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Little Hands

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Michael Ambatchew’s formative reading experiences

Michael and his son reading, Puss In Boots looking on

Far away in a cold country, where the forests are very thick and dark, and the winters very long and the vodka very strong, before he was conjuring Frega the Frog and the Foxy Tale, Michael Ambatchew had little hands and this is what he read…

Michael’s earliest memory of books and reading:

I was born in 1967 in Moscow when my Dad was working in the Ethiopian Embassy. (And if you want it to get more exotic my mother was Indian and my sister was born in Turkey!!) We stayed in Moscow until I was three, but I don’t remember a thing. Then I grew up in Addis. I was introduced to children’s storybooks in my early childhood. My Mum always used to reward us for passing exams by taking us to a bookstore and buying us books.

Michael’s picture books:

Puss in Boots<I guess the Ladybird series with all the classics were my favourites like Puss in Boots, Beauty and the Beast.

Michael, as an adult, reading with children and writing for children:

As a parent, I am always amazed how my son keeps on reacting anew to the same story read again a zillion times. How he keeps getting frightened, excited or bursts out laughing at the same places night after night, even though he knows it all before and even fills in the words I skip as I begin to doze off before him. I began writing stories for fun, but then published over 30 stories in the Ethiopian Government’s high school English textbooks in the 1990′s. I became aware of the shortage of supplementary readers in 1997 when I was involved with the Education Sector Development Program and have been publishing stories since then. I was one of the founding members of Writers for Ethiopian Children. While conducting my doctorate studies in the early 2000′s I realised the need for text light books at the pre-school level and extended my stories to this level. Currently, I am a freelance education and language consultant and am also an advisor to the Stories Across Africa project.

From a booklet on Ethiopian children’s literature, prepared by Michael Ambatchew :

The lack of visibility of Ethiopian children’s authors has led many to conclude that we do not exist at all. This invisibility has probably arisen from a multitude of factors including the Ethiopian value of modesty, the writers’ preference for solitude, and a lack of publicity and awareness of the importance of children’s literature. Moreover, the perpetual question of whether to write in African languages and remain unnoticed by the world at large, or write in an international language and neglect the primary audience has plagued Ethiopian writers too. Most have opted to write in the national language, Amharic.
As a result of the above factors, very little information has been compiled and is readily available for literary critics, researchers and students of Ethiopian children’s literature. This booklet aims at beginning to fill this gap by providing some bibliographical information about a few contemporary Ethiopian authors. These authors have been selected by convenience sampling in that they were accessible, willing to promptly provide information, made themselves available for interviews and gave consent to have the information published. Actually, Ethiopia has over 30 children’s writers currently residing in the country and producing stories.

Here are almost a dozen Ethiopian children’s writers:

Alem Eshetu Beyene
Alem Eshetu Beyene is the 2007 receiver of the Golden Kuraz Award. He was born in 1967 in Addis Ababa. Alem was introduced at an early age to children’s storybooks. His favourite book as a child was the Amharic translation of Pinnochio, due to its fascinating story and unforgettable illustrations.
Alem is currently teaching at the Department of Ethiopian Languages and Literature of Addis Ababa University with the rank of Assistant Professor. Among others, he teaches courses on Ethiopian children’s literature to undergraduates minoring in it.
His writing career took off after taking a creative writing course and training at the Project for Alternative Education in South Africa at the University of Cape Town in 2002.

Alula Pankhurst
Dr Alula Pankhurst is one of the founding members of Writers for Ethiopian Children (WEC). Although his foreign ancestry may raise a few eyebrows at his inclusion in this booklet, he is practically a third generation Ethiopian whose two children make him a direct stakeholder.
After being born in London in 1962, Alula came to Ethiopia when he was two months old. He was introduced to reading at an early age, and clearly remembers reading “The Selfish Giant” and the giant’s change in character struck a cord in his young mind.
Alula has taught for 15 years in the Department of Anthropology at Addis Ababa University with the rank of Associate Professor, and is currently working as a researcher and freelance consultant. His background in Anthropology and exposure abroad and within Ethiopia, probably makes him consider the most important factor in Ethiopian children’s literature to be entering into global discourse between Ethiopian writers in the country and the diaspora.
A writers’ course held by the Goethe Institute in 2000 pushed him down the writer’s path and he has currently published four stories, all of which are in Amharic-English bilingual collections. Although fluent in Amharic, English and French, he prefers to write in English.

