Libraries, Mothers, and Children: Visiting the Awassa Reading Center

Being able to read, and having books, changes the world. I love to read, and take it for granted far too often. When my kids were growing up, the house was full of books. My granddaughter, at almost 8, is a terrific reader, at home and at school, with books at her feet, under her bed, on the family room couch, in her backpack, in her hands.

What a treat, then, for my daughter Aselefech, her daughter (my granddaughter) and me to visit Ethiopia Reads’ Awassa Children’s Reading Center during our recent visit to Ethiopia. The mission of Ethiopia Reads is to collaborate with Ethiopian communities to build schools, plant libraries, teach teachers, boost literacy and provide youth and families with the tools to improve their lives. They have planted libraries in every region of Ethiopia (no small accomplishment), and fill an enormous need in this ancient, beautiful country.

IMG_0003

Awassa (sometimes spelled Hawassa) is about a 3-4 hour drive south (about 140 miles/220 km) from the capital city Addis Ababa. We were just dropping in, a group of 7 of us, on a Wednesday afternoon. About 10 kids were inside when we got there, a few in the little nook to the left, a couple looking at the books on the shelves, and a bunch in the sweet treasure of a reading room at the front. The adults working there were gracious to us, helpful to the children. Books were available in English and in Amharic; the kids were reading a variety.

IMG_0004

Children at the Awassa Reading Center

IMG_4952

Boys choosing books from the collection at the Awassa Reading Center

For my granddaughter, the Awassa Reading Center was a comfortable, familiar place, some 7,000 miles from home. She looked through the books, pulled out a Magic Tree House book, and joined the kids in the sunny front room.

IMG_0005

Children in the cheerful reading room at the Awassa Reading Center

As an American middle-class child, she finds books and libraries nothing unusual. Not so for her Ethiopian counterparts, and that’s what makes Ethiopia Reads so valuable. They are building communities by bringing books and libraries to places that had neither. They are educating girls, as well as boys. Ethiopia Reads also provides soccer balls to kids (who deserve to play with more than deflated, dirt- and hole-covered footballs–look what our kids have for equipment here in the US), supports a running team of girls (including job training,which provides employment and keeps them safe), and offers monthly sponsorships for kindergarteners. Many families struggle to send their little ones to school, since there are no publicly funded options for kindergarteners. For just $21 a month, you can sponsor a kindergartener for a full year: that will help with tuition, food, and clothes. $21 A Month. Amazing. I’m sponsoring a child to go to school through Ethiopia Reads, and you can too. Change the world with me.

Libraries here in the US and there in Ethiopia are important community centers as well. While we were visiting, we dropped off flyers at Awassa about Ethiopian Adoption Connection, which offers a searchable database to connect adoptive families around the world with first/birth families in Ethiopia. Many Ethiopian mothers long to know how their children are, after placing them for international adoption. EAC helps in a compassionate, pragmatic way. Many children placed for adoption come from the Awassa area. As an adoptive mother, I was very happy to think that some mothers might be able to know that their children are alive and well. As an adoptee connected with her Ethiopian family, Aselefech was glad to share EAC’s information as well.

IMG_4956

The transcendentalist Margaret Fuller said, “Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.” Lovely sentiment from the early 19th century, and exactly right some 200 years later, whether meant for children in 1840’s New England or children in 21st century Ethiopia. Create a reader and change the world.

IMG_0007

Children’s books in Amharic at the Awassa Reading Center

 

 

 

 

Hana, the Ethiopian Community, and Ethiopia Reads

Sometimes we American adoptive parents can forget the feelings of our children’s fellow citizens about the loss of their children.

I’ve known many Ethiopians who are grateful to be in the United States, because there are truly far more economic and educational options here for them. I know many Ethiopians here in the US who are working hard to bring their relatives to the US, and who send money back to their families in Ethiopia, hoping to help them in small and large ways. I’ve had many Ethiopians express gratitude to me for adopting my girls. And I believe that when Ethiopians express gratitude to me for having adopted two girls, their thanks are tinged with wistfulness and sorrow that the girls had to lose their culture, their family, their language, their heritage, their people to be here.

The trial of Larry and Carri Williams in Washington state captured attention around the world, as people shared sorrow and outrage, hearing what happened to young Hana Alemu, an Ethiopian adoptee, and to Immanuel, both of whom were adopted by the Williamses. The Williamses were convicted on August  of homicide by abuse, manslaughter, and first degree assault of a child; their sentencing is now scheduled for October 29.

As an adoptive parent of Ethiopian twin daughters, my heart ached for Hana and Immanuel. In the course of watching the trial unfold, I shared a number of conversations with adult international adoptees, as we sought to understand, grieve, and listen together. I also talked often with members of the Ethiopian community in Seattle and in Skagit County. Their grief was especially poignant.

In some ways, there is no understanding what happened in the Williams family. It is a tragedy for everyone involved. And it may seem simplistic or fatuous to suggest that any good can come from this harrowing case.

Yet I believe that good is indeed possible. I wrote about Hana’s Legacy here, and that gives some ideas for change and hope.

I have had a long-standing connection with the beautiful, complex, ancient country of Ethiopia for nearly 2 decades, as a result of adoption. I’ve long been interested in literacy and I love libraries, so my connection with Ethiopia Reads makes sense. Ethiopia Reads promotes literacy in Ethiopia, provides books in local languages, and has planted libraries in every region of that large country. I’ve been on the Ethiopia Reads Board, I’ve visited the Awassa Reading Center and other libraries, and I remain committed to the idea that with literacy can come empowerment and possibilities, especially for children, especially for girls.

Two talented Ethiopian artists, both of whom now live in the Seattle area, have also been wonderful, powerful friends of Ethiopia Reads. Both have also, like so many members of the Ethiopian community in Washington state and around the globe, grieved for Hana and Immanuel. Yadesa Bojia is an amazing artist and musician. Please take time to learn about him here. Sultan Mohamed is also an accomplished artist. You can read more about him here.

Both of these men have supported the work of Ethiopia Reads (and other important Ethiopian causes), through their time, their good hearts, and their incredible art.

Here is one of Yadi’s newest paintings:

Original artwork by Yadesa Bojia

Original artwork by Yadesa Bojia

To me, the painting shows the fire, the power, the light that can be created through reading. It’s a shared joy and gift between mother and child. It’s the mother’s knowledge of what reading and education can mean for her children, who have so much potential, given the opportunities.

Here is one of Sultan’s:

Original painting by Sultan Mohamed

Original painting by Sultan Mohamed

Note the photo of Hana, surrounded by Ethiopian faces, perhaps angels, but certainly reminding us she is neither alone nor forgotten. Amharic writing engulfs her as well, ensuring us that she remains connected with her roots, her language, the sounds and words of those who loved her in Ethiopia and beyond.

These talented artists, these good men, have donated their paintings to an upcoming event (December 14, in Seattle, information provided below) to raise funds for Ethiopia Reads. I am in awe of their generous hearts, and of their deep commitment to children whose lives can change through literacy.

It may seem paradoxical that adoptive parents should work to ensure that fewer children need to be adopted, but it’s true. May we continue to move toward a world where all children can read, and thus be empowered in this world. May all children have safe, loving families, who can keep them and provide for them all that they dream of.

Information about Ethiopia Reads and the December event is available here. If you are looking for a small, effective organization that has opened libraries across Ethiopia where there were none, that has trained and employed Ethiopian teachers and librarians to sustain the libraries, that has worked with the local community in a respectful, transparent way, please look into Ethiopia Reads.