Inside Look: Harar School Book Club

At Ethiopia Reads, we believe that reading culture is more than books. We make a point to train teachers and librarians to use books to best purpose.

But perhaps even more important is the cultivation of enduring institutions in the school community that promote the value of reading and books. It’s all the better if those are student-driven. That’s why we promote book clubs.

Book clubs are an important agenda item in our onsite Book-Centered Learning (BCL) program. We actively lobby for healthy book clubs in schools.

In April, one BCL team visited the Model One Primary School in Harar in Eastern Ethiopia. It is a model school! Sitting in on the meeting – next to the director, the librarian, and teachers – was 14 year-old Seada Jamal, book club coordinator and student of the school.

The Model One book club has 36 members. They help in the library and read to younger children. In return they have extra reading time in the library and the right to borrow books.

But young Seada is far from complacent. She thinks there’s much more the book club could be doing with more support from administration and teachers. The 7th Grader suggested approaching the student parliament to support the club and she also suggested that teachers work with parents to encourage the club and reading in general. School staff in the meeting readily agreed to help -- she was an inspiration!

This is how change happens. We can advise, train, and guide, but ultimately change comes from inside the school. Young people advocating for their own future is the best case. We hope to see book clubs grow in value and versatility. It should be a type of service club, serving a community of readers. And that community can reach well beyond the boundaries of the school.

With student leaders like Seada, we have a great start!

Volunteering with Ethiopia Reads: Experiences and Perspectives [Part 5]

This is the final part of an ongoing series chronicling the volunteering experiences of Nick Thayer, who recently returned from a 2 month visit to Ethiopia Reads schools and libraries in Addis Ababa.

By Nicholas Thayer

[Continued from Part 4...]

When I think back on my time at Gebeta, even now before I’ve left Ethiopia, it’s hard to decide what to remember. Her? Him? The library itself, empty, before the kids have arrived? My meandering, fatigue-induced meditations in the back of a taxi, fueled by the sounds of traffic, on my way to or from the library? If laughter and lack of stress really do help learning, then it’s not unrealistic to imagine that I have every single Gebeta-related thing that I did permanently engraved in my memory. Gebeta was a refuge for me, an escape from the hecticness of the rest of life, somewhere that allowed me to laugh a lot and be stress-free for a while. The faces of children who are in a library and happy to be there give me a feeling that I don’t think anything else can match.

I don’t know if the kids learned anything thanks to my being there. I don’t know what they think about me or my country. I don’t know what I learned, or what I gained, or why I was there. I don’t know if anything will change once I leave. I hope that my presence there taught them something - about themselves, about me, about English, about the world indeed being a complicated place in which a young white man can somehow end up in a library in Addis Ababa. But more than that, I hope that I was somehow able to give them some small part of that peace that I found with them. Whether it’s the idea of someone out there looking out for them, or a renewed sense of safety within the library, or the simple but profound realization that America is a real place with real people, not just some ideal of freedom and wealth that they’re supposed to work tirelessly for and never achieve, I hope that they saw in me some kind of relief from the perceived pressures of their lives. I hope that they were able to find some sort of comfort, even for just a day, from the rest of their difficult lives, just like I found comfort in their ear-to-ear smiles and heavy accents and dirty clothes. And I hope, too, that I’ll be able to come back in a year to find that same euphoric relief in those dozens of Ethiopian smiles.

Volunteering with Ethiopia Reads: Experiences and Perspectives [Part 4]

This is one part of an ongoing series chronicling the volunteering experiences of Nick Thayer, who recently returned from a 2 month visit to Ethiopia Reads schools and libraries in Addis Ababa.

By Nicholas Thayer

[Continued from part 3...]

On my last Saturday at the library, the staff and kids organized a goodbye party for me. It was probably the most fun I’ve had in 2 hours since I got here. First, we got to play a little bit of Simon Says, and then we all sat down and a few kids stood up in front of everyone to say something; some of it sounded like poetry, some like rap, some was singing, and I think some was just talking. It was all in Amharic, so I only caught maybe one word in twenty. I really hope I wasn’t meant to understand anything that was being said, because I didn’t. But it was still quite enjoyable to see everyone laughing and chatting, and also because one kid quickly became a running joke for the whole room by standing up four different times to say stuff. And in a full mix of delivery styles, too!

After that, there was a small parade of dance routines - some traditional Ethiopian, some hip-hop, some a mix. At one point, there were 4 boys of a range of ages dancing, and one of them was so good that the four oldest girls in the room decided to start putting money in his pockets. (Yes, real money. The adults in the room had quite a laugh about that.) Another was making it rain on the audience for a solid amount of time (no real money for him, though.) Eventually, almost all of the kids ended up dancing together to all types of music. One 3 year old girl got her hands on a pair of those plastic yellow duck lips that makes a farting/quacking sound when you blow into it, so she served as our live accompaniment to the recorded music.

