“to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about withI grew up with books all around me. I couldn't get enough of stories and I loved being read to every night. My doll Figrebee often received letters, like my mother did, from family back home in Finland ("letters" that were composed of my scribbles all over a piece of paper) which my mother then read to me in various voices. And my love of books was passed on to my oldest daughter, who is teased in our family for asking me repeatedly when she was about 2 years old to "read me a story about when you were little, Mommy."
fever-trees, precisely as Kolokolo Bird had said…”
Stories are so important, whether they are an oral history passed down from generation to generation, or stories in books. They unleash the imagination and allow us to travel to worlds we might otherwise never see. They allow us to vicariously experience adventures and problems, triumphs and happy endings, feelings and emotions, expanding our ways of interacting with people and problem solving skills. They allow us to examine our world in so many different ways, to add to our knowledge of it, our appreciation of it and our understanding of it.
It is difficult for us in the West to imagine how impoverished your world becomes, how difficult it is to navigate, if one is illiterate. It might seem that where poverty causes so much anguish, one should focus on other more important things than literacy. But it is true in the more developed countries of the West as well, where higher levels of education are clearly linked with higher standards of living, better health and longer life-spans, that literacy is definitely a most effective tool for the betterment of lives. It is crucial for so the many ways we must function in today's society. Most of us cannot imagine doing our jobs without some literacy skills.
Imagine the worker trying to understand how to operate machinery. Or the health care worker, reading the labels on vials of medicine. Or trying with some discretion (sadly still in a judgmental world) to learn more about how to protect yourself from HIV/AIDS.
In many countries poverty and illiteracy go hand in hand, particularly among the women and children. Many experts on poverty agree that literacy is the answer to greater productivity, better health, longer life, as well as better maternal and neonatal health. It would be rare to find a mother who reads, who does not ensure that her children can read.
So how is all this connected to me and Ethiopia?
My earliest memories are of Ethiopia, although I was actually born in South Africa to parents who were from Finland. My dad was a teacher and shortly after I was born, our family went to live in Ethiopia where my dad administered two mission schools hundreds of miles from the capital, in mountains east of Bahar Dar and Lake Tana. Thus my first clear memories of any place were of that particular place. How deeply evocative I find my memories of certain kinds of near-equatorial sunlight, the smell of eucalyptus trees, the sounds of the Amharic language spoken around me, the sight of donkeys!
After years away from Ethiopia, I walked into a restaurant in the Washington, D.C. area, to be viscerally moved, utterly exhilerated, by the aromas of Ethiopian food! It's hard to describe how excited I was. My family certainly couldn't understand it.
More years passed, and I suddenly found my marriage falling apart. Shattered, I sat in my doctor's office, a family friend for many years. He wisely suggested that a way that would help me heal might be to re-visit my roots. He understood that Finland was in many ways a foreign country for me; he meant Africa. That idea stuck in my mind, but I was unable to do anything about it then.
I have always written stories and I had come to a point where I wanted to write stories for my granddaughter about my memories of my childhood in Ethiopia. When I found gaps in my memory I asked my mother what she could remember. It was she who insisted that I needed to go back. However, little did even she suspect that going back would inflame such a passionate response in my heart to this far flung, oft forgotten country in the Horn of Africa.
During my planning of my first return trip to Ethiopia, I came across a blog by someone who had cycled through Ethiopia, and during their trip, participated in one of the early annual 10 km international Great Ethiopian Runs in Addis Ababa. For some reason, I wanted to run that race. So it became part of my dreams. My trip fell together at last and I did get to Ethiopia in March of 2007, but I was not able to get to the race which usually takes place in November.
freezing rain and snow in the Simien Mountains, in the village of Chiro Leba, where I visited the local school
However, that's not what I saw. It's undeniable that travelling in Ethiopia is not easy going. In fact, for the most part, it is downright challenging. But when I was there in March, 2007, I saw a complex, fascinating country, rich in history, awesome in its natural beauty, full of resources, peopled by a varied population possessing an amazing inner strength that endures, despite Ethiopia' s troubled recent history. Much had changed since I was there as a child, nearly 50 years before. Yet, that indefinable, exciting essence was still there.
And Ethiopian children -- like children everywhere -- love stories. The children I met were full of questions, some of it phrases of English learned by rote which they didn't completely understand. "Where are you from?" "How are you?" "I am please to meet you." "What is your name?" And some of them did understand the answers, which delighted them no end. Some were even able to explain the lesson that was still on the blackboard of their one-room school.
However, the educational resources and opportunities that we in the “first world” take for granted, are nearly unheard of in Ethiopia. According to Unicef reports, an estimated 72% of Ethiopian children don’t go to school because their families are too poor to send them. And in a country that boasts a unique literate history among African nations, it is a shame that only 43% of Ethiopian adults can read or write. Where there are schools, most have no libraries! Many classrooms don’t have a single book. The teacher writes the lesson on the blackboard which the children then copy carefully into notebooks. I discovered that much of the lesson is memorized by the children and repeated faithfully, by rote. It is questionable how much understanding takes place. The enjoyment of books that is not associated with school work or the church (more on that later) is inconceivable.
