“It’s not a village, Miss Sweeney; it’s a collection of wanderers best left alone, and it’s too far into shifta territory. More than once, I’ve tried to point that out.”

So convenient, this mention of the shifta, Fi thought. Downplayed most of the time, the desert thieves were brought up only when there was a chance they might dissuade a foreigner from doing something that a local found tiresome.

Shifta steal cattle, not books,” she said. She reached down to the pile of books stacked on the ground, picked one up – a biography of Napoleon – and placed it in Mr. Abasi’s right hand. “Just think, Mr. A.,” she said, attempting a Mary Poppins kind of voice. “Books, books, everywhere.”

Mr. Abasi stared at her skeptically. Then he set down the book, put his lunch bag on top, scratched his neck and looked off searchingly into the saffron light, as though trying to discern, on the flat horizon, the makeshift, mirage-like gathering of souls – the settlement of Those Rooted in Dust – which was, to his obvious and immense regret, their day’s destination.

Excerpted from THE CAMEL BOOKMOBILE © Copyright 2011 by Masha Hamilton. Reprinted with permission by Harper Perennial. All rights reserved.

The Camel Bookmobile
by by Masha Hamilton

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • ISBN-10: 0061173487
  • ISBN-13: 9780061173486