If we fail to educate little children, if we fail to put books in their hands, then we fail to create a foundation for them to rise out of poverty and oppression. What will there be to build on?
We were a core group of 8, most of us artists or writers, 6 from the US and 2 from Ethiopia. Just over a month ago, we traveled together from Addis to Maji, a small, rural area about 350 miles southwest of the Ethiopian capital, then back to Addis. We were part of an Ethiopian Odyssey, one goal of which was to create colorful, culturally appropriate books for young children in Ethiopia.
While we were traveling to and from Maji, and during our week there, all of us were writing, sketching, drawing, taking photos, and reflecting on what and who we saw. Ethiopia Reads has been a trailblazer in raising awareness about literacy and libraries for children. Long time Ethiopia Reads leader and prolific author Jane Kurtz, a pivotal Odyssey crew members, spoke at a well-attended public lecture in Addis about the tremendous need for colorful, culturally appropriate books for pre-readers, the toddlers and little kids who can (must) engage with books that start them on the path to reading. The books for these early readers are scarce in Ethiopia, and we are hoping to change that.
On Saturday February 6, we had an amazing book-making event. Children from the International Community School in Addis attended; they were Ethiopian, Canadian, American, Indian, Chinese, and more. Ethiopian children who are part of one of Ethiopia Reads’ Addis libraries also came for the “field trip” by bus. Some had lots of experience with art; some had none at all.
Our goal was to talk with the kids: How do we write stories? And then: Let’s make illustrations! We worked with a Ethiopian proverbs, including “Turina keessatt killen millaan adeemti. By persevering, the egg walks on legs.” The kids did all kinds of drawings as they figured out how to tell stories.
I worked with dozens of children using tissue paper collage. They used their imaginations and their life experiences to make rockets, flowers, spiders, butterflies, mountains, trees, and more.
Now our task is to take the stories and art of these young people and create books that will be in (we hope) at least two languages, English and Amharic, but also in many of the other languages spoken and read in Ethiopia. We will put the books in the libraries of Ethiopia Reads, and (we hope) in other sites as well. It’s a big, costly project. My fellow travelers on the Ethiopian Odyssey are up for the challenge. The art created and donated by Stephanie Schlatter, Troy Zaushny, Yacob Bizuneh, and Nahosenay Negussie as a result of our time in Maji and on the road will be exhibited and sold this fall.
My photographs will also be donated for this fundraising effort to bring books to little children. This is one:
I will post more info about the exhibitions as we nail down dates and venues. On one level, this was a life-changing adventure by artists to create books by children for children in Ethiopia. On another level, it’s a way to create hope. It is, maybe, a way to build a world that is based in literacy and beauty. Small steps, I know. Still.