Shortly after my return to Canada, I discovered the work of Yohannes Gebregeorgis, the founder of Ethiopia Reads . When Yohannes returned to Ethiopia with a dream of opening libraries for children, he enlisted the help of Jane Kurtz, an internationally known author with 22 published books for children, writers and fellow educators. Jane spent her childhood in Ethiopia and has written many books about its land and people. Ethiopia Reads came into being in the late 1990's through the vision of Yohannes, and Jane now leads Ethiopia Reads’ all-volunteer Board of Directors.
Yohannes' own life is a story about how books opened up the world to him as a young boy. Yohannes believes that children exposed to books will look beyond a lack of material goods to a world of possibilities. Literacy will enable them to function in today’s world as well as unlock their imaginations and creativity. Who knows what ideas or inventions, what solutions to Ethiopia’s problems, may arise from the mind of a child whose mind has been stimulated by the world of books? Literacy is the tool that will improve their lives today and the lives of future generations of Ethiopians.
Ethiopia Reads (still known locally in Ethiopia as "Ethiopian Books for Children and Educational Foundation" or EBCEF) is a grassroots non profit/non government organization. It is geared toward bringing literacy and literacy related resources to Ethiopian children.
Because I cannot imagine a world without books, I am endlessly delighted, when I visit the Ethiopia Reads website, by the vision of children I see experiencing the joy of holding a book in their hands for the first time, having the opportunity to hear wonderful stories, learning to read themselves, stories about the world at large, but also stories about their own world, funny, colourful stories about brave or silly heroes and heroines in their language. And because donkeys are such a part of my earliest memories, I am absolutely tickled pink that one of the first efforts to reach out to areas outside the capital, involves a "donkey library" with the most important leadership of Queen Helina!! (you'll have to explore the Ethiopia Reads website to find out who she is!)
Okay, so back to the Great Ethiopian Run. Did I forget to tell you that this is a big part of what this upcoming trip is all about?
The TOYOTA Great Ethiopian Race 2008, in its 8th annual edition, stages a mix of competitions for fun and fulfilment, bringing together people and communities, mostly from Ethiopia, but also from around the world, to celebrate the great Ethiopian running tradition. It is expected that the 10 km international race, which will take place in Addis Ababa on Sunday, the 23rd of November, will attract 32,000 participants this year!
At the elite end of the field the race continues to serve as an important stepping stone for Ethiopia’s up-and-coming athletes. Previous race winners include some of Ethiopia’s all-time greats such as Haile Gebrselassie and Berhane Adere (race winners in 2001) and Tirunesh Dibaba and Sileshi Sihin (race winners in 2003). Kenenisa Bekele has twice participated in the race (2001 & 2002) finishing 3rd on both occasions. Since the first race in 2001 the event has also enjoyed the support of many other world-famous athletes and well-known names from international athletics.
This year’s 2008 TOYOTA Great Ethiopian Run features a special campaign entitled “I’m running for a child” which highlights the work of organizations working with orphans and vulnerable children living in Addis Ababa and raises funds to support their work. This campaign is being jointly promoted by UNICEF Ethiopia and Great Ethiopian Run. If you are interested in the charities which will benefit from the funds raised this year, you can visit the Great Ethiopian Run site.
Because of the high altitude (2400m), think of a 10km in Addis Ababa as though it were more like running 10 miles at sea-level. Runners know, running up hills anywhere is tough, but particularly so in Addis. The 10km course is a one-lap city centre course starting and finishing in the capital’s main square known as Meskel Square. There are two uphill sections of the course around 2km and 7km. The centre of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, where the race starts and finishes, is situated at an altitude of 2400m above sea level. The race takes place at 9am when temperatures in November typically range between 20 and 24 degrees Celsius.
I plan to run this race as a personal athletic challenge, but also to raise funds for Ethiopia Reads.
I believe every child deserves to experience the thrill of reading books that spark their curiosity, stimulate their imaginations, and are simply fun to read. Please consider sponsoring me in my run in Addis Ababa on November 23, 2008. All the money I raise will go directly to Ethiopia Reads.
If you are interested in helping my cause, you can email me at katiquu at hotmail dot com, to find out how to reach me. Even easier is to donate directly to Ethiopia Reads online through the fast and secure services of PayPal, donate using your credit card by dialing 303-468-8422, or by downloading the printable mail-in form from the Ethiopia Reads website, http://www.ethiopiareads.org/. (Or if you are on Facebook, Ethiopia Reads is one of my favourite charities there as well.) I don't need credit for your donation, but I would be pleased if you will let me know by commenting here, that you did donate something. Every little bit helps.