Mama Tutu Belays Ethiopian yellow pages have helped make her one of the most… (Marvin Joseph/WASHINGTON…)
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.