PCVS in Ethiopia

If You Build It Will They Come? 

The Early Grade Reading Center Project

by Jennifer Miller (Debre Markos, Addis Ababa 2011– )

THE EARLY GRADE READING CENTER PROJECT is focused on establishing accessible Reading Centers in kindergartens, primary schools, and public libraries where Peace Corps Volunteers are currently living and working. The concept is simple: If communities establish Early Grade Reading Centers, Ethiopian teachers and English language learners of all ages will directly benefit.

During our first three months at our sites, all Education Sector Volunteers completed a CENA Report (Community Educational Needs Assessment). We found that in many communities there was a critical need for English language books for beginning-level readers. In reality, most young children attending first grade in government primary schools lacked access to simple, high-quality reading materials and literacy activities that match their reading proficiency level in English as well as in their first language (which may be Amharic, Tigrinya, Afan Oromo, Awinya, and so on).

An Early Grade Reading Assessment conducted in Ethiopia in 2010 found that a significant percentage of children are illiterate in their first language;  even those children who attend primary school for two or three years are not able to answer any comprehension questions after trying to read grade-level passages. One possible reason for this statistic is the lack of resources for learning to read. In addition, the same EGRA study found that most people in Ethiopia do not have any reading materials in their own homes.

For this reason, a group of Peace Corps Volunteers decided to work together on a project to bring English language books to our communities specifically targeting preschool, kindergarten, and primary students in grades 1 to 4. By creating Early Grade Reading Centers, it was our hope that Ethiopian children and their families will be able to experience the joys of reading.

The PCVs and communities who participated in this collaborative project were:

  • Thor Hong — Abbi Addi, Tigray
  • Laura Harrington — Bonga
  • Jeff Hornyack and Blair Garnett — Bale-Robe
  • Jennifer and Chad Miller — Debre Markos, Amhara
  • Megan Sievert — Injibara-Awi Zone, Amhara
  • Brendan Boland — Kemissie-Welo, Amhara
  • Marie Agosta — Finote Selam, Amhara
  • Paul Voigt — Shambu
  • Daniel Thornton, Wolaita-Sodo
  • J. D. Mitchell — Welkite-Gurage

In January of 2012, we started by raising funds to obtain a shipment of book from Books for Africa. By July, our friends/family/schools from the US and around the world had donated to our project but we were $2,000 short of our goal. On July 4th, we learned about a generous grant from Books for Africa that would complete all our fundraising if we agreed that the shipping container would leave the US in August. Of course we agreed.

Books and volunteers at FIDO(Click for larger photo.)

575 boxes of books and volunteers at FIDO*
(Click for larger photo.)

We secured a project partnership with FIDO (Fayyaa Integrated Development Agency) and the container of books arrived in Addis Ababa in October, 2012. Nothing short of a miracle there! A total of 575 boxes of books were brought from the US through BFA to Ethiopia. Communities were responsible for transporting the books from FIDO’s office in Addis back to their schools.

In Debre Markos, we donated books to Early Grade Reading Centers (Mini-Libraries) in five Dibza cluster schools, five Negus Tekla Haimanot cluster schools, and three Biruh Tesfa cluster schools. We also donated books to start a lending library in the Negus Tekla Haimanot primary school. Other beneficiaries included Debre Markos University, two orphanages, the public library, The College of Teacher Education (CTE), and the CTE English Language Improvement Center .

Four members of our group have submitted reflections on their experiences with the projects and include the trials and tribulations of bringing literacy to Ethiopia, working with community leaders and teachers, and most importantly with the children.

*In the photo, from left to right:
Getachew Chane of FIDO, and PCVs Jennifer Miller (seated),  Jeff Hornyak (back row, yellow shirt), Megan Sievert (seated), Brendan Boland (seated), Dan
Thornton (standing, black shirt ), JD Mitchell (standing, grey
shirt), Thor Hong (standing, white shirt), Chad Miller (standing
yellow shirt), Paul Voigt (seated on floor)

Where does the future come from?

By Daniel Thornton (Wolaita-Sodo )

The future is such an elusive thing constructed on inaccuracies, hope and raw emotion. So why is it that we insist on envisioning mammoth structures that would be built on shaky ground, at best, when simply starting with an outline will do? I suppose that I see the future as a series of streams, unique to each of us and flowing in every direction. A select few of these streams will become raging rivers that cascade through time, while others are simply streams content to drift quietly along. Some of us will carve the landscape ahead while others will be defined by it.

