Ethiopia Reads

By:Janet Lee Issue: Conscious Capitalism Section: Collaborator Profile

Partnering for a Greater Good

Ethiopia Reads "It takes a village to raise a child,” so claims the African proverb. Lest one become emotionally fatigued by this time-worn cliché, one needs only hear the story of University of Colorado student, Esubalew Johnston. As a young boy in a remote Ethiopian village, he was lured to the capital of Addis Ababa with the promise of an education and a better life. Instead of attending school, he was blinded by his overseers and forced to beg on the crowded, unforgiving streets. After a year or so of living under squalid conditions, he contracted tuberculosis and had to be hospitalized. An incongruous stroke of luck eventually led him to an international adoption and ultimately with great success to the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Or one could watch the spunky Wubetu in the PBS documentary, A Walk to Beautiful. As a child in northern Ethiopia, she was repeatedly married off, but ran away from three different husbands. Ultimately, she stayed with the fourth because she was pregnant. Because of her diminutive size and her youth, the labor was prolonged and difficult. After a week in labor, a not uncommon phenomenon in these rural areas of Ethiopia, the baby was stillborn. The protracted labor destroyed her bladder and caused a fistula, a small opening in the bladder that resulted in chronic incontinence. The accompanying stench of urine caused even her closest family members and friends to shun her. Three surgeries later at the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital and with the help of a plug, her life returns to normalcy.

The common thread in these two lives is the lack of access to schools and to education in Ethiopia. Had education been available and encouraged, their paths would have taken a far different direction and personal heartache and tragedy might have been averted. It is stories such as these, far more common than one would imagine, that affirmed my commitment to Ethiopia Reads and renewed my admiration for the founder, Ato (Mr.) Yohannes Gebregeorgis.

Ato Yohannes, a political refugee turned U.S. citizen and children’s librarian returned to his native Ethiopia after nineteen years in the U.S. to form Ethiopia Reads, an organization that is establishing children’s libraries in Ethiopia. He soon learned that not only does it take a village to raise a child, but that it takes a global village to put together the resources needed to run the organization successfully. He enlisted the support of family and friends, American parents of adopted Ethiopian children, members of the Ethiopian Diaspora in the U.S., the Rotary club, and most importantly American school children who could not imagine a world without books or schools without libraries and raised money--a penny, a nickel, a dime at a time.

Although our paths may have crossed on September 12, 1974, the day Emperor Haile Sellasie was overthrown (Ato Yohannes and I were both on Churchill Blvd. in Addis Ababa on that same day; he a student revolutionary and I a neophyte Peace Corps Volunteer), we did not officially meet until May of 2007 and then for the briefest of time. As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who taught English under less than optimal conditions and as a veteran librarian, I understood the importance of literacy and reading in transforming the lives of children and the tremendous task at hand. Ethiopia also stole a piece of my heart; not a single day has gone by in the thirty plus years since I left that I have not thought of it or its people. I, too, joined the ranks of those committed to the betterment of Ethiopia.

November 10, 2008 brought Ato Yohannes to the Regis University campus in Denver, Colorado where I have worked as a librarian for the past 28 years. I had arranged for him to speak to a number of classes and conduct a brownbag discussion. But the highlight of the day was the Regis University radio interview conducted by Dr. Thomas Hooyman, a professor of medical ethics in the Rueckert-Hartman College of Health Professions and a scholar and social activist dedicated to education. These men delighted in each other and bubbled with excitement. Each regaled me later with stories about the interview questions and answers. Dr. Hooyman reportedly was ready to head to Ethiopia the very next day to join Ato Yohannes in building a literacy radio station together. Tragically a week later, Dr. Hooyman was killed in a motor vehicle accident and the entire campus reeled. When news reached Ato Yohannes, he committed to planting a children’s library in Ethiopia to honor his newfound friend and colleague.

After less than a year, money was raised and an appropriate site in Mekelle, in Tigray province, was chosen. Of the forty plus libraries that have been established under the auspices of Ethiopia Reads, many, like this one, are planted in memory of a loved one, a colleague, a friend. Although this is now Tom’s story and the story of the Dr. Thomas Hooyman Memorial Library and Media Center, it typifies the extreme need of the children of Ethiopia and how Ato Yohannes, a man of passion, a pied piper of children, has followed his calling and given up everything to serve the children of his native land.

Ato Yohannes examined many potential sites for the memorial library and upon hearing the story behind Fre Siwat (Fruit of the Martyrs) Elementary School, he knew that this site would be the most appropriate of all those visited to honor Dr. Hooyman. The students of Fre Siwat are the sons and daughters, nieces and nephews of the Tigray resistance fighters who were instrumental in the overthrow of Mengistu and the military government of Ethiopia in 1991. These children are the so called fruit of the martyrs for the resistance.

