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Girls Power! Empower our Girls!

This picture is of “my girls”. These amazing young ladies were 6-8th grade volunteers at the library in Hosanna, Ethiopia. They came to the library every day and wanted to help do anything. Before you know it they were always in my office- the storage room - looking for something to do. I found a book for them to look through. It showed how to tie scarves in different designs. Again before you know it they were creating a fashion show, taking all my scarfs and creating fabulous new looks. They surprised me since they were from such a remote and isolated place. But I guess fashion travels everywhere. Next I gave them a book to read. It was a favorite of mine- an Ethiopian picture book about a girl who wanted to be an astronaut and took everyday objects and used her imagination to create a space ship and planets and more. I read it to them and asked them if they liked it. They all looked blank. It occurred to me that the English and concepts were probably too foreign so I explained why I liked the book- strong girl, powerful imagination, dreams of the future. They all started beaming. Then I asked each one to read a page. They were doing better each go round. We were having a parent’s day and I invited them to read the book to the school community. I wasn’t sure if they could and didn’t have time to practice it with them. As the day came I was worried that it would be confusing to the parents and boring reading all those pages. Then to my surprised, 2 girls came to the microphone. They had broken the book down to a sort of “drama” and each read a section. It flowed. They read perfectly. It was interesting. They had practiced and created a presentation themselves. They didn’t need me at all. Needless to say I was beyond proud of them. But also amazed at what they could do on their own, just given access and a bit of support. I always had believed that the talented young people here could accomplish anything but to see it in action. A powerful motivator for me.

When I think of “my girls” I think of the great potential that all girls have and how important it is to give them a good education so they can build a good life for themselves and their families. But so many girls in this region don’t make it. Only 54% of the girls in primary school pass the 8th grade state exam and can move on to 9th grade.  

One time I asked local teachers in Hosanna to brainstorm reasons why girls don’t stay in school. The reasons they listed were exactly what plagues so many girls around the world. Top on the list was family responsibilities, early marriage, lack of freedom of religion, female circumcision, biased attitude toward women and lack of conducive environment. In Ethiopia early marriage could mean age 11 and in some areas even 8 years old. Girls often have to stop going to class to walk miles to fetch water or care for younger siblings. 80% of the girls in the rural areas of the county have suffered an FGM (Female Genital Mutilation). These girls deserve a safer and better life. The government agrees making FGM illegal and calling it a “harmful traditional practice”. But it still exists. Being from the West it is hard to imagine the challenges these girls have to overcome. Changing cultural attitude and practice is not simple and will not happen easily. But changes can happen.

H2 Empower is committed to work with the girls themselves and their school leaders to support their needs and find ways to help them complete their education.  Support our Girls Power Campaign. Give our girls a future.


A Dream Realized

I again find myself living in Hosanna, working at the library and setting up many programs for the community. The library has always been my heart. Now when I go, it is filled with students. The main room sometimes has not a seat left open. Everyone is studying for their national exams at the end of May. They are high school students, 10th, 11th and 12th grade students, male and female. All using the “reference books” donated by last year’s 12th grade students. It is touching to see how dedicated they are. They all have such aspirations, airplane engineer, doctor, pilot, and lawyer. They clearly know that their future depends on their doing well in the exams. Here there are high stakes exams. If you do well, you will have college free. If you do well you can go up through PhD. Free. Room board, tuition. Not much food, not an easy life but it is there if you are willing to try hard and sacrifice. The library provides a safe, quiet space to study and books to use to prepare. I never thought about this service but the students’ did. I was always afraid that we were working so hard to build the building I was wondering if anyone would use it. Now I see I did not have to worry. 

