How do we do it—pull meaning from symbols on paper, or from bits of light and dark in flickering electric impulses? This miracle is called reading.
I learned to read in Maji, in deep southern Ethiopia. My mother taught me in my own childhood language of English. As I filled workbooks at our dining room table, I heard Ethiopian children in the little school nearby chanting their reading lessons in Amharic.
The Kurtz girls reading, with a Maji mountain ridge behind them.
On the playground, on the paths from farms and town to school, these same children chattered in a different language, one that seemed to breathe and whisper—several soft versions of what I call J, breathy dh, ng, sh. Rising and falling tones gave it a musical feel. I wrote down a few words of this language in a small notebook. I learned to count.
The people of Maji call themselves the Dizi, and their language is Dizin. Almost all of the adults are farmers who grow what they eat. They sell excess produce in the market and use cash to buy what they can’t grow—salt, sugar and oil; clothes, pencils, and notebooks. Climate change is forcing them to shift crops and adapt to unpredictable rain patterns. There were once between 50-100,000 Dizi people, but a century of domination, misrule, and famine has shrunk the population to about 35,000.
These boys earn money for flashlight batteries to study with by carrying water for neighbors. They are top students and dream of university.
Maji also has no electricity; most people draw water from streams and springs that are easily contaminated; the only hospital is 150 miles away. But in all circumstances, mothers, and fathers in Maji want their children to thrive and have better lives, like mothers and fathers everywhere.
I have returned to Maji to bring whatever relief I can to these families—clean water systems, solar home lighting, and solar power for a local hospital. In the cracks between these huge efforts, MDC arranged for Dizin translations to be made for twelve Ready Set Go bilingual stories for early readers. Because Dizin is a language on a path that could lead to extinction.
The lead translator explains the Dizin alphabet to Caroline Kurtz.
A mother reads to her toddler, who has never seen a book before.
With an Open Hearts Big Dreams Fund “Read to Mom” grant, MDC has distributed books to mothers, encouraging them to sit with their children and listen to them read. MDC also distributed hundreds of these books in five local primary schools. And I have written two books about Maji itself:
They are the first and only Dizin story books, with illustrations in colors that could capture the imagination of Maji’s children. As the American translation advisor said, “This is an amazing treasure for such a small language group.”
By Caroline Kurtz, OHBD Ready Set Go Creative Team lead and Founder/Executive Director Maji Development Coalition
For more about the Dizi people: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dizi_people; for more about the languages of Ethiopia: https://www.britannica.com/place/Ethiopia/Ethnic-groups-and-languages; for more about MDC: https://www.developmaji.com
All Ready Set Go Books can be found here https://www.amazon.com/Ready-Set-Go-Books/e/B07G171G1M/. Each purchase funds more locally printed books to be donated in Ethiopia.