Celebrating Eritrea: Address to the Western U.S.A. Eritrean Festival

Dr. Samuel Mahaffy was invited to address the Western U.S.A. Eritrean Festival held in Oakland, California August 15 – 17, 2014. He spoke as part of a panel titled ‘Voices of the Other Eritreans.’ The panel was moderated by Issayas Tesfamiriam of Stanford University. Other panelists included Emilio De Luigi, author of the book ‘Ninety-three Days out of Eritrea’ and Emilio’s granddaughter Elena. The audience included Eritreans from around the world and included dignitaries from the Country of Eritrea.

Voices of the Other Eritreans - Dr. Samuel Mahaffy
Dr. Samuel Mahaffy addressed Eritreans at the Eritrean Festival in Oakland, California (August 15 – 17, 2014)

By Samuel Mahaffy (PhD),

ዲርኩም (Hadirkum). I am greatly honored to be invited to speak at the Western U.S. Eritrean Festival and to be part of this panel called ‘Voices of the Other Eritreans’. I thank the event organizers–especially Issayas and Tsighe–and each of you who has welcomed me so warmly.

I bring you special greetings from the Eritrean community in Seattle, Washington and especially from my colleague, Amanuel Yohannes at Salaam Urban Village Association.

I am indeed honored to be identified as one of ‘The Other Eritreans’ along with Emilio De Luigi and his daughter Elena. I expect I will learn much today from shared stories and from being here with you at this great celebration. I look forward to celebrating Eritrea with you! 

By way of introduction, Eritrea is my mother country. I was born in Asmara, Eritrea and grew up in Senafe, Eritrea. Despite having not been to Eritrea for very many years, my heart is still and will always be one with the Eritrean people. Those of you who have been in Senafe, Eritrea, know that the highway to Asmara is marked by a big curve which affords a spectacular view of the valley where Senafe is seated surrounded by spectacular mountains. To this day, I remember taking a long pause at that big curve as my family made their way to the United States. I wanted to hold within myself the sights and memories of this place that was my home and I promised myself that I would one day return.

Coming to the United States from Eritrea was like leaving one planet and moving to another. It was, quite honestly, a transition that I did not make easily. It was a strange new world that I met when I came through New York harbor and then into my new home in Chicago. America did not feel like home to me. I remember first being in this country and hearing broadcasters on the radio–on channels like Fox News talking about ‘the greatest country on earth.’ I thought –it is amazing that all these people are talking about Eritrea! It took me a while to figure out the depth of the elitism that may be embedded in that phrase the greatest country on earth. I have come to respect how powerful place is in our sense of identity.

In my own small way, I have some understanding of the identity challenges that– especially young Eritreans–face when they come to this country. It is an understanding that has compelled my involvement in supporting Salaam Urban Village Association (SUVA) (www.salaamurbanvillage.org), a Seattle-based non-profit serving the East African community. The nonprofit grew from the vision of my friend and colleague from Eritrea, Amanuel Yohannes. He saw young teens from Eritrea and other parts of East Africa drifting on the streets of Seattle. Seattle knew little about its residents from Eritrea and there were many misperceptions. SUVA has tirelessly tried to support families from East Africa and other parts of the world, while bridging the gap in understanding with the rest of the city.

It has been a process for me to remember who I am as a son of Eritrea –as Wade Senafe. We carry memories deep in our bodies and in our spirits. My memories of Eritrea awakened through food. My wife recalls that it was actually in San Francisco that this first happened for me. As I shared a meal with her and friends of our family at an Eritrean restaurant, she recounts that as I held a piece of injera and took in the unique smell, the stories of Eritrea began to spill out.

Voices of the Other Eritreans.
Voices of the Other Eritreans.

But, when I really remembered for myself what it means to be an Eritrean, was when I traveled to Texas with my twin daughters–then only four years old. We were on our way to visit my mother–their grandmother–and could not go through Dallas without finding some Eritrean food. I found myself at a tiny restaurant in a strip mall. I recall that it had an Italian name, but it was surely Eritrean. As we waited for our platter of injera, zigni, and shiro, my daughters were restless from being on the airplane for so long. With little success, I tried to keep them respectfully seated at the table with me. But, they continued to roam, finding great delight in playing hide-and-seek under the white tablecloths at other diner’s tables.

My efforts to rope them in were futile. An elderly Eritrean man was watching me with some amusement. Finally, he came over to my table, greeted me, and then with the wisdom of an elder said to me: “Just let your daughters roam. They are safe here. We are all Eritreans.”

It was a profound moment for me. I was touched that I was with a people who watch out for and care for each other’s children. I was with a people who would, without hesitation, invite a stranger to share a meal from their common dish. I was with Eritrean people. The Eritrean lady waiting tables assured me that, indeed, my children were now finding one of their first life experiences of what it means to be part of an Eritrean community. For confirmation, I asked her if the men who were seated drinking tea, visiting, or sharing a meal were all Eritrean. She turned to the room with a smile and asked: “Who in here is from Asmara?” Every man in the room raised his hand! I was again in the company of Eritreans and happy to be home!

In my own way, I found myself back to my Eritrean heritage. For me, it was through remembering how to make injera. I became obsessed with remembering how to make injera. And, oh what a mess, I made of it so many times, before I finally succeeded.

Becoming proficient at making injera required two things. First, it required slowing down and getting centered. The motion of pouring injera batter in a circular pattern onto the smooth surface of my electric mogogo became a metaphor for me of centering down and stepping outside of the frenetic pace with which we too often live life in this Western world.

