Illiteracy is high in Kenya's northeastern province, especially among the nomadic, largely ethnic Somali communities that eke out a living in the bush. Many in the province have little or no access to books in the rural areas. But the Kenya National Library Service is aiming to change all that. The provincial library in Garissa offers a mobile camel library service that brings books to children in nearby communities as a way of boosting the area's literacy rate. Cathy Majtenyi accompanied a camel caravan from Garissa and has this report.
At the Kenya National Library in Garissa, the capital of North Eastern Province, a patron flips through a wide variety of books while the staff maintains the collections and serve their clients.
But for many who live outside of Garissa, the library is a world away.
That's why the staff decided to bring the library to the people. And it Is the humble camel, the ship of the desert, who makes this possible.
The Garissa office of the Kenya National Library Service operates a mobile camel library service that brings books to children in isolated, poor schools within a 15-kilometer radius of the city.
The students sign out and return books every two weeks in communities of mostly ethnic Somalis. On this particular day, staff are loading poles, a tarp, chairs, a table, and two wooden boxes of library books onto the camels' backs.
They are heading for Maramtu Primary school, some 10 kilometers away.
Omar Dabar Ali is a camel herder who loads and offloads the cargo and also cares for the library's 12 camels.
Omar explains why camels are ideal for the job. "The camel plays an important role in this process. The camel is very important in the Somali culture. Also, the camel can pass through small roads that a vehicle cannot pass through."
Once the camels are loaded, they make their way through the streets of Garissa, crossing the Tana river, going through the outskirts of the town, and eventually ending up in the bush.
Finally, the exhausted caravan arrives at Maramtu Primary school after a trek of about one hour under a blazing sun.
Staff quickly set up just as the children begin to arrive. One of those students who has been eagerly awaiting the book delivery is fifteen-year-old Ezekiel Abiyu Japhet.
An 8th grade student, he says he reads books to improve his English and to teach his younger siblings the meaning of English words. "I tell them to know the meaning of that word there is in the storybooks. When, for example, I saw a word like 'misfortune,' I tell about the meaning of that word, so that if they hear a European talking about that 'misfortune,' [I help] to understand what he is saying."
Most of the books are in English, with some being written in Ki'Swahili. The subjects of the books range from languages to sciences to storybooks of all types.
Most of the program's 7,000 books have been donated by organizations and individuals from around the world.
Illiteracy is a huge problem in Kenya's northeastern province, with more than 80 percent of the province's one million people being unable to read and write.
People living in the area have traditionally been nomads, moving from place to place depending on weather and grazing conditions. They rely on the spoken word as the main means of communication.
Sheikh Rashid Mohamed Farah, provincial librarian at the Garissa library, shares his expectations of the future. "In the next 20 or so years, we expect this society to be different from what it is. Way back in 1980 when I was here, whoever could read and write was somebody who was known by name in this community, so-and-so. Right now, we have quite (a) number of them in the universities -- a good number of young boys and girls from this province who have gone to the university as a result of library services which we are providing. We hope that in the next 30 years, things will change."
He says that Garissa's main library and the mobile camel library target children and youth -- especially girls -- to reverse the province's high illiteracy rate, adding that nomadic populations are increasingly recognizing the value of schooling for their children.
Staff at Maramtu Primary School say they have noticed changes in their students ever since the camel library started coming to the school nine years ago.
Eunice Haodo teaches Grades 2 and 8. She explains that her students are more fluent in English and communicate with greater confidence after reading the books. "These days they are improving. They don't feel shy. We have a debate in this school on Fridays. When we say, now it's time for a debate, at least they communicate something, they say something."
It's nearing the end of the school day. Camel herder Omar and his staff pack up the mobile library to prepare for the long trek home.
The caravan leaves the school compound, and makes its way back to home base, their shadows lengthening with the setting sun.