Ethiopian Yellow Pages: Life, by the book

Mama Tutu Belay’s Ethiopian yellow pages have helped make her one of the most prominent members of Washington’s Ethio­pian community. (Marvin Joseph/WASHINGTON POST)
 June 8, 2011
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.

 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. Read more