Literacy is coming to some rural Ethiopian children on a donkey's back. VOA's Peter
Heinlein visited the Ethiopian town of Awassa, to meet an Ethiopian-American man
who returned to the land of his birth to Make a Difference with youngsters hungry for
It is school-closing time in Awassa. A donkey-drawn wagon trundles into a public
square and children come.
Donkey carts are common here. But a cart filled with tales of fantasy and faraway
lands is unique. It's the Donkey Mobile Library, bringing books to children who have
Donkey library founder Yohannes Gebregiorgis holds his young audience captive
with his readings. Yohannes emigrated to the United States half a lifetime ago. He
became an American citizen. But he came back, giving up a comfortable life as a
children's librarian in San Francisco, because it bothered him that while Ethiopian
kids may go to school, they have no books.
"Most schools don't have libraries. Basically, that makes it very difficult for kids to
get reading material," Yohannes said.
The main reason there are no libraries is there are almost no children's books in
any of Ethiopia's many languages.
"Most kids we have noticed holding a book upside down. We have taken pictures of
those kids," he said. "But later on we find out that those kids learn how to use the
book, how to flip the pages and how to look at the pictures and then gradually to
read the stories in the book."
Admasu Apuye grew up in Awassa. He never had a book. Now he brings his two
and a half year old son Meseker to listen, and to learn about the world inside those
pages, a world Admasu never knew as a boy.
With financing from American civic groups, more donkey libraries are planned.
Donated English-language books are arriving. Meanwhile, Yohannes has
established a publishing house to produce books in languages local kids can read.
His first effort, in three languages, was a re-creation of an old folk tale about, what
else, a boy and his donkey.
"I grew up hearing this story," Yohannes recalls. "So, when I first started this
organization, I wrote this story and we published it and this became really a
fundraiser for us. (It is) Still sold in the United States."
Oh, and the donkeys. Originally, they were a big part of drawing kids to the mobile
library. But Yohannes discovered, much to his delight, that it wasn't the donkeys that
excited the kids. It was the books.
"And they come really to read and they sit with books even if they don't know how to
read they open the book and see the pictures and just enjoy the pictures," he said.
Yohannes dreams about taking his donkey mobile libraries to more Ethiopian
towns and villages. After all, there are millions of eager children. The donkeys may
be resting now, but there's plenty of work to be done.