Tekle, a young boy, finds himself getting into trouble every day when he shepherds his goats. To remedy the situation, his father gives him a game board for Gebeta, a popular pastime in Ethiopia that lays claim to being one of the world’s oldest so-called parlor games. Tekle spends his days taking on different people at Gebeta as he cares for his animals.
This storyline features in one of the several books written and published by Jane Kurtz, an American who spent most of her childhood in Maji, a village in southwestern Ethiopia.
"When I was growing up in Maji,” explains Jane, “the one thing I had noticed was that going to school was a huge thing for kids." This was in the 1960s.
Some fifty years later, Ethiopia has seen a massive change in the number of schools and the students who attend them. But do Ethiopian children have enough books and the right ones in their libraries? Can they access these libraries outside of their schools? Do they take books home to read? Do their parents buy them books?
In most cases, the answer to these questions is, unfortunately, ‘no’.
Michael Daniel Ambachew is a well-known English-language children’s story author in Ethiopia. School students going back about two decades will remember his name as they would read his stories in the “pupils’ readers” books in English. These books sat alongside the English textbooks in the regular school curriculum. They were probably the only English-reading materials school children could access at the time. Michael’s books were aimed at encouraging Ethiopian students to read by presenting them with interesting English stories; and in the meantime, familiarizing them with the English language.
Indeed this does not mean there have been no other efforts to publish similar material. Kebede Michael was a major figure compiling children's stories in the Amharic language.
However, the number of books published have been unable to meet the demand from the millions of children and youths in Ethiopia eager to learn English. Ethiopian children’s books produced in the country have also lacked quality after being published with simple illustrations or sketches with lengthy text.
In the rocky journey of kids’ storybooks in this country, Ethiopia Reads stands out as a prominent actor. This non-profit organization was first established in 2005 by Jane Kurtz and Yohannes Gebregiorgis and has made a telling contribution in shipping books and opening libraries in different parts of Ethiopia.
Having started shipping books into the country, Ethiopia Reads later moved into opening libraries across the nation. This dynamic move made it possible for many children, particularly in the then Sidama Zone, to gain access to books, says Abiy Solomon, the then Publishing and Media Project Manager of Ethiopia Reads.
In addition to opening 12 libraries in Ethiopia, focused in the then Sidama Zone, Ethiopia Reads had Donkey Mobile Libraries operating in and around Hawassa. Donkeys would carry books, going out into grazing fields where shepherd boys and girls would be working. These kids would take books from the donkeys’ loads and read them under the trees.
Jane explains: “Books shipped to Ethiopia were written in English. But the kids in Ethiopia were looking for books in their own languages. They had these beautiful picture books written in English. But they needed to understand the stories.”
To address this matter, Ethiopia Reads launched a campaign where writers would travel to different parts of Ethiopia looking for local or original stories, Abiy recalls. Stories from Benishangul, Gambela, Oromia, and Southern Regional States were recorded in their respective languages.
These recorded stories were compiled and published under the title, The Elephant and the Cock. The renowned folklore specialist, Elizabeth Laird, took part in the collection and compilation of the stories.
Jane recalls that her father used to go to different places around Maji in his missionary works. And when he came, he would bring her stories; mostly proverbs. Years after she left Ethiopia, Jane started molding these stories and proverbs into books. “First, I did them for American readers, and then for Ethiopians,” states Jane.
One hurdle Jane and her colleagues came across at the time was that most schools in Ethiopia didn't want fiction but rather tomes related to science. A lot of the books we donated to the libraries were non-fiction. “Because of that, I wrote 'Run-away Injera'. It was like the Gingerbread Man,” she explains.
Crucially, she needed to create a story with an Ethiopian context to make the libraries interested.
In 2009, Ethiopia Reads took CNN's Heroes award for its efforts to promote literacy in Ethiopia.
Nevertheless, if one asserts that Ethiopian kids are deprived of the privilege of reading books, it wouldn't be far from the truth.
Parents in Ethiopia do their best to feed and clothe their children. Sending them to school is another priority. Buying books for kids, especially if the books are not related to their studies, is not widely practiced. This problem regarding parents is also reflected in the overall national educational system. Libraries are limited to the compounds of schools. And these libraries are usually filled with textbooks. Storybooks are scarce.
Finding libraries or reading spaces with books in cities and towns in Ethiopia is rare. The long-standing We-Mezekir is one instance in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, including a few other public libraries.
Abrehot Library is a new addition to these; built with a 1.1 billion Br. budget, which has become Ethiopia’s largest library. Initiated by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the construction of the library is part of Addis Ababa City Administration’s efforts to make the city attractive.
One may ask, ‘Why don’t Ethiopian kids read?’ The simple answer to this would be that the kids don’t have easy access to books.
The effort to write and publish quality books should be for Ethiopian children both living in the country and abroad, according to author Manyahilishal Madebo. For those inside the country, it is to promote reading and literacy. For those abroad, it is about memory and reconnection.
Manyahilishal Madebo is an Ethiopian-born US resident. She is the writer of the book called ‘I am Wolayta’ which was recently published and can be found on Amazon. Manyahilishal says she has written this book for Ethiopian children living in the diaspora.
Working with adoptees from Ethiopia, particularly from Wolayta Zone, Manyahilishal witnessed personally how these kids struggled to get accustomed to their new environments. What she mainly assisted them with was language translations and cultural differences.
She stresses that the adopted children have a difficult time getting accustomed to the conventions of their new culture. “The kids would want to eat together on a big plate. That’s not the norm here. Here you have your own plate, I’d tell them. Kids from Wolayta have scars on their faces and bellies. Parents would ask me, ‘Was my child involved in an accident?’ ‘No,’ I’d tell them. ‘It’s one of our pain-relieving methods.’”
