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

What reading can do in Ethiopia and everywhere

Tag…you’re it.

I flew to Birmingham late last week for a visit to Jonathan, Hiwot + family and experienced the thrilldom of getting to hear Noh read out loud for the first time.  Wow.  I can tell that he’s spent years watching his older sister sound out words.  Being a second kid  has given him a lot of effective reading strategies.  Decoding is important.  But something magical happens as I watch young readers (a hard-to-describe something) that isn’t really about decoding–a kind of CLICK as sounds add themselves up into a pattern that turns into “I know that word!”

Skillful reading teachers teach kids to look at pictures as part of the overall clue for figuring out a word.  That’s one reason parents who sit and look at words and pictures with little kids are giving those kids huge benefits for their later reading lives.  It’s also one of the reasons that it’s tough to bring a reading culture to a place like Ethiopia.  Most of us in places like the U.S. and Canada and Europe aren’t even aware how much print and illustration is around us from the time we’re born.

We’re also not aware how many models we’ve had in parents, teachers, librarians, and others.  In Ethiopia, a child in school today might never have seen an adult reading.

Then there’s the complication of alphabet systems.  Ethiopia has the only alphabets to be developed in Africa that are still in use today.  (Ancient Egypt had several scripts for writing sounds and words, but those aren’t the scripts studied by children sitting in school and learning how to read now.)  And–further complication–Ethiopia has more than 80 different languages.  Not dialects.  Languages.  Ethiopian children are learning how to read in various local languages in their early years.  By high school, any child that hasn’t made the transition to reading in English, though, is unlikely to be in school at all.


 Ethiopia Reads ( has done a pretty good job of the really hard work of getting both English-language and local-language books onto the shelves of about 50 schools in Ethiopia.  That represents an enormous effort by a small number of determined volunteers, and it’s still pretty much a drop in the proverbial bucket.  But an equally enormous effort needs to be put into providing skills and ideas and approaches to a whole lot of Ethiopian adults who will be the bridge, connecting children in those schools with books.

When it comes to fundraising, it’s often easier to get those pennies for things that have a clear outcome.  A room for a library?




Books on the shelves in several languages?


But deep change comes as people have new visions and new skills and see how to take new ideas and adapt them and put them to work in their own communities.  So now it’s time to think well about professional development.

Luckily, I have a powerful vision pulling me forward through something I know may take decades if not generations.  I know what happened when my parents read to me and what happened when we read to our kids.



New thoughts.

New possibilities.

Stories that pulled us together and made us strong.

Those things are hard to measure but have meant everything to me.

Leave a Comment

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