Something to Read When You're Bored

April 4, 2008, 7:47 pm
Filed under: Interesting | Tags: , , , , ,

Another fascinating world happening I recently learned about is the use of pack animals to bring books to remote villages in developing countries. In Venezuela they’re using mules (locally referred to as bibliomulas) to reach outlying areas, and in northern Kenya there are camel bookmobiles delivering the same service to nomadic tribes.

The program in Venezuela is provided by the University of Momboy, where they place a lot of focus on community-oriented programs. There’s a neat BBC article where they describe how excited the kids all get when the mules arrive (they all shout ‘Bibilomu-u-u-u-las’) , and how they are even beginning to leverage wireless technology by equipping the mules with laptops and projectors. The part that really blew my mind was when they mentioned plans to install wireless modems under the bananna trees – what a crazy mash-up of cultures. But it sounds like the Bibliomulas are making a lot of positive differences in the community, even beyond the improvements in literacy. They’re increasing environmental awareness, connecting communities and helping to support the local economy. Pretty amazing, I think.

The program in Kenya is similar, using camels rather than mules but accomplishing the same sort of thing. This program appears to be more dependent on donations to keep the program going, and I can’t help but think how cool it would feel to donate old books to a cause like this one (if you’re interested in donating, there’s a site for that too).

Masha Hamilton, an author who has traveled with the camel bookmobile, describes the experience:

The actual Camel Bookmobile brings books to semi-nomadic people in Northeastern Kenya who live with the most minimal of possessions, suffering from chronic poverty and periodic drought. I visited the region during a period of drought and made several hours-long walks through the African bush with the bookmobile. I cannot describe how moving it was to see the people, particularly children, crowding around as the traveling librarians set up straw mats under an acacia tree and spread out the books. The excitement is palpable.

The Camel Bookmobile books are primarily in English. The children are taught the language in outdoor “classrooms” under acacia trees for the younger students, indoor classrooms for the older students. They particularly like children’s storybooks, though all fiction is also sought-after, as well as books about math and astronomy, biology and other sciences. As you can imagine, the camel library always needs more books — the trip is hard on books and, as these are a semi-nomadic people known as pastoralists, not all volumes are returned.

This area, Northeast Kenya near the unstable border with Somalia, is definitely a region in transition. Due to years of drought and famine, the elders (many of whom still feel romantically attached to their nomadic lifestyles) are recognizing that their children must be educated, so the demand on the camel library is growing. Illiteracy rates in this region are put at 85 percent. Among adults outside the towns, my guess is that it is higher than that. We in the West have so many books; just mailing a single one to the camel library, if done five-hundred times, would have enormous impact.

The Camel Bookmobile librarians told me their patrons also really appreciate the sense of connection they get when a book is signed from a particular place and person. It widens their understanding of the world. So send a favorite book or two, sign your donations with your name and city, and add a note if you wish.

Masha’s site also includes a transcript of sorts capturing how the village teacher and his wife each react to the influence of the bookmobile. I thought it was a pretty interesting portrayal of cultural differences and how the effort might also have some unintended impacts.

All in all, it feels nice to learn about things going on in the world that are actually good, doesn’t it?