"The Prophet's Camel Bell"

The Prophet's Camel Bell by Margaret Laurence

Margaret Laurence and her then husband Jack lived in Africa from 1950 to 1952 where Jack was working as a civil engineer. The first two of those years, in Somalia, are the subject of this book.

I haven't read much of Laurence's work, just one novel, The Stone Angel, which I liked very much. This book is as different as fiction can be from memoir and yet much the same tone of writing. She's a serious writer, not lacking a sense of humour, but not indulging it very often either. There's a satisfying solidity to her writing that makes you feel you're reading something of significance. I'll have to try another of her novels to see if that carries through. I'm thinking about The Diviners - any other suggestions?

Laurence does a good job of describing life in the African desert with all it's challenges. And such challenges there were. Drought, dangerous wildlife, tribal conflict, monsoons and the ongoing shortages of what we'd call necessities were all a part of her daily life. She didn't like the way the British and other foreigners treated the Somalis and she tried to walk a fine line between the two very different groups of people, never really fitting into either one but always trying to make the best of a frequently uncomfortable situation.

What I was more impressed with, though, was her insight into human nature and her acceptance of the African people as people and not just Somalis, as some saw them. She seems to have been very open to learning about a culture vastly different than her own and adjusting her behaviour accordingly. She made mistakes and sometimes it took a long time to realize them but she wasn't afraid to admit them and make things right. I loved her honesty in those situations, and I respect the way she tried to fit into Somali culture rather than trying to force them into hers.

I probably wouldn't have picked this up if our book club hadn't decided to read it, but I'm glad now that they did. It was interesting as a memoir and also very good as travel literature. A good travel book will make you feel like you've been there; by that standard, this one is a success.  



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