By Emily Wax, Published: June 8
With her bulky Ethiopian Yellow Pages jostling in the passenger seat, “Mama Tutu” Belay lurches her black Mercedes to a stop. She squints suspiciously at a new bakery operating in a basement on Georgia Avenue that claims to use clay plates to make an authentic version of injera, the spongy bread that is a dietary staple of her homeland.
“It’s suspect!” Mama Tutu decrees while looking over the bakery, which is painted pumpkin orange and flies American and Ethiopian flags. “I need to make sure it’s legit before it goes anywhere near my book.”
Her book is the Ethiopian Yellow Pages, which includes hundreds of the Ethiopian American businesses that have taken over once-blighted storefronts across the Washington region.
Seventeen years ago, Mama Tutu, 48, started keeping a list in her kitchen of businesses run by fellow immigrants. Her regional directory now runs more than 1,000 pages and has spun off a lucrative empire that includes a monthly newspaper, a series of mini-Yellow Pages booklets, a Web site and an annual Ethiopian Expo, held in the District. Her base of operations is a spacious, renovated rowhouse in Shaw, where the Yellow Pages and its offshoots are administered by a staff of nine.
The weighty Yellow Pages and their affiliated Web site are visual proof of the economic power of the area’s Ethiopian community. According to the Ethiopian Community Development Council, there are up to 100,000 Ethiopians living in the Washington area — the largest concentration in the United States.
Mama Tutu runs the business with her husband, Yehunie Belay, who is one of Ethiopia’s best-known traditional singers. Yehunie is known in the Ethiopian American community by his first name, “like Prince or Madonna,” he says, chuckling.
The pair are a Washington power couple — just not the kind you see on “Meet the Press.”
“Mama Tutu and her husband, Yehunie, are Washington household names . . . and isn’t it wonderful that they also happen to be Ethiopian,” says Peter Hagos Gebre, author of “Making it in America: Conversations With Successful Ethiopian American Entrepreneurs.
“Mama Tutu was a very wise woman. She knew that to make her Yellow Pages successful, she would have to earn the community’s trust. It’s not just a book; it’s like a passport to success and the Ethiopian American dream.”
Many Ethiopian professionals and business owners say it’s essential to buy space in her book, whose advertisers run the gamut from Ethiopian parking-garage moguls and wedding photographers to dentists and the Ethiopian farmer in Virginia who offers immigrants an “Ethiopian day in America’s rural areas.”
Mama Tutu is “really out in the community, and that has made the difference. The Yellow Pages are a lifeline for Ethiopians in Washington,” says Senait Abebaw, 43, the owner of Fasika restaurant in Petworth, which advertises in Mama Tutu’s book.
The Yellow Pages charges from $125 for a small listing to $2,200 for a full-page color ad and, by Mama Tutu’s estimation, lists about 80 percent of the Ethiopian businesses around town.
“The book has given confidence to new arrivals who tell us that they want to open businesses because they get ideas for business and see that there is hope,” says the Rev. Amare Kassaye, who leads Mariam Church, an Ethiopian Orthodox congregation on 13th Street NW in Columbia Heights. The church, which has more than 5,000 members, has stacks of free Ethiopian Yellow Pages in its front office.
“But we often run out,” Kassaye says in Amharic, the primary language of Ethiopia, through a translator.
Mama Tutu was the fourth of eight children born to a mother who hails from Ethiopian royalty and a father who was a provincial governor in southwestern Ethiopia — an economically important region in the Horn of Africa.
Her given name, Yeshimebet, translates as “1,000 powerful women” and is used in everyday parlance to mean “queen.” Tutu became her nickname.
At 13, she made lemonade and vegetable-and-meat dumplings to sell to the Afar people coming to see their tribal chief, who lived across from her family’s compound.
She persuaded some neighborhood girls to help out, even though girls of her class were not “really supposed to be standing on the street selling things, so we kinda hid it from our parents.” Her father found out because she was bringing wads of money home. She could continue her business, he says, as long as she kept her grades up; he wanted Tutu to be a doctor.
With a good high school transcript, early entrepreneurial experience and the support of her family, Tutu went to Southern University at Baton Rouge in the 1980s. Perhaps not surprisingly, she quickly switched her major from medicine to marketing.
She realized that she was in a very different culture when the woman with whom she lived told her: “ ‘This side of the fridge is yours. This side is mine,’ ” Mama Tutu recalls. “I went into my room and wept. I couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t share food. I ended up begging her to share and eat together. She actually loved eating Ethiopian-style. I would remember that Americans liked it when I started an Ethiopian restaurant in Washington later on.”
To cover living expenses while in college, Tutu made money cleaning houses, babysitting and selling Mary Kay cosmetics, her favorite job, which taught her “never to fear rejection.”
