Journeys

Remembering an artist and a friend

Menjiye, the famed Gurage faga master, has vanished from Emdeber, but his work, including some of his famed beds, still remain to be used and admired

by Philip LeBel (Emdeber 64–67)

THE MASTER CARVER: Menjiye, right, with friend

During our Fulbright stay in Ethiopia last year, my wife Danièle and I happened by almost sheer chance to meet with a former Peace Corps Group IV Volunteer, Kathleen Moore (Emdeber 64–66), who was assigned with me to the village of Emdeber back in 1965. We had stayed in touch periodically but had not seen each other in decades. We met in Addis at the home of one of our former students, and tried to do a bit of catching up.

PCV DIGS: Menjiye's bed, circa 1965

Out of that conversation, Kathy remembered coming across an article on Menjiye, the Ethiopian Gurage Fuga wooden bedmaker whom I had come to know back in our Peace Corps days. Through him I arranged for the carving and purchase of some two dozen beds during the three and a half years that I lived in the village. Most of these went to various visitors who wanted to have one of their own.

When Danièle and I returned to Ethiopia on the Fulbright Senior Fellowship in the spring of 2009, we were fortunate in being able to make a trip to Emdeber, along with Charlie Ipcar, another PCV who spent the 1967–68 year in the village as well. Charlie also knew Menjiye.

On that trip we asked about Menjiye but few seemed to know where he was or what had happened to him. Some indicated that they thought he had passed away. While Menjiye may now be gone, Kathy had come across a book that included an essay on Menjiye and the art of Fuga woodworking. It was written by Alula Pankhurst and Worku Nida in 1994 and was included in a volume called Ethiopia: Traditions of Creativity, edited by Raymond A. Silverman, and published in 1999 by the University of Washington Press. (Ed note: the Silverman book is currently out-of-print, but used copies are available through Amazon. In another article that can be found on the Web, Silverman profiles Menjiye who tells Silverman that he had lots of American friends when “piscor”  [Peace Corps], was in country.)

40 YEARS LATER: Menjiya's bed in the U.S.

I was delighted to come across the Pankhurst article. I found the descriptions of Menjiye very much the way I remember him — bright, creative, jocular, elusive, and independent in spirit. We sleep every night on one of Menjiye’s beds that I managed to get shipped back to the U.S. some 40 years ago. And so, Menjiye is with us even now.

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