Literacy is coming to some rural Ethiopian children on a donkey's back. VOA's Peter Heinlein visited the Ethiopian town of Awassa, to meet an Ethiopian-American man who returned to the land of his birth to Make a Difference with youngsters hungry for learning.
It is school-closing time in Awassa. A donkey-drawn wagon trundles into a public square and children come.
Donkey carts are common here. But a cart filled with tales of fantasy and faraway lands is unique. It's the Donkey Mobile Library, bringing books to children who have none.
Donkey library founder Yohannes Gebregiorgis holds his young audience captive with his readings. Yohannes emigrated to the United States half a lifetime ago. He became an American citizen. But he came back, giving up a comfortable life as a children's librarian in San Francisco, because it bothered him that while Ethiopian kids may go to school, they have no books.
"Most schools don't have libraries. Basically, that makes it very difficult for kids to get reading material," Yohannes said.
The main reason there are no libraries is there are almost no children's books in any of Ethiopia's many languages.
"Most kids we have noticed holding a book upside down. We have taken pictures of those kids," he said. "But later on we find out that those kids learn how to use the book, how to flip the pages and how to look at the pictures and then gradually to read the stories in the book."
Admasu Apuye grew up in Awassa. He never had a book. Now he brings his two and a half year old son Meseker to listen, and to learn about the world inside those pages, a world Admasu never knew as a boy.
With financing from American civic groups, more donkey libraries are planned. Donated English-language books are arriving. Meanwhile, Yohannes has established a publishing house to produce books in languages local kids can read.
His first effort, in three languages, was a re-creation of an old folk tale about, what else, a boy and his donkey.
"I grew up hearing this story," Yohannes recalls. "So, when I first started this organization, I wrote this story and we published it and this became really a fundraiser for us. (It is) Still sold in the United States."
Oh, and the donkeys. Originally, they were a big part of drawing kids to the mobile library. But Yohannes discovered, much to his delight, that it wasn't the donkeys that excited the kids. It was the books.
"And they come really to read and they sit with books even if they don't know how to read they open the book and see the pictures and just enjoy the pictures," he said.
Yohannes dreams about taking his donkey mobile libraries to more Ethiopian towns and villages. After all, there are millions of eager children. The donkeys may be resting now, but there's plenty of work to be done.