It also took my calling in the memory of the wise Eritrean woman who taught me how to make injera as a young boy. Abrahet had been a teacher to me in so many ways. Besides generously sharing with me her skills at making injera, she always had a smile, a kind word, and a song she would sing quietly to me in Tigrinya. Although she passed away shortly after my daughters were able to meet her, Abrahet’s spirit would always be with me.

Some years later I published my book Eritrean Cooking: Rich Relationships and Recipes from East Africa. I dedicated that book to my mother, Arlena Mahaffy, who had provided medical care and a helping hand to so many Eritreans. But, I especially acknowledged the gift that Abrahet was in my life. I wrote this book, not so much to share recipes. I really wrote it to share the richness of my life journey with Eritreans and to express my appreciation for all I have learned from the Eritrean community. With that book, I passed on to my three children my stories and my appreciation for Eritrea.

Somehow, being a maker of injera has become a part of my identity. At a presentation to the Eritrean community in Seattle, my friend Yohannes was introducing me. I expected he would mention first that I had recently received my Ph.D. from Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He introduced me instead as “the only white guy in North America that makes injera.” I am not sure I really have right to that title, but I accept it as an honor, because I have great respect for the women of Eritrea.

Yes, I do have great respect for the women of Eritrea. I think of my friend Meheret who I call my Sister from Eritrea. She crossed the desert at the age of 12 carrying her baby sister on her back–to then become a community leader in Seattle, following in the legacy of her Father who fought for Eritrean Independence then worked to establish the Eritrean Community Center in Seattle. The Eritrean women I know have fed families, villages, and freedom fighters from a little teff flour and a little water, shaped into stacks of delicious injera. They are mothers, professionals in their fields, and work to support both the Eritrean community in the United States and give back to their country by supporting projects in Eritrea.

In recent years, I have become a passionate advocate for publically confronting misrepresentations and inaccuracies about Eritrea and the Eritrean people. I do so in publications and on social media. In preparing for this celebration, Issayas asked me a compelling question that caused me to reflect deeply. He asked: “Why does it matter to you if Eritrea is misrepresented?”

There are several reasons why I am committed and believe we should all be committed to sharing accurate information about Eritrea and her people. First, I take it personally when Eritrea is misrepresented. These are my people. Those of you who know the story of Ruth and Naomi in the Old Testament Scriptures, will remember the deep bond between them that led to the exclamation: “Your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God.” The Eritrean people are my people. They are my people by my birth in their country and by their kind acceptance of me as one of The Other Eritreans.

It is also a matter of truth and justice. I am deeply convicted that there will be peace in the world only as we engage in mutually respectful dialogue among nations. I accept the analysis of scholars such as Noam Chomsky who suggest that the effort to invisiblize countries like Eritrea grows from an intentional strategy to maintain power and control over others. It perpetuates hegemonic discourse, which, of course, is not really discourse at all. The United States that I care about is bigger than that. We can and must engage respectfully with other nations, even when they choose to chart their own course and their dreams and aspirations may not align with our own strategic, economic and development interests.

If my age and life experience has given me any privilege to speak as an elder, I would conclude with two messages. One is to the Western world and especially to the U.S. State Department and the other is to my sisters and brothers of Eritrea.

I stay very much outside of politics and in speaking of Eritrea, I also stay outside of the political arena. But, if I had the privilege of a face-to-face meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry and the U.S. State Department, I would say one thing: “Do not underestimate Eritrea.” Eritrea is here to stay. It will persist in charting its own course. Eritrea will find its way. I have deep faith and hope that Eritrea will unfold a new post-liberation chapter that is one of peace and tolerance and that acknowledges and finds room to nurture the dreams and aspirations of the young people of Eritrea. I believe that Eritrea has the potential to be a great agent for peace and stability in the Horn of Africa and set a model for self-determination.

The people of Eritrea are among the most intelligent, capable, kind and generous of all people. If we choose as a country to ignore them, it is our loss.

I share this message with my sisters and brothers of Eritrea. Let us every day celebrate Eritrea and the Eritrean people as we do here today. I celebrate Eritrea for its incredibly rich cultures, languages and traditions. I have above my office desk, a picture of Asmara that shows a mosque and a Coptic church within a stone’s-throw distance of each other. But, there are not stones being thrown. I celebrate the ability of Eritrea to be as big as the different faith traditions and perspectives that it encompasses.

So pass on to your children the richness of the legacy of the Eritrean people. Share the stories, not only of the struggle for liberation but also of the rich culture and traditions. I think of the song that says: “Teach your children well and feed them on your dreams…the ones you live by.” I say to my sisters and brothers from Eritrea, “teach your children well and feed them on your injera!” Teach the younger generation to make injera. Teach them also the rich traditions and languages that are their heritage.

Mostly, I hope that the Eritrean community will hold as precious the sense of community and sharing that makes it great. For there to be peace in the world, we need to start with relationships and not with our agendas. That would be starting from eating a shared meal from a common dish. No one knows better how to do that than the Eritrean people.

There is an African proverb: “You have no enemy when you eat from a common dish.” In the West, we can learn much from the African tradition of eating from a common dish.

I thank you one more time for inviting me into the heart of your Festival and your celebration. And, let us continue to keep this conversation going. I invite you to follow my website (www.samuelmahaffy.com) and my Twitter account (@samuelmahaffy) where I write frequently about Eritrea. And if you come to our part of the country, we will have injera on the table and coffee beans roasting.

የቐንየለይ! (Yekenyeley!) Thank you. God Bless you.