The young children come too. Every day the kindergarten class comes to the library. It is like a field trip for them. We have all types of books. We need to get more board books for them. We have small little rubber colorful cars, trucks and planes that everyone loves. It was so cute to see them all taking the plane and pretending to make it fly. Just like our youngsters do. We have a two wooden puzzles but we need more. There are 12 tables of children. We need at least one puzzle for each table. Then we have 3 trays of wooden blocks. We hope to get more trays of blocks for them too. They didn’t even know what to do with them.  We now have a puppet theater and lots of puppets. My next goal is to do a small training of the Kindergarten teachers and the first grade teachers and show them what they can do in the library with their children. We are hoping to get a CD player and play children’s music for them to sing along. They can use the felt letters that a volunteer so generously cut for them. And we have so many colorful books to read and to see in 3 languages, Amharic, the working language of Ethiopia, Hadyssa, the local language, and English. They need all three and are tested on them all to get into 9th grade.  There is so much potential and so much that can be done. Now that I am here for a while, we can do a lot to get the young children involved.

It is great to see the Library Cub students every day. There are 6th and 8th grade girls. They love to come to “my room”, the store. It is a good size room with lots of books and now a printer and other things like soccer balls we will be distributing and lovely skirts that someone made for us to give to needy children.  We have DVD’s and VHS tapes to show the young children, students and adults to learn English and to have fun. We are hoping to have a movie night and show children movies on a regular basis in the children’s room. The Library Club happens to be all girls. They come every day and help me organize the books and materials. They are practicing to do a performance for the parents. They have created a little fashion show from a book of different ways to accessorize with scarfs and they will take turns reading a book about a girl with an imagination. They are a delight and made me many drawings yesterday for my bedroom.

Now thanks to the contribution of many we will have a computer room at the library. We had an office used by a supervisor. But we knocked down the wall and will have 25 computers networked with a server. Everyone is VERY excited. We already have a staff person, with a degree in Computer Science from Addis. Fitsum has agreed to come to Hosanna and has been a terrific help already in so many ways. The town will pay for the monthly internet starting July and the parents have agreed to pay for the internet from now until June. The town added another librarian, so now there are 4, two each shift and an ICT person, all town employees. Everyone is so supportive and excited to be able to use the computers for the first time.

This simple report doesn’t begin to convey the impact that the library has had. The government now claims it is the only town with a modern library in the southern state. The teachers get to come and read books on the subject they teach. The administration has put it in their evaluation of teachers, - they are expected to come to the library to read books. The youth have a quiet place there they can study and have textbooks that they don’t have for themselves. The young children have a fun place to learn and create. And me, I am touched so deeply every day by the gratitude and outpouring of love by everyone. I am filled with hope for this wonderful community and the youth. They have a good chance in life and are willing to work hard to grab it. I feel blessed to be a part of this process and so grateful to all of our supporters who have helped make this happen. I Hope you can feel the joy too!!


Between the Centuries 

n Hosanna, the streets are filled with wooden carts pulled 
Taking donated books to their school
by donkeys, small "bajas" which are like a motorcycle pulling a wagon that holds 3 thin people, cows on their way to graze and hundreds of people walking everywhere. When I come home to Long Island, there is no one walking unless they are on an exercise plan. New cars stream by with lights or stop signs on almost every block. In Addis Ababa most cars are over 25 years old and there are only 7 stop lights for a huge modern city of 5 million people but now with  highways and asphalt roads. 
Life in the countryside is generally the same as it has been for a LONG time. Farming is the same in Ethiopia for hundreds if not thousands of years. Children go to school where their "exercise book", which is a book to copy from the board and a mandatory pen.  There are no book reports because there are no books to read. There are no pages of ditto worksheets for homework because there are no copy machines or electricity or paper in classrooms. When you buy coffee at the market, someone has to spend hours picking out every bean because it just came from the farm and has stones and small twigs in the one kilo bag.
Now let's think about technology. In NY everything is wireless, our houses, stores. Almost everywhere you go, you can get WiFi.  In Ethiopia the government offices use cables attached to the computers for better antivirus protection and more reliable service - except when the electricity goes out, which is often- and then they just sit and wait for hours to get back to work.
We want to bring the people of Hosanna a way to connect with the world beyond their farm and rural city- to a world with millions of people, different cultures and ideas and access to unlimited knowledge and skills. HOW? Through technology! We have built into the community library a large computer room now filled with tables and chairs. We have 5 computers to start but we are ready for 23. Then a whole classroom of students can come in at once. Then the high school students, who come to study, can spend some time doing research and learning to surf the web. Then the library visitors, who want books that we don't have, can find information on the internet. How amazing is this! We can be there for everyone. I was lucky to meet a man who can network them all, put in education software and install many sites that don't require the internet. The town is hiring an ICT expert to manage / train the users.
We can transform the lives of these talented yet  isolated people, to bring them skills and knowledge that they can use for themselves to solve their own problems and transform their world. 

