Inspired by immigrant parents and a childhood spent in South Africa, Kifle Bantayehu believes that the power of hope and a brighter future can encourage people of all ages to persevere.
“My parents came here from Ethiopia, but I was born here,” said Bantayehu, a 2002 graduate from the University of Virginia with a degree in English and social anthropology.
During his childhood, he spent a total of 13 years in various countries in Africa, including Kenya, Zimbabwe and his parents’ native Ethiopia, he saw firsthand the devastation that HIV and AIDS cause to children, families and communities.
“I’ve seen the remnants of it as a youth," he said. "I’ve seen the suffering people go through. … These children whose parents died have no future."
Bantayehu, who lives in Fairfax, wrote a book, published independently a year and a half ago, titled “The Healing Conscious,” which he describes as a collection of stories and poems meant to remind those that read it that they are alive and have a future ahead of them.
“The book started in conjunction with a fund-raising effort working toward HIV and AIDS awareness in developing countries,” he said.
Bantayehu sees the book serving three purposes. The first is to convey the message that “through hard work, all is possible. The second is that through strength and family values, whatever you seek you can achieve and fall back on that success for the future,” he said.
The third purpose is to educate people about AIDS.
“It’s spreading so quickly because of lack of education about it,” Bantayehu said. “There are 42 million people in the world infected with AIDS, 32 million in Africa. The bulk of patients are between the ages of 18 and 34. It affects children, families. … People diagnosed with it have no hope, no future.”
THE BOOK was not written for any particular age group because Bantayehu wanted people of all ages to be able to relate to the stories contained within.
“I hope when people read it, it takes them to a place in their life they can associate with and maybe brings them peace," he said. "I hope they feel grateful for all the opportunities they’ve had in life, maybe they feel inspired to go help someone who doesn’t have those chances."
Bantayehu was encouraged by a friend to send a copy of his book to former President Bill Clinton and was surprised to receive a letter in response last January.
“He thanked me for the copy of the book and the work I’m doing,” Bantayehu said. “I really appreciated the response, I never expected it.”
The book was featured on The New York Times’ independent publishing section last December and has been mentioned in several Ethiopian newspapers overseas, he said.
Bantayehu currently works as a consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton in McLean and lives in Fairfax, but he sees a future in a not-for-profit or philanthropic venture.
“My heart belongs in working toward one of those courses,” he said. “Look what I’m doing now, working full time and writing on weekends.”
“Kifle’s a brilliant young man who tells a very compelling story that’s beautifully written,” said GeorgeAnne Wynn-Tadesse, the president and CEO of Education for Everyone in Ethiopia, a nonprofit organization in Alexandria that is working toward educational development in Ethiopia and for immigrants in the United States.
The story is a mix of Bantayehu's parents’ lives and some experiences shared by all Ethiopian immigrants as they try to adjust to life in America while holding onto their culture, Wynn-Tadesse said.
“They have a very rich culture and spirit and want to continue their culture and the identity of Ethiopia wherever they go,” she said.
Wynn-Tadesse has known Bantayehu a long time; she’s married to his uncle.
“We know what he’s put into this book, it was part of the reason we spoke with him to do the book signing,” she said.
Bantayehu will sign books as part of a “cultural celebration in words and song” at the Ethiopian Embassy on Nov. 6, Wynn-Tadesse said.
“We don’t like for the children to lose themselves in their new culture and forget where they came from, but it’s difficult,” Wynn-Tadesse said. “Their culture is very spiritual, and we want to show that there are people outside of church that are doing well… This is someone who’s walked in their same shoes.”
READING BANTAYEHU'S book to children, or having children read it on their own, “it gives them a feeling that they’re still connected to their homeland,” Wynn-Tadesse said.
“Kifle’s a very down-to-earth, straightforward guy,” said Lee Roberts, Bantayehu’s publicist. “He’s not doing this for any monetary gain of any kind.”
Roberts has seen many people conduct specific events to raise money for charities, but never someone who sets out to create something as a fund-raiser. “This is rare, that he’s written a book with charity in mind,” he said.
The way the story is told is also out of the ordinary. “I really like the poetic backdrop he uses,” Roberts said. “It’s a semi-autobiographical work, but he’s done it in a poetic fashion, which is different.”
“This is such a powerful book,” said Tom Kapple, a friend and coworker of Bantayehu’s at Booz Allen. “He’s a fine young technologist with a wonderful work ethic.”
The book is reflective of his “soulful” personality, Kapple said. “He’s very in touch with his own humanity, as well as that of others."
Bantayehu took Kapple to an Ethiopian restaurant in Washington as a sort of “cultural exchange,” he said.
“It was very different and very enlightening, and Kifle’s done that with a number of people. He wants to introduce them to the Ethiopian culture,” he said.
“I see a bright future for Kifle, whatever his life choices are. He has an internal wisdom well beyond his years that will allow him to do well in whatever he chooses,” Kapple said.