When Ethan Greeley began to study for his bamitzvah at a suburban Washington DC synagogue, he already knew he wanted to aim his requisite community service project at helping children in Africa.
He was particularly interested in doing something in Sebba, a tiny village in northern Burkina Faso where his mother grew up and which he had visited numerous times.
Today, in that village, more than 5,000 miles away from his Maryland home, stands a new library for children and adults to gather, read and borrow books.
The library opened on April 9, 2016, about a year after Ethan’s bamitzvah at Temple Emanuel.
Thanks to donations from the Greeleys’ friends and family; the Friends of Burkina Faso; the Temple Emanuel Global Mitzvah Committee and Merck (the pharmaceutical company for which Ethan’s father, David, used to work), Ethan raised $20,000 to refurbish an old building and turn it into a library.
Books were bought, a latrine built and local staff hired. Much of the on-the-ground work was done thanks to the Friends of African Village Libraries (FAVL), a non-profit organisation.
“I’m so proud of him”, Mrs Greeley told the JC.
More than just a library, it has almost become a community centre. Last summer, a camp convened there. “There isn’t always a lot to do in the village and this helps,” said Mrs Greeley who, because of travel restrictions imposed in recent years, is the only one in her family to have seen the library in person.
Mrs Greeley often took Ethan and his brother to the local library in Maryland when they were younger. The children had asked whether Mrs Greeley had grown up with a library, and were surprised to hear the answer was “no”.
In order to set up his own library, and find out more about how libraries actually work, Ethan volunteered for about six months at his local branch. “I organised books; I helped prepare them for a fair. It was pretty fun and interesting,” he says.
The books that now line the shelves of the Sebba library (many of which were purchased by FAVL) are in French, English and Fulani.
The vast majority of those who use the library are Muslim, like Mrs Greeley herself.
However, the idea was built on Jewish principles, said Mr Greeley. “We managed to combine two of the most important Jewish values — learning and tikkun olam”, he said.
“Studies show that when women are educated, the conditions of a country improves. The actual GDP goes up,” said Mr Greeley, whose wife was the only girl in her class in Sebba to go on to secondary school.
The $20,000 raised will support the library for five years, at which point they are hoping the town can take it over. Ethan is still hoping to bring in computers, adding he would “love to get solar panels to power the computers”. His mum agrees. “I can only imagine how much things would change if they had access to the internet.”