Opening a Children’s Library in Harar

by Alice Gosak (Harar 1964–67)

FIVE YEARS AGO I visited Harar with Patricia White Johnson who was concluding her foreign service career as the cultural officer at the U. S. Embassy in Ethiopia. Patricia and I were fellow teachers at the Medhane Alem Secondary School years ago. In her role as a cultural officer, Pat often times visited schools and invited me to accompany her. During these visits we saw the need for books and libraries wherever we went. In response to this need and with some help from our friends, we were able to ship 400 pounds of books to Harar TVET (formerly Medhane Alem), the Teacher Training College and Haramaya University (formerly Alemaya University) Medical Sciences Branch.


Click for larger photo.

All of the receiving schools were for students in Grade 10 and above, and this was very encouraging; however, we felt that there was a need for a children’s library that would stay open to children of all ages throughout the year. From a distance, we enlisted our old Ethiopian friends to find a suitable place for a library as we had no Peace Corps contacts on the ground to help us. Harar has not had Volunteers since 1974, and it is considered off limits to the current Volunteers. During our long distance search, we were offered a space in a religious school, but both Christian and Muslim friends cautioned us that parents would not send their children to a reading room associated with another denomination. We came to what looked like a dead end.

We knew that Ethiopia Reads was opening children’s reading rooms in Addis and Awassa, and we set about convincing them to turn their attention to Harar. The city seemed so far from Addis that Ethiopia Reads was hesitant to spread their resources in an untested location. We persisted, adding Emily Cotter Richardson (Harar 64–66) to our ranks. Emily’s interest in libraries went back to the time when she started a library at Ras Makonnen School, and even managed to obtain a set of encyclopedia for the school. An opportunity finally came up when Ethiopia Reads agreed to open children’s reading rooms in each of Ethiopia’s regions in conjunction with an AID-sponsored project to bolster English-language instruction and reading as well as teaching in general.

Photo by Martha de Jong-Lantink

Photo by Martha de Jong-Lantink

We began our fund-raising campaign, selling tee-shirts (and if you sport that

Debre Birhan Selassie Church angel on your chest, you are part of this story) and generally badgering our friends for funds.  It took a while to raise the $10,000 to fund a reading room, but we were assured that it was going to be opened in Harar although we didn’t know where it would find its home in the sprawling city.

Finally, we were told that the inauguration of the reading room would take place in October of 2012.  Emily was unable to join us, but Pat and I traveled to Harar for the event.  Even when we got there, the date was tentative, but finally on October 21, 2012, we were able to attend the inauguration at the Model School No. 1 Reading Room.


At the Inauaguration

As experiences in my later life go, this one was spectacular. Five hundred children from kindergarten through grade eight and their parents filled the bleachers, benches and even the trees in front of the stage. When Pat and I stepped foot on the compound — at any time — the children began rhythmic clapping, something I had never experienced in 40 years of teaching. There were speeches by the headmistress, officials from the Harari Educational Bureau, the staff of Ethiopia Reads, Pat and me — all translated into Amharic and Afan Oromo, the language of instruction at the school.  There was a coffee ceremony with popcorn and ceremonial bread for all the adults in attendance.

Afterwards, we visited Kalad Amba I (K-4) and Kalad Amba II (5-8) schools nearby which did not have any of the resources of the children’s reading room.  Directors and teachers alike pleaded for references books — for chemistry, English grammar and other subjects. In all the schools we visited, the outer walls were painted with pictures of the map of Ethiopia labeled in Amharic, the parts of a plant labeled in Oromiffa, the human body labeled in English. Computers were not a prominent part of any campus, but in view of the fact that the entire area of the country east of Awash was without electricity for nine of the days that we were there (a theft of equipment in a remote location!), they are not yet a reliable educational support.

The day after the inauguration Pat and I were back to Model School No. 1 to take part in an Ethiopia Reads workshop for librarians from several Harar school libraries as well as from Dire Dawa, Jijiga, and the Afar region.  “Libraries” is perhaps a misnomer here; the two librarians from the Afar region still hope for a library. Work on one in their region has yet to be funded and commenced, while the Jijiga reading room is in progress.

Pat and I also worked with the chief of the Harari Regional Educational Bureau on a grant to obtain textbooks for the 72 schools in the region. As we traveled to villages like Koromi, which had no roads or schools 40 years ago, we saw schools and health clinics where none had existed in the 1960s.  President Murad Abdulhadi made one of the most poignant remarks about the work to be done in the country as a whole when he said “We have lost one and a half generations so we must work very hard to catch up.”

Before we left, Pat and I even taught classes to micro-scholarship students, an advanced placement program for ninth graders from various schools sponsored by the U. S. Embassy and taught by faculty from Haramaya University.  The classes were at Medhane Alem. We had come full circle.

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