 Every time I visit, the library children come to me and say, "I heard you  were getting us computers. When will they be there?" One of the  experienced teachers told me "I just want to have my hands on a  computer before I die". The head of the education bureau told all the  town's educators at an official meeting that we are getting them all  computers so that they can bring the children and teachers into the 21st century.
I am hoping we can develop this VERY soon and am VERY excited to see  the children and adults gaining new skills and knowledge and making global connections with us all.  



Dreams Come True

This is the exciting email I just received from Wolde, our country representative, supervising all our programs in Ethiopia.

Dear Helen
Amazing ideas are coming from users of the library because of our library construction in Alemu W.Hana School.

You know, all permanent and other users of the library from high schools, elementary and community asked the Alemu W.Hana School director to give a day of recognition, "Library Day". He accepted their ideas and the readers formed their own committee and are going to different institutions, community and households to ask for more books and at the same time promoting how this library helped them and will help for researchers and other knowledge .

Wolde Ermacho, the director, came to me with a letter of request for me to be a representative on that day. The date of recognition with special appreciation for Library Day and h2 Empower is going to be on June 13, 2015. All of this is the result of your hard work and donors efforts.

Woldeamanual Abiyo
H2 Empower Country Representative

A few days later I received this email.


This morning we celebrated library day in your library. What an amazing ceremony it was! 

Students brought their own books and contributed them to the library. They had a very good coffee ceremony. They praised and gave gifts to the 3 librarians. Many many funny things the students did on their side. 

The Education Office representative and me made a speech. On my side, I shared how we developed this library, the problems we faced, and success of today. I appreciated them and fixed June 13 to be Library Day always at Alemu Woldehanna Library. 

I am thrilled beyond words at this development. It is a dream come true. I always was worried if people would come to the library and use it? It is the youth that leads the way.

We want to expand our programming to maximize library use and effectiveness.

Books donated by high school students

  • Movie nights for adults
  • English movie afternoons for children,
  • Adult literacy programs,
  • Cultural events
  •  Health education and Life skills development,
  •  Book talks
  • Young children and parents book and play time
  •  And so much more


To accomplish all of this and to expand our services we want to train all the school librarians of the 40 schools that received books from us.

Please donate to help us make all this possible.



What Can You See?

It has been a long time since I have written a blog. I am way overdue. I have been so busy doing things, I just couldn’t stop to write about it. Now I am back to normal, if that is even possible.

I can’t stop thinking about these children. Once I saw them, those innocent faces, looking at me with a distant longing. I saw the possibilities for them. I saw the potential. We never know what they could accomplish for themselves or their families or their country. But now they wait, taking care of their cows, doing household chores, asking for a chance to have a better life.

What do you see when you see this picture? Cute kids, smiling, and holding up a sign. Did their teacher’s write it for them? Is this staged for an American to tug at the heart strings? Do they even know what the sign says? Maybe yes to all of this.

Let me tell you about the context of this picture so you can imagine the pangs in my heart.

Last fall I was in Hosanna. I work closely with a man from the Education Burueau. He helps me get information and connect to the system so we can plan and accomplish things together. He kept telling me about a school that he visited that I should see. He invited me to go to a meeting of the Education Bureau, where they give the yearly report on the progress and status of the education system in the city of Hosanna. They reported on dropout rates, passing rates, teacher’s certification rates and other such things. At the end one female teacher- the only female to speak the whole day-stated, “These statistics aren’t true. You have never visited our school. You don’t know what is going on with us. People ask, ‘Is this a school or a farm?’ We need so many things and you don’t even care.”

