I was nosing around in the library at the primary school, trying to find a set of books that might be suitable to use with a reading club for seventh and eight graders. Plenty of English language books were available, and they were pretty well organized on metal shelves. The distance between those shelves, though, was approximately the with of my body, shoulder to shoulder, which made browsing pretty difficult. What a strange assortment of English books I found. And almost all of them were far beyond the level of any student in primary school (grade 1 through eight). Some were quite new and others hopelessly outdated. I found The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver and Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard. I found Famous Negro Entertainers of stage, screen and TV.
Of particular interest to me were some of the nonfiction books. A Survey History of World, Africa, and Ethiopia looked like something I might like to paw through and that might be appropriate at the university, or possibly preparatory school (grades 11 and 12). This book would be far beyond the reading level of any student, teacher, or administrator at the primary level, though, and from what I’ve seen of the college students, it would make 99% of them go cross-eyed too.
Even more interesting and out-of-bounds was a book called Language A to Z with David Crystal … not “by” but “with,” as though it wasn’t a book but a talk show. In fact it’s a reference book, a glossary of sorts, book 2 in a series. In this case you can judge a book by its cover, in some sense anyway. It’s a graphic mess of colors and words that depicts a demonic looking redheaded woman using a sausage grinder (or is it a pasta machine?) to convert language terminology into sentences. This metaphor is confused to begin with: the samples provided (cohesion, inversion, vocative, fricative, alliteration, and prosody) are descriptive. They come after that act of language production (whether spoken or written) and are not building blocks like letters, words, phrases, clauses, and so on.
But my main point is the level of English we are looking at here. Those are difficult terms, and when you dive into the book you’ll find that they’re explained with a good dose of wordplay and humor, that while possibly serving to entertain the native language reader, would no doubt to further confuse and mystify those for whom English is a second or third language. How a book that explains English language terms such as anapaest, diacritic, group genitive, litotes, malapropism, and suprasegmental feature was placed in the library at Nigus Tekle Haimanot primary school in Debre Markos, Ethiopia is beyond me. By happenstance I came there, and now I’m reading it. Otherwise, what would have been the purpose of such an act?
Back on the home front,I found another book that I brought to the primary school as a piece of realia, a prop, a teaching aid. It’s called SOCCER GAME! and is marked as Level 1 (Preschool – Grade 1). It worked well in the first grade English class as a prop, simply to teach phrases like “this is a book,” bring me the book,” and “show me the book.” After class I was showing it to a 7th physics teacher, who began reading it with keen interest. Then he began asking questions: What is “doomed?” What does “slip” mean? What about “dribble?”
At home I’m still very slowly trying to work my way through all of the books that were went to me by friends and family back home. I had almost finished a book about poor people (called Poor People) by William T. Vollmann when I began simultaneously reading a travel book by Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari. Theroux travels through Ethiopia on his way from Cairo to Capetown. Vollmann recounts various travels and incidents from the US and perhaps a dozen other countries, with some of the more memorable being Japan, China, Russia, Thailand, and Kazakhstan. The two books don’t have a lot in common, but obviously if one were to create a Venn diagram, the ellipses representing the subjects of poor people and travel through Africa would overlap a fair bit. One thing they both bring up is a skepticism about the value of foreign aid. Vollmann is especially critical of a United Nations policy directive called More Aid, Better Directed, not for its intent, but for its difficulty or impossibility in being achieved (in fact he takes this slogan as the name of one short chapter). Theroux was a teacher with Peace Corps in the mid 1960s in Kenya, and so decades later is able to draw upon specific, personal, direct comparisons of the state of specific people and places. He’s even more critical than Vollmann, and cites a couple of other authors who have researched and written on these issues. I haven’t seen enough to have a firm opinion yet, but can see a lot of truth in what both Vollmann and Theroux have to say. Do the funds from the World Bank and foreign governments promote change, or do they merely become trusted income streams for those in charge? Do they motivate anyone to change their own circumstances, or merely motivate them to seek out more gifts? Does growth spread from the top or the bottom? Does change come from the outside or from within? Do huge aid packages distributed to governments trickle down to the poor people in big cities and small towns? Does the promise of More Aid, Better Directed give them more hope?
The other interesting thing about Theroux’s book is his route through Africa, overland, by train, truck, taxi, bus, what have you. It makes for very interesting reading and is quite impressive, but became somewhat less so when I met a couple of Swiss bicyclists who were passing through. They left their home country seven months ago and have been following more or less the same route as Theroux since Egypt. They’ve been staying with people they meet along the way (such as me a and my wife) and in hotels, but have also done a lot of camping. I tried to imagine camping in the desert in Sudan. I try to imagine rolling into Addis on my touring bike. They’re living my dream, and I told them as much. So, what’s stopping me?