Camels + Children = Literacy

It was 7 a.m. and a small crowd had gathered in front of Garissa's public library to watch Yusuf Ahmed load camels with books. The camels weren't cooperating.

"Don't pull on the rope like that!" a woman yelled. "Wrap it under the leg."

Yusuf eyed her coldly, and pulled on the rope.

A herdsman by vocation, he believed he was in no need of advice. Yes, there had been a few hitches: The camels had initially looked on him with silent but strong objection, then sabotaged each step of the loading process.

Wycliffe Oluoch, Garissa's resident librarian, surveyed the scene with growing impatience. Soon it was 8:30, and he had promised Ali Ade, headmaster of the primary school in Marantu, that the camels would be there by noon.

Because only a fraction of Kenya's 30 million people live in urban centers, the Kenyan National Library Service (KNLS) has complemented its permanent libraries with eight "mobile libraries," or boxes of books loaded on bicycles, motorcycles, cars, or trucks. They are sent out to different schools in the hope of reaching a greater number of Kenya's 5.5 million schoolchildren and improving the country's literacy rate of 59 percent.

But around Garissa most schools are deep in the savanna, beyond the reach of a 4-by-4; indeed, beyond the reach of just about anything but a camel.

The "camel library," as it is now known, started in October 1996 with the simple acquisition of three camels and has been running at a cost of $200 a month since, reaching an estimated 24,000 children a year.

Marantu was roughly three miles away, one of myriad minuscule communities scattered in the savanna of eastern Kenya. So Yusuf and the camels had better get going.

Mr. Ade had written from Marantu some time back, putting in a plea for books. He had been told that the library in Garissa had purchased three camels for the purpose of bringing books to children in remote communities. In the letter, he described the pitiful state of his school, the poverty of the children, the absolute impossibility of acquiring any reading material aside from textbooks. He wondered if the camels might stop in Marantu.

The Garissa librarian replied immediately. It might take some time, he warned in a note, but the camels would come.

After all, Marantu had the necessary qualifications: It was a permanent, not a nomadic, settlement. It had a school, a full-time headmaster, and teachers who would help retrieve and return the books. The KNLS, on whose behalf Mr. Oluoch dispatched the camels, could hardly object.

The KNLS is a parastatal, a government subsidized body, but doesn't run like one. It came into existence with an act of Parliament in 1967, four years after Kenya won its independence from Britain. Its declared objective was to "promote, establish, and develop libraries in Kenya."

But, since libraries were likely to be established in urban areas, the KNLS quickly realized that the books would have to travel to reach rural populations.

"The idea came because so many of the schools were so far away. We decided that where we could not build a library, we would have to find a way to bring people books," Prisca Apudo of the KNLS explains.

Yusuf's camels had traveled to 10 schools since headmaster Ade's impassioned plea had reached Garissa, dropping off books that they collected two weeks later. Today, they were finally on their way to Marantu, or so everyone hoped as they waited for Yusuf and the camels to come to an agreement.

Seen, as he often was, in bitter conflict with the beasts, Yusuf had acquired something of a reputation in Garissa, but the librarian firmly believed it was the camels' fault.

They had been purchased at $200 a head, nearly two-thirds of what the average Kenyan makes in one year, and from entirely different stocks, but for some reason they displayed the same uncertain temper.

Once in the savanna, however - away from the clamor of Garissa's only paved road - the camels proceeded in good order. They carried a tent, a case full of books, a desk, and a chair. With its collection of 24,000 books, the library in Garissa is one of the largest and best furnished in Kenya.

The children's section, 9,200 volumes strong, offers books by Dr. Seuss, and, though severely bruised, the whole Babar series. "Treasure Island" and "Huckleberry Finn" are up there with "Nondo the Cow" and "Tales Told to an African King. "

In Marantu, Ade came to greet the assistant librarian, who had followed the camels on foot, with extended hands.

The children, ragged in their school clothes, watched the camels' entrance with the peculiar gravity of children unaccustomed to novelty: with a touch of fear, and a readiness to bolt.

"They have been waiting," Ade said, beaming. "It's an important day."

They didn't have to wait long. Within one hour, the tent had been set up, the books arranged on the floor, and the assistant librarian had taken a place at the desk with a registry and a stamp from the national library service.

Ade clapped his hands.

"Stand in a queue, a straight line now, so you can register," he ordered.

One by one, the children streamed through the tent, making their choices impulsively. Thus Rehema Ahmed, a nine-year-old who wanted a book that would teach her better English, chose "The Basics of Algebra," and 11-year-old Silvano Japheto picked out "Living With Blindness" because of the bright colors on the cover.

None of the children had ever had a book to read beside the textbooks they shared in class. They sat under the same tree with their books, eyeing one another's choices.

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