The camels halt under an acacia tree, grunting, weary from a two-hour trip through the African bush. "Toh! Toh!" the herders cry, whipping the beasts' knees to force them to kneel so their cargo can be unloaded. Then the traveling librarians open a wooden box, revealing its cache: books of fairy tales, novels, atlases, biographies and more in English and Swahili (the official languages in Kenya). Barefoot children appear as if out of nowhere, sinewy and dusty, leaning against one another as they watch the librarians unroll grass mats and spread out the books. They wait for the moment when they can sit on the ground and hold the books in their own hands.
Garissa, along the murky Tana River not far from the border with Somalia, is home to the world's only camel-borne library, which travels deep into the bush to bring books to a seminomadic people known as pastoralists who have spent generations roaming in search of water for themselves and their camels, cows, and goats. Though they live in Kenya, most are ethnic Somalis; borders on maps are of little meaning here. Homes are built of grass, paper and pencil are rare, and illiteracy has hovered above 85 percent in this isolated region, where many have a strong attachment to the nomadic lifestyle and are wary of modern ways.
When the camel library began operating in October 1996, "checking out a library book was not a clear concept," Garissa's head librarian, Rashid Farah, explained as we walked through the bush behind the lumbering camels. Farah chose camels to introduce his service in part because much of the bush is otherwise impassable, and in part because he wanted to find a way to make the foreign familiar. These ships of the desert are as trusted as one's own grandmother here. Still, adapting to the bimonthly appearance of the camel library took time. "Parents would say to me, 'I didn't ask you to give my child this book. Why should I have to return it?'"
But Farah persisted. Since he began, more teachers have arrived in the region, and now 12 camels accompanied by librarians trudge through the bush to four settlements every day, four days a week, despite temperatures that linger around 100 degrees in an arid, undeveloped landscape. It may seem an outsize effort to try to spread a love of literature, but a single trip proves it's worth it. Those who live with chronic poverty in a world almost inconceivably different from our own turn the pages of books with something nearing devotion. Many view these librarians as heroes in their commitment to education and reading.