Erku Yimer, director of the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago, is a bit flustered. We’re in a small room on the first floor of the association’s Rogers Park home surrounded by more than 2,000 Ethiopian relics, and I keep bombarding him with questions about what everything is. “Is this what you use to make injera?” I ask, pointing to a large clay pot with a flat top, and hoping he will give me extra brownie points for naming the Ethiopian staple. “Yes,” Yimer replies slowly, speaking with a heavy accent even though he’s been in America for the past 30 years. “What’s this?” I point to a wooden lyre resting against a table covered with wooden gourds.
“It’s called a krar.”
“How do you spell that?”
It’s slow going, this whole explain-things-to-Tomi game, primarily because it’s a job designed for a curator and there is no curator—something Yimer wants to change. He wants to turn this room with its artfully arranged cooking utensils, shields, murals, Coptic crosses and musical instruments into the nation’s first Ethiopian cultural museum, ideally before some of these items decompose completely. “Some of the artifacts have been damaged because of improper lighting, [but] we feel it is a crime not to publicize them,” Yimer says.
All artifacts come courtesy of folk artist Tesfaye Lemma, a well-regarded orchestral director and composer who performed at the Kennedy Center with his folkloric ensemble. He brought these artifacts from Ethiopia and ran an impromptu museum in his Washington, D.C., apartment for 20 years until poor health forced him to donate the items to the Ethiopian embassy in D.C.
In 2010, the Ethiopian Community Association in Chicago offered to take the artifacts and make Lemma’s dream a reality. But three years later, most of the artifacts sit in this room, a few still in storage—a bounty of elaborate relics that no one can admire. “Finding funding has been difficult,” says Yimer, who says the association needs about $300,000 to expand the room and install a ventilation system to help preserve some of the more fragile objects.
For now, Yimer just wants to get the word out. He hopes a museum will provide additional cultural cachet for the association, which provides a number of services, like English as a second language classes and a refugee resettlement program for newly arrived Ethiopian immigrants. “We want to be a cultural center,” Yimer says.