Books empower kids in Ethiopia

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As a librarian in San Francisco, Gebregeorgis Yohannes saw plenty of kids who resisted reading. They were distracted by video games, sports, and school activities.

But when Mr. Yohannes returned home to Ethiopia and opened the country's first children's reading center in April 2003, the picture was quite a different one.

"These children don't have anything else," Yohannes says in a telephone interview of the young readers who throng to his center. (The Monitor first wrote about plans for the center in July 2002.) "They have nothing that would compete with the library."

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Every hour the center is open, it fills with eager youngsters who have rarely handled a book outside school. They come from the surrounding neighborhood - one of the poorest in Addis Ababa, the capital.

The schools there are so overcrowded that the children attend classes in shifts: half in the morning and half in the afternoon. The largest classes have as many as 180 students taught by a single teacher.

"These children are very poor. Some of them live on the street," says Yohannes. "They come in tattered clothes. But they still have a love of learning."

The librarian, using $20,000 raised by the First Presbyterian church in Grand Forks, N.D., along with 15,000 donated books, started an education foundation and converted his house into the reading center. The center operates much like a public library, except books aren't loaned out. The children read indoors at tables, with the overflow taking their books outside in the courtyard. They read in English and in Amharic, Ethiopia's major language.

The center has now been in existence for almost a year and Yohannes is sometimes wearied by the hardships he regularly confronts. After 22 years in the US, readjusting to life in Ethiopia was not entirely easy.

"It's a rigid, closed society," he says. "It's so difficult to get anything done. We expend so much energy in trying to get even small things accomplished. Several times we wanted to give up."

A slow-moving bureaucracy has been a large problem. But logistics have also been tough. For example, the 15,000 donated books arrived in crates at the port of Djibouti in August, 2003. It took seven months to get them transported to Addis Ababa, and some were stolen.

Despite the center's success with parents, teachers, and young readers, its future is uncertain. Next month, Yohannes expects the seed money to run out. He and his volunteers have applied for grants overseas and tirelessly lobbied the Addis government but so far, no money has been promised.

"Funding is difficult, because the focus is on fighting famine, poverty, and HIV/AIDs," he says. "But in the long run, literacy is what gives people the power to change their societies."

The government, for its part, recognizes that its people lag far behind the rest of sub-Saharan Africa in literacy. It has set a goal of 100 percent literacy by 2015. Currently, 58 percent of Ethiopians age 15 and above cannot read, contrasted with 37 percent in neighboring countries, according to the World Bank. For Ethiopian women, the number is even higher. Some groups claim it's as high as 75 percent.

"The center is especially important for girls," says Rebekah Goering, who recently returned from six months volunteering there. At the center "they are looked on as equals," unlike at home or in school. "They see the female staff as role models."

Ms. Goering says the library has hired several college graduates as librarians on minimal salaries, along with two assistants and two guards.

Yohannes supports himself and his two sons by working as a librarian at the International School in Addis and volunteers his time to the center and its parent organization, the Ethiopian Books for Children and Educational Foundation (EBCEF). He is also pursuing a PhD in children's library science.

Another important goal: EBCEF is supporting indigenous authors and illustrators to help produce books with the language and feel of Ethiopia. Yohannes himself wrote the text to EBCEF's first children's book, "Silly Mammo, an Ethiopian Tale" in English and Amharic, released in May 2002.

"Our culture is so diverse, our history so rich," he says, "we could write hundreds of children's books if we had the money to produce them."

He feels strongly that access to books will raise the standard of all Ethiopians.

"Yohannes is so passionate," says Goering. "He believes books can change lives. He never lets people tell him, 'This can't be done.' "

For more information, e-mail ebcef@telecom.net.et. Contributions may be sent to: EBCEF, c/o First Presbyterian Church, 5555 S. Washington, Grand Forks, ND 58201.

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