Born in rural Ethiopia to an illiterate cattle merchant who insisted upon his son’s education, Yohannes Gebregeorgis had seen few books in school. When given his very own book at age 19, a love for literacy was ignited that produced a lifelong commitment.
Today, at 56, Gebregeorgis is establishing libraries and literacy programs to connect Ethiopian children with books. It wasn’t until he became a children’s librarian in the United States that he realized what the children of his native home were missing. Forced to flee Ethiopia to the United States as a political refugee in 1981, Gebregeorgis ultimately put himself through a university, obtaining a graduate degree in library science. He relocated to the Bay Area, taking a post at the San Francisco Children’s Library in 1985. There, he met “The Little Engine That Could,” “Captain Ahab” and “Peter Pan.” He realized the impact children’s books could make on a child’s sense of wonder and vision.
Gebregeorgis found that, among the brilliantly illustrated books in 70 languages, there were none in Amharic, the primary language of Ethiopia, and none representing the places and characters of Ethiopian lore. So, he wrote one. “Silly Mammo” was the first bilingual Amharic-English children’s book, and it led Gebregeorgis to establish Ethiopia Reads in 1988. Using proceeds from book sales and grassroots book-a-thons, the nonprofit financed his efforts to bring children’s libraries to Ethiopia.
“Most Ethiopian children have only access to textbooks in the classroom…Books children read outside of school, those are the spices of education…Children could imagine everything from books — connections to other cultures, to other people, to other children, and to the universe at large. It gives them hope. It gives them pleasure. It gives them everything that they cannot otherwise get in regular textbooks.” –Gebregeorgis
In 2002, Gebregeorgis left his job and his home and returned to Ethiopia with 15,000 books donated by the San Francisco Children’s Library. With them, he opened the Shola Children’s Library on the first floor of his Addis Ababa home. Young readers quickly overwhelmed the three-room home, requiring the addition of two large tents to provide shade for hundreds at a time.
“I just wanted to come back to Ethiopia and help children have a future, have hope,” says Gebregeorgis. Today, Ethiopia Reads is doing just that. In addition to the original library, the organization established the Awassa Reading Center and Ethiopia’s first Donkey Mobile Library. Inspired by a similar concept he’d seen in Zimbabwe, Gebregeorgis customized a donkey-pulled trailer-cart that now makes weekly visits to rural villages around Awassa. Ethiopia Reads recently held its fifth annual Ethiopia Children’s Book Week, and has given over 100,000 children access to its libraries along the Ethiopian countryside.
“With literate children there is no limit as to how much we can do.” -Gebregeorgis