Monday, June 4, 2012

Jane Kurtz--a conversation about Ethiopia Reads and volunteerism

Jane Kurtz joins me today to talk about Ethiopia Reads, an organization that works to increase literacy in Ethiopia. Jane is an author of many picture books and novels and is on the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

[Sarah] Great to have you here, Jane. When and how did you become involved in Ethiopia Reads? What was your role?

[Jane] I've been involved as a volunteer with Ethiopia Reads from its very beginning--sometimes people call me the founder, but I was only part of a team.  I'm not the one who went to Ethiopia to see what could be done on the streets of Addis Ababa, for instance.  That was Yohannes Gebregeorgis who had come to the US as a political refugee and became a librarian and was wanting to get books to kids in Ethiopia.  My role was to raise money and organize a board and volunteers and other support.  Now Yohannes and Ethiopia Reads have parted ways--Yohannes runs a library in the northern region of Tigre and Ethiopia Reads is focused on the 55 school libraries and communities libraries that got planted and need to be nurtured into true book-reading, book-loving places.

My involvement grew out of my own childhood in Ethiopia, a fascinating place that has been the setting for about ten of my children's books.  I learned to read in Ethiopia.
I grew up in a rural area getting to see the determination of young Ethiopians getting a chance at school for the first time.  It's a thrill to be part of the team planting the very first libraries for kids and bringing professional development in literacy to the teachers who will teach them.

[Sarah]  Ethiopia Reads' goal is to "create a reading culture in Ethiopia by connecting children with books." One way they do this is by creating libraries. What types of libraries do they open? How are books selected for these libraries? Also, what languages are represented?

[Jane] We started with a community library in a rented house in one neighborhood.  Rents have zoomed upward in Addis Ababa, though.  Soon we started a pilot project with public schools that were willing to donate a room and a person to run the library.  We found donors--individuals, schools, churches, communities--who wanted to plant a library and the money those donors gave paid to build furniture and buy local books and ship containers of books from the U.S.

I think in the beginning of that project, I naively thought once a library was planted it was self-sustaining.  Some simple assessments, though, showed that we also had to work on what is sometimes called "human capital"--developing the skills of the people who run those libraries, Ethiopians who mostly didn't grow up around books or with libraries themselves.

We buy whatever books are available in local languages (there are 80 such languages in Ethiopia), which isn't a lot.  For all practical purposes, there is no children's publishing industry in Ethiopia at all.  Some authors do self-publish books, and we've tried to encourage that from the beginning of Ethiopia Reads.  A local authors' organization has asked to officially collaborate with us--and we've also done book making with teachers and kids.  A fun process...but slow!  In the meantime, since the curriculum is in English after seventh grade, there's also a great need for kids to learn to read in English, so we get donations of gently used books and a volunteer sorts and stores them until we can raise enough money to ship 40-foot containers full of books for the libraries.

[Sarah] I was delighted to view a video about the Donkey Mobile Libraries. How many books are carried by one of these libraries? Could you explain how these libraries work?

[Jane] The Donkey Mobile Libraries were created as a way to try community libraries that could go to where children are.  Because the carts were heavy, the donkeys couldn't really pull them far.  They stayed in town...the regional capital of Awassa and several nearby towns.  Now we're trying to re-invent this program to be Four Legged Literacy using horses, as well as donkeys, using lighter methods for the books themselves, and investing (ah-hah...a theme) more in the PEOPLE who will travel along and teach basic literacy.  If we can pull this off, we can do more of a reach into deep rural areas where kids aren't getting to school at all.

[Sarah] Ethiopia Reads has a goal of creating one hundred libraries. What progress has been made? What is the cost of starting a library?

[Jane] We've planted 60 libraries--mostly in public schools but with a few pilot projects in, for example, a kindergarten program started for poor families in one of the most crowded of Addis Ababa neighborhoods and into a private secondary school for girls.  But we're slowing down, now.  It can be so exciting to see the STUFF go in.  Stuff doesn't grow deep roots into communities, though.  People do.

For the past seven years or so, we've managed to plant libraries for $10,000 each.  We'll probably still slowly do that--plant new libraries--but we want to be sure we're focusing on some pilot projects for professional development as our main focus.

Also we're developing a strategic partnership with The Tesfa Foundation, which has been looking at increasing access to education.  Recently, they began a project to build five schools in the rural area of Kembata-Tembaro over the next three years.  Those schools will also be literacy labs and a chance for good investment in people and jobs.

[Sarah] How does Ethiopia Reads choose where to put the libraries?

[Jane] Dana Roskey, our executive director, says he rarely visits a school anymore that doesn't have a room allocated as a "library."  Often those rooms have no books or only a small and lousy collection of books.  Even where we've put 5000 books on shelves, the person running the library may or may not have an understanding of the power those books represent.  So we have, for instance, a monthly library support group in Addis Ababa so people running the libraries can share ideas and talk with each other about what works and doesn't in overcrowded schools (where a classroom can easily have 60 children).  In 2012, 8 library managers volunteered to try a book club in their libraries.  Next school year, 8 more will join that effort.  That's an example of the pilot projects to experiment with making sure real literacy is going on inside the libraries.

