My visit to the region came in 2006, during a third year of drought and famine. I gave away maize and cooking oil wherever we stopped. Grown-ups gathered for the food, the women sometimes squatting under a tree and motioning for me to join them. Giggling children, too, were briefly interested in the appearance of a blonde foreigner, but soon they forgot me and became consumed by the books, often reading to themselves in slow, hushed voices. Eighteen-year-old Ismael told me he has been checking out books from the camel library for three years, and he credits it with helping him improve the English he needs for exams he hopes will allow him to continue his education in a city.
To continue its work, the camel library needs more books. The bush is hard on paper, and sometimes in these seminomadic communities, readers—moving on before the library can return—take their books with them. So with the help of two author friends, I began to ask for donations. We started by asking fellow writers whose works we love to donate to the library five of their favorite books. The response was immediate, and soon the drive expanded to include not only award-winning writers but librarians, publishers, agents, readers, and bloggers in several languages—an outpouring from those who value literature. We set up a Web site to highlight donors. Contributions have ranged from Margaret Wise Brown's The Runaway Bunny to Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea to Dave Eggers's What Is the What, as well as books on astronomy and geography, and books in Swahili and Somali. Librarian Rashid Farah responded with thanks and his own e-mail address, and although he checks e-mail infrequently, a link was born, with books serving as the bridge. The camel library continues to awe and inspire by its demonstration of the lengths people will go to share a love of reading.
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