Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Conservation with Dr. Samuel Mahaffy


Dr. Samuel Mahaffy

Issayas:  Would you tell us about yourself?

Dr. Samuel Mahaffy: I was born in Asmara, Eritrea and grew up in the town of Senafe.  My family lived in Eritrea for around 27 years.  I have four brothers and two sisters, all born and raised in Eritrea.  I moved to the United States in 1966. The transition to life in the United States was very challenging for me. I still consider Eritrea my homeland. I have stayed connected to my Eritrean roots through being involved in nonprofit work with immigrant and refugee communities from Eritrea and other East African countries.  Sharing my heritage from Eritrea has always been important to me.  I reconnected in the U.S. with a wise Eritrean woman who taught me how to make injera when I was little.  After lots of struggles, I became a bit proficient at fixing injera and the
traditional  foods from Eritrea.  I taught my three beautiful children to make injera. To honor the Eritrean people who have meant so much to me and to help correct misconceptions about Eritrea, I published a book called Eritrean Cooking:  Rich Relationships and Recipes from East Africa.

I have been  a nonprofit consultant most of my life and have worked with more than five hundred nonprofits and NGOs including a number in Africa.  I value especially  my relationship with Salaam Urban Village Association in Seattle, a nonprofit started by Eritreans and serving immigrant and refugee families. As part of my work with Salaam Urban Village, I hope to be part of a delegation visiting Eritrea in the months ahead.  I earned my Master of Arts in Linguistics from the University of Michigan.  My deep appreciation for language comes from my years in Eritrea. I received my PhD from Tilburg University in the Netherlands through the Taos Institute of which I am now an Associate. I have become a relentless advocate for sharing accurate information about Eritrea in the face of much mis-information.

Issayas: Why do you think there is mis-information about Eritrea? Or put differently, why is it important to tell "accurate information" about Eritrea?

Dr. Samuel Mahaffy: Ignorance about Eritrea in the U.S., is in large part endemic of an educational system here that has been ethno-centric and interpreted world history through the lens of predominate/dominate and Indo-European culture.We are sadly ignorant of the rich history, cultures and languages of the African continent. Beyond that, I concur with scholars such as Noam Chomsky that see a deliberate intent to either 'invisiblize' or inaccurately represent countries like Eritrea that do not fall into line with the U.S. and corporate economic, development and political agenda.  There has been little tolerance for countries charting their own course. Eritrea has done so, since liberation, to a greater extent than most African countries and has paid a price in terms of  isolation.

It is important to present accurate information about Eritrea in the interests of truth and in fairness to the people and Country of Eritrea.  For there to be peace in the world, there must be dialogues across cultures and languages that are respectful and the dynamic of having 'power-over' others must change. I am convinced that Eritrea can be an important participant in creating peace and stability in the Horn of Africa.

I take personally misinformation about Eritrea, because Eritrea is very much part of who I am today.

Issayas:  Would you tell us more about Salaam Urban Village Association?

Dr. Samuel Mahaffy: ​​Salaam Urban Village Association is a nonprofit started in Seattle, Washington nearly seven years ago. It was founded by my Eritrean friend, Amanuel and several other Eritreans.  The original motivation was a  negative reaction of the Seattle community to a few young people from Eritrea and other East African countries who were getting into trouble in the City.  There was a sense that both young people from African immigrant families needed more support and community connection to transit to life in the United States and that there were many misperceptions around the African community. SUVA has focused on supporting services for migrant/refugee families.

My involvement with SUVA started by writing successful grant applications for program services.  We saw that, like many nonprofits, SUVA needed a more sustainable funding paradigm. Through a visioning process we called REIMAGINE SUVA we are reshaping the nonprofit to be a 'portal to Africa' supporting immigrant/refugee communities across the United States while still focusing on services in Seattle.

Issayas: You mentioned that you want "to honor the Eritrean people who have meant so much to me". Would you elaborate? What did they mean to you? Do they still mean so much to you now? Why?