A short time ago a group of Education Sector Peace Corps Volunteers, which included myself, were able to acquire a shipping-container of books through Books for Africa. This process took the veracity of a few Volunteers and the sweat and tears of everyone else. The container was comprised of 575 boxes and my portion of the container amounted to 95 boxes equaling 8,212 books.

There are views within the NGO community that books would be the tools to shake the very foundation of the education system within Ethiopia. That with these books, an army of knowledge would invade Ethiopian schools and enhance every faculty of the student’s lives. Then, with purpose, this empowered population would take the reins of Ethiopia and create a wave of change that will lead it into the 21st century. While this outlook is beautiful in its optimism, it is ludicrous.

I see these books as opportunities, 8,212 opportunities that will hopefully exist for years to come. 8,212 ways to influence the creativity of a single mind. 8,212 questions: Why would a cat wear a hat? What do you feed a dog to make it that big and red? How is Texas interesting enough for an entire book? 8,212 rounds at the craps table to bet on the hope that a single win will push you through the day. I have no preconceived notions. I hope with every fiber of my being that my effort will lead to results, but in the end only time knows. My hope is fueled by the curiosity I see in the eyes of my students.

They do not know their path but they know it can lead somewhere . . . somewhere unexpected, somewhere beautiful, and above all somewhere of their own. The few books I have given to them in the past have tantalized their imagination. Words that are meaningless to them don’t stop them from demanding more. The pictures guide and drive them to inquire more. I will not always be here to answer the questions that they so eagerly ask. But hopefully they will keep asking them. Asking how the word bus is created from the letters b, u and s. Exploring the magic of words and coming to comprehend that word magic is something impossible that should fill their lives. Then, finally, taking that magical journey on that incredible bus. That is my dream, to fuel a future of possibilities.

The truth of it all is that my job was simple: paint a place to excite the mind, add shelves to house dreams, and supply books to create insanity. I am simply the mad man shouting about the existence of infinity and how to reach it. All hope rests on a few children to raise their brows so they may take their trickling life stream and infuse it with endless power through learning, creating an unstoppable force. Then, one day, they will carve the landscape into an image that they have created, not being defined simply by their surroundings.

At least I have raised the stakes to 8,212 to 1. I would bet on that horse.

The Reality

Megan Sievert (Injibara 2011–)

At this moment, it is a struggle to get the primary schools to keep the early grade reading centers open regularly for the kids. It has been an amazing journey advocating for the cause of literacy in a country that has the third lowest literacy rate in the world. It has been quite a process getting the schools excited about books for the earliest grades and such a blessing that so many family and friends donated to Books For Africa for the container of 22,000 books to be shipped. What a whirlwind distributing the allotments of boxes upon arrival, getting the books from Addis to site, negotiating terms of agreement with the city council administration for handing over the books to the schools, getting them out of the boxes and onto shelves in a designated location.


Megan Sievert shares the love of books.
(click for larger photo)

But now the hard task is getting the teachers to utilize the books in their classroom and it feels like a stumbling block instead of a no-brainer. Getting the books into the hands of kids on a regular basis isn’t as simple as one would think. Books are treated as a special commodity due to their scarcity and keeping them locked up has been the norm. While preservation and protection is a necessity for longevity, the idea of a lending library for the early grade students is such a foreign concept in this location in northwestern Amhara. The true challenge of making use of amazing books within a disadvantaged school system is at the forefront here and it isn’t all pretty. The great point is that these books are here to stay and they have been incorporated into the public school system and this is a great addition to the community in the long run. I have to believe that over time each book will have its own impact. In my last months of service, I really need to plant the seeds of why it is beneficial to supplement the books with the curriculum and embrace reading time and storytelling time into the daily classroom life. But when the earth is dry and cracked and there is no rain for the seedling to grow, can the seedling germinate? I wish I had some Miracle Grow.

Would you trade your food for a book?

Paul Voigt (Shambu)

The kids in my town love books. Before our Books for Africa project, there were virtually no English language books in the primary schools in Shambu.