I was also given two wonderful gifts during the day - one from the library and all of the kids, and the other from just one of the kids and his father. (From the get-go, he was the most fond of me of all of them, and showed it in many ways. He was the Hokey-Pokey dancer from a few weeks earlier.) He gave me a traditional-Ethiopian style painting of the monuments at Gonder, Lalibela, and Axum. The library gave me a book full of pictures of me and the library, many lovely notes from the kids, and lots of text that I think describes everything that we did together. (The whole thing is in Amharic, so it’s going to take me a looong time to figure out what everything says. Actually, even longer than a looong time, since I first have to transliterate it (figure out the sounds), and only then can I start to figure out the meaning of the words. The children’s handwriting and the minute but all-important differences between some feedels aren’t helping.) All in all, it was a terrific day. As if I needed more memories from my time at Gebeta, I was fortunate enough to get at least another week’s worth in just those 2 hours, as well as physical things to take back home with me. I suspect that that painting will be able to find a home somewhere on my dorm room wall in college.

Come back soon to read about the final part of Nick's volunteer trip!

Volunteering with Ethiopia Reads: Experiences and Perspectives [Part 3]

This is one part of an ongoing series chronicling the volunteering experiences of Nick Thayer, who recently returned from a 2 month visit to Ethiopia Reads schools and libraries in Addis Ababa.

By Nicholas Thayer

[Continued from Part 2...]

So I did. At first, while I was still getting my bearings in my new life and trying to get acquainted with some of the kids, that meant that the kids did a lot of artwork. (I don’t have to do very much when the kids spend two hours copying and coloring pictures out of various children’s books.) Some of them are genuinely excellent at this; when I first arrived and saw some of their previous work posted up on the wall, I was certain that they had put their paper on the book and traced over it (instead of copying the picture with the paper next to the book). So the best of the artists kind of blew my mind when I saw them drawing in real time. Of course, there was a bit of a spectrum in terms of talent in art - some kids (not unlike myself) are incapable of drawing a leaf that is recognizable as such, not to mention of then adding a smiling butterfly on top of it. And as for the mediocre, middle-of-the-spectrum ones: I surreptitiously snapped a picture of one drawing of Mufasa and Nala looking at Rafiki holding Simba in which the two adult lions look like Scar just fought them using a sledgehammer and a massive dose of whatever steroids Barry Bonds was on, and won - their faces are squished and their snouts shortened so that their bodies, while themselves probably faithfully reproduced, look inflated, more like masses of pillows than masses of lion muscle.

At the same time, I knew that I should be doing my best to get the kids better at reading in English, and at English in general, so I spent a lot of time having them read and correcting them where necessary. But that was hard because I didn’t know how much to stress any given point (“Do I really need to correct the 17th mispronunciation of ‘up’ as ‘yoop’??”). My own comfortable upbringing, as well as my ongoing experience at language school, have taught me that tough love and demand of perfection are to be used sparingly and targetedly, while as far as I can tell, hitting kids with rulers is almost part of the national curriculum here. And since I myself am in no way a trained teacher, I didn’t quite feel comfortable coming in and imposing my own rules on everything. Most of the kids did, though; at almost every pause or mispronunciation, hesitation or mistake, or just whenever a certain kid felt like it, someone would interject and try to correct whatever mistakes had or had not been made. Properly-pronounced words were ‘corrected’, readers were interrupted after stopping for a mere half-second on a difficult word, and sentences were restarted constantly because a kid forgot that it wasn’t their turn to be reading. Boredom was prone to overcome kids one by one so that they just had to express themselves with a sudden comment or very loud sigh...or even an entire sentence read out of turn. (If only kids everywhere would have an urge to read whenever they got bored.) So teaching them through reading was slow going.

Teaching them through games, however, was a different story. At language school, we were taught early on that laughter and relaxation are essential elements of the learning process. If you spend your whole time in school being stressed and feeling defeated, there’s little chance that your brain’s going to be letting very much new information in. So it’s no wonder the Gebeta kids know my favorite Simon Says commands so well - the room was constantly erupting into laughter for one reason or another. After a few weeks of such “training”, even though many of them may not yet be able to tell someone about their weekend or understand a book’s storyline in English, they can sure understand if anyone (especially Simon) tells them to run in one place and spin in circles while clapping their hands over their head!

Visit again soon to read Part 4!

Volunteering with Ethiopia Reads: Experiences and Perspectives [Part 2]

This is one part of an ongoing series chronicling the volunteering experiences of Nick Thayer, who recently returned from a 2 month visit to Ethiopia Reads schools and libraries in Addis Ababa.

By Nicholas Thayer

[Continued from Part 1...]

When I first arrived in Addis Abeba, I was almost completely overwhelmed with the number of things I had to do. Learn a language, learn a city, learn a culture, learn about myself, learn to help other people learn...it was a lot. So although volunteering with Ethiopia Reads was the principal reason I even came to Ethiopia at all, it wasn’t high on my list of priorities for my first two weeks in-country. Besides the fact that I had no idea where the library/office was, I didn’t know what I’d be doing there or how I could possibly be useful in such a noble endeavor as teaching Ethiopia to read. In a city of endless dangers and perplexing situations, I gravitated toward things which would give me immediate benefits (learning Amharic, figuring out the geography of the city) and away from that which would supposedly offer me no immediately tangible help on how to survive in the city (volunteering). I decided early on that I would first get settled in my house, get going with language school, and get acquainted with some friends of friends who could (and did) offer me valuable advice, consolation, and assistance when I needed it before starting at Gebeta Library. I inadvertently made volunteering at the library a side-project for my time here, while language school became my main focus.