Andarge Mesfin Shiferaw
Andarge Mesfin is a renowned Ethiopian novelist, who turned to writing children’s books in his late 40′s. He was born in 1951 in Gondar and was exposed to literature in his childhood in the traditional church school. He still remembers reading stories like “Lamay Bora”in primary school and being praised by his teachers for his essays like, “An Ant’s Journey”. Later he studied literature and language at Addis Ababa University. Interestingly, he wrote his first adult novel while he was imprisoned in Harar for a period of five years. His adult novels are mostly related to the history of Ethiopia and the lives of Ethiopians under the Derg regime.
However, he gradually became aware of the need to foster a literate society from the bottom up and began focussing on writing for children. He was imprisoned again under the next government and ironically wrote his first children’s book there too. He feels that there is a general lack of awareness of the importance of children’s literature in the society and that the media could do a better job in giving this neglected area better coverage.

Gebeyehu Ayele GebreMeskel
Gebeyehu Ayele GebreMeskel was born in Geto Shewa in 1949. The earliest storybook he remembers is “Stories and Examples” by Kebede Michael as the characters left a lasting impression on him.
Gebeyhu writes in both Amharic and English and has a strong interest in creative writing. He is currently working as Head of Publications Department of the Evangelical Theological College, and actually did his tertiary studies in theology at the Theological College.
Gebeyehu feels that a vibrant book market with plenty of publishers and a strong reading culture would best boost Ethiopian children’s literature, and writes with the aim of creating a brighter future.

Mary Jafer Said
Mary Jafer Said is the winner of the Golden Kuraz Award in 2005. She is one of the most prominent children’s book writers in Ethiopia, and is currently working as a Department Head in Mega Publishing and Distribution PLC. Apart from writing and editing children’s books, she has also been involved in conducting children’s book fairs and organizing children’s literary events.
Mary was born in Gore in 1958 and used to read Shakespeare as a teenager. “Romeo and Juliet” has been one of her favourites since then.
Although Mary is conversant in Afan Oromo, Amharic, Arabic and English, she does most of her writing in Amharic. Her career as a writer was given impetus while studying Amharic literature courses in her undergraduate days at the Department of Ethiopian Languages and Literature at Addis Ababa University. She has since taken writing courses at national and international seminars.

Samrawit Araya-Medhin Mersha
Samrawit Araya-Medhin Mersha is one of the youngest most recent authors to the scene. She was born in 1972 in Addis and soon after discovered the joys of children’s literature through the Amharic translations of Pinnochio and the Arabian Nights.
Her sons, nephews and nieces, who total 11, initiated her to start publishing. She has started a series called “Dibadi’s stories,” of which she has published the first two in full colour and with hardbacks, ( She considers the lack of sufficient publishers in Ethiopia to be the biggest constraint preventing her from publishing more.
She is working as a consultant having returned to Ethiopia after living in Korea and Sweden for five years.

Samuel Lijalem Hassan
Samuel Lijalem Hassan was born in 1967 in Addis Ababa. The earliest book he remembers reading is Mammo Killo. He still remembers how skilfully the teacher used to read it to them as children. He feels that his strong reading habits have laid the foundations for his becoming a good writer.
Samuel is currently working as a writer and editor for MMM Counselling and Social Services Centre. He began writing for adults and started writing for children after a creative writing workshop held by the Goethe Institute in 2000. He is a founding member of Writers for Ethiopian Children, and all the stories he has published so far have appeared in the collections produced by this group.

Shibeshi Lemma Debalkie
Shibeshi Lemma Debalkie is a prominent writer, who was born in 1942 in Harrarghe. Unlike most of the other writers, he became familiar with children’s literature in his mid-teens. Furthermore, he was exposed to a lot of oral stories in his childhood. Shibeshi also later became familiar with and came to appreciate stories such as David Cooperfield and Huckleberry Finn, among others.
He writes from a sense of social obligation and feels that his interest in children’s literature stems from his days as a primary school teacher in the 1960′s and 1970′s.
Shibeshi is currently working in the Addis Ababa City Government Millennium Secretariat and has a first degree in Ethiopian Languages and Literature, and a Masters in English Literature from Addis Ababa University. Moreover, he has taken several creative writing courses with various organisations including the Ministry of Education and UNICEF.

