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  • Issayas Tesfamariam

In the shadow of Emba Matara

Updated: Jun 29, 2019

Peter Mahaffy, PhD

Professor of Chemistry The King's University

Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Emba Matara, or "The Mountain of the Cross" is a spectacular 1000 foot granite spire, which casts its late afternoon shadow on the village of Matera in the Eritrean Highlands. As a young child, I used to climb the mountain regularly with my brothers and with guests who would come to visit us in our home village of Senafe. We scampered up the mountain, including the steep section with a cable attached to a spike driven into a particularly challenging portion of the climb by Italian soldiers. The cross at the top, we were told as children, was placed on top of the mountain in memory of a defeated Italian general, who chose honor over surrender and jumped off the top of the Mountain.

Peter, lower left. Paul, second from the left. Samuel, lower right. Senafe, Eritrea. Early 1960s.

This stunning spire, called a "granite intrusion", exposed by geological action some 10 - 100 million years ago, has faithfully watched over life at its feet over the centuries - from the beehive of activity in various kingdoms some 2000 years ago to the rhythm of 21st century Senafe village life. Emba Matara has quietly smiled on ululating women at weddings, the flood of donkey carts and buses on market days, oxen plowing rocky fields, and villagers welcoming strangers with freshly brewed bun filtered through horse-hair plugs from tilted jebena pots on charcoal fires. Emba Matara has also been a somber witness over the centuries to human conflict, tied inextricably to the map-drawing of five colonizations of Eritrea. Matara has shuddered as elephants, and British soldiers from the Napier expedition passed underneath from Adulis into interior Ethiopia.

Lt. General Robert Napier

"Expedition Supply Depot, Zula, Eritrea, during the Napier Expedition to Maqdala,1868.

Photograph by Sergeant John Harrold, 10th Company Royal Engineers.

Senafe, during the Napier Expedition to Maqdala, 1867-8.

"British Army Encampment in Senafe, Eritrea during the Napier Expedition to Maqdala", 1867-8.

Photograph by Sergeant John Harrold, 10th Company Royal Engineers.

The Caption reads: "In Memory of the Officers and Men of General Napiers Expedition to Maqdala

1867-1868 and of Colonel A R Dunn VC and Five Others Whose Remains Are Unknown Who Lie

Beyond Here. Senafe, Eritrea

Many a scout has climbed the mountain's flanks to get a birds-eye view, and trenches, landmines, and tanks have stained its base red far too many times to count in the past decades as Eritrea fought for self-determination. Moreover, as only an Eritrean village could do, on December 29, 2018, in the shadow of Emba Matara, the village of Senafe welcomed home my brother Samuel, whose last wishes were to return to the place of his birth.

View from Maeref Tsadqan, Mt. Matara.

To the people of Eritrea and Senafe, I offer my heartfelt thanks, and that of the entire Mahaffy family, in the form of the words I wrote for Samuel's burial in the cemetery in the shadow of Emba Matara. Every person, every tribe, every village, every nation has its own stories. Also, Samuel was no exception. Wedi Senafe. Son of a village. It takes a village to raise a son. Samuel's story began in 1952 in Senafe, where he spent the first 14 years of his life. So the complex stories of Eritrea were deeply woven through the complexities of his own life, his passions, and his values. Was there one true friend of brother Samuel's with whom he did not break injera and eat zignay often that he made himself with his family? So it is fitting that the final chapter of Samuel's story is written in the presence of so many kind friends in the village of Senafe. Samuel is surrounded today by his wife Renee, his children Sylvan, Hanna, and Kamila, representatives of his family in the form of Cheryl and myself and brother Paul, good friends from the United States, and most importantly by his brothers and sisters who make Senafe and Eritrea home. The child Samuel would have shared shahee, hospitality, and nourishing food with some of you here, along with the mothers, fathers, and grandparents of the many villagers who have come to say goodbye to him. From the bottom of our hearts, Samuel's family members who are here in person and his large family in other parts of the world who are here in spirit, say Yekanyele to all of you. Thank you, for helping to raise our brother Samuel, and for welcoming him and all of us back so generously to the home where he wanted his body and his spirit to rest. Your gracious hospitality and generosity deeply move us.

I am sure Samuel's spirit jumps to know that this ceremony today in December of 2018, comes at a time we dare to hope after many decades that living in peace will be the new lasting story for the village of Senafe and for Eritrea. Samuel would wish that everyone here, along with your neighbors in villages and cities close to Eritrea and around the world will find ways to work for peace, to pray for peace, to live peace, and to love peace. It is the profound hope of his family that generations to come will stand quietly at this beautiful piece of ground believing that Samuel's spirit and Emba Matara that looks over his final resting place will never again see trenches, landmines, and weapons raised against others. Rest in peace, brother Samuel, Wedi Senafe. Your village has welcomed you home. Following Samuel's committal to his final resting place, I climb Emba Matara with family members for the first time in 52 years. I stand quietly on its peak, giving thanks for being deeply rooted in the beautiful village in the shadow of this majestic rock.

Sylvan with his uncles, Peter and Paul. Daniel, their guide, on the right.

Note: For over a decade, Dr. Peter Mahaffy and his research team at The King’s University in Edmonton, Alberta, have worked with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013.

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