>Clive’s Eritrean journey

>Beth Murphy and I have just spent a busy day with our partners, the British Council and Ministry of Education in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. We arrived yesterday after a long overnight flight via Cairo which allowed for very little sleep and a 4am arrival. After a few hours rest we had a walk around the incredible and well preserved if somewhat decayed, art deco city centre, and a wonderful welcome at a traditional coffee ceremony with the family of a colleague. Then an early night in anticipation of a very busy day, though the combination of too much coffee and the excitement of a new place made sleep difficult.

We started our first day with a briefing at the British Council with the acting Director Mefsin Habtetsion and our main contact Michael Tekie who is in charge of the very impressive management and librarian training programmes run by the Council, and will be accompanying us on our visits to the various schools and institutions in the course of the week. Part of the training for the librarians is in the Library Information Management System which has been developed by the British Council in Eritrea for use in school and community libraries. We were fortunate that a training programme was in progress and we were introduced to the class, learning the system and the computer skills need to operate it. On being told who we were, one of the participants, a secondary school teacher, said “we are proud of Book Aid who send us new books”, a great endorsement for our work so early in the visit.

A key part of the tour was, of course, to see the Book Aid International shipment which has recently arrived in Asmara and is being sorted for distribution by Kisseri Mehreteab. It is a huge task with over 14,000 books in the shipment. As Michael said, “the book famine in Eritrea has been minimized because of Book Aid International”. But without our local partners, the books would never reach their readers.

During the day, accompanied by Gebrenegus Berhane who is in charge of libraries at the Ministry of Education, we visited a range of libraries at a junior school, a secondary school, a technical college and the nursing college. We were struck by how well organised all the libraries were, although there is not heavy usage at present as the schools have just opened for the new academic year. It is clear that there is still a great need for more books, especially in the sciences and English language. One striking thing about the schools is that there is now parity between the number of girls and boys at secondary level, a new development since Book Aid International’s last visit three years ago. And teachers we talked to all said that girls were doing better in their studies than boys, a familiar story to people coming from the UK, but especially encouraging in the African context.

Between school visits we managed to squeeze in meetings with John Stops, the recently arrived VSO Country Director and the British Ambassador. VSO are involved in a major education programme with 39 volunteers placed in schools and other institutions, and we discussed the possibility of developing wider co-operation between ourselves, VSO and the Ministry. Nick Ashbury, the Ambassador, was helpful in briefing us on the situation in Eritrea and the position of NGOs. It can be a difficult environment, but Book Aid International has good relations with the Ministry of Education and we expect that there will be no problem in extending our partnership agreement.

It has been an exhausting, but hugely informative day. It is my first visit to see what happens to some of the hundreds of thousands of books I see every day in the Camberwell warehouse, and to meet the key people who make sure that at this end, the right book gets to the right person. In Eritrea, at least, they seem to be doing a wonderful job. Tomorrow we go to Keren and Hagaz, two hours to the north of Asmara. More libraries and another interesting day awaits us.
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