Storytelling has always been an important part of Ethiopian culture, but refugee life has a way of threatening even the most entrenched traditions.
The Kule refugee camp in Gambella, Ethiopia, has been home to more than 270,000 South Sudanese refugees since conflict broke out in their country in 2013. There are children here who haven’t heard stories in years.
“We’re living through a war. How can we even think about telling folktales now?” Nyakeata is a South Sudanese refugee living in the camp. With a strong fear for her family’s wellbeing constantly weighing on her, telling stories to her eight-year-old daughter Babur was the last thing on her mind. “We’re worrying about how to be safe from the fighting and feed our children and ourselves.”
Since December 2016, Babur has been attending regular reading sessions at children’s day centre set up by Plan International Ethiopia as part of We Love Reading, a pilot initiative run alongside our partner organisation UNHCR.
As part of the project, which is dedicated to improving the reading, listening and analytical skills of the children living in the camp, 46 volunteers have been given books and trained to deliver sessions in reading and illustration and 40 reading circles and community libraries have been established.
Babur, who hasn’t missed a single reading session since the project began, says that her favourite book is about a boy called Kulang and his dog.
The project is encouraging children to tell stories orally to their peers. “I’ve told most of the stories I’ve heard to my sister and brothers and friends of mine,” says Babur.
The women in the camp are also participating: many have begun to read to their children again, thanks to books borrowed from volunteers.
“When the dusk falls, my mum reads stories from the book I got from John,” says Babur. John Majak is one of the volunteer reading ambassadors.
Majak, a father of three who escaped from South Sudan with his family in June 2014, believes the project is helping to instil a passion for reading in the entire community.
“When children see me from a distance with my story books, they run to the reading place and sit on the ground,” he says. “When I begin reading, they go quiet instantly and pay attention.
“Most of them are now so interested in stories. The number of children who attend my sessions has doubled in three months.”
So far, 1,751 children have benefitted from the project, with many of them performing better in school and becoming more confident as a result.
In recognition of this success, the project will soon be replicated at other refugee camps across Ethiopia.
Volunteer ambassador Gatwech Chuol Buop, who also fled the conflict in South Sudan, believes stories are the best way of teaching children about their cultural heritage. He writes stories about the Nuer tribe who are concentrated in South Sudan and southwestern Ethiopia and shares them at 30-minute reading sessions on Sundays attended by up to 350 children.
“The stories tells children about their ancestors – about their strength and struggles for survival and how they shared resources among the community,” he says.
The work brings him real happiness, he says. “From time to time, I see real changes in the children.”