Mobile Libraries on Four Legs

In What’s Going On at the Library, I noted that some librarians are making space for new kinds education within library walls while others are taking their expertise outside the library and on to the Internet.

The movement to go outside library walls isn’t exactly a new trend, though. In early California librarians used to ride out all over the state on horses all to deliver books. This WPA photo below shows one of these “pack horse librarians” delivering books to her patrons.

CA librarian on horse


In Northeastern Kenya librarians are using camels to deliver books to children.

The librarians

A documentary film from Marco Polo Film AG, “The Caravan of Books” captures the amazing dedication of the camels and men who deliver the books  in Kenya via the Mobile Camel Library.

This trip starts from the library in Garissa, a small city in Kenya which has about 30,000, mostly older books, in English and Swahili on its shelves.

Every couple of months some of the librarians pack two large wooden boxes with about 300 books, both fun and educational, and strap them onto the back of a camel to take into the semi-arid desert on a four hundred mile journey.

Prominent in the shot of the books in the first box is  a copy of Heidi, a classic children’s book about a young Swiss girl sent to live with her grandfather in the Swiss alps where he is a bitter, reclusive man who raises goats.

Ask the film progresses it is soon apparent that the lives of children in the Kenya desert are quite similar to Heidi’s in the Alps. Included in the film are two young girls from a nomadic tribe who have never seen a school or a book before the caravan arrives at a school near them.

The caravan includes three young pack camels who are learning the trail for the first time. As they, their herders and the librarians walk through the streets of Nairobi they are quite skittish and balk at the idea of crossing a bridge over water. They all manage to get into the wilderness though and their four week journey begins.

The children 

The bush children are needed to carry out the many chores their family has to do to survive in the wilderness. They gather firewood, a scarce material in the desert. Other children including a few girls do get to go to schools, some held outdoors and some inside barren buildings that contain few if no books. When the caravan stops at the first school, the librarians unpack a large tent and set it up. Then the carefully lay out the books one by lone on large blankets spread on the ground.

Only then are the children allowed out of the school.  And that is a moving sight to see.

The children approach the books with the reverence  with which you might see children approach a newborn baby animal. They cannot keep the books, so they sit or squat on the ground and read silently to themselves or softly to each other under the shade of the tent. Come evening the librarians pack up the camels and walk on to the next school.

The mobile camel library serves 4,000 readers a year, but 16,000 children in this area of Kenya are still without any books.

The camels

The film also features camel-booksNairobi writer and illustrator of children’s books, Alfred Muchilwa who went along with the caravan to capture the story for a new children’s books. The star of the book is the camel who carries the two wooden boxes. It’s name is “Gellow,” the Somali word for “camel.

In Arthur’s book, Gellow is frightened by a lion. He loses all the books and the letters of the alphabet inside them. Desperate, he asks for help from the children to find the letters and put them back into the books. 

Photo from Camel Book Drive

Gellow is a dromedary (one-hump) camel. Each day he and his three trainee camels walk 18 kilometers. It takes a camel four weeks  to bring books to all the children, stopping mainly to eat leaves on trees along the way, take a dust bath to shake off ticks or take ten minutes at a water hole to fill up their humps.

When the camels return to Nairobi a vet cares for them. Thorns, ticks, and a slight fever requiring a shot are the price they pay for their trips. Usually they need to rest for the 10 days they get off between trips.

The book illustrator

He’s a key part of the film – he tells his story to the children while he draws them. Later, he shows us how an illustrated children’s book is made. In the end he’s rewarded in a way most writers are not – Alfred Muchilwa gets to take copies of his book out with the camels and see children read it.

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