From the horn of Africa, Tsion Kiros is a determined woman who rose through challenging moments to become a distinguished author and a publisher of children’s books. She has a unique way of promoting culturally relevant content for children in Ethiopia and beyond! Join me as I have an insightful discussion with Tsion, the founder of Midako publishing, a children’s literature publishing house in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Muna Kalati (MK): Please tell us about yourself; your childhood experiences including your cultural exposure and your environment. How did your experiences influence your values and perspectives about life?
Tsion Kiros (TK): I grew up in a family of 10. My childhood memories are filled by the many adventures I had with my siblings and neighborhood children. We bred birds, made bows and arrows, competed over who could climb the tallest tree and who could jump from it. I rode bikes that were too big for me with malfunctioning brakes. I did things that parents of this age and time (including me) would consider too risky. I think my childhood contributed to my sense of adventure that continues to this day and to my ability to take risks – being okay with the adrenal kick that comes with it and, most importantly, with failure.
Coming from a big family and being the youngest, I never really had much that was just mine. Even the bed I slept in, I shared with my sister. I think that is where I developed the value of sharing and living life, not just for my own sake.
MK: Did you love reading at the early stages of your life? What were some children’s books you read when you were young and how did they influence your values and beliefs? Were you privy to have read books written by African authors? What were your thoughts about those books as a child?
TK: Sadly books were not part of my life when I was very young. There were hardly any children’s story books in Amharic or Tigregna (my mother tongues) and the few that I could lay my hands on were in English or Russian – a language I did not understand well or at all as a child. I would sometimes flip through the pages and try to understand the story through the pictures.
I also struggled with reading in Amharic. There were/are too many characters (over 250) in the Geez alphabet (used to write Amharic, Tigegna and other local languages in Ethiopia) and too few books to practice reading. When I was a little older, I tried reading some of the books that my older siblings were reading. They were not particularly relevant for children and were very long and tiresome to read, especially for a teenager that was not a fluent reader.
When I was around 13, I started reading English books. I found reading English books easier than Amharic books. But decoding and understanding are two different things; I did not understand much of the vocabulary so I would read a book with a dictionary next to me. I read the Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley High book series – “P.S. I love you” was one of my favorite books. I must say I did not choose these books, rather they chose me ~smile~ they were the only books in our school library. I bet I would have chosen more adventurous stories if I could have had them.
MK: You play a major role in the diversification of the global children’s literature industry. How did you land into this path, as an author and publisher of children’s books
TK: When my children were very young I read them English picture books –translating into Amharic while reading. After they started school we read English picture books together but almost all the books were about children in the United States and Europe. That is not a problem in itself but I wanted my children to see their realities in the books we read. My daughter knew the Oxford roads before she could recognize roads in Addis Ababa. My son would use European names when making up stories.
It was frustrating, as if their lives did not matter. I started publishing to give my children and other children stories that they can relate to. We published 5 picture books when we first started – one of the books we published is about a girl who pulls a tooth. Unlike the western culture of the tooth fairy, in Ethiopia we throw a tooth on the roof and tell children that the bird will give them a new one in return. Not very capitalist – but neither are our lives.
MK: Throughout your experiences with books; its production and access to them, what was the one thing that you sought to change about writing and publishing books for children?
TK: Actually there are two things that I aim to change. Make learning to read in local languages fun and easy and give children access to books in the language that they understand and stories that they can relate to. At the end what we want is to create a society that thinks clearly and critically; a society that makes better choices.
MK: Writing is an essential skill for life but many find it difficult to master. How did you develop the love for writing? Is it something you do easily? What writing tips would you love to share with us?
TK: Writing comes easy to me when I have a story to tell. The education system that I grew up with did not have reading or writing stories as part of the curriculum. My tip to African writers who might not have had extensive training in writing is to really find your unique culture and reality and write about them. This might actually be a general truth.
MK: Personally, how many children’s stories have you written so far? Could you name them? Would you like Muna Kalati to do a review of these books?
I wrote two story books. Sara’s Quest and Sara and Friends Tree. Yes, I would like Muna to review them – Sara’s Quest is on Amazon as an ebook.
