New Youth Library in Ethiopia Makes Impossible Dream Reality

August 23, 2010

The need in Ethiopia is great but the vision and perseverance of Yohannes Gebregeorgis is greater, which helps explain why a new library worthy of any developed country opened August 20 in Mekele, the first of its kind in this small and grindingly poor city. The Segenat Children and Youth Library in the region of Tigray is located in a sturdy, free-standing building donated by the municipal authorities. It's fully loaded with some 10,000 books and a computer room with 10 workstations; two e-book readers and 8,000 more books are on the way. A companion donkey-mobile regularly transports some 2,000 additional books to more distant parts of Tigray, powered by two beasts of burden named Sege and Nat.

Part of what makes the establishment of this modern library astonishing is the difficulty Gebregeorgis overcame to make it a reality. To stock and staff the library for the first year, he raised some $45,000 under the aegis of Ethiopia Reads, an organization he founded in 1998 that has established more than three dozen libraries in schools all over the country. The Mekele library is the most ambitious project yet, but Gebregeorgis noted that red tape in a country like Ethiopia—where the average annual income has the purchasing power of about $700 U.S.—makes seemingly easy tasks difficult, even when you have buy-in from public officials. To prove his point, the library had no electricity on opening day: Mekele suffers from frequent power outages.

Among the dignitaries who attended the opening was Joseph Nsengimana, ambassador to Ethiopia from Rwanda. “Your presence with us is a testament to the friendship of the peoples of Rwanda and Ethiopia,” Gebregeorgis said at the opening ceremony. Rwanda and Ethiopia have a long-lasting sisterly relationship, he said, adding that “we hope to establish a cultural exchange program that involves Rwandese and Ethiopian children from Tigray,” a relationship that Gebregeorgis has been cultivating for some time.

“When children read at an early age, their world view drastically changes and their educational experience is highly enhanced,” Gebregeorgis told the 400+ guests who attended the ribbon-cutting. “Children who read are capable of becoming leaders in any endeavor they choose.” The library stocks books suitable for ages 0 to 18.

Part of the struggle in establishing libraries in Ethiopia is, as Gebregeorgis puts it, “the need to develop a culture of reading,” particularly in Tigray, an area with its own unique culture and language but no tradition of books and libraries. To that end, he invited local teachers and writers to a panel discussion the day before the opening; the discussion ended on a note of cooperation and support, with many in the audience emphatic about the need to preserve and write in Tigrinya.

Janet Lee, on sabbatical from Regis University Library in Denver, spent two months in Mekele readying the Segenat Library to open, and plans to spend another three continuing to train staff to take over the operation. Her fundraising efforts and contributions include the 8,000 books soon to be added to the collection and the recruitment of other volunteers from the U.S. who trained the local staff prior to the opening.

“She personally has donated her own money,” Gebregeorgis said, adding that the indefatigable librarian is responsible for several computers, the e-book readers, and assorted software. Attending the opening were volunteer trainers Maria Briones of the Sharjah Higher College of Technology in Dubai, Erin Meyer of the University of Denver, and Athena Michael, former children’s librarian now with Wiley Publishing. Several Peace Corps workers serving in Mekele also volunteered to help with everything from housekeeping to fundraising.

“We need your continued support in making this a sustainable project,” Gebregeorgis told the assembly. “Please send your children here. Tell friends and family about the wonders of this library. Become worthy ambassadors for the Segenat Children and Youth Library. The future of our children is at stake. As our children succeed, so succeeds Tigray and all of Ethiopia.”

A returned Peace Corps volunteer who was assigned to Ethiopia 35 years ago during the time of Emperor Haile Selassie, Lee explained, “It was an experience that I will never forget and one that I have thought about each and every day of my life since I left Ethiopia.” She has worked with Gebregeorgis for two and a half years after discovering they had “much in common: a love for Ethiopia, a love for children, and a belief that reading and literacy are the keys to development, good health, and lifelong learning.”

Lee said Gebregeorgis, who was named a CNN Hero in 2008, is “a brilliant man and a visionary. I believe in him and in this vision and I promised him that I would do whatever I could to help him realize his dreams.” A native of Ethiopia, he received his library science degree in the U.S. and spent several years working at the San Francisco Public Library before returning to his homeland in 2002 to build libraries.

Gebregeorgis is also the author of the trilingual (Tigrinya, English, and Amharic, the common language of Ethiopia) children’s book Tirhas Celebrates Ashenda, thousands of copies of which are being distributed free to the children of Tigray. The book celebrates the local culture and the girls festival of Ashenda, which began the day of the library opening. Two new young library lovers read the book aloud to close the opening ceremonies. For many of the children who visit the library, it will be the first book they have ever owned.