|By Adeyabeba Bekele
ADDIS ABABA, Sep 20 (IPS) – The middle of September marked the beginning of Meskerem, the first month, the beginning of a new year, just after the girls dance in Tigray to mark the end of the rains and the coming of the summer in a ceremony called Ashenda. Children in Mekelle and other parts of this region in northern Ethiopia had added reason to rejoice.
The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that just 45 percent of Ethiopian children attend school because their parents are too poor to pay even nominal fees or buy basic school supplies. UNICEF reports that 62 percent of males between the ages of 15-24 are literate; for females, this number drops to 39 percent.
In rural Ethiopia, a majority of schools have very limited facilities, and a library in a primary school is an almost-unheard-of luxury.
Yohannes Gebregiorgis, the founder of the Ethiopian Books for Children and Education Foundation (EBCEF), was himself born in the rural town of Negelle Borena in1951, but was one of the lucky few able to attend school. He emigrated to United States in 1982, where he trained as a librarian and worked for a time at the San Francisco Public Library.
“I thought of my country’s children often,” he says. “In summer, when the American children made a long list of the books they were reading, I knew that Ethiopian children were playing with rag balls and tin cans.”
Yohannes came established his foundation to bring books to Ethiopian children and Donkey Mobile Library is one of the EBCEF’s projects. The first mobile library was set up in the central Ethiopian town of Awassa in 2005, where it provoked just as much excitement as the latest donkeys’ arrival in Tigray.
Inside the cart pulled by the donkey, there are 40 stools. The cart also contains new and secondhand books provided by EBCEF, which children can borrow or read on the spot.
In the middle of the cart, there is food and water for the two donkeys. The library has just two staff; one attends to the donkey, the other to the books. The library assistant sometimes reads aloud for the children, but most of the mobile library’s patrons choose a book for themselves and sit on a stool to read it along with their friends. Even very young children, under five years old, perch seriously on stools looking at the pictures if they don’t know how to read.
“The children were very excited about the opening of the library,” Yohannes said, “but they were thrilled to witness the beautifully decorated donkey pulling a colorful box full of children’s books. It was a new experience for all members of the town and a memorable day for me.”
Yohannes was winner of the CNN Hero Award winner of 2008 for his work promoting reading amongst children. The foundation has shipped tens of thousands of books to Ethiopia, some donated, others paid for from the proceeds of a children’s book Yohannes published in 2002. Another book he has written, called Tirhas Loves Ashenda, was distributed freely to the children on the opening day.
That this latest book is written in English and the local language, Tigrigna, only added to the pleasure of the children. Most of the other books are in Ethiopia’s national language, Amharic, or in English.
Janet Lee, a professional librarian from the United States who volunteered to help launch the mobile library.
“It is important for all children to have access to books. Every child has different interests at each stage of his or her life and by reading and gaining knowledge the child has the opportunity to explore these different interests and build upon them,” she told IPS.
“Developing a reading habit helps to improve overall literacy and life skills. The child should gain literacy in his/her first language (mother tongue) and then gain strength in other commonly used languages. Multilingualism is a benefit for a fulfilling life and for career aspirations.”
Lee also brought along donated books and computers for a more conventional youth library being set up in a building donated by the Mekelle city administration.
The Donkey Mobile Library goes out every day – save Sunday – from 9 am to 4 pm, sometimes to a designated spot in the village where children can easily find it, sometimes to the school compound. Some of households have library cards so children can borrow books to take home; other children borrow books that their teachers take responsibility for.
Twelve-year-old Regat is in grade seven. “I like reading, and there are so many beautiful books. My favorite books are in Amharic, but I like to read books in English and Tigrigna also.”
EBCEF, also known as Ethiopia Reads, is operating a half-dozen mobile libraries bringing books to rural children eager to read. The foundation has also set up 11 conventional libraries, mostly serving schools.