Realizing Ethiopian dreams in America
Two RPCVs work with an old friend to bring Ethiopian culture to a new museum in Chicago
by Drew Gannon
Editor’s note: This well-crafted story was written by Drew Gannon, a Northwestern University journalism student. All of us who served as PCVs in Ethiopia or Eritrea were indelibly marked by the experience. But some of us ended up linking our lives after Peace Corps to things Ethiopian in a very direct way. LaDena Robichaud Schnapper (Dessie, Awassa 63–66) played an important role in arranging the exodus of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and has been active in various Ethiopian diaspora causes. Charlie Sutton (Addis 66–68), who makes a cameo appearance in this story, has kept in touch through the years with the music — and musicians — of Ethiopia. Recently Sutton wrote a wonderful four-part memoir of his Ethiopian musical odyssey for the East African Forum.
WHEN LADENA SCHNAPPER saw all the police cars on Washington D.C.’s International Drive, she knew there was a problem. “Lady, is this your truck?” the police officer asked her as she first stepped out of her car. “Are you aware of all the trouble you caused? My God, this is D.C., this is post 9/11, and this is the embassy row. Don’t you realize what a truck like this parked on this street without any identification could possibly mean?”
Schnapper’s 26-foot U-Haul was parked outside the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington. Overnight, Homeland Security had placed the truck on a satellite and scanned it with radar. By the time Schnapper arrived, dogs were already inside, sniffing its contents. Once the officers decided that the truck was just filled with “old African stuff,” they left, advising Schnapper to move her truck and warning her not to park an unidentified vehicle on the streets of the nation’s capital again.
“It was definitely an adventure,” Schnapper recalled. “But my truck wasn’t filled with just stuff. It was filled with treasures.” The truck contained 60 large packing boxes filled with Ethiopian artifacts. After being housed in the Ethiopian Embassy for 11 years, the artifacts were finally being relocated by Schnapper to their new home: the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago.
Schnapper is what you could call an Ethiopian enthusiast. Originally from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Schnapper served as a Volunteer in Dessie and Awassa. In her three years in Ethiopia, she learned Amharic, submerged herself in Ethiopian music and dance, and helped the students in the area. “We were part of the second group to go out following Kennedy’s word: ‘ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,’” she said. “I called it my Ethiopian imprint because I haven’t let go of it since.”
Returning to the United States, Schnapper maintained her connection to Ethiopia. In 1984, she helped establish the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago. She interviewed Erku Yimer to become the organization’s executive director. Yimer had been a student in Dessie when Schnapper taught there. He moved to Chicago as a refugee. For the past 47 years the two have remained close. “LaDena is wonderful,” Yimer said. “She is a friend to the ECA and she is my dear friend.”
Schnapper also became the International Coordinator for the American Association for Ethiopian Jews in Chicago. She returned to Ethiopia for two years to assist — some would say “direct” — in the final exodus of the Ethiopian Jews to Israel. She was a big player in Operation Solomon, the one day airlift of 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1992. After her work with the Ethiopian Jews, she moved to Washington D.C., where she met Tesfaye Lemma who, like many other Ethiopians, came to the United States in the 1980s to escape the Red Terror of the Derg.
Tesfaye Lemma is a composer, choreographer, conductor, and cultural expert. His artistic works are well known in Ethiopia and by Ethiopians in the United States, especially by the older generations. Perhaps Lemma’s most notable accomplishment was his role as director of Orchestra Ethiopia, an orchestra made up of traditional instrumentalists, vocalists, and dancers from all over Ethiopia. It was the first ensemble to bring together these diverse instruments and ethnic groups. Lemma served as its third director from 1966–1975, and composed and arranged music for the ensemble.
Under Lemma’s direction, and with the help of Charlie Sutton, then a PCV in Addis, the group toured the United States, performing in twenty cities under the name “The Blue Nile Group.” Orchestra Ethiopia also released two LP recordings, one in 1969 and the other in 1973. The ensemble disbanded in 1975 after the Derg took power in Ethiopia. In the 1980s, Lemma came to the United States. “Tesfaye was a man of dreams,” Schnapper said. “His dream was to set up a cultural center, and a folkloric band, and eventually a museum for Ethiopia.” Schnapper became Lemma’s administrative assistant, helping him realize his dreams. They formed the Ethiopian-American Cultural Center and the Nile Ethiopian Ensemble, the first folkloric Ethiopian dance group in the United States.
Still, Lemma, was not satisfied. “He said, ‘No, they need to learn more, all these people in America. We’ve got to start a museum.’” Schnapper said. Lemma returned to Ethiopia in the 1990s and accumulated, by Schnapper’s estimate, a thousand cultural artifacts, including religious relics, agricultural tools, paintings, musical instruments, and clothing. With the help of a wealthy Ethiopian businessman, these artifacts were shipped back to the United States. Lemma and Schnapper named their new museum Tesfa, meaning “hope” in Amharic.
Unfortunately, in 1998, Lemma entered a nursing home to receive intense medical care for his diabetes and kidney failure. At the same time, Schnapper’s mother fell ill, and she returned to the Upper Peninsula to care for her. Having no one to maintain the museum, the artifacts went into indefinite storage at the Ethiopian Embassy. “The artifacts were stored two levels underground the Embassy,” Schnapper said. “They were safe and secure, but they gathered significant amount of dust and I’m sure all of the mice of Washington D.C. visited at least once and probably every bug in the world that liked skin and horse hair made their way to the boxes down there.”
In fall 2009, Schnapper learned that the ECA had received grants to move a larger, more permanent building in Chicago. These new facilities provided the organization with more space for their various services, including tutoring programs, English languages classes, and placement services. The organization also hoped to start their own cultural museum. Schnapper became the liaison between the ECA and Lemma’s artifacts. Schnapper returned to Washington D.C. and spent several weeks with the artifacts, dusting and repackaging them. In January, with the help of the staff of the Ethiopian Embassy and with only a minor altercation with Homeland Security, the artifacts were on their way to ECA’s new building in Chicago. The ECA staff is now organizing the artifacts and hopes the museum will be completed within the year.
“I see the museum really as a bridge, a very vital bridge,” Schnapper said. “It serves as a link between the past and the future generation of Ethiopians, and between Americans of all ethnic groups and this fantastic 3,000 year old rich culture. I would like Ethiopian children to realize the glory of their past and for all Americans to see what Ethiopians can offer to the world.