Dr. Samuel Mahaffy: ​​My relationships with the Eritrean people has shaped who I am today. I have lived in two worlds--that of the village of Senafe in Eritrea and large urban centers in the United States. I am struck that the Western world in which I now live is very driven by 'agendas.'  This culture sets agendas of achieving certain levels of wealth, status, education. The agenda may be saving for retirement. As a culture, there has been an American agenda to be 'second to none' in the world in terms of economic prosperity and power. These are agendas that, when they are our priority, do not bring happiness in our lives.

Arlena Mahaffy (Dr. Samuel's mother) serves coffee
in Senafe, Eritrea many years ago.

The Eritrean culture that I know and that is part of who I am, prioritizes relationships over agenda.  Eritrea, like many countries outside the United States has a much more relational culture. It is this relational spirit that causes many 'outsiders' who meet Eritreans, to deeply appreciate the people of Eritrea.  I know the people of Eritrea to be a generous people. I cannot count the times that I have been invited to share a meal in an Eritrean restaurant or home. This is a spirit of sharing that I see as being critical if we are to survive and thrive as a global community. I call it "eating from a common dish." When we share a meal, break injera together, or exchange stories over tea, we are equals and honoring of that which makes us all human.

I believe the Western world has much to learn from the more relational cultures of Africa. In my peace making and conflict resolution work, I often pull on this wisdom from Africa generally and Eritrea in particular. I write regularly on these topics on my blog.

Beyond this broad perspective, there are so many Eritreans who have meant so much to me. There are the kids I played soccer with--many of my childhood friends lost in the costly war that Eritrea fought for liberation. A great teacher for me, was a wise Eritrean woman named Abrahet. I learned to make injera as a young child at her feet. I remember her care for me, the songs she sang to me in Tigrinya.  I am happy that my twin daughters, at the age of six, had the opportunity to meet Abrahet in the United States, before she passed away.

I trust my Eritrean friends.  I would trust my children to them in a minute.

Abrahet, who taught Samuel how to make injera, 
with Dr. Samuel's twin daughters when they were little.

Issayas:  You also mentioned that " to help correct misperceptions (misconceptions) about Eritrea, I published a book called Eritrean Cooking:  Rich Relationships and Recipes from East Africa. Has the book done that? How do you measure that? For example, did people tell you, etc.?

I have always wanted to leave the story of my families experience in Eritrea as a legacy for my children.  It helps them to understand who I am.  My cookbook was a way to do that.  It is also my way to present stories that reflect what the Eritrean people mean to me.  While it provides just my
families tradition of fixing Eritrean food, the real 'recipes' are the stories about living a more relational and connected life.  The book was only published last year, but has been well received.  It has actually been nominated for a cookbook award this year.  I am sure it will go through a number of revisions. Such is the way of both stories and recipes!

Issayas: Do your siblings feel the same way as you do about Eritrea?

​Dr. Samuel Mahaffy: I believe my siblings all carry ​a deep care for the Eritrean people and culture.  I am the only one who has actively pursued a conversation about Eritrea in a public forum. My younger brother, Peter, is a chemist at a University in Canada.  He has visited Eritrea more than once and at one point consulted with Asmara University about the potential for developing herbal remedies. My oldest two brothers grew up speaking some Saho, a language my father was proficient in. The siblings closest to me grew up speaking some Tigrinya.  I am currently hoping to study Tigrinya  and remember some of the language and also study the Ge'ez language.


Dr. Samuel and his son, Sylvan

Issayas:  Do you have final comments?

Dr. Samuel Mahaffy: I know there are many opinions about Eritrea, even among Eritreans.  It is my hope that there will be an inclusive conversation about Eritrea among Eritreans living in Eritrea and around the world that will explore the dreams and aspirations of the Eritrean people without getting lost in politics. There are so many capable Eritreans in communities in the U.S., Europe and many other places. I continue to be hopeful and positive about the future of Eritrea as a country setting its own course, guarding what is most precious and still finding a way to connect with the global community.

Issayas: Dr. Samuel, thank you for your time. Much appreciated!
To follow up on the activities of Dr. Samuel Mahaffy:

Forthcoming Book: Relational Presence:  Discovering Sacred Space in Decision Making

Personal Website:

Professional Profile:


Twitter: twitter@samuelmahaffy