Today fulfilled all our expectations – offering us a chance to see the beauty of the Eritrean countryside and also to see the very positive impact that our books are having on readers.
It offered an improvement on yesterday’s frantic pace by quite a long way. At seven Beth and I, accompanied by Micahel and Gebrnegus set off in the cool of a high altitude morning. Asmara sits at about 7,500 ft above sea level – for the two hour trip to Keren. You drop some 5,000 feet in 100 km, and it is one of those drives with breathtaking scenery which you take in during moments when you’re not holding your breath as you round yet another hairpin bend wondering whether there might be something coming the other way. The heat also rises with every meter dropped and every minute that passes.
Keren, when you finally reach it, is small town, nestling in a ring of imposing hills. The scene of crucial battles, a little known battle in the Second World War which led to the fall of Eritrea and Ethiopia, and a famous battle which provided the springboard for the victory of the Eritreans in their war of liberation. Keren is of tremendous historical significance, and history is much on our minds and in the conversation as we travel. After lunch we stop briefly at the British cemetry outside the town.
Again we visit a range of libraries, all of them with many well used copies of books sent by Book Aid International and we are made to feel extremely welcome everywhere. Beth is able to talk in some detail to the librarians about what is really useful to them and their readers, and where the gaps are. There is a huge range, from the Islamic School where they are in the middle of a move from Arabic as the language of instruction to English in order, as the Director Mr Mohammed puts it, to reach international standards; to the Keren public library whose librarian, Aster Berhe provides a wonderful service for students and general readers, a children’s reading programme on Saturdays, and special programmes for disabled people, to a secondary school highly used with extremely well kept statistics on the use made of its books.
Another secondary school has plans to expand to include an outdoor section with concerete tables and benches for the hot summer months when the temperature rises to 46C. A community library has set up three readers’ clubs with 20 members each, with two or three people reading a book and discussing it with the group as a way of making best use of few copies. In the late afternoon we end up at the agricultural college which, like all the technical colleges in the country, is preparing to accept a huge new intake in January following a reorganisation of technical education. They have an excellent library and, as they show us around the premises, they take us to see the vineyards set up under the Brothers of de la Salle; you can, of course, buy some of the fruits of their labours and we all come away with at least one bottle and some cactus jam.