BY MULUGETA GUDETA
‘Wemezeker’ is a Gee’z word that can roughly be translated as ‘reminisce’. In the context of the national library in Ethiopia, it may mean remembering the past as a place where old materials of culture, such as books and various documents are deposited. I guess the name comes from the fact that the library was meant to collect everything people need to remember about culture, history and the arts in the past, present and future of Ethiopia. The library is located in a leafy suburb of the capital, not far from the Black Lion Hospital.
‘wemezemen” on the other hand is a term I have coined for this article in the hope that it might express the big leap the history of public library has recently taken in this country. The opening of the first, largest and state-of -the art library near one of the landmark squares of the capital, namely Arat Kilo, is indeed a remarkable cultural event. From Arat Kilo down to Sheraton Hotel, new projects in the form of, parks, meeting places, botanical garden and the first modern city zoo, are changing the face of the Ethiopian capital.
If you ask teenagers these days why they do not go to public libraries instead of sitting in front of the TV sets watching s from blockbusters from Hollywood, they might ask you which library you mean. They are right in a way. In a metropolis of 5 million inhabitants, Addis Ababa had, until the inauguration of Abrehot, a single public library worthy of its name and was established more than 80 years ago. The conventional definition of a library is, “a place or institution for the collection of books and other informational materials made available to people for reading, study, or reference. The word library comes from liber, the Latin word for “book.” However, library collections have almost always contained a variety of materials.”
Since wemezeker served as the only place for the collection of reading materials, almost all books that are not available outside the library are found there. There werebrana books, or books written on parchments. There were collections of foreign books and literary classics that were displayed on rows of shelves after shelves that line the main reading hall that was, in the old days, the place that attracted most readers’ attention. As you enter the main hall, the big painting on the wall right in front of you is so fascinating that you stay fixated for a few songs by the details of the mural that looked like details from a classic Diego Rivera fresco in Mexico City. As you sit on one of the rows of chairs, you are forced to throw glances now and then as you keep on turning the pages of the book on wooden desk in front of you. I felt awe and shock during my first visit at the public library where we used to go after late afternoon classes are over and on our way home.
It was there that I first found copies of the voluminous “Remembrance of Things Past” by French author Marcel Proust but was scared to read it frustrated as I was by its length and the intimate and personal descriptions or impressions of the writer’s life. Later on I went to the Amharic reading room where I was acquainted with HaddisAlemayehu’s “Love unto Death”. I picked a copy of the book, maybe because I was attracted by the word “love” on its cover, subject that was dear for a teenager toying with romantic subjects at that time. I did not however continue to read the book because of the heavy issues in it like politics and old people struggling for domination in a society that was so remote to our days.
I was always fascinated by the dimension of the library and wondered how they could fill it with books and who wrote the books. It was later on that I understood the books were donations from individuals and institutions. I was however disappointed when, as a young writer I went there to offer copies of my small novel entitled “Mogedegnaw” published back in 1993 and I was prohibited from entering the premise for reasons I could not understand at that time. The guard at the gate simply asked me who had given me the right to come with books to offer to the library. I understood that he could not understand what I wanted and left before provoking his ire.
I never went to wemezeker after college because we had the Kennedy Library or the library of Institute of Ethiopian studies at the Sidist Kilo campus. The political events of the 1970s and 1980s did not leave us enough time to indulge in non-political readings. There were so much killings and violence in the streets and we chose to stay at home or in the campus premises where we felt safer from arbitrary arrests and the tragic consequences.
Afterwards we left college when it was closed due to political disturbances and I suddenly found myself increasingly alienated from books and libraries. Reading newspapers and magazines was fashionable at some point and we spent much time looking for the most politically attractive headlines on the front pages of newspapers. If there was one important or useful habit I was given by wemezeker was the culture of book reading or reading in general. Once you are hooked with this habit you become a lifelong addict. And it was a useful addiction both in my studies and my personal life.
Again, the 1990 and the new millennium came with bangs and forced me into reading serious literature this time. It was the time of the free press, a kind of buoyant freedom of expression and it was as if everybody had suddenly become readers or writers. And that gave us intellectual stimulation and inspiration. The rest is history.
I sometimes wonder why there are only a few libraries in this big capita of ours which is endowed with so many talented students and youngsters in general. At one point we had started to frequent the British Council library which was a great place for learning new things before it was removed from Piazza. My last surprise came recently when the opening of a big library was announced on the media. There was a special program featuring the opening ceremony of the library which I followed intimately. It was great news indeed.
Mayor of Addis, AdanechAbebe told us that Addis Ababa is the nerve center of the country and that we need to boost the standard of the city and for that we need to boost the knowledge of the residents. That was the reason for buildingAbrehot public library. It is part of the initiative to make Addis big and modern. It cost more than one billion Birr to build and refurbish Abrehot, to construct on a 12 000 square meter space.
Abrehot library is going to be one of the 10 biggest libraries in Africa with a shelf length of 1.6 km. It has many facilities for children, adults and blind readers who can use books in Braille. It has a modern café, Wi-Fi, a parking lot and rooms large enough to allow 200 people to read at the same time. The mayor was quick to point out that the library is designed to serve for the coming 100 years. As a last note she invited mothers, intellectuals, scholars, and teachers to come and use the library and shape the minds of the new generation.
It is great to have such a luxurious library in the heart of Addis Ababa. If there was one point that flashed into my mind were old memories of wemezeker when I was sometimes troubled by the distance I had to travel to reach it even during my younger days. Of course you don’t build libraries like beer joins at every street corner. I wished libraries or bookshop could replace so many beer houses that contribute to the intoxication and degradation of the new generation. Anyway, it is a big idea to build a big and modern library close to the colleges at Arat Kilo and Sidist Kilo, places that have great historic and cultural or educational significance.
Yet I cannot imagine how young people and adults from one end of the city would come to read at Abrehot overcoming all the transportation and problems that long distance brings with it. Imagine guys travelling from the Akaki-Kalit sub-city to Arat Kilo and feel fresh as they sit at one of the library tables to read. Reading requires a lot of energy although it is an exciting, refreshing and enjoyable experience. Yet long distance is also a hurdle against the appetite to read. So, what is the solution?
The Addis Ababa city administration can overcome this problem by building smaller libraries at selected spots in the capital so that people would chose where to go and read according to the distance from their locations. That would not only cut costs involved with distance and the energy required to travel back and forth. Opening a library at everywereda administration level is not of course feasible because there may be weredas where you may not find enough readers.
Reading is not alike a game of soccer and a library is not like soccer field where people from distant places travel to simply because they love to watch the game. It is not the same with reading that is a personal involvement and requires great effort to pursue. Perhaps you may not have the budget to open new libraries at every sub-city level. The ideal option would be to build libraries selectively and in accordance with the youth population and the educational and cultural requirements or demands.
In this way, we will certainly have additional libraries that would cater for diverse populations. In the past the city administration had spent a lot of money building youth centers that are now mostly vacant or used by youngsters who spend time playing billiard or table tennis. With less money the local administrative bodies could have built so many small-scale libraries that could delight the minds and hearts of so many youngsters and boost their spirits. The good thing is that it is not yet too late to do so.
The January 12/2022