The Power of One Writer
Back Yards, Ethiopia and Children's Books

FAQ Books to Ethiopia

How do books get into kids’ hands?

When I’m introducing people to Ethiopia Reads ( and the children’s libraries I’ve poured a bazillion volunteer hours into for the past ten years, the question always comes up…

Books in English?

After all, almost everyone listening to me and looking at my pictures knows it isn’t easy to learn how to read in a language you don’t speak at home.  And the Ethiopian educational system does have an emphasis on early literacy in local languages.  (Ethiopia, by the way, has 80 of those local languages.)

Visitors to the Ethiopia Reads libraries notice that the young readers mostly gravitate toward the books that aren’t in English.  This shelf of well-thumbed, well-read books shows why the Ethiopia Reads board has set a 2011 goal of finding donors to Love a Library: replace and expand local language books in the libraries planted with money given by schools and families and churches and Rotary groups.

So why not only buy books in Ethiopia?

 Two problems:

1)  By about fifth grade, most of the instruction and materials and tests for Ethiopian students are in English.  A child from a rural area or poor neighborhood is already at a disadvantage in the system…and his or her chances are toast unless he or she learns to read in English. (This boy, in a classroom visited by the Fulbright-Hayes educators last summer, is guiding the whole class, pointing to the A-B-C’s on a chart and leading the chant of the opening sounds.)

2)  Not enough children’s books in local languages exist to create big Ethiopia Reads libraries in schools like the one Dr. Mary Spor visited last month. She reported there are about 400 children using the library each day and 150-200 on Saturdays.  We’ve joined hands and efforts to put big model libraries into schools where most kids went through all that chanting to learn the alphabet but never before got to hold and read a book.

In 2011-2012, Ethiopia Reads will collaborate again with Dr. Spor’s project (which works with the Ethiopia Ministry of Education to develop English language curriculum) to try to plant a model library in every region of Ethiopia.  Mary Spor writes, “In the pictures, you will see older children reading to younger ones, 11 computers donated by the Germans (but not Internet connection), students working as helpers at the library desk, and two full time librarians.  It is wonderful!”

A wonderful planting of seeds for a future generation that will have to solve a lot of problems of their own.

 So how to get the books in English over to Ethiopia for this and other libraries?  It starts with sorting and ends with sorting.  These are some of the books that went into the library Dr. Mary Spor visited.  Before they were sorted in Ethiopia, they were sorted by LeAnn Clark, a volunteer who once loved teaching reading to her own third grade students in Hesston, Kansas.  Now she leads a few volunteers who gather donations of gently used books from classrooms and families all over the U.S. and sort and clean and pack them.  She pays storage fees, and her husband loads them onto pallets and into a container.

 A huge container!

Ethiopia Reads has saved money for two years to be able to afford to send a container full of 40,000 books to Ethiopia.  In the last month, we got the good news that Books for Africa is giving us a grant to send a second container.  Wahoo!  The scramble is on, with supporters buying new Usborne books (great nonfiction for kids) and finding other ways to get high quality books into those two containers.

 Books and furniture are essential.  It’s addictive to go on the Usborne Ethiopia Reads wish list and pick a book and know the next person to touch it will be a child in Ethiopia.  To imagine someone in Ethiopia reading it as maybe a very first book ever.

But libraries are organized and run by people.  The Ethiopians managing the school libraries didn’t grow up, for the most part, with libraries or even books.  That’s where educators who are willing to give their time and fund their travels are just as important–curious people who will go to Ethiopia and listen and observe and think and share.  I’m proud and amazed to see a new group making plans to go.  I’d be with them except I’m moving to Portland this summer.

 Think you’re paying a lot when you fill up at the pump?  Imagine trying to run this truck that lugged a container full of books through the streets of Addis Ababa.  Imagine trying to get trucks like this to every region of Ethiopia.

Some boring things gobble up an awful lot of money.  It isn’t always pretty or fun or exciting being on the team to nurture the hearts and minds of young readers.  But then?

 People get a peek into each other’s hearts.

Philip Pullman says, “Stories are written to beguile, to entertain, to amuse, to
move, to enchant, to horrify, to delight, to anger, to make us wonder.”

Minds open.

Ideas bubble and blossom.

We dream a story of hope.

2 thoughts on “FAQ Books to Ethiopia”

  1. Hi – I found you via Let’s Plant A Library.
    Thanks for the interesting post.
    I’ve brought different types of goods to a couple of developing countries – including books to a South African township – but reading about your ongoing Ethiopia efforts makes it clear just how small beer my batches were.
    In that case I was very much helped by contributions by Heineman (Junior African Writers Series), The X-Press (a London-based Black publishing house) and BBC World (for big glossy science, nature and geography books).

    • I don’t think there’s anything small about any effort when it comes to places that have no books. After all, I remind myself and others that I could work my whole life and not reach every school in Ethiopia alone that would like to have a library–but ripples do happen! Let me know if you want to carry any books to Ethiopia or help our UK-based supporters know how to get those kinds of contributions of the best type of books!


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