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!