Teninet Setegn Wendrad
Teninet Setegn Wendrad is another young new arrival to the scene. He was born in Debre Zeit in 1974 and publishing his first children’s book in 2003.
He feels that the introduction of modern marketing systems would be the single factor that would most boost Ethiopian children’s literature. He is therefore running his own bookshop and experimenting with innovative ways of producing and selling children’s stories. He is currently trying out large-scale door-to-door and Internet marketing schemes ( that targets parents.
Although Teninet also writes for adults, his heart is in writing for children. His children books include;

Tesfaye Gebre-Mariam HailuTesfaye Gebre-Mariam Hailu was born in the town of Ghimbi in 1949. However, he grew up in the town of Assossa, which is near the Sudanese border. Consequently, he speaks Oromiffa, Amharic, English, Arabic and Jeblawi. He has written numerous books in English and Amharic and is one of the founding members and President of Writers for Ethiopian Children. Moreover, he has translated numerous stories for the Stories Across Africa Project and the WEC collections.
The earliest story he remembers reading in his early childhood is Kebede Michael’s “Stories and Examples”. Tesfaye has visited several countries in Africa, Europe and Asia, and has his Masters in literature. He has taught at the rank of Assistant Professor in several institutions of higher learning, including Addis Ababa University.

Yewoineshet Masresha Hailu
Yewoineshet Masresha Hailu was born in 1957 in Harar and clearly remembers reading biblical stories and prayers to her grandmother by the age of eight.
Yewoinshet is the director and founder of an NGO called Hope for Children. She started to write in the Dergue regime, when there was political unrest and feels that writing provides her with a safe haven to express herself.
Her first book to be published was a translation of Irving Wallace’s, “The Golden Room” into Amharic. However, she started publishing for children after attending a creative writers’ course at the Goethe Institute and becoming a founding member of Writer’s for Ethiopian Children.
Yewoinshet speaks Amharic, English and Oromo, but prefers to confine her writing to the first two.

Michael’s Conclusion

To conclude, it is completely unfair, biased and inaccurate at this stage and time to say that Ethiopian children’s literature is non-existent. Quite on the contrary, it is well and thriving and has completed its childhood and is almost entering adulthood. There are several Ethiopian children writers in the country who have already established themselves and dozens more who are seeking for avenues into children’s literature. They come from a variety of backgrounds and attempts to enrich Ethiopian children’s literature should taken into consideration what has and is being done.
If children are to develop lifelong literacy, there has to be a move away from the notion that textbooks are the initial and most important texts. There is the need to introduce emerging literary texts and also acknowledge that readers are not simply “supplementary material” but a core part of the learning process.
Unless the critical mass of authors and illustrators are put to work, it is very likely that their energies will dissipate and the momentum will be lost. Consequently, there is a dire need to focus on the increased production, promotion and consumption of Ethiopian children’s literature.
Due to several factors, many children’s books are no longer available on the market. It would be very useful if the National Archives, or any other interested body, have a standing exhibition of all Ethiopian children’s books published in Ethiopia and abroad on permanent display.
Three basic prerequisites for the further development of Ethiopian children’s literature are commitment, vision and willingness to think outside the box. With these three factors, all stakeholders can discover and experiment with how they can best play their part on this stage.

Aims of The Little Hands Trust
• To support initiatives that promote reading for enjoyment.
• To mentor African literary artists, including writers, illustrators and editors, to produce creative, suitable and appropriate children’s storybooks for children of various ages with a focus on early childhood (ages 0 to 9 years).
• To collaborate with African publishers to increase and sustain publication of children’s books in African languages. To initiate and support translations of stories between African languages, from African languages to ex-colonial languages and from ex-colonial languages to African languages.
• To help to orientate and educate adults in the importance and significance of reading to and with children.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Carole</a>
    August 7th, 2008 @22:50 #

    Hello Michael! Great to have you here on the blog - reaching up and down Africa - united by Puss in Boots and so much more...


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