Yohannes Gebregeorgis, Founder
Yohannes Gebregeorgis was born in a small village in southern Ethiopia called Negelle Borena. Schools were few and far between; the nearest high school in Yirgalem was 375 km away. His high school years in Yirgalem bring back fond memories of U.S. Peace Corps Volunteers and the introduction of English literature, especially the classics. But not until he was nineteen did he read a book outside of school, strictly for pleasure, and that book changed his life.
Yohannes’ life was reflective of the struggle and turmoil of Ethiopia at the time. He was active in the student movement that protested the rule of Emperor Haile Sellasie and later as a pharmacist in Gondar, he was outspoken against the Derg, the Military dictatorship that deposed the Emperor. He was soon targeted by a Derg official and like many of his fellow Ethiopian emigrants, he fled for his life to neighboring Sudan. After spending eight months in a refugee camp, he was granted political asylum in the United States in 1982.
His newfound love for books and reading led him to complete a BA in English Literature and Journalism from the University of Buffalo in 1989 and a Masters degree in Library and Information Science in 1991 from the University of Texas at Austin. Although trained to be an academic librarian, he ultimately accepted a position as a children’s librarian at the San Francisco Public Library, another pivotal decision that changed his destiny.
It was in this setting that Yohannes realized that there were books in many languages and from many parts of the world, but that there were no books in any of the Ethiopian languages. The political climate in Ethiopia had also changed allowing him to return home for the first time in many years. He saw children playing in the streets with rag balls but didn’t see books or libraries or children reading. He reflected on all of the books and stories that he had read to children in the San Francisco library and vowed to return to Ethiopia and bring the joy of reading to the children of his homeland.
To finance this calling, he wrote “Silly Mammo,” a bilingual children’s book based on a popular Ethiopian story. The proceeds from the sale of this book, his own personal finances, donations from friends and colleagues, and a large donation of discarded library books were used to establish the first public children’s library in Addis Ababa, a library that was located in the first floor of his home.
With the help of many volunteers and donors, he has been able to set up over 45 school-library partnerships, three public libraries, and seven Donkey Mobile Libraries. The Donkey Mobile Library is his creation, using the power of donkeys to pull a specially designed cart filled with books to remote areas of Ethiopia.
In 2009, Yohannes traveled north to the Tigray Region to distribute an anthology of stories, “The Elephant and the Cock” to schools and educational offices. He was welcomed by officials from the City of Mekelle, the Tigray Department of Education, and Mekelle University and invited to participate in a children’s literature panel. Encouraged by this positive response, he decided to set up the next school library partnership at Fre Sew-at Elementary School in Mekelle. The dedication of the library was held in August of 2009 during Ashenda, a coming of age holiday for girls that became the inspiration for his book, “Tirhas Celebrates Ashenda: An Ethiopian Girl’s Festival.”
Immediately following the dedication, Mekelle City officials presented Yohannes with the offer of a beautiful free-standing building in the city proper and three additional buildings in the subcities of Mekelle. This spectacular building would become the Segenat Children and Youth Library, a modern, full-service children’s library that would be dedicated one year later, once again during the Ashenda holiday. Concurrent with the dedication of the Segenat was the free distribution of over 3,000 copies of “Tirhas Celebrates Ashenda” to the groups of girls who participated in the holiday.
In addition to the school library at Fre-Sewat, a library has been set up at Myliham Elementary as well as in the small village of Debri. A Donkey Mobile Library is stationed at Sefra Jeganu, the Heroes’ Residence, a family unit for disabled members of the resistance movement. Plans are underway to begin setting up the first of the three previously offered sites in the subcities of Mekelle.
In 2008, Yohannes was named one of the “Top 10” CNN Heroes and has reached international fame for his work in literacy and establishing libraries. He was also the recipient of the 2008 Presidential Citation for International Innovation from the American Library Association. In 2010, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Public Service from Regis University in Denver, Colorado, for the service provided to his native Ethiopia at great personal sacrifice.
BA English Literature and Journalism, University of Buffalo, 1989
MA Library and Information Science, University of Texas at Austin, 1991.
Colorado Association of Libraries Annual Conference, Keynote Presentation, November 2008, Denver.
American Library Association Mid-winter Conference, Presidential Keynote, January 2010, Boston.
Mosaic 2010: The Spirit of Caring, Speaker, Sharjah Colleges of Technology, United Arab Emirates.
Bok & Bibliotek, Goteborg Book Fair, Speaker on the Advocates of the Written Word, Goteborg, Sweden, September 2010.
Thessaloniki International Book Fair, Speaker on Books and Education, Thessaloniki, Greece, May 2011.
Presidential Citation for International Innovation. American Library Association, July 2008.
Top 10 CNN Hero, Championing Children, November 2008.
Honorary Doctorate in Public Service, Regis University, May 2010, Denver, Colorado.
100 Honored Alumnae, University of Texas at Austin, “Changing the World: Stories Celebrating 100 years of Graduate Education at the University of Texas at Austin.” November 2010.
Honorary Membership, American Library Association, June 2011.