Paul Voigt and the boxes of books for Shambu.
(Click for larger photo.)

Thanks to a small storybook donation from friends and family in the U.S., I had given a few books to kids on my street. There are two cute sisters around 7 to 10 years old who live a few houses away from me and whose parents run a small electronics shop. I often see them manning (girling?) the store while their parents are busy doing other things. Since they missed out on getting a book when I handed a few out in the neighborhood., they motioned me over to their shop window daily as I passed by saying, “Book!”, pronouncing the “oo” in book as in “loop.”

I finally chose a couple books from the ones I had left and brought them with me on the way to dinner one evening. I had just seen the girls on my way home from the college and they had sweetly repeated their request for a book. As I handed the books to one sister, another one handed me three small boiled potatoes. Most kids expect something for nothing, but these sisters had saved some of their dinner in exchange for the books. They sacrificed what little they had for a book. The kids in my town are literally hungry for books.

It was important for me to try to get books for Shambu on a larger scale than just a few flat rate USPS boxes full. Books for Africa was the answer. As I watched our book donation goal get closer, I hadn’t yet realized the logistics involved in getting the books from Addis Ababa to Shambu. The Peace Corps Volunteers made surprisingly short work of unloading the huge shipping crate of the 575 boxes of books. After a few failed attempts at renting a truck, I was able to get a minibus with the help of an Ethiopian counterpart. My sitemate, Adam, and some of my Peace Corps partners loaded 35 boxes of books inside and on top of the minibus the day after unloading the huge crate. We got a late start because the driver wanted to have lunch after spending a couple hours driving to the Kality bus station on the outskirts of Addis for the necessary transportation papers.

After four hours of traveling, the driver refused to press on. It was getting dark and he didn’t want to venture over the back roads of western Oromia because of the notorious shifta (bandits) in the area. We stopped in a town called Gedo, which is where the paved road from Addis ends. The local police removed a section of their fence so we could drive the minibus into their compound so the books would be safe. In the morning we started out over the bumpy, rutted highland roads. We arrived in Shambu and lugged the books up a flight of handmade stairs leading to Adam’s house, which is large enough to accommodate the 35 boxes of books.


from Jennifer Miller

After spending a few days sorting the books into four reading levels and then a few more days stamping them with a Peace Corps stamp to try to limit the number of books disappearing into students’ and teachers’ homes, the boxes were ready for delivery to the schools. The elementary school principal rounded up a group of more than 30 students who marched down the road to Adam’s house. In one trip, kid power had done what no available truck could do — transport the boxes to the school library. Now students in Shambu have the books they have been hungry for.

Libraries, Books, Hopes and Dreams

by Chad Miller (Debre Markos, Addis Ababa 2011– )

Back in April of 2012, I was nosing around in the library at the primary school, trying to find a set of books that might be suitable to use with a reading club for seventh and eighth graders. A fellow PCV had told me about his reading program, which was centered on a set of books from his library, Oromian folk tales translated into English. I was hoping I might find something similar.

Plenty of English language books were available, and they were pretty well organized on metal shelves. The distance between those shelves, though, was approximately the width of my body, shoulder to shoulder, which made browsing pretty difficult. What a strange assortment of English books I found. And almost all of them were far beyond the English reading level of any student in primary school (grade 1 through 8). Some were quite new and others hopelessly outdated. I found The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver and Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard. I found Famous Negro Entertainers of Stage, Screen and TV.

Of particular interest to me were some of the nonfiction books. A Survey History of World, Africa, and Ethiopia looked like something I might like to paw through and that might be appropriate at the university, or possibly preparatory school (grades 11 and 12). That book would be well out of bounds for any student, teacher, or administrator at the primary level, though, and from what I’d seen of the college students, it would make 99% of them go cross-eyed, too. Even more interesting and other-worldly was a book called Language A to Z with David Crystal — not “by”, but “with,” as though it wasn’t a book, but a talk show. In fact it was a reference book, a glossary of sorts, Book 2 in a series. How a book that explains English language terms such as  anapaest, diacritic, group genitive, litotes, malapropism, and suprasegmental feature was placed in the library at Nigus Tekle Haimanot primary school in Debre Markos, Ethiopia is beyond me. By happenstance I came there, and I began reading it. Otherwise, what would have become of it?

