Why ebooks in Ethiopia? Why not?
by Bill Graff, (Addis Ababa, Sodo 63–65)
When my wife, Betty, and I heard that Utah was adopting “open” text and library books — ebooks “made available online for free access, downloading, and use by anyone,” we wondered: “Why not Ethiopia? Why not now?” We decided to find out.
Betty and I were married in Ethiopia during our Peace Corps service in the early sixties, and we have maintained our Ethiopian and Peace Corps contacts ever since. After our children were grown we began doing service projects for the schools in Sodo where we taught after we were married.
Our first project provided 300,000 new books divided among all 143 secondary schools in SNNRP (Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region). The project received a great amount of attention. The U.S. Ambassador and the Ethiopian Prime Minister kicked off a celebration in Awasa when the books arrived. The Ethiopian President and the SNNRP Governor came to Sodo for a celebration after the books were distributed. The event received nationwide radio and television coverage. But that was the end of the good news.
We were disappointed with what we saw when we did an after-action visit a year later. Although the books delivered were excellent new books that any American high school would have liked to have had, they weren’t what was needed by the schools that received them. They were, therefore, abandoned by the schools. They were under used, unused, or just plain missing. We vowed never again.
After a brief hiatus we began anew — this time with small, bottom-up book projects. We started with local volunteer teachers and parents at a single school. They selected the books needed by their school and we provided a grant to purchase them locally. These small projects were immensely successful. We put the right books in the right place at the right time. The books didn’t disappear — they were worn out by constant student use. The libraries typically extended their hours and loaned books to trusted students when the library was closed.
After a couple of decades of providing textbooks and library books for schools in Ethiopia we began to question the wisdom of continuing to provide printed books. Printed books are expensive, wear out quickly with heavy use, or become obsolete. As we were observing how fast the books were wearing out we heard about the ebook project in Utah.
As a result, our new project was born — ebooks.
Sodo Preparatory High School was the first school we approached. We selected the school because we already had credibility there by doing previous printed book projects. This is also the school where we taught after being married in Ethiopia. The reception for the idea was very cool at first, but all that changed after school and district officials visited a nearby university and saw ebooks in action.
And a partnership was born.
The school provided the Internet connection, the university provided the installation, the district provided ongoing support and Betty and I provided the money to buy servers and routers on the local market and we all went to work. AND it worked.
The teachers, students, and parents now have a first class campus-wide WiFi network, an ebook server and access to the Internet. The ebook server contains all official Ministry of Education textbooks and over 200 ebooks recommended by the local university for future college freshmen to read. They have all the books they said they needed.
The school has doubled the number of hard wired computers; all students and staff with smart phones are using it, and we provided ten tablets and smart phones to get usage started. These are shared by the teaching staff. This project is beyond our fondest dreams. Sodo Preparatory High School is now more advanced than the state of Utah as far as ebooks are concerned. Now we have new dreams.
Our next project: Provide a grant to the local university to use open source software on locally assembled servers to provide the same services. We will buy the parts. If successful this could reduce the costs of the servers from $7,000 to under $1,000. Wish us luck!