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

Hope and community in the time of floods and road blocks and reading droughts

Last Sunday’s profound thought: the journey is hard.

Maybe there are people for whom life’s path unfolds with gentle warmth and meanders over rolling hills in the sunshine.  For most of us, it’s a foggy grope at best.

A thorn in the foot.

A blister on the heel.

Throat-choking thirst.

Terrible despair–and that’s just the start of a new novel.

Remember when we all hammered out our words on a typewriter?  I stumbled onto this picture and had a heart-twist seeing my dad’s hands and the first cat of my adult life, remembering his words.  (My dad’s, not the cat’s.)

 In Ethiopia, almost every journey was full of uncertainty.  This picture was taken by the educators who traveled as part of the Fulbright-Hayes grant.  The last time I was part of such a picture, traveling with a group of volunteer educators, the bus teetered on the edge of an enormous puddle that looked as if it could gulp us down and not let us emerge until the end of rainy season.   In all the fluttering and twittering and anxiety of the moment, I read a book.

Checked out.

That’s because I used up my quota of road torment and anxiety when I was a kid and have no room for any more.  Every trip from the savannah up into the mountains had discomfort and fear.  As a teenager, I took a public bus from Addis Ababa to Jimma, riding with bumps and ceiling-bumping bounces and squawking chickens and dust and–of course–no public restrooms.

What can we cling to when the path is awful?

Sunday’s wisdom: hope and community.

Last week, the dire headline for my blog came mostly because I was listening to news of Irene as I typed…and thinking about life after disaster.  Sure enough, this blog post by one of my Vermont College MFA students shows how the winds and rains can dump us on our heads.

I won’t ever forget what that disorienting head-dump feels like…nor how hope and community helped me get through a flood.

Hope and community also helped me craft my story of getting through the flood.  My writers’ community still helps me keep stumbling along the artistic road, one hard book after another.

And nowhere has hope and community been more powerful for me than with Ethiopia Reads (, my volunteer effort to share stories with the country of my childhood.

Hope and community is particularly life-saving when the path takes a long, long time.

In the 1920s, Presbyterians started the very first school for girls in Ethiopia.  By the time I was a kid in Addis Ababa, the school already had deep roots, and I spent hours of my city life there, playing horse games behind the row of classrooms with my older sister and her best friend, loving the smell of the bere bere pepper that seeped into all the desks and curtains, listening to the girls as they ran and laughed and chanted the fidel.

In the late ’80s, my brother–a young teacher–took his family to Ethiopia and taught in that school. (That’s his second daughter in the picture, practicing her reading on the school compound.)  My older sister joined him a few years later.

 Last summer, we educators who were part of the Fulbright-Hayes group visited the school to hear a presentation by the art teacher, one of my brother’s friends from those teaching years.  We saw this proud young graduate getting ready for her big ceremony.

We also saw the big, empty room the school had built in hopes of a secondary library–a resource for the girls who attend that school in a place where only 13% of teenage girls are in school.

My brother got a bit of a scolding.  “How is it,” someone asked him, “that you have helped other schools get libraries and not this place where you used to climb the trees when you were a boy?”

Well, it’s tough planting a library.  It takes about $10,000, for one thing, and the shipping of thousands of books.

  That’s a toughness too daunting for most of us to imagine.  When I started volunteering with Ethiopia Reads, people asked me over and over if we had thought about approaching Oprah.  Others recommended the Clinton Foundation and the Gates Foundation and other organizations and people with deep pockets.  Who would think that educators from places like North Dakota and Kansas (like this heroic retired teacher and retired principal) and writers and other artists and kids and ordinary families could do anything?

Well, they can.

Betsey (seen here with donated books that are now in Ethiopia) is one such writer and educator.  Years ago, she designed simple reading materials for Ethiopian children in Southwest Ethiopia when she worked there, overlapping with my family in beautiful Maji.  (I experimented with being an educator in Maji, myself, using my siblings and her children as my students when I was about eleven.)  With others at Montview Presbyterian Church in Denver, she raised the money for the library at that girls’ school.  (They also did a book drive–hard, muscle-stretching work as everyone who has tried one knows.)

Frew, Ethiopia Reads board member, knows.  He has organized dozens of book sales, including one that always happens around Ethiopian New Year this month.  He has involved his son and his son’s friends and the Key Club in Tracy, California and other volunteers…selling the books to help pay for the shipping and salaries of the Ethiopian staff who deal with the books when they arrive.

This summer, after years of effort, books arrived.

Remember the pictures on my blog of the






to get all the books stored in LeAnn Clark’s storage units in Kansas loaded into a truck to head to Books for Africa and from there to Ethiopia?

They arrived!

It takes a ton o money to get the English-language books to the libraries we’ve planted in Ethiopia.  (Yes, we do buy all the local language books available, too, and yes we continue to explore alternatives to shipping.)  This summer, we managed to get 80,000 books for new libraries to Ethiopia, thanks to LeAnn and to help from Books for Africa and Better World Books.

Once the books arrived, it took more money to hire the trucks and cranes and get the books plopped down on the ground in the right place.

It took–or, more accurately, takes–money to store the books and sort the books and for the Ethiopian staff to distribute the books to the new and existing libraries.  It’ll take more money to do the professional development for Ethiopian educators using those books.

More need for hope…

And community.

Sometimes it feels impossible.  But today the news came that the books gathered at Montview Presbyterian Church in Denver a few months ago have been delivered to the new girls’ school library.  Thanks to this summer’s efforts, that empty room is now full of 10,000 books.  When school starts this week, the library will be open for business.

 More new libraries will also be open for business for the first time, thanks to those books.  Some are in the capital city of Addis Ababa.

Some, like this one, are outside of the city, reaching some of the kids who struggle the most to get an education.  In fact, by the end of this school year, we hope there will be one model school library planted in each of Ethiopia’s 11 regions and city administrations.

Whew.  It feels impossible.  But I’ve seen that it’s not.

 What does a book represent?

What has reading books meant to you?

What has having a library done in your life?

I doubt I would be a children’s book author today if I hadn’t had that lovely little library in Trinidad, Colorado, where I brought home arm loads of books and read them to my three little kids.

So we celebrate books






This little boy has a life full of all of those things.

His family is the one who planted that library, now full of books, to honor the place of his birth and his reading grandfather.

Community…passing along the hope.

2 thoughts on “Hope and community in the time of floods and road blocks and reading droughts”

  1. Great article Jane. It affirms my belief that everyone in the West should be given the opportunity to travel to the developing world. The perspective gained would help make this world a much better place, encouraging involvement with great organizations like Ethiopia Reads!

  2. A beautiful reflection, Jane, with many tie-ins to things that matter. Thanks for taking time to record these thoughts so we might benefit from them.

    I hope you’re well. Let me know the next time you’re in ND! I’d love to catch lunch again. 🙂



Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.