Back on the home front, I found another book that I brought to the primary school as a piece of realia, a prop, a teaching aid. It was called SOCCER GAME! and was marked as Level 1 (Preschool/Grade 1). It worked well in the first grade English class as a prop, simply to teach phrases like “This is a book,” “Bring me the book,” and “Show me the book.” After class I was showing it to a 7th grade physics teacher, who began reading it with keen interest. Then he began asking questions: What is “doomed”? What does “slipped” mean? What about “dribble”?

Flash forward to November, 2012
I was in the process of sorting through and categorizing some of the ninety-odd boxes, containing some untold thousands of books, that my wife and I had arranged to donate to our community through the US Nonprofit organization Books for Africa (BFA). As noted above, the libraries in Debre Markos primary schools were severely lacking in age/reading-level appropriate English language books, and what books were stored there were not readily accessible to students. Hence the BFA project.

That long process of pulling books out of boxes, examining them, and putting them into piles, put me back in touch with books, and more specifically American books, in an intimate way. For a younger Volunteer, nostalgia may have come into play, but not for me (alas, no Doctor Dolittle or Arthur C. Clarke books were included). My reactions were mixed. Let me sketch out a few of those here, in random order:

  • Design and Quality. I was almost overwhelmed by the beauty, precision, and thoughtful design that went into many of these books. The carefully chosen language, wonderful illustrations, and superb book-making craft were almost enough to bring tears to my eyes. I’ve been teaching for awhile, and I know that teachers need resources. In the US I wasn’t particularly dependent on books because I had ready access to the internet, a printer, scanner, photocopier, and a hard-wired projector mounted to the classroom ceiling. Here what most teachers have access to is the English for Ethiopia textbook, and not much else. Many of the donated BFA books have enormous potential as teaching resources. The tabbed sections at the back of the Teachers’ Guides alone contain a wealth of photocopy-able tools that would be extremely time-consuming and difficult to create or assemble through other means.
  •  Culture Gap. The level of English in some books was obviously too challenging for most of the schools here. But an even bigger issue wasn’t English language, per se, but American culture. Many of the books pertained to topics or cultural situations that aren’t familiar here or just flat out don’t apply. Bathtubs and rubber duckies; the travails of potty training, issues involved in the proper care of one’s new Guinea Pig, personal responsibility demonstrated through the cleaning up of one’s room (yes, a child with a huge, personal, carpeted space and a mountain of industrially produced toys), pizza parties at the mall, and so on and so forth . . .
  •  Bizarreness gap. At some point regular stories ceased to be sufficient for American children. It wasn’t good enough to have a clever or intriguing story about, say, a monkey. A monkey in a forest just doesn’t cut it anymore. The monkey has to be an astronaut. And he has to be an exceedingly clever, zany monkey/astronaut, one who can’t resist silly monkey/astronaut word play of the sort that will confuse the bejesus out of any right-minded second-language learner. And we have gargoyles driving school buses and zombies playing soccer and some cartoon character named Captain Underpants who seems to specialize in zany, toilet-themed hijinks. Someone had also put a great deal of thought into creating a book that would help children deal with divorcing/divorced parents. For some reason, though, the parents and children depicted in the book all had to be dinosaurs. When a teacher at the secondary school would later pull this book out of a box, he would immediately remark along these lines: dinosaurs-divorce“Ah, yes, dinosaurs, these are extinct fossil reptiles of the Mesozoic era.” It would be difficult, to say the least, for me to explain the whole self-help, divorced parents angle to him, and the fact that the book was not about dinosaurs at all.
  • Commercialism. Amongst the many gems were any number of books in a series based on various television shows and part of much larger marketing/sales campaigns. I never knew much about Spongebob Squarepants, but when I saw his likeness wash up on an otherwise pristine, protected beach in Costa Rica five years ago, I knew we were in trouble. In my shipment I received many chapter books detailing his exploits, no more or less enthralling than those of Dora (of Explorer fame), Barbie, or Hanna Montana. There was even a Spongebob Trivia book that would only have relevance and meaning for those devotees already well-versed in Spongebob lore. I guess anything that gets kids reading is good, but I’m not sure about literature that only ”works” if preconditioned by a TV series.
  • Rejects. There was only a very small handful of books for which I could not find a good and proper home. Most of these were either severely damaged or included other languages (dual-language English/Spanish textbooks, Spanish only textbooks, and tiny (storybooks?) in Vietnamese). Perhaps the least appropriate was a paperback accurately titled Truly Tasteless Jokes and included chapters for various ethnicities and religions, male and female anatomy, and so on. The Gover Norquist polemic Leave Us Alone [Getting the Government’s Hands Off Our Money, Our Guns, Our Lives] was hard to picture in any public school or library here. Then there were the books that seem designed to indoctrinate children in X, Y, or Z religion. Among the other marginal titles were Your Nine-Year Old [Thoughtful and Mysterious] and a work of teen fiction called Stop in the Name of Pants. The latter seemed, on cursory inspection, to deal with one young woman’s neuroses about said article of clothing and made for bizarre reading here in Ethiopia. There is nothing wrong with any of these books, per se, but they’re simply too far off in left-field for this project and the local context, and almost certain to be confusing or misunderstood.

