The load is heavy and, beneath it, the bookmobile groans. Then sighs. Then twitches in a manner that startles the attending librarian. "Look out," he says. "It might kick back. That sometimes happens with the back leg."
This time, however, the Garissa Mobile Library remains a docile dromedary, neither kicking nor spitting as it climbs laboriously to its great padded feet and begins a loping journey across the wastes of northeast Kenya.
Camels are a common enough sight in this desolate land of low scrub and soft sand about 100 miles southeast of the Somali border. But there always seems to be a crowd around the camels of the Kenya National Library Service as they carry a genuinely scarce commodity--books--to the children of nomads.
"The idea of mobile libraries was to take books into the hinterlands," said Samuel M. Maitha, deputy director of the national library service. And in this part of Africa, the hinterlands are beyond the reach not only of roads, but even of the hardiest off-road vehicles. The trucks that serve as mobile libraries elsewhere in Kenya would bog down trying to reach the places where wandering herders congregate with their families, even though those places sometimes are not far from towns such as Garissa.
"The other issue is security," said Wycliffe Oluoch, provincial librarian in Garissa, a dusty enclave of 200,000 people 200 miles northeast of Nairobi, the capital, and one of two places in Kenya where the camels serve as bookmobiles.
Kenya's Northeastern Province has never been considered entirely safe, even before Somalia collapsed into anarchy earlier in the decade. Banditry is so common along the highways that police and the army man roadblocks at most towns. Motor vehicles are routinely advised to travel in convoys with armed escorts.
None of this, of course, applies to camels.
"The camel is an animal which is really loved by the people of the community," said Oluoch. "They maneuver fast through the thickets. It can move through the sand. They call it the Ship of the Desert."
So eight times a month--early, before the heat of the day--employees round up the three camels from the grounds of the provincial library, where they pass their nights grazing on the acacia trees. The library service initials "KNLS" are branded on their flanks.
One is loaded with books, 500 volumes divided in two white wooden boxes, one on each side of the hump. The second camel carries the tent, a pile of steel poles and the blue tarp embossed with the logo of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees--easily the most common roofing material in Africa, after thatch.
A third camel carries nothing.
"It is like a spare," said Hirsi Aden Hussein, a librarian in training. "It is a stand-by camel."
Once formed into a train--the tail of one tied to the rope bridle of the next--the mobile library sets off into the streets of Garissa. Early on, the animals had to be led through traffic blindfolded. Traffic here may generously be described as moderate, but the sight of any motor vehicle was enough to spook animals accustomed to negotiating only shrubs.
After three years on the job, however, the camels now step out with surprising grace. But they stick to the road only until a vacant lot appears, then make off on delivery routes that can take them from the Garissa suburbs to outlying settlements up to 10 miles away.
On this day, their journey was relatively short, ending at Iftin Primary School, a low, dun-colored complex with 476 students and perhaps 200 books on the outskirts of town. In the mathematics class that Mohamed Amin teaches, 57 students share 15 texts. Course books in northeastern Kenya are at such a premium that last month two men carrying AK-47 rifles robbed an elementary school in a refugee camp a few miles up the road. They made off with two geography texts, four science books, a pair of Swahili primers, one copy of "Folk Music of Kenya" and a primary school syllabus.
"We have very few books," said the Iftin principal, Bisharm Mohamed, seated behind a table in the flimsy galvanzied shack that serves as his office. "The library is very far from our area, and transport is a problem."
But now the camels arrive. The children flock around them like birds, fluttering away in pretend panic as the animals turn their way, chattering as the library staff struggles with the tent on ground littered with tattered plastic bags and other flotsam of an itinerant population.
The people here, however, may now be staying put. Years of drought have claimed the cattle and goats that made nomads of the region's ethnic Somalis. As it settles down, Garissa's swelling population is now being called "semi-nomadic." It is also undergoing a change in the priorities that have given the region a literacy rate of only 40 percent in a country where the national rate is 70.
"Long time, they used to say those going to school are being taught the way of Christianity and so on," said Hussein, the librarian-in-training and native of the heavily Muslim area. "But now they say those who went to school a long time ago are our leaders. So they are regretting now, some of them."
Oluoch, the provincial librarian, said the equation is economic.
"They have lost their world, they have lost their animals," Oluoch said. "Now they have to find other ways to invest, and they are investing in their children."
The tent has no shelves, so the books are heaped neatly on the woven mats that cushioned the camel's hump and now line the floor of the tent. The children line up to flip the pages of "Floppy the Glop" and "To Be Like Abdi" and "I Will Marry When I Want." They clutch library cards inscribed with the word "camel" in the upper left corner.
"I want to take science," said Ismail Mohamed, 13, an aspiring teacher. He walks away with a complicated-looking text. Muktar Mahat Hassan, 17, checks out a woodworking manual.
After just a half-hour, the pile is way down. For most of its books, the provincial library (at Box 245, Garissa, Kenya) relies on foreign aid, especially a group called Book Aid International. So while Hawa Ibrahaim Hassan selects "Sing Me a Song: Poems for Primary School," and Mohamed abdi Gaweey finds a geography text, Farihiya Abdi Hussein heads into the equatorial sun bearing "Projects for Winter."
Sofia Mohamed Dumale, a classmate, got "The Camel."