Looking back now, I want nothing more than to be able to go back and make myself find my way to Kabena as soon as humanly possible, even as soon as I stepped off the airplane. The reason that I delayed in starting with my volunteering project is that I assumed that it would take a lot of my time and energy, especially at the beginning. And I was right: figuring out how to get from Mexico Square to Arat Kilo was one of the more difficult things I’ve done since I got here, and even now, the travel time between my home and the library is almost always greater than the time I actually spend at the library. Add to that the hailstorms, pick-pockets, traffic jams, and my own tardiness that seem to have been so much more prevalent 6 weeks ago than they are now, and suddenly I find even myself wondering whether or not it was worth the trouble.

But it was, of course, and is, and could never not be. Because while I was right about one thing, I was mistaken about myriad others. The library is not just about making kids read, or about reading to them, or about showing them the value of books and education, or about saving Ethiopia from illiteracy and a defunct educational system. It is both greater and lesser than that - as a miniscule NGO, they don’t have the resources to fuel any change at any level other than the grassroots level (working directly with children and individual schools), and so they are unable to effect any large-scale change in the country, at least in the short term. But they also don’t have the resources to confine themselves to only being a center for children to learn to read, or do homework, or practice their artistic skills - they take whatever they can get, which means that they also teach kids to understand and read English, to listen to instructions, to work hard in school, to have self-confidence, and to relax a little bit during the week and have some fun. It’s a daycare center, it’s a learning center, it’s a family center, it’s a community center. The library seems to have no real plan at all for taking on a very big plan indeed: changing Ethiopia.

And I came in expecting Ethiopia Reads to have some sort of program for me, something specific that they wanted me to do, some way they knew I would be able to help. But when I showed up at the library on my first day, there was no instruction sheet. I was shown inside and was asked what I wanted the kids to do; I don’t know if that was because the staff didn’t care what I did, or didn’t know what I should do, or so that I could be something of a relief to the librarian by allowing her to hand off some of her responsibilities to me. I hope it wasn’t because anyone had gotten the unfortunate idea that I knew what I was doing or what anyone else should be doing...whatever the case, there was no agenda, no method, no right, no wrong. I wasn’t there to do anything, I was there to do anything.

Check back soon for Part 3!

Volunteering with Ethiopia Reads: Experiences and Perspectives [Part 1]

This is one part of an ongoing series chronicling the volunteering experiences of Nick Thayer, who recently returned from a 2 month visit to Ethiopia Reads schools and libraries in Addis Ababa.

By Nicholas Thayer

Sammy, Nati, Surafi, Nardos, Hanna, Tigist, Fraol. Semhal, Yemisrach, Bronn, Kalkidan. The girl with the crazy hair; the girl with the black mark in the white of her eye; the hilarious boy with the smile of an angel; the girl who promised to shoulder dance for me before I left; that one adorable little boy who is terrified of me and doesn’t understand a word of English but somehow excels at Simon Says. The 3-year old who burst into tears literally within seconds of seeing me for the first time, and the 4-year old whose front tooth got pushed into a fight against my knee and lost. Yosef, who can barely read English but still gives it a go every time I ask him to, and the countless others like him.

Nameless faces, faceless names, named faces, faces and names. People with whom I have nothing in common, apart from a few brief moments in time during which we happened to be in the same geographical place in the world. And yet, people with whom I have shared so much. People who I would love to get to know better, but can’t because of geography, the one thing that originally brought us together. People - all smart, all kind, some shy, very funny, good-looking, quite talented, and certainly destined for something greater than their local children’s library. But then, what could possibly be greater than a children’s library?

Ah, Simon Says...a game that communicates so much more than my broken Amharic or their timid English ever could, and yet that we only started within the last 3 weeks of my time here. And the Hokey-Pokey. I had the pleasure of teaching that on a day when we had about 10 kids in the library; doesn’t sound like much, but when they all speak only minimal English, teaching American culture suddenly becomes more difficult. This meant that I wasn’t sure at first whether or not I would be able to give the individual help I thought they needed to actually learn it, instead of just leaving them confused about the white guy singing some weird song and dancing like a drunken ape. In the end, they all learned it at least 80% of perfectly within an hour and a half; one kid came back two days later and pulled me aside to show me the whole thing. (I can still picture him practicing that first night in his house, determined to not let me down.) I have a hard time writing longingly about 7-Up, the third game we played regularly...it seemed that the kids were always able to tell when it was me touching their thumb, and I was rarely able to do the same. I suspect cheating.

Check back soon for the Part 2 in Nick's story!