Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Case Study No. 0421: Fiona Sweeney and Mr. Abasi

Masha Speaks 1
Masha Hamilton, author of The Camel Bookmobile, addresses the ABOS Conference. Visit her website http://www. mashahamilton.com/ index.php
Tags: ABOS Bookmobile Camel Outreach Author
Added: 3 years ago
From: ABOSOutreach
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Siti, the leader and load camel, seemed to grasp from the beginning that she held the balance of power. First she forced a late start to the journey with her capricious shifts of weight that stunted the men's effort to pack her with books. Mr. Abasi, grumbling about the wasted time as they set off, thought he spotted victory in her eyes, though he quickly told himself he had imagined it. Then, ninety minutes into the trip, Siti glanced back at him, blinked her long eyelashes, sighed loudly, and plopped to the lunarlike desert floor. She tossed her head jauntily, exhibiting the yellowed teeth that jutted from her lower jaw.

At that moment, Mr. Abasi knew for sure what no one else could: Siti was possessed by the spirit of his own departed mother. When he looked closely, he even saw his mother's particular mulish expression reflected in the camel's stubborn gaze. A woman of aggressively colorful dress, his mother had been renowned for her strident refusal to be chained to household chores, as well as for her loud complaints that her husband, responsible for the happiness of three wives, failed to visit her as often as contractually required. She'd been, of course, three times the size of that husband. Her hugs had, more than once, nearly suffocated her slight only son. "I am a woman who must be embraced in full," she used to proclaim to anyone who would listen. "My expanses must be traversed like the land itself."

A full embarrassment, that's what she was. But frighteningly powerful. He'd never been able to completely accept that a mosquito caused her death. She'd seemed too substantial to be threatened by a mbu, even one carrying onyong-nyong fever - so it wasn't a total surprise to find her reincarnated now.


It was his words, Mr. Abasi knew, and not the driver's lashing, that prompted Siti to rise at last and resume the lead, trailed by a second camel carrying Mr. Abasi, a third carrying Miss Sweeney, and a fourth carrying supplies. But the delay had been too long. With such a lackadaisical pace and so many distractions, they were lucky they hadn't encountered any shifta. The bandits, with rows of shiny gold bullets slung around their hips, would surely have killed this willful white American woman. What, then, would be the fate of Mr. Abasi?

Of course, what sort of fate was this, anyway? Since Mr. Abasi's boyhood, his dream of an ideal job was one he could do in the shade that required as little physical exertion as possible and even less human interaction. What joy when the foreign librarian, Miss Fetegrin, had visited from London looking for a worthwhile scholarship recipient, and he had been chosen, and thus discovered there actually existed work that would meet his requirements. Some shelving was necessary, of course. But the library's unambiguous rules against talking more than compensated for that light lifting.

Now, though, they'd changed his job requirements. They'd forced him to travel beneath the unforgiving sun four times a week on these exhausting excursions across a terrain naked except for the occasional thornbush or acacia. And why? Because foreigners with fervor in their hearts decided all children must be educated. Educated! The misconception buried in the word set his teeth to grinding. These foreigners couldn't understand that literacy was not the only path to education. In tribal settlements, the tradition was an oral one, bolstered by the evolutionary development of powerful memories, supported by a web of ritual and respect that books would not reinforce - could, in fact, destroy.

Besides, these simple people were at peace with themselves. Wasn't that a kind of wisdom? A little rain, a bowl of maize, and they were happy. They didn't desire objects outside their reach. This bookmobile project, overseen by the Kenya National Library Service with Miss Sweeney as "visiting consultant," bred envy of an unobtainable life. Some suitable books were to be found among the donations, of course. But what were a dusty desert people to make of a movie star's biography? A do-it-yourself book for landscapers? A children's picture book about medieval castles? Their inclusion highlighted Western idealists' underbelly of ignorance, and even arrogance.


From amazon.com:

"The Camel Bookmobile" by Masha Hamilton (2007)

Hamilton's captivating third novel follows Fiona Sweeney, a 36-year-old librarian, from New York to Garissa, Kenya, on her sincere but naive quest to make a difference in the world. Fi enlists to run the titular mobile library overseen by Mr. Abasi, and in her travels through the bush, the small village of Mididima becomes her favorite stop. There, Matani, the village teacher; Kanika, an independent, vivacious young woman; and Kanika's grandmother Neema are the most avid proponents of the library and the knowledge it brings to the community. Not everyone shares such esteem for the project, however. Taban, known as Scar Boy; Jwahir, Matani's wife; and most of the town elders think these books threaten the tradition and security of Mididima. When two books go missing, tensions arise between those who welcome all that the books represent and those who prefer the time-honored oral traditions of the tribe. Kanika, Taban and Matani become more vibrant than Fi, who never outgrows the cookie-cutter mold of a woman needing excitement and fulfillment, but Hamilton weaves memorable characters and elemental emotions in artful prose with the lofty theme of Western-imposed "education" versus a village's perceived perils of exposure to the developed world.

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