Where We Find Books – or Where They Find Us
Last summer I had the amazing opportunity to explore four of East Africa’s countries: Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania. I was with one of my daughters, Brenna, and, as usual when travelling together, we coordinated our reading material for our adventure. Our goal was to bring novels or non-fiction written by female authors of each country. This proved slightly difficult, necessitating research and ordering, at times, from out-of-print sellers, but we managed. Of course, you’re probably thinking, why didn’t you download your books onto an electronic device? Who carries eight to ten books when you’re packing light to go on safaris and treks throughout four countries? We did. Why? We did consider that power sources to charge devices might be iffy in remote areas. But it really wasn’t that. Brenna and I are writers. We want our physical books. We need to hold them, to turn down pages and scribble in margins and flip back and forth. Yes, any electronic reading device allows you to bookmark and highlight. I know. But humour me. You know it’s not the same.
We read while waiting in airports and during flights, and by our headlamps in camps after the sun went down and there were hyenas calling and howler monkeys leaping through the trees above and baboons slyly checking for any bits or bobs – a water bottle or hat perhaps – forgotten outside the tent (and never to be seen again).
Occasionally, some of the little guest houses in the small cities we moved through for a night here and there had a book exchange, and we left our own used books and found those left by other travelers. Halfway through our six weeks we worried about running out of books. And then…a library, tiny and unexpected, on an isolated island in the middle of a lake in Uganda.
We had travelled on foot through the very slow and slightly confusing border crossing from Rwanda into Uganda. Our Ugandan driver, Bosco, picked us up and drove us through miles and miles of beautiful terraced hillsides growing sweet potatoes and maize and cassava in his old and dusty 4X4. All we had on our itinerary – which we’d planned ourselves – for our first three days in Uganda was that we would be staying at Lake Boonyani, in a geodome crafted from local materials. It sounded perfect.
As the sun went down over the Ugandan countryside Bosco switched on his headlights and sped up, and we bounced around, expecting, at any turn, to come into a campsite near a lake. Instead, after maneuvering through a small town filled with bicycles loaded down with bananas, honking truck horns and flocks of goats creating natural traffic-calming zones, Bosco slowed the truck and carefully inched down a steep incline. I heard water. We got out and Bosco set our bags on the ground and left us in the dark, telling us he would meet us here in three days. Another man appeared and motioned us to follow. We ended up on a rickety dock that was a few pieces of wood barely holding together. And there was a tiny boat, a cut-out canoe of sorts, rocking on the gentle lift and fall of the lake. The boat driver carefully distributed the weight of our bags and after we had gingerly climbed in, he started the small motor and we headed out into complete darkness. There was no light on the boat, and no moon or stars, as there was a heavy cloud cover eventually bringing rain, making it even harder to see ahead of us – although we didn’t know what we were looking for. We did barely miss running into some night-fishermen throwing their nets into the black water, but the driver of our boat – and the fishermen – seemed to take it in stride as, amid shouts, we swerved sharply to avoid a collision. And then we saw a few tiny pinpoints of light; they looked oddly high in the darkness.
They were. The camp was at the top of an island hill. We pulled alongside a similar rough dock as the one we’d left on the mainland, and the driver flashed a torch a few times. Two young men came running down to the dock. Each picked up a bag and disappeared. The boat pulled away. Brenna and I climbed – and climbed and climbed – many, many winding wooden steps. The rain stopped, and the night clouds disappeared as we reached the top of the hill, and were shown to our geodome under the glorious blanket of stars the clouds had been hiding. By their soft glow we did our best to get ready for bed and climb under our mosquito netting to fall into our usual exhausted sleep after yet another long and exciting and challenging day.
In the morning, we awoke to brilliant sunshine and the most glorious view of Lake Boonyani through the open front of our geodome. The wooden deck this thatched, domed structure (it felt like being inside a three-sided beehive) rested on was the perfect place for us to read and write and dream.
That first morning we explored the island camp. And there it was, down one of the paths: a small, inconspicuous wooden building. Inside were tables and chairs and bookshelves holding all manner of well-used books in different languages to be borrowed during one’s stay on the island. I spent the rest of that first morning reveling in what I found.
For all the glory of our stay in Lake Boonyani, this tiny, gracious place was one of the highlights.