My name is Mekonnen Fentahun Kassa. I was born in a very small town located south of Gonder, Ethiopia. My parents brought me to Gonder, a small town that has evolved into a city in the last half-century, when I was probably a little over one year old. My mother, Tewoda Gebeyehu and father, Sergeant Fentahun Kassa came to Gonder because my father, who was a policeman, was transferred to Ogaden, a conflict-ridden, faraway desert region located in southeast Ethiopia. Women were not allowed to accompany their husbands into Ogaden, so, my father left us in Gonder and he went alone. I grew up missing my father and longing to see him, and the next time I did was when I was ten years old. He went back after a brief stay but, two years later, he came back to Gonder permanently.
My father was a proud and patriotic Ethiopian. He disciplined me and followed up with me to make sure I attended school and stayed out of trouble. Though I resisted at that time, I have now come to admire and appreciate these efforts. My father passed away in April 2018 after suffering a stroke. A close friend called to console me on his passing and suggested I think about doing something to memorialize my father. I said, “No, not yet, but I will think about it”.
As I thought through, I remembered my elementary school and its library, or the lack thereof. I went to Hibret (aka Lielit Tenagnework) elementary school. I have always vividly recalled in my mind’s eye, a small dark room upstairs designated as a library, with maybe less than twenty books. I recall going in and reading a book once or twice. Other than that, I do not remember reading any book, children’s or otherwise, until I escaped to the Sudan at the age of 19 and became a refugee. I came to America and started attending colleges and was astounded by the size of the libraries and the number and type of books. I read as much as I could, and I came to realize the opportunity I received through reading, the tremendous benefit of reading, and how it helped me in my personal and professional life.
I thought about the children of Gonder who do not have an opportunity to read and remembered my father’s insistence on getting an education. Along with my participation in OHBD, I leveraged all my relationships and used them to build a small library at my old elementary school. I discussed my decision with Ellenore and secured her full support. I then started raising funds using Microsoft employee donation and company matching programs. I traveled to Gonder, visited the school, and met with the principal and teaching staff, and identified the place for the library. Almost a year later, the building is about to be completed as seen in the photos below.
We built the library because I remember my father’s insistence on education and I understand the value of reading books. America has afforded me the opportunity to read, and it has benefited me tremendously in my personal and professional life. We wanted to provide similar opportunity to our children in Gonder. This library is a small contribution but I believe it is a significant step to awaken the community to focus on educating our children.
This project wouldn’t have been possible without support from so many people. I apologize if I missed anyone; please know you have my admiration. I thank my colleagues at Microsoft for donating, Microsoft for its matching their donation, OHBD members and contributors, the Angelidis family for forming OHBD and for their commitment to the education of children in Ethiopia, Dr. Worku Mulat for his leadership and professionalism in coordinating all efforts, the Kuntz family for their dedication to authoring children’s books and all other efforts to improve life in Maji, Ethiopia, Link Ethiopia for its management of our library project, and the support of my wife Elizabeth and all our children. Finally, I’d like to thank Mezgebu Zerihun for planting the seed of this project in my mind.