NEW YORK — Gebregeorgis Yohannes is a man of a few well-defined passions: books, children, and his native Ethiopia. That's why he'll be returning home this fall, after two decades of life in the United States, bringing with him about 10,000 books and a plan to get them into the hands of as many children as possible.
During recent visits to Ethiopia, Mr. Yohannes has been deeply saddened by the sight of so many children living in a country where even pen and paper are considered luxuries. "You see them playing on the street, as happy as children in any country, but you see the poverty they are living in." Only about half the population attends school through fifth grade.
One of their vital needs, he believes, is access to books. To ease that access, Mr. Yohannes has taken to wearing many hats. He is a children's book author, a publisher, the founder of a nonprofit organization, and soon, he hopes, the director of a children's reading center in Addis Ababa, the country's capital.
But he had to take circuitous route to shape his dreams and convictions into these ambitious goals.
Although he remembers his own childhood in southern Ethiopia as idyllic, Yohannes also recalls that books were few. He was 19 when someone loaned him a romance novel, and for the first time he read a book simply for pleasure. The experience enchanted him, and he began devouring fiction.
As a young man, he was forced to flee Ethiopia after he joined a group opposing the ruling military dictatorship. He eventually emigrated to the US in 1982.
Here he had a chance to attend college and later earn a master's degree in library and information science. He had originally hoped to work in an academic setting, but serendipitously he was offered a job in the children's department of the San Francisco Public Library.
It was there that a colleague asked him one day about Ethiopian children's books, thinking the library should purchase a few for its collection.
The inquiry started Yohannes on a search, but after many months he realized that no publisher produces books for Ethiopian children.
"I was really very sad," he says. "Then the idea for an organization came to me."
Yohannes envisioned setting up a nonprofit group to publish children's books in Amharic, Ethiopia's main language, as well as Oromo and Tigrignya, two of the more widely spoken of the country's dozens of tongues.
Just publishing the books, he knew, would not be enough. He would also need to make sure young readers have access to them. So he decided to write his own book and use any profits to set up a reading center in Addis Ababa.
Drawing on a rich heritage of Ethiopian folklore, Yohannes wrote a book based on the beloved Ethiopian story of "Kilu Mammo" (or "Silly Mammo" in English), a handsome but foolish young man doted on by his hardworking mother.
Yohannes also began reaching out to others who were interested in his native country. That's how he met Jane Kurtz, a senior lecturer in English at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. Ms. Kurtz, daughter of a Presbyterian missionary, grew up in Ethiopia and has maintained a great love for the country. She has also written several English-language children's books set in Ethiopia.
Now serving on the board of directors of Yohannes's Ethiopian Books for Children and Educational Foundation, Ms. Kurtz helped to interest a Presbyterian church in North Dakota in financing Yohannes's book, which came out in May in an Amharic-English edition.
So far, returns on the book have been modest at best. But despite funding challenges, Yohannes plans to return to Ethiopia permanently in September. Through both private gifts and a large donation from the San Francisco Public Library, he has collected 10,000 books he is shipping to Addis Ababa. The children's book center he hopes to set up will be a novelty in a country where libraries are almost nonexistent.
But his work at the San Francisco library has opened his eyes to other options as well. He expects his book center to show films and teach literacy and arts and crafts to Ethiopian families.
His ultimate goal is to set up a string of reading centers throughout the country. Even in Addis alone, he says, "we could have 20 centers and that would not accommodate the needs of all the children."
For the most part, Yohannes is joyous at the thought of returning to his country. His mother and two siblings are eagerly awaiting him and his two US-born sons. One thing worries him, though. He says the government in Ethiopia as well intentioned but unable to control its own massive bureaucracy. Cutting through yards of red tape to set up his center still seems a daunting task.
Despite the lack of large donors and the grass-roots nature of the project, it keeps moving forward, Kurtz says. She is counting on visiting Addis Ababa in March, when Yohannes plans a grand opening for his center.
The two draw strength from a shared conviction that, as she says, "books can make a tremendous difference."