With a bachelor’s degree in business management, she moved to Washington in 1989 and was so excited to see so many Ethiopian businesses that she would jot down the phone numbers and addresses of grocery stores, law offices and real estate agents. The idea for the Ethiopian Yellow Pages was born.
Community of risk-takers
In Washington, Ethiopians have been so successful in redeveloping retail strips that urban historians see their arrival in a neighborhood as a first sign of gentrification — way before the better-known waves of hipsters and gay urban pioneers.
“Ethiopians have made a huge contribution to reviving neighborhoods,” says Gebre, the author, who is studying the economic impact of African communities in the District.
The Ethiopian Community Development Council estimates that Ethiopians own at least 1,200 businesses in the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia. In the past nine years, the council has issued nearly $4.5 million in loans to 700 borrowers hoping to open restaurants, coffee shops and injera bakeries, says its president, Tsehaye Teferra.
“We may have actually been the first to have a very small-business directory, and we had to stop it because of Mama Tutu’s Yellow Pages,” Teferra says. “She was doing such a remarkable job, and we couldn’t compete.”
Many Ethiopian business owners say they are drawn to capitalism because they’re rejecting the deeply unpopular Marxist junta that ruled Ethiopia between 1974 and 1991. Others say business is a natural way to make a living because they’re able to pool funds through extensive family networks and keep labor costs low by hiring fellow immigrants.
The District’s surge in Ethiopian businesses began in the 1980s on 18th Street in Adams Morgan, where immigrants restored crumbling rowhouses and set up Ethiopian restaurants with woven baskets as communal tables and African folk art on the walls. In the mid-1990s, the community moved to U Street NW, now home to some of the hottest nightlife in the city. Mama Tutu says Ethiopians are opening restaurants in Petworth, downtown Silver Spring and Arlington.
“Ethiopians have lived through political turmoil; some have been refugees in Sudan. All their lives, they have been around painful poverty. What do they care if they live in Shaw or Southeast or in Petworth?” says Tesfay Makonen, who is Mama Tutu’s brother and the Yellow Pages’ marketing director. He’s also a real estate agent.
“Ethiopians are risk-takers,” he says. “They will do anything to improve their lives.”
The power couple
On a recent weekday afternoon, Mama Tutu was busy answering phone calls from potential advertisers in her vast office, which has an expansive desk and buttery yellow leather sofas (“for Yellow Pages,” she says, laughing).
There’s a wall of photos of her and her husband with such power players as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, former D.C. mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and hip-hop singer Doug E. Fresh.
“We have a lot more photos we didn’t put up,” Yehunie says, chuckling.
“The Yellow Pages have been a great life,” Mama Tutu adds.
The couple met in 1992 when Yehunie came to the United States to perform at an Ethiopian soccer tournament in Los Angeles, which Tutu’s brother helped organize. He spotted Tutu dancing to his music. He stayed. They fell in love. He now croons to packed crowds on most Friday nights at their Little Ethiopia restaurant on Ninth Street NW. When he’s not there, he performs at often-sold-out concerts throughout the Ethiopian diaspora, including Israel and Australia.
“She had so many exciting ideas,” Yehunie says. “I didn’t think I would marry so quickly, but I just loved her strength.”
“Some men don’t like powerful women, but they are fools,” Mama Tutu counters with a laugh. “I liked him because he encouraged my work. Plus, he’s not a controlling or jealous man. He had his music. Now I have my Yellow Pages.”
The couple have a son and daughter, both teenagers, and live in Alexandria. They hope to send the kids to college with the profits from Mama Tutu’s business.
Over the years, the book has become more than a telephone directory. An all-purpose tool for cultural acclimation, it offers information about how to ride the Metro, a citizenship test with facts about the United States — “What are the 13 original states?” — and lists of soccer teams, Ethiopian churches and summer camps sponsored by Ethiopian businesses. And its advertisers are no longer exclusively Ethiopian: It has become a way in for U.S. service providers who want to do business with the Ethiopian community.
The book has done so well that Mama Tutu says she has to watch out for competitors. Several other information services have attempted to put out similar online listings and directories for Ethiopians, she says.
Accuracy is more important than ever. There are very few instances in which Mama Tutu discovers shady businesses, she says, but she’s careful to check.
“One wrong piece of information, and we lose trust,” her husband says. “When Ethiopians are new here, they are cautious.”
The injera bakery on Georgia Avenue may eventually make the cut — but not before Mama Tutu returns to sample its bread and talk to the owner face to face.
“Many Ethiopians who recently arrived can’t eat a meal without injera. And I see the Ethiopian Yellow Pages as a cultural document,” she says. “That’s why everything in it has to be authentic.”