Overall, though, it must be said that I was very impressed by the quality and variety of books, and the almost limitless potential for their use. Students seemed immediately enthusiastic, too. When I delivered a box of books to one primary school, a young boy lit up and exclaimed, “Thomas!” when he caught sight of the Thomas the Train book at the top of the stack I was carrying. A librarian at one school studied a non-fiction book about princesses. A supervisor found a Teletubbies reader of great interest and volunteered to read it to kindergarten students at one of the smaller, poorer schools on his next visit. One student was fascinated by the labels I had just created and put up on the shelves of the new lending library, and was reading them all out loud to his friends: “Chapter books, leveled readers, phonics, picture books, alphabet, numbers . . . ”

Yes, my main school now has a lending library that is well-stocked with age-appropriate English language books and useful resources for teachers. As I requested, these books are all shelved separately from the general collection, in a place (unlike those other books) that is easy for students and teachers alike to see and access. Time will tell how successful this whole endeavor can be. From a personal perspective, I can already say it’s the most successful thing I’ve done since being assigned here. Donations came from friends and family back home via the BFA website. I partnered with a group of other Volunteers around Ethiopia, and we coordinated our efforts with a broad mix of organizations and agencies at the national and local level to get these books from Djibouti to Addis, on to our local communities, and finally into local schools and libraries. This project embodied the spirit of partnership and coordination that we Volunteers strive for, and provided resources the community could not afford to invest in on its own. The community was far more involved with this project than any other I’ve initiated, and it reached farther than any of my day-to-day work: into more remote pockets of the community, from schools small and large to the public library, to a large orphanage, to the local prison. There were a lot of setbacks and problems along the way, but we navigated those with the help and expertise of local actors. And best of all (unlike so many things we try to do) this lending library has great potential to be sustainable; now that it’s been established, staff at the school can easily run it, maintain it, and even expand it.

As with any volunteer project or effort, though, the question of sustainability rests ultimately with the local community. Sooner or later, volunteers leave. While I’m still in Ethiopia, I left Debre Markos at the end of 2012, before I could see how well the lending library project would really play out. I left with hope that, with the resources and system in place, there would always be someone at the school with the interest and enthusiasm needed to keep the project going.

Someone who loves books and knows, first-hand, their incredible potential, will always be around to keep the library running, to help kids and adults alike enjoy books that interest them. That’s my hope. That’s my dream.

Getting the books from Addis to the libraries


Books were delivered by semi in Debre Marcos.
(Click to see larger photo.)

Books were delivered by horse and garry in Debre Marcos.
(Click for larger photo.)

Two to a box in Wolaita-Sodo.
(Click to view larger photo.)


One girl could carry two boxes in Debre Marcos!
(Click for larger photo.)

Children helped in Wolaita-Sodo.
(click for a larger photo)

Happy Teachers, Happy Students, Happy Libraries

In Debre Marcos(click for larger photo)

In Debre Marcos
(click for larger photo)

In Injibara(Click for larger photo)

In Injibara
(Click for larger photo)


In Wolaita-Sodo
(Click for larger photo.)

In Debre Marcos(Click for larger photo)

In Debre Marcos
(Click for larger photo)

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