I asked the man next to me where this school was and if he could take me to see it. He said, “You can’t get there. Can you ride a horse?” I answered, “Yes, if you can get me on the horse and off the horse”. Or maybe you can take me in your motorcycle.” He looked horrified.

But to make a long story short, we got the town truck and made a visit to that school and another equally remote school. Both at different corners of the town. But it was not really in town. They both were in the fields, surrounded by farms or small huts with many families – a few miles from the main road.

One school was surrounded by potato fields. They will sell the potatoes to fund a building project they are doing. They were building more classrooms and had a nice library room there. The principal met us with the community leaders, the outspoken teacher and parents. They had drinks and a wonderful thick homemade bread for us. Everyone gave a speech sharing their dreams that this school could one day even be a university. After the sharing of food and sharing their ideas, they did the ask.  “We need water and latrines for our children. We need electricity and we need a road to the school.” There was certainly no dispute. They needed all of that. But I can’t possibly do all of that.

For me, this was such a common experience. Seeing great needs, and people looking to me, an American, to help - not for them personally but for their community. People aren’t asking for me to give them personal money. But people are asking for the children. And what they are asking for is truly needed. This is also when I feel helpless. I don’t have that kind of money to solve all these problems. But I do have ideas and connections. And maybe we could think of something.

One the way back to the main road, we talked in the car. The head of the education bureau, Fikre, was there, witnessing the needs with me and seeing the eagerness in the community. He told me, “you can’t build the roads but we can see what we can do together. You can’t bring electricity but we can see what we can do.” Then he stopped. We had just put in water in another school in another part of town. It seemed like we were all thinking the same thing. I knew what I had to do next.

We headed to the next school, another remote location, in another corner of the town, far from the main road. This one didn’t have big farmlands, but small plots with small homes and people carrying water jugs, or wood, or bundles of things to sell. When we finally got there- Yes- there was land, growing some wheat to sell. But this school was small, and the area for the school was smaller. The fence was half open so a small goat could easily come visit the kids. We headed to meet the principal.

He had been waiting for us, sitting behind a large desk surrounded by charts on the wall describing the statistics of the school, Amharic inspirational sayings, and bags of books. Leaning on his elbow, he welcomed us and invited us to visit the classrooms.

We waited while the guard unlocked the classroom door. There was a tiny room with a few bench type desks. The mud walls were thick and darker than usual. Probably because there was only one window in the back and only a bit of light shown through the cracks of the wooden cover. There is a standard size for all classrooms in Ethiopia. The principal explained that they had cut the room in half so that they could fit more classrooms in the school. 40 students were assigned to that room, a room that could comfortably fit 15. The rest of the school was in the same shape. 4 tiny rooms that housed 400 students in shifts. The latrine was open on all sides and the blackboards were broken. There was no library or laboratory or staff room. The floors were made of dung.

A few months later we were given a demonstration of what a dung floor meant when a girl was washing the floor by hand and rubbing the dung to smooth it out and keep the bugs and dust from coming into the classroom.  We were also to witness the community leader pour the river water into a glass so we could see how they get their water. A clear glass held a brown thick liquid. It was mud. This is what they drink from. No wonder the children looked sickly.

Now you know what I see when I see these children. Not just adorable happy go lucky kids. They are counting on me to communicate to you their reality. They can have a better life and we can make that happen. I have pledged to help build them two more classrooms.   The community has also pledged to build one more. Other friends want to help get them clean water. All this is possible. I hope you can join me and help us help them. With decent classrooms and clean potable water, they can help themselves. Please donate to the MisrackBirr Primary School classroom project. Your donation goes straight to the school project. I dream we can give these kids a better chance in life. Poverty is their lot but not their destiny.  I thank you for your help in the name of these c