Once the site was chosen and the date of the dedication set, Ato Yohannes extended an invitation to family, friends, and colleagues to attend the dedication of this befitting memorial to Dr. Hooyman. Without hesitation, I accepted and our journey together began. Because of my library expertise, I was asked to come early to assist with training of library assistants and to set up the actual library itself.

Despite a slight mishap in Khartoum, Sudan, the twenty-four hour flight from Denver to Addis Ababa went relatively smoothly. After just three years, I was back in Addis Ababa, the “new flower”, the capital of Ethiopia. Each morning the call for prayers from the nearby mosque greeted me and started my day. Although I am not of that faith tradition, the prayers were a calm reassurance that a new day was beginning and that peoples of many faiths and traditions could live side by side. We were joined by Rachel Scott, a library assistant at the Seattle Public Library, and a Master of Library and Information Science student at the University of Washington. Rachel quickly adapted to the Ethiopian lifestyle and made great strides in learning both simple Amharic phrases and local customs.

I was in the last group of Peace Corps Volunteers assigned to Ethiopia in the mid 70s, during the initial reign of Mengestu and the Provisional Military Advisory Committee, commonly referred to as the Derge. The Peace Corps program was reintroduced in the mid-80s but pulled out again due to the war with Eritrea. Volunteers once again returned eighteen months ago and I contacted and recruited three of the six volunteers in the Mekelle area to help with the project at hand. “Once a Peace Corps always a Peace Corps” goes the saying and the four of us hit it off immediately. Shelly McCreery (Illinois), Danielle Hoekwater (Michigan), Nicholas Strnad (Ohio) were brought in for HIV-AIDS prevention and awareness but quickly jumped in and helped organize the book collection, set up the computers and other media equipment. Ato Yohannes had previously ordered shelving and furniture to be built to his strict specifications and they had been delivered. He and I went to a frame shop to have posters and maps framed, once again to his standards.

In the meantime, several EBCEF (Ethiopian Books for Children and Educational Foundation, the Ethiopian operations of Ethiopia Reads) staff members, Rachel and I were involved in training twenty librarians, including the librarian from Fre Siwat on the philosophy and mechanics of library organization, child development, and literacy. We quickly learned of the desperate ongoing need for library education and the sense of empowerment the trainees developed because of the training.

Despite electrical brownouts, the day of the dedication arrived. The students of Fre Siwat lined up in excitement several hours before the dedication of the Dr. Thomas Hooyman Memorial Library and Media Center. Under an intense sun, many wore their thread-bare uniforms, the only clothing most owned and what became their daily attire. Barbara Baker, Dr. Hooyman’s sister from Arizona, joined us in the dedication. Before an audience of the children, city officials, librarians and Peace Corps Volunteers, Ato Yohannes, Barbara and I spoke of our memories of Dr. Hooyman and encouraged the children to read, study hard and use the library often.

Both Barbara and I were presented with beautiful, traditional Ethiopian dresses and Ato Yohannes was presented with a replica of the Monument to the Martyrs that stands in the center of Mekelle. I was joined by the Assistant Mayor of Mekelle, Ato Haddish Zenebe, in cutting the ribbon and Barbara unveiled the plaque that bore Dr. Hooyman’s name. All were then invited to tour the state-of-the art library, complete with books, computers, a DVD player, games, and tape deck.

And then the most incredible thing happened. So impressed with the work of Ethiopia Reads, the city officials of Mekelle offered Ato Yohannes and EBCEF the use of a magnificent building, rent free, to establish a children and youth library. The Mekelle building donation is a new model of collaboration that EBCEF anticipates will be the standard for future collaboration between EBCEF and city governments. Not only has the city of Mekelle designated this building for the project, it has also offered four other locations in surrounding subcities of Mekelle for branch libraries. Several groups and individuals have already come forth with monetary commitments and proposals for fundraising for the project. This will serve as seed money for ongoing fundraising appeals. Anticipating a successful fundraising campaign, the opening and dedication of the library could be set for as early as September 2010.

Since donations continue to be received, a publishing project has been designated to honor Dr. Hooyman. A children’s book on the Tigrigna festival Ashenda, which occurred during the time of the dedication, will be written in both Tigrigna and English and distributed to the children during the next festival. Further contributions to this project may be sent to the Dr. Thomas Hooyman Memorial Fund, care of Ethiopia Reads, 55 Madison St., Suite 745, Denver, CO 80206.

I may be back in the U.S. but my head and heart are still in Ethiopia. I know that the Meskel flowers that follow the heavy rains in August are blooming and welcoming in the New Year. The children’s book now has a name, Tirhas Celebrates Ashenda: An Ethiopian Girls’ Festival and is becoming more and more of a reality. Someone needs to plan, develop and set up the collection in that magnificent building in Mekelle. I hear Ethiopia calling.

Janet Lee is the Technical Services Librarian at the Regis University Libraries at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. She is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Ethiopia 1974-76.