Camel libraries improve literacy in Kenya

By Bosire Boniface in Wajir

November 07, 2012

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At a village square in Kalkach, nine kilometres from Wajir town, librarians Adan Abdi and Mohammed Adow command two camels to kneel down.

  • A Kenyan child reads a book brought to him by the Kenya National Library Services' mobile library in North Eastern Province. [Bosire Boniface/Sabahi]

    A Kenyan child reads a book brought to him by the Kenya National Library Services' mobile library in North Eastern Province. [Bosire Boniface/Sabahi]

  • Adults and children in Kalkach gather around books brought by the Camel Mobile Library. [Bosire Boniface/Sabahi]

    Adults and children in Kalkach gather around books brought by the Camel Mobile Library. [Bosire Boniface/Sabahi]

  • Books are transported by camel from town to town around Wajir and Garissa. [Bosire Boniface/Sabahi]

    Books are transported by camel from town to town around Wajir and Garissa. [Bosire Boniface/Sabahi]

Nearby under an acacia tree, a group of enthusiastic children and adults watch as the librarians unload wooden boxes full of books. After the contents are spread around on mats, the children and adults swarm over the books to choose one to read in the shade.

Twelve-year-old Kalkach resident Mohammed Adan Mohamud said reading books has helped him improve his communication skills. "The camels bring the books twice a month to our village and the books have expanded my knowledge of issues such as other cultures," he said.

Thousands of residents of North Eastern Province have benefitted from the Camel Mobile Library, a service that was initiated by the Kenya National Library Services in 1996 to improve literacy in the region, said North Eastern Province librarian Rashid Mohammed Farah.

As of last October, there were more than 6,000 registered and more than 5,000 unregistered library users in the province, he told Sabahi.

The library mostly provides books that aid students learning English in line with the national school curriculum, he said. The mobile library operates Monday through Thursday between 8 am and 6 pm.

"Members can borrow up to two books for 14 days until the mobile library returns to the same centre," Farah said. "Then they can renew their books or return them for new ones."

While the services have improved the accessibility of books to many citizens, Farah said it has the potential to further increase access and reduce the high illiteracy rate in the province.

Currently, services are only available within 11 kilometres of Garissa and Wajir, he said, adding that the library has nine camels and three caravans serving the two centres daily. "In Garissa we dispatch two mobile units to two different centres each day because it is big. In Wajir we dispatch a single mobile unit," he said.

"We would like to extend the services beyond the radius to other towns such as Ijara and Mandera, but we cannot because of little funding," he said. "We have a stack of letters and applications from learning institutions that want us to take the services to them but we are limited."

According to North Eastern Provincial Director of Education Adan Sheikh Abdullahi, the literacy level in the province has risen to 15% from 9% about 10 years ago. In addition, schools that are served by the mobile libraries are among the best performing in the province in national examinations, he told Sabahi.

More importantly, he said the libraries are helping to cultivate a culture of reading among disadvantaged segments of society that are not near stationary libraries and would otherwise be left behind.

Moving beyond camels to improve education

Since the majority of citizens in the province lead a nomadic lifestyle, stationary libraries are of no use, Abdullahi said, adding that more funding to increase the staff of mobile libraries would ensure nomadic families are followed wherever they go.

Wajir District librarian Marian Osman told Sabahi that additional funding would improve people's access through the introduction of motorised libraries that do not rely on camels for transport.

"If we cannot move to motorised mobile libraries, we want to increase the number of camels involved in transporting books," she said.

Library organisers also need land to graze the camels, particularly during the drought season when they are forced to cut services to twice a week. "Because there are no pastures to feed the camels, we cannot keep the camels all day waiting in the hot sun without anything as we wait for the children to be through with reading," she said.

Mohammed Bunow Korane, director of the Jihan Foundation, an organisation that sponsors the education of girls in North Eastern Province, said that while the initiative has achieved relative success, the government needs to come up with long-term plans for pastoralists to further improve education standards.

"Many families cannot afford books and the little they have they spend on food," Korane said. "Under such circumstances, people do not value books. Learning is a continuous process and the period between camel library visits is crucial."

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Reader's Comments

  • Abdi
    November 11, 2012 @ 05:02:01PM

    It is an issue to be emulated that can be used to pass knowledge to the nomadic community in the horn of Africa. It has been said that "Education is the key to development." On the other hand, camels which are known for the role they play in the economy of the Somalis and other communities has today become the support to education!

  • AMOS TAGO
    November 9, 2012 @ 02:41:40AM

    N matter it takes to be literate kenyans at that end have seen light through that method of camel library now let the goverment ensure enough security for our brothers at that end

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