“What’s a library?” is not an uncommon phrase for an Ethiopian child to speak, LeeAnn Clark, book collections coordinator for Ethiopia Reads, said.
“I always tell children when I speak in schools, I could say to you, ‘You’ll play ball for the NBA some day, but you can’t have a ball to practice,’” Clark said. “That’s the same thing with a book. If you don’t have a book to practice, you can’t get better.”
Ethiopia, located on the easternmost side of Africa, has more than 90 million occupants, with a literacy of 35 to 45 percent, Clark said. In girls, the rate is even lower.
“For most of these kids, especially in the rural areas, there isn’t even a cereal box or a newspaper or a scrap of paper in their huts at home to read,” Clark said.
Clark and her husband, Stan, visited Friends of the Ottawa Library, 209 E. Second St., on Monday to collect several hundred children’s books to donate. In Ethiopia, non-fiction is valued over fiction because most students don’t hold books until they are older, and so they want to learn, Clark said. The books also cannot contain certain topics, like violence, Stan Clark said.
“We want all kids to learn, regardless of their religion,” he said. “That’s a win-win.”
Students begin learning English in first grade because they realize that’s the language of commerce, LeeAnn Clark said. They must take a proficiency exam in English in eighth grade, and if they don’t pass it, they drop out of school or try again.
“The first thing she did here was load up a box of dictionaries,” Vickie Hall, Friends of the Ottawa Library volunteer and Clark’s friend, said. “We can hardly get anybody to take a dictionary here.”
Jane Kurtz, an American-born author who lived abroad in Ethiopia as a child, and an Ethiopian-born man who came to the United States in 1981 named Yohannes Gebregeorgis, started Ethiopia Reads, a non-profit organization, in 2003. The organization, according to its Facebook page, “empowers and strengthens communities through the art of learning and the science of teaching.”
“We believe that providing quality schools, books and learning initiatives that engage both the creative and logical mind will lead to a more resourceful generation of leaders in Ethiopia,” according to the Facebook page.
Kurtz and her husband moved to Hesston, Kansas, in 2003 where the Clarks live. Clark was the president of the Kansas Reading Association at the time, and asked Kurtz if her board could help be a part of the project.
“She said, ‘You can, but the problem is getting the books to Ethiopia. It’s expensive and it takes a lot of books because we ship in shipping containers,’” Clark said.
But Clark believed in the power and determination of her board members. In about a year to a year and a half, they collected $8,000 and 25,000 books.
“Thirteen years later, it’s the season of giving, and she’s still collecting books for Ethiopia Reads,” Hall said.
When Clark and others traveled to Ethiopia in 2005, the brown shipping container that sent the books had been painted blue with the phrase, “With love, from Kansas.” At first, Clark said they couldn’t find the first library they that helped make possible in Ethiopia because the country doesn’t have GPS or street signs.
“We finally came to a place where our driver said, ‘It has to be around here,’ so we parked the car and we hiked down this goat path and through a stream and up the path and along the ridge of the mountain, and as we came across this little bump in the ridge, here came all the kids running to greet us,” Clark said. “They knew we were coming because we called them on our cell phones, believe it or not.”
Clark sorts through donations of books right from the comfort of her home. She says she’s shipped half a million, and has probably sorted through that many more.
“We get books from Florida and New York, and Minnesota and Wisconsin,” Clark said. “…I sort them and pack them. We have a building that we put up that has three bays. Two of them are supposed to be Ethiopia Reads, and right now all three of them are Ethiopia Reads, so Stan doesn’t have his workshop right now. It kind of blew up on me.
“Late fall, we had several volunteer groups, two or three that came up and helped sort books and those haven’t been packed yet so they’re just kind of everywhere. It’s nice to have volunteer groups because the volunteer groups can go through our shipments when we get them in.”
The organization has several reading rooms that stand alone in Ethiopia, as well. Nine regions and two chartered cities make up Ethiopia, and there are libraries in each of those areas now, Clark said.
“We’re spreading out all the way across the country,” Clark said. “Most of the books, our libraries are actually in the Addis Ababa area, the capital city area. In the last few years…we’ve helped get schools in rural areas where there were no schools or libraries. The kids would end up either not going to school at all or they would end up five or six miles to school one way and they’d have to go through forests and cross streams and all kinds of things, and especially for young girls it’s dangerous, and so the parents in some of these rural areas decided they wanted a library.”
The librarians there do not have formal training, so Ethiopia Reads also helps provide training sessions across the country where 30 to 100 people may attend at once.
“These women, and sometimes men, never had books themselves as children,” Clark said. “There just isn’t a culture of literacy and there weren’t books available in print for children in any language, and we’ll show them how to do a read-aloud with children…and all these things that are a foreign language to them literally because they’ve never had that experience. The training may seem pretty simple by American standards because they receive that as part of their teacher training, but in Ethiopia it’s a whole different thing.”
This year, Ethiopia Reads was recognized by the Library of Congress for the 2016 Literacy Award. The award, according to its website, “recognize(s) groups doing exemplary, innovative and replicable work, and they spotlight the need for the global community to unite in striving for universal literacy.”
“I was able to say to people at Ottawa University this fall when we had a conference here on the campus again, that I stood here 13 years ago and challenged our members to send a container of books to Ethiopia, and they did it,” Clark said. “And now, that one library has become 72 libraries all across the country.”
To donate books, contact Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org or (620) 327-2310.
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