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  • Issayas Tesfamariam

Dining Eritrean food, where the many surround the one

It’s often said in the Mahaffy family that a precondition for marrying into the clan is love for Eritrean food. Fortunately, that’s true for me, even though I grew up on a Minnesota farm where the diet leaned heavily toward bland.

I first met the Mahaffys through my older brother Lloyd, who lived with Paul, Samuel and Peter (in a student house with a reputation for independent thinking) while attending college in Iowa. Fast forward a few years, and Peter and I are married and visiting his parents in Chicago – enjoying the heady scent of Mom (Arlena) Mahaffy’s tsebhi dorho while listening to Father (Francis) Mahaffy’s stories of life in Eritrea.

Moving to Edmonton in western Canada in the early 1980s, we soon connected with Eritrean expatriates and helped send computers and books to Asmara University. In the mid-1990s came my first chance to visit the country I’d heard so much about, when an Eritrean Edmontonian arranged for a group of us to tour enterprises benefitting women and children in both Eritrea and Ethiopia. I remember being overwhelmed by sights, smells and sounds on that journey, but mostly by the generosity of spirit among those we met.

Hoping to engage more deeply, Peter and I laid plans to return with our three children in 1998 for a sabbatical year at the University of Asmara. While Peter taught chemists, I hoped to put my training as a journalist to work by mentoring young writers. Then war erupted again, and we were forced to put those plans on hold. Peter did spend a month at the university in 2000 and again in 2002, but for me, the journey to bring Samuel home was a welcome opportunity, finally, to come back.

Memories abound from our two-week journey. Drinking in the rugged landscape on the drop from Asmara to Massawa. Swimming in the Red Sea (and riding a camel along the shore) on Christmas day. Sensing the sweep of Eritrean history at museums and archeological sites. Meeting entrepreneurs who are charting the country’s next chapters as designers, filmmakers, collectors, builders. Being so warmly welcomed to the Mahaffy family home in Senafe, with its striking mountain backdrop. Gathering around the common dish and sharing the three cups of ceremonial bun with generous souls.

Most of all, I carry the memory of the many people, all along the way, who helped fulfill Samuel’s wish to be laid to rest in the land of his birth. We take heart that he rests in such a fitting place, shadowed by the mountain he loved to climb. I keep marveling at the hundreds who became involved in making one man’s dream come true – planning, tent building, cooking, serving, officiating, attending, translating, comforting. And much more. Know that we are forever grateful.

As for the food? In a word, delicious. I couldn’t help but love it. We’ll be back for more.

Thank you, Cheryl.

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