MK: From the perspective of a publisher, do you think Africans have done much in the children’s literature industry? If not, what do you think can be done?
TK: Children literature can only develop when we have children who can actually read and comprehend. In Ethiopia around 60% of grade 2 students can’t read a single word correctly, and in 2019, 64% of children in Zambia could not read a single word correctly in grade 2.
For a children’s literature industry to develop, we first need to teach children to read and comprehend, preferably in their mother tongue, learning to read while actually reading books (i.e. not just through textbooks).
I don’t think it is only the job of publishers to develop a children’s literature industry in African countries. I think all stakeholders, particularly the Ministry of Education, need to make reading stories an important part of the education curriculum.
MK: You have been running Midako Publishing for 8 years and you are doing an amazing job! Tell us about the decodable books and the choice of languages for your books? Are there other programs run by Midako to increase accessibility to children’s literature in your region and Africa as a whole?
TK: As I have said earlier, reading Amharic (that uses the Geez alphabet) was very hard for me to learn as a child. I saw my children going through the same struggle when they started learning to read in Amharic, but they found reading in English much easier.
I first developed phonic and iterative pattern recognition based decodable books for them, hand written and sketched. They found the books fun and much easier. They even asked for more books. That is when I knew I was on to something big.
We collaborated with a local NGO that provides basic alternative education to street kids. I developed a textbook (one page at a time) and decodable books (one level at a time and started testing them on 14 children. It was a big success, in just 3 weeks the kids where able to read level 1 Book 1. I developed the first 3 levels (20 books) and the next 5 levels (30 books) were produced in collaboration with writers like Tihut Tilahun, Lensa Gezahegn, Daniel Worku and Azeb worku.
Following the success we saw with the kids at the local NGO, we tested our innovative method with two government schools and 3 classes. Almost all the students were able to read within 5 to 8 months. This is a big deal as only 15% of children in Addis Ababa are able to read at grade level.
Following our success with the Amharic, we adopted our program into Tigregna (another language in Ethiopia that uses the Geez alphabet).
We are now working on developing a reading program in Afan Oromo (the largest language in Ethiopia)
We recently opened a branch office in Nairobi and we are planning to develop Kiswahili learning to read program based on our experience in Ethiopia.
MK: What challenges have you faced as an African author and publisher of children’s literature? Is the children’s literature industry a profitable venture you would advise the youth to take advantage of?
TK: I have been publishing for the past 8 years and I am yet to buy coffee using a profit from Midako publishing. All the money that we get from selling our books goes into making more books. It is nearly impossible to create a reading culture in Ethiopia with just a handful of books – there needs to be 100s if not 1000s of books in the market before children have read enough books that interest them to become avid readers. Of course, for this to happen there needs to be a curriculum that has reading at its center, a political commitment that helps in the development of a reading program, libraries built, and books stocked in both schools and public libraries.
Until that happens I honestly don’t think publishing books will be a profitable business. Having said that, I strongly advise young writers to write books in local languages (expecting little profit) and push their respective governments and other stakeholders to make better policies regarding use of local languages, reading and books in general. If there is a will there is a way.
MK: What do you think should be done in today’s tech paced world to encourage African children to read? How in your opinion can we teach our children to be abreast with technology through storytelling?
TK: My concern is for the Africans living in villages. The majority don’t have access to technology and, even if they do, the technologies don’t speak in their languages. So I think we need to have these technologies speak in local languages and then use it as one tool to promote reading and African stories.
MK: What is your vision for the future of children’s literature in Ethiopia and beyond?
TK: To publish books in all languages in the horn of Africa. Books written and illustrated by writers and illustrators who not only can speak and write in the language, but by those who understand the soul, culture and history of the communities.
MK: Any last words?
TK: I think most people donate English children’s books because they honestly want to help. But most of these books just gather dust in libraries, at least from what I have seen in school libraries in Ethiopia. For those who want to help, be it NGOs or individuals, please buy local books and donate books that the children in these communities can actually read, understand and relate to.
It has been an eye opening discussion. Thank you very much for your time.