In 1965, Clare Shea joined the Peace Corps and traveled to Ethiopia, where she spent two years as an English teacher in the city of Debre Marcos.
Only a few years earlier, Yohannes Gebregeorgis had left behind his home village, Negelle Borena, to attend high school 375 miles away. The Peace Corps volunteers (not Shea) he met there, and the books they exposed him to, gave Gebregeorgis a new vision of his life.
"Just being in contact with young Americans at that time was really something transforming," Gebregeorgis said. Stories like "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving "planted a seed in me … That influenced the course of my future life. I became a reader myself."
Shea and Gebregeorgis were brought together forty years later by books. Shea has been trying to bring children’s books about Ethiopia into Alexandria and Fairfax Public Libraries. Gebregeorgis has been trying to bring children’s libraries to Ethiopia.
GEBREGEORGIS came to America in 1981. He was fleeing the Derg, a military regime that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991. Given the opportunity to follow his passion, Gebregeorgis abandoned his career as a pharmacist, earned a BA in literature and an MA in library science and eventually landed in the children’s department of the San Francisco Public Library.
The library had books in many languages, but none in Amharic, Ethiopia’s official tongue. Gebregeorgis decided he would have to fill the lack himself. He wrote a bilingual version of a story from his childhood, "Silly Mammo" (pronounced "Kilu Mammo" in Amharic, which uses a Semitic alphabet called ge’ez).
The book begins with a description of Ethiopia’s traditional storytelling. "It’s customary for children to sit wide-eyed in front of the story-teller, [who] starts by saying ‘Teret! Teret!’ [‘A story! A story!’] The children reply, ‘Ye lam beret!’ [‘A cow’s pen!’ i.e. enough stories to fill one]. Only then does the storyteller start telling and telling and telling late into the starry night until the children are sleepy."
Meanwhile, Shea was worried these traditions would be lost to the children of Ethiopian immigrants in Alexandria and Fairfax, where light pollution hides all but the brightest stars and most of the stories are beamed in on primetime t.v. So she wrote letters to city and county librarians and to Rep. James Moran (D-8th), Del. David Englin (D-45th) and Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon). She suggested 15 books for the libraries to purchase. Both Alexandria and Fairfax agreed to purchase all 15.
SEPARATELY, SHEA and Gebregeorgis have helped ship thousands of books to Ethiopia.
One year ago, after being contacted by several Debre Marcos students she had taught as a Peace Corps Volunteer, Shea decided to work with them to ship much-needed textbooks to Ethiopia. They raised money, partnered with Books for Africa and shipped 35,000 books to Debre Marcos.
Gebregeorgis left his job at the San Francisco Library in 2002. He felt called to bring his passion for children’s books home. He convinced the library to donate 15,000 books to his non-profit organization, the Ethiopian Books for Children and Educational Foundation (EBCEF). These books became the core collection of the Shola Children’s Library, which Gebregeorgis built in one of the slum neighborhoods of Addis Ababa.
Gebregeorgis said 400 children visit the library every day. The building is too small to hold them all, so most of the children gather under two large tents to read their books. "It’s not a very large library," said Gebregeorgis "It’s a very small library. But it’s big in terms of Ethiopia … If there was no library, the kids would be on the streets playing ragball." The library also provides a sanitation program for children who live without access to water. Children come to wash themselves and their clothes. Barbers come in to cut their hair.
EBCEF recently expanded to include several mobile libraries in Ethiopia’s southern region of Awassa. EBCEF established Ethiopia’s first Donkey Mobile Library to serve children in a poor neighborhood outside Awassa where there are many public schools but few books. The team of two donkeys pulls the specially designed library cart to an open lot where children come and read.
Gebregeorgis believes reading will "transform our society from famine and from ignorance," and reconnect Ethiopians with their own values and those of other cultures. But finding books from Ethiopia’s culture is a major problem. "We buy every book that we find on the market," Gebregeorgis said, usually between five and ten copies. Most Ethiopian children’s books are printed in small runs and are rarely reprinted.
"In general there are not enough books published in Ethiopia to support children’s libraries," Gebregeorgis added. He estimates 95 percent of the library’s books are in English, but 95 percent of the library’s patrons can only read Amharic. EBCEF will soon be publishing a trilingual edition of "Silly Mammo," with translations in Awassa’s local language. It will also publish a second picture book based on another folktale. Gebregeorgis said EBCEF cannot afford the American-published books on Ethiopia that Shea helped make available in local libraries.
WHEN SHEA learned Gebregeorgis was returning to the U.S. to meet the EBCEF board and thank his supporters, she ensured local libraries would be on his itinerary.
On June 26, Shea and Gebregeorgis met in a meeting room of the Beatley Library at 5005 Duke Street. The library’s new collection of Ethiopian-themed books was on display.
"The goal is to get more Ethiopians to use the libraries," said Shea, "as well as that they can find the books and pass on the values of their culture to their children."
During the interview, Teshome Denboba entered the room with his three-year-old daughter Eman. He said he had emigrated from Ethiopia in 1999. He had come to the library to find children’s books for his daughter, who has been struggling to read, and was surprised to be told there was a collection of books about his home country.
He said his daughter had never been able to read about her parents’ culture. "I was so excited," Teshome said. "I didn’t expect this … [the pictures] take you back home."
As he left the library, Teshome met Bedria Muzein, who was there with two of her three children. He told her there were Ethiopian books in the meeting room. Soon Yasmin, four, and Saleh, six, were on the floor with books in their laps. "It’s very nice," said Muzein. "They’ll learn the culture. And they’ll learn Amharic." She said her children know a little Amharic because their grandparents speak it to them.
Twelve year old Marta Zewdu, who is entering seventh grade at Irving Middle School, said Shea, a family friend, gave her the book "Saba: Under the Hyena’s Foot." The book’s author is Jane Kurtz, an American who grew up in Ethiopia and has written numerous books about it. Zewdu said she has never been to her parents’ homeland of Ethiopia before, but she will be traveling through neighboring Eritrea this summer on a tour with some of her family members. "It was interesting to know how the village people live, their real culture," said Zewdu, of reading "Saba." She praised the effort to get books like "Saba" into libraries. "The kids who just came from Ethiopia can find interesting stuff so they can relate to it. And the kids that were born here can learn more about their country," Zewdu said.
KAREN RUSSELL, Beatley’s manager, said the library already had some Ethiopian books available. But when they received Shea’s letter, "we just made a point of buying everything over again." Alexandria’ Burke Library also has a full set. In addition, Shea reports State Sen. Patricia Ticer (D-30th) will donate copies to the Barrett Library on Queen Street.
Russell said Beatley recently added instructional cassettes for learning Amharic. They have been checked out since they arrived. But Russell said they are struggling to find books written in the language. She was excited to see Gebregeorgis’s display of books in Amharic, and said she hopes the library will be able to acquire some.
"I think that they just enjoy seeing something about their county, about their culture and on top of that the bilingual is very important," Russell said. "It gives people a feeling, ‘This is my home country. This is my own language.’"
Gebregeorgis and Shea are working to allow children in Ethiopia and America to learn their own stories. Gebregeorgis described the traditional ending to a night of story-telling. "When the story-teller finishes, he’ll say to the children, ‘Now return the stories.’" The children recite stories back to the storyteller. "That’s how children learn to tell stories," Gebregeorgis said.