From the Media Capital, to the Global Ethiopian Community
Monday August 21st 2017

A Hero’s Call

With a donkey mobile library and a childlike spirit, Ato Yohannes is captivating all those who follow behind.

Ato Yohannes reads Silly Mammo-the first Ethiopian children's book-to the audience at Maplewood Memorial Library.

I was just a first grader when my family left Ethiopia and settled in America. Immigrating to a new country meant learning a new language, a new way of life – almost.  I remember the first couple of years in school being so very hard to get through.  In second grade though, after much struggle and hours of after-school help, I moved from the third reading group level to the first.  In third grade I started receiving honors.  My story would not have been possible if it wasn’t for reading.  Through books like The Indian in the Cupboard, Charlotte’s Web, Black Beauty, Anne of Green Gables, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I found escape.  Reading provided a portal to imagination, a world without any limitations.  Books opened new worlds for me which turned into opportunities.

Those of us who were born in Ethiopia and grew up in America can attest to the sense of wonder that books provide.  But what about the children in Ethiopia where the literacy rate is among the worst?  Where only 42.7% of Ethiopia’s population is literate and 99% of schools have no libraries?  What kind of world would theirs be?  A world without fairytales and dragons, one without a glass slipper and a mermaid.  It would more likely be one without a happy ending.  Thanks to Ato Yohannes Gebregeorgis this is no longer the case for so many Ethiopian children.

Ato Yohannes was chosen among CNN’s Top10 Heroes and was honored during CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute.  He is currently on a tour of 12 cities in the United States and Europe. On December 11th Ato Yohannes visited Maplewood Memorial Library located in Maplewood, New Jersey.

During his visit to Maplewood Memorial Library, Ato Yohannes spoke eloquently about his childhood, teachers who had an impact on him and read Silly Mammo.  There was a brief question and answer session at the end.

In addition to being the founder of Ethiopia Reads and publisher of Silly Mammo, the first Ethiopian children’s picture book, Ato Yohannes has also published eight bi-lingual and three tri-lingual story books for children.  Ato Yohannes has also established Shola Children’s Library, The Awassa Reading Center (ARC), the first children’s library in Awassa, and the first Donkey Mobile Library in Ethiopia that serves children in the outskirts of Awassa.  With a donkey mobile library and a childlike spirit, Ato Yohannes is captivating all those who follow behind.

Ato Yohannes grew up in rural Ethiopia and at the age of 19 discovered the joy in reading when he picked up a romance novel entitled “Love Kitten.”  After being forced to flee Ethiopia to the United States as a political refugee in 1981, Ato Yohannes put himself through school and obtained a graduate degree in Library Science.  In 1985 he began work as a children’s librarian at the San Francisco Public Library.  His work there would ultimately spark in him a lifelong commitment to provide literacy to children in Ethiopia.

Ato Yohannes understands the impact that books outside of the classroom can have on children and is calling on Ethiopians not only to read but also to write.  Ato Yohannes explained that while there is nothing wrong with other people writing our stories, we also have to write them.  The only dilemma here would be where to start, “There are thousands of folktales to be told.”

For more information on Ethiopia Reads visit www.ethiopiareads.org.

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