Senait Alemu, a mother of two who returned to Ethiopia after a 17-year stay overseas, was in a mall on a Saturday hoping to entertain her children. She had chosen Century Mall, around Gurd Shola, where there are playgrounds and toys. But something else grabbed her attention.
It was a children’s book. It had inscriptions of Amharic words on it, as well as an assortment of pictures of flowers. It was titled Fidel le Temari, translating to “Letters for Students”.
The author is Aida Asseged, a first-time author of children’s books. It was written as a way for to children learn the alphabets of the Amharic language, known as Fidel, and is replete with illustrations. The book was being promoted and sold on Saturday that Senait chose to go out with her kids.
“School textbooks are not enough to teach children,” said Senait. “Children are like a blank paper; they grab whatever you feed their mind, good or bad; the availability of such books on the market will help with their education.”
But as enthusiastic as parents such as Senait may be for children’s book, getting them published is filled with ups and downs.
“It so exhausting that it almost makes you want to quit what you already started,” Aida told Fortune.
In her late 30s and formerly a teacher, this was her first venture into children’s book publishing – an experience she is not fond of.
“I never realised how hard it is to work in a country that is 161st on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business,” Aida noted.
There are some obstacles to publishing books, including that of Children’s. Lack of financing, inadequate government support, minimal engagement by donors and copyright issues are some of the challenges that authors mention.
Many of these are chained to one another, according to Aida. Limited capital and inadequate support by the government for publishing makes them vulnerable to foreign donors.
“Sponsors often stress that the author either sell the books at a lower price or donate copies,” Aida told Fortune. “It is a vicious circle in that the authors they would not be able to afford to publish their next work.”
Even after finding a willing publisher, there are costs. The author will have to share parts of the revenue with the publisher and distributor – serving as a disincentive for many to produce a piece of children’s literature.
“The pool is drying up”, said Aida. “If there is no one to write a book, the whole value chain will be distorted.”
Children’s literature is in its infancy in Ethiopia. Some that were released since the turn of the millennia include the likes of E Is for Ethiopia, a non-fiction book, by Ashenafi Gudeta and Silly Mamo by Yohannes Gebregeorgis – both of which have illustrations.
Non-national authors have likewise contributed to the genre, such as The Storytellers Beads and A Family from Ethiopia, by Jane Kurtz and Julia Waterlow.
Publishing takes two forms. Some choose to self-publish, in which case they are free to set the price of the copies. In this instance, they have to negotiate with distributors, for a fee that can go as high as 40pc for every copy that is sold. Cooperation is not unheard of in this field, with authors at times allowed to pay back a part of their fees to publishers once they have been sold.
If the author lacks the capital to self-publish, other methods are used, such as landing a sponsor. The sponsor foots the bill for the publishing costs in exchange for advertising space.
There are only around 125 companies that print and publish books, with as far as three years ago the country importing 11.2 million dollars’ worth of printed books. The most well-known and biggest of the publishers is Berhanena Selam Printing Enterprise, which has been around for over a century.
“Reading is a culture that has to be redeveloped,” Semra Seifu, a literacy advocate and a daughter of pioneer author Seifu Metaferia. “Sharing of knowledge is not supposed to be this difficult.”
Just under half the entire population of Ethiopia was illiterate in 2015, according to the CIA World Factbook. The government in its fifth edition of the Education Sector Development Programme believes this will be a barrier to achieving development plans. One of the key strategies for the Program is to increase the supply of early grade literacy and numeracy materials.
Early this year, the Ministry of Education (MoE) took out a bid for the procurement of textbooks, and teachers’ guides, worth 730 million Br, as part of its second edition of the General Education Quality Improvement Programme that is financed by the World Bank.
Such developments have not been able to inspire parents such as Senait though.
“I want my children to be educated in a manner that is amicable and open,” she said, saying that she is concerned about her kids’ future. “I want my kids to know their culture and tradition. I want them to communicate with each other and with their friends in their mother-tongue which they don’t want to as the education system is pulling them towards Western lifestyles, not to mention the English language, at the expense of their own culture and language.”
A good way of developing the culture of reading is to support authors to write more books, especially for children, according to Semra.
“The government has to clear the pavements for authors to do their best for the coming generation,” she adds.
Aida agrees on these fronts. She says that children’s books are still considered as a luxury by the authorities and not given the due they deserve. A measure of her enthusiasm for the field, she still has not decided to give up children’s literature, looking forward to publishing her second book.