Manyahilishal was advised by one of the adoptive parents to write a book about Wolayta that would help the parents understand the place their adopted children had come from - as well allow an opportunity for the children to reconnect with their home. That was how the book was conceived firstly as a resource.
There are renowned Ethiopian writers in the diaspora like Hama Tuma, Meaza Mengiste, and Dinaw Mengistu. They are award-winning writers whose stories reconnect Ethiopians living in foreign cultures with their home country and their past. “But what about the children?” presses Manyahilishal.
When a person leaves Ethiopia and goes to countries like America, they are labeled an immigrant or an alien. The adults might cope with the situation. However, the displaced children growing up in a foreign culture find it much harder to adapt and assimilate. They are inevitably pulled back by their roots because their parents are still affected by the culture they recently abandoned.
These children belong to two countries. And yet they belong to none. In ‘I am Wolayta’, Siqo, a girl from Wolayta, narrates what life was like in the place where she was born. She relates stories of playtime and games; food preparations and special dishes; shepherding sheep and cattle during the day; story-telling time around the fire in the evenings; and about funerals and weddings.
Such books may be a source of information for those who don’t know Wolayta or Ethiopia. But it is a remembrance for those who do and live far away from it.
“When I read the book, I was in my village. I got back. I got in,” said one young woman originally from Wollayta and currently living in the United States, according to Manyahilishal.
“I have Ethiopian American grandchildren. So I know firsthand how difficult it is to help the children have a connection with their Ethiopian culture while they are living in America,” says Jane. She points out that children resist when such matters are presented to them as lessons. “But picture books do the trick,” she remarks.
Both Manyahilishal and Jane agree that stories for kids have not been taken from cultural contexts and changed into books in Ethiopia. They say the traditional oral stories haven’t been touched.
Books, after all, play a vital role in documenting a nation’s history, culture, traditions, and customs. Recording these elements in books is the major and long-lasting method to transfer knowledge from one generation to the next.
“Our parents have fulfilled their responsibilities superbly; telling us stories about the past. We have to pass that beautiful story-telling tradition of ours on to our children; in a convenient way to our times,” asserts Manyahilishal.
There must be joint efforts to promote reading, says Jane. The government bodies should build more libraries as such institutions are key to promoting reading. Parents should start keeping more books at home and sharing any kind of reading material with their children as these immediately encourage them to take up books and fall in love with them.
It is one thing to get kids to hold books. But to keep them reading, they need to have books with enchanting stories and beautiful illustrations. These are stories with a strong draw and this is where quality pictures and images come into play.
"Most books in Ethiopia have simple illustrations. They are mostly black and white. The illustrations need to be luscious. This is digital time. Ethiopian writers should work closely with illustrators, taking advantage of the time to try their best to draw the kids into the story," says Jane.
In her view, Ethiopian writers can do wonders by tapping the wealthy potential of stories all over the country and changing them into books; working together with illustrators.
“It’s not only the children in Ethiopia who are in need of such books. Ethiopian kids abroad also need stories with Ethiopian colors and flavors,” contends Manyahilishal.
Though Ethiopia Reads is not shipping books and opening libraries as it used to, it is still working in collaboration with Ready Set Go Books, publishing kids’ storybooks. Jane’s efforts have continued even to this day as she is still writing.
Presided over by a former longtime Amazon director, Ellenore Angelidis, another book project called Open Hearts Big Dreams is part of this publishing endeavor as well.
Ready Set Go Books collect stories from the different corners of Ethiopia. The stories are written in the languages of those specific places highlighting their particular features.
Sketchers and illustrators, both Ethiopian and foreign, are involved in these picture books for children.
Yoseph Ayalew, a writer and translator, who is volunteering at Ready Set Go Books, says that quality is their priority. They use 150-gram art paper for the inside pages of the books with glossy 250-gram covers.
Ready Set Go Books is playing its own role at the moment making quality books accessible to Ethiopian children. Apart from taking part in the writing process, Yoseph oversees the distribution of the books as well. He told us that the books are not for sale. They are rather donated to different organizations and charities working with children. These companies give out the books to those they work with.
Yoseph says: “There are many skilled writers in Ethiopia efficient and up to the task. However, there is no market for children’s books. That discourages them from writing.”
Manyahilishal agrees with this, mentioning that the market is held by books dedicated to politics, history, and fiction for adults and that writers are not interested in doing kids' books because there is no popular demand for them.
Hibiete Tesfaye, a mother of two living in Addis, says that finding books with quality content and illustrations is difficult. Her children are interested in reading books sent to them from abroad rather than the ones published here.
“We need to work more on quality,” she says. Accessing books is a major problem for most Ethiopian kids. And for those who can access them, quality is a further issue, according to Hibiete.
Publishing books is costly in Ethiopia and the publishing companies are limited in number. Promoting books is not widely practiced either. As Manyahilishal points out, Ethiopia has many great writers and content is not a problem. However, there is no encouraging environment for the writers and that has affected the sector.
“We need English books with Ethiopian contexts. We need books written in different languages in Ethiopia. We need books with beautiful pictures or illustrations. This makes children love books and reading. It contributes to their literacy. It also makes our children get connected with each other within the country and also with the rest of the world,” Manyahilishal passionately suggests.
There are many who are not mentioned here working tirelessly to make books accessible to Ethiopian children. There are many efforts being undertaken to write, publish and distribute children’s books. But these efforts are not organized or institutionalized - and are not being led by a responsible or state body. This has made the efforts unsteady and scattered.
As the leading theme of Ready Set Go Books puts it, “Let Ethiopian Kids Read” by encouraging our writers and publishers to put more effort into the matter.