[Sarah] What stories can you share about how has access to books has changed children's lives?

[Jane] The stories that keep me going are ones that have come from a lifetime of living.  My mom was the only child in her family to go to college--in fact, just to get to high school, considering her upbringing in rural Iowa, she had to make her own way to a bigger town and find families to live with.  What a difference to our lives (as I look at my Iowa cousins) it made to have a mom who loved books and words and stories.

Ethiopians who are avid readers have told me stories of standing under street lights to get enough light to read at night.  One woman who told me such a story is now a supreme court judge in Ethiopia.  An Ethiopia Reads board members, an Ethiopian-American realtor in the Bay Area, talks about getting access to a good school in Ethiopia because of who his father was--"but a rural boy," he said, "who got access because he was a good student taught himself to read in Braille so he could keep reading after the lights were out."  There's such a hunger for good education all over Ethiopia.  I recently met a graduate student from Ethiopia (in school in DC) who was the first from his village to go to a nearby university; when he returned home periodically, he would take reading material and give it to the kids who came to ask how he had managed to get an education.  Now he's working with us on his dream--to build a library in his community.

[Sarah] Wow! Learning to read Braille so he could read in the dark.
How has access to books changed over time in Ethiopia? Are there now a wide range of choices and publishers of Ethiopian children's books?
[Jane] Access to education is still the big struggle in Ethiopia.  500% more kids are in school than a few years ago, but that is putting even more stress on overcrowded classrooms where a child will often wait for her turn to hold a pencil and copy a sentence the teacher has written.  There are too few children's books available locally and many schools that have no books at all.

[Sarah] Some of your books are set in Ethiopia or are about Ethiopians. Could you tell us about these books?

[Jane] I spent my childhood coming back to visit in the US every five years and finding very little interest in what life was like in Ethiopia.  Luckily for me, now there are pockets of intense interest.  Some interest comes from families who've adopted kids from Ethiopia.  Some interest comes from curious readers, including the editors who--particularly in the 1990s--were looking for books that would show a glimpse into life in countries like Ethiopia. 

I was lucky enough to publish my own retellings of folktales such as Fire on the Mountain, Trouble (now available in a bilingual version at, Pulling the Lion's Tail--and stories of contemporary Ethiopia such as Only a Pigeon (soon to be re-released as Pigeon Boys of Ethiopia)--and stories of children with two homes, such as Faraway Home and In the Small, Small Night.  My first novel for young readers, The Storyteller's Beads, tells the story of Ethiopian Jewish families fleeing from Ethiopia in a time of war and pain.  I've written historical fiction--Saba: Under the Hyena's Foot--set in the ancient castles of Gondar.  And Ethiopia has woven its way into many of my other books. For example, when I wrote the Lanie stories for the American Girl Doll of the Year, I created a friend for Lanie who gets to go off to an international school for the year--and I drew on my memories of being an outside girl in Ethiopia.

[Sarah] Ethiopia Reads partners with other organizations and individuals to bring books to children. Could you talk about this? Also, what types of fundraising events are used to raise money for Ethiopia Reads?

[Jane] We always look and hope for little or big support of our ongoing efforts.

For anyone looking for powerful ways to thank a teacher or librarian or celebrate a graduate at the end of the year, we have new gift cards on the site at and fun reading gifts that give 40% to Ethiopia Reads at this link:

Also, this fall we are hoping to get some churches and schools to help with a fun project called Bring a Book Buy a Book.  My brother's school, which has done it twice, has found it a winner with parents, teachers, administrators, and kids.  Grand prize: a free visit from Jane and Chris Kurtz!--but of course the real winners are all the kids in Ethiopia getting to read books.

Jennifer, a wonderful new volunteer in the Minneapolis area, has put together a Power Point presentation that explains step by step how it works:   (If you're on Facebook, she has also put together a great page there.)  Here's how it works:  school kids clear their shelves of gently used books (parents love that) and bring them to school.  Once those books are arranged on tables, often an older class can take charge of the selling.  Kids buy each other's books for a dollar or two.'s a recycling, celebration-of-reading and power-to-help project that only requires a little effort.

[Sarah] How else can people help?

[Jane] We have several events volunteers put together and are always looking for donations of items and fun experiences for those.  People have done walks and runs and birthday-for-a-cause fundraisers.  Everyone can visit the Ethiopia Reads Facebook page and share the updates with friends or share about Ethiopia Reads in other ways.  It's amazing to see the ripple effect of little things!

 [Sarah]  Thanks Jane for joining me today! It's been wonderful to learn more about Ethiopia Reads and hear how so many people are working together to increase literacy and access to books in Ethiopia.

To learn more about Ethiopia Reads check out their website and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Ethiopia Reads Website
Ethiopia Reads Twitter
Ethiopia Reads Facebook

No comments: