Ethiopian Prince Joel Makonnen Teams with Bestselling Author Kwame Mbalia to Release Powerful Children’s Novel: ‘Believe in Yourself’


By Jessica Dupree
Edited by Darlene Aderojuy

Ethiopian Prince Joel Makonnen and New York Times bestselling author Kwame Mbalia (of The Tristian Strong Series) have joined forces for an epic release.

On shelves now, Prince Joel and Mbalia are behind an all-new, sci-fi, Afrofuturistic tale, titled Last Gate of the Emperor. The action-packed novel chronicles the story of 12-year-old Yared Heywat, who must fight to protect his loved ones after a series of secrets are unveiled.

Throughout his adventure, Heywat who lives an isolated life in Addis Prime, an uneventful city with rundown technology and little to do, becomes the star player of an underground augmented reality game, titled The Hunt for Kaleb’s Obelisk, on a quest to find his beloved Uncle Moti.

Last Gate of the Emperor is a nod to Ethiopia’s rich history. Inspired by his own history, as a prince who was born in exile, Prince Joel tells Heart & Soul he wants the fantasy to “inspire all young adults on their journey of self-discovery to embrace their own story, no matter what it is.”

He adds, “Your story will help you believe in yourself. It’s like a superpower that’s also inside of you that you can use to do good in the world.”

While the book is incredibly fun-filled, Prince Joel says it has a meaningful message.

“Even though [readers] are being massively entertained on this adventure, by the end of reading the book, they will have learned a lot about Africa, Ethiopia and its rich history and culture,” says the Prince. “That’s what I want people to take away.”  

Prince Joel Makonnen and the acclaimed Mbalia sat down with Heart & Soul to discuss Last Gate of the Emperor. The duo also open up about the journey to self-discovery and the importance of embracing one’s true self.

If you had to explain to young adults how to discover who they really are, how would you explain that process of discovery? 

Prince Joel Makonnen photo by Antwon Maxwell of Antwon Maxwell Photography LLC.

Prince Joel: A big part of who you are is your circumstances, but it’s also [about] who you want to be and who you decide to be. The goal, in the end, is to accept and love yourself. What I mean is that you will have an imagination about who you could be, or who you want to be, or [how things would be] if your circumstances were different, but I think the process of self-discovery is learning to accept who you are and also taking control of who you can be.

It comes in many stages in life, but I think especially at a young age, maybe you want to blend in or you want to do what your parents tell you or what “grown-ups” tell you, but what I want to encourage young people to do is believe in who they are, their aspirations and their dreams. That’s a process, it takes a long time. I was born as a prince in exile. My circumstances were nothing like the title was telling me, we were in Europe. We were just trying to survive and continue. There was a terrible revolution in Ethiopia, so we couldn’t go back. But through my family telling me stories and giving me the confidence to know that our legacy will always be within me, that’s what gave me a lot of strength and power. It’s a unique story, and I know that other children might have a different one, but it’s all around the same theme of understanding who you are, believing in it and growing into it. That will drive you to achieve whatever you want.

Learning about yourself involves more than just your circumstances. That’s the challenge of self-discovery, it’s really looking beyond your circumstances. There’s circumstances that we may not like in our lives and want to change, but I think the best path is to actually accept most of those and accept that you can also change some of those [circumstances]. You have to challenge yourself to look beyond your circumstances and be who you are, but also be who you decide to be.

Kwame Mbalia photo by Bryan Jones

Kwame: One reason I l really love and enjoy writing middle school grade books and for the middle school grade audience is because the average middle school reader is entering that period of time where they understand or they’re growing to understand that there is more beyond them and their immediate environment, [beyond] their core nuclear family. They’re realizing that there’s an entire world, an entire galaxy out there that is ready for them to explore — and they have [typically] have not [dealt with] walls or obstacles or gate keepers telling them, “No you can’t do this, you can’t do this, you can’t do this.”

They have not been funneled into one direction yet. Instead, they can pick and choose whichever direction they want to go. They get to explore, and exploration leads to discovery. We can’t discover if we don’t explore, we can stumble upon things, but truly the most enlightening discovery happens when we’re out there exploring, when we’re out there lost and when we’re trying to find our way. That’s when we discover both external landmarks and internal validation. That’s why I love writing young adult books. For example, my 10-year-old daughter has written, “I want to be the first Black woman on Mars” on her vision board because why not? Why not? She’s brilliant and the possibilities are there along with the space for exploration. We just watched the Mars rover landing, so the question is, ‘Why not?’ We must set the bar there and set the bar even higher because at this point, the opportunities are limitless and you’re not going to discover something unless you choose to step outside of yourself and explore more.

Expound on the power you found once you embraced your true self Prince Joel, because you write that your own story gave you so much power because it allowed you to embrace your true self. Well, who are you?

Prince Joel: I think there’s two kinds of lenses in life. There’s the one that’s kind of the objective, agreed upon facts. And then there’s the subjective. I think they tend to clash sometimes. I think finding your true self is when you can combine both. What I mean by that is, again, it’s part who you are, your circumstances, what you’re born into and then it’s also who you decide to be. The circumstances are there, but they don’t dictate where your life can go. We see it time and again, people who started in one place, the most unlikely of people, rise and do something that no one in the world has done.

I think speaking on my own experience, as I had mentioned, I was born as a part of the royal family. A prince of the Ethiopian royal family. My family, my nuclear family, my mother, my father, my brother, we were actually in exile. I had some family members who couldn’t make it out the country but in a stroke of luck, my father was taking military training so we were outside of the country when the revolution happened. And we were completely disconnected from our country, our people and our home. We were living as we could and trying to start a new life, but my father and my grandfather, the “Uncle Motis” in my life — which are a plethora of people between cousins and uncles — all instilled in me my history and my legacy, saying, “You are a prince. You have to behave like this, you have to be proud of it.” The clash for me was that our circumstances were not that of a prince. I didn’t have the trappings, but more than that, I wasn’t in my own country. I didn’t have any power and that created a lot of doubts for me.

Prince Joel Makonnen photo by Talaya Waller

Over time, as I continued to learn about my family’s legacy stretching back 3,000 years to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, I was just marveling at all this history. I decided I had to hold on to it and know that no matter the circumstances, that legacy will never leave me. I think that that’s what other people can relate to because I think your story, who your family is, it’s part of you. Just accept it and accept your circumstances. But then you can build from there and that’s really an anecdote of how, to me, the creation of a character like Yared in our book was made. He’s bouncing around schools and I had the same experience where we were moving around and making new friends. It was hard. Having this great title as prince but without all of the power, that was confusing. I had to grow into who I am and my family’s legacy and understand that you can still do something and have power to influence the world and make changes for your county and for people. Young readers, that’s really what I wanted to pass down for the next generation. That’s why [I chose] the children’s book format, if I can capture this history and my family’s legacy and make sure that they know it, people can tap into that and move forward and make a better future.

Prince Joel Makonnen is founder and CEO of Old World New World media and entertainment company.
Follow him on social media @princeyoel.

About the Book


Like most people living in Addis Prime, Yared Heywat spends many of his days trying to abide by the city’s rules and finding ways to keep his mind and imagination busy, something which tends to lead to him getting into trouble. But Yared’s thirst for adventure is also what makes him one of the city’s better players of The Hunt For Kaleb’s Obelisk, a secretive augmented-reality game popular among an underground community of gamers.

When Yared decides one day to use his actual name while logging into a session of The Hunt For Kaleb’s Obelisk, the game’s dangers become all too real for reasons that he can’t understand, and Addis Prime comes under a sudden attack that leads to the disappearance of Yared’s uncle Moti. But in Moti’s absence, Yared begins to realize that the myths and tales his uncle used to regale him with might be the key to figuring out how his actions in the game are beginning to have real world impact.

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