“I will stand with the people of Eritrea as long as I have a voice”- Dr. Samuel Mahaffy
BY BILLION TEMESGHEN | ERITREA PROFILE
Samuel Mahaffy (Ph.D.) was born to an American family in Asmara on August 21st, 1952. He grew up in the beautiful small town of Senafe. His childhood, much of which was spent in the diverse communities of Eritrea, shaped his identity.
Dr. Samuel lived his life to honor his Eritrean people and history. Far away from home, in the US, where he raised his family, Dr. Samuel carried his Eritrean traditions and values with pride. In his heart, he reserved a large space for the place he called home and the people he saw as family, Eritrea and its people.
As per his request, Dr. Samuel Mahaffy was recently laid to rest in Senafe, where he spent much time as a child. He even referred to himself as “Wedi Senafe – ወዲ ሰንዓፈ” (a son of Senafe). His wife, Renee Durdaana, and three children, Sylvan, Kamila, and Hanna, recently arrived in Eritrea to lay his body to rest in Senafe.
Today, we reflect upon the life of Dr. Samuel Mahaffy with his family.
“Samuel was an incredibly kind and loving being and he always reminded us to live from our hearts. He grew up in Senafe, living there until he was fourteen. His mother homeschooled him and he would often finish his assignments early so that he could go to the mountains of Senafe. I feel like the landscape of Eritrea and the beauty of Eritreans were a big part of him.
We met in 1990. And I think that it was in 1993 that he started to deeply reconnect with his Eritrean roots. When we were married, he wore traditional Eritrean chama (shoes) in the wedding. It was outside by the lake and he even made sure that he spread lots of straw so that it would be more traditional.
His connection with the Eritrean diaspora community in Seattle increasingly grew over the years. He did a lot of grant-writing for the Eritrean community, attended various events, and he would meet with the Eritrean community at least once per month. He loved also loved Twitter because it allowed him to connect with the world and advocate for Eritrea.
His Ph.D. was in Social Constructionism, which basically looks at how we construct our reality. He felt that Eritreans had been “constructed” incorrectly and negatively by the world’s media and press and so his mission was to find facts that were inaccurate or didn’t portray the Eritrea he loved and to challenge them. His goal was to correct those things.
I remember one day I came home from work and he had found a statistic on the WHO website that was incorrect. So he contacted them and asked them to change it. He really worked hard to change the narrative of Eritrea in the world.
He was also a peacemaker. He felt like Eritrea had a lesson to share with the world. According to him, it had much to give the world. He loved the religious harmony and the tradition of sharing meals.
He grew up in a community with a “narrative” culture so he was a storyteller. Everything from his childhood became, later, a part of stories that he would tell the kids. They also often had a lesson or a moral.
I think what he loved the most is that the people of Eritrea prioritize love and friendship.”
“For me the biggest lesson was embracing community from different backgrounds and cultures. We grew up having these big meals with twenty to thirty Eritrean friends in our house. My father considered every Eritrean as a part of his family and so I think that model is what I cherish the most. He showed me how to embrace cultures.
I knew little about Eritrea before coming here. But now we went to Massawa and to Senafe and we learned more about Eritrea. Before coming here, the main way that I connected with Eritrean culture was through the food. When we were young, our father learned how to make Eritrean food and injera. He taught himself and then he taught our brother and Hanna and I how to make Eritrean dishes. He believed that making injera is a spiritual process.
He was a very optimistic and hopeful person. He always found a bright side to everything. He was a very kind and loving father. I never felt like he quite fit with the “typical” father image in America. He was very involved in our lives. My perception is that this, and much more of who my father was, is something he acquired from the Eritrean culture.
It felt really special to bring him back home to Senafe and Eritrea. And to be here with the people he told us so much about and meet so many welcoming and warm people has been a great experience. Everyone here is very generous and kind. We have felt extremely welcome since the minute we stepped off the plane. It was exactly like how he told us it would be. To see so many people coming together for the service in Senafe, people who knew him growing up, other members of the community, and other people who came from Asmara to bid their farewells. It was honoring who he was and his love for Eritrea. He was a white man walking in the streets of Seattle but he really felt Eritrean in his heart and was ‘Wedi Senafe’.”
“Growing up we heard a lot of stories about Eritrea and Senafe. Through the stories and the interactions with the Eritrean people in Seattle, we saw how important the relationships my father always talked about were. And he really set a model for us in how to sit down with strangers and find common ground and build a relationship. My father built longstanding relationships with Eritreans. That is what I am trying to do.
I feel like he challenged the male stereotype that is prevalent within American society. He cooked food and did many activities in the household which are normally considered as the role of women. He didn’t care about societal expectations and just followed his heart. He was so good at connecting with people, as well as his family and friends.
In the culture that we grew up in, men don’t feel like they can have deep emotional connections. But he was extremely different. He was capable of exchanging all sorts of dialogues, be they philosophical or other.
We laid him to rest in the “Mountain of the Cross” [Metera], as he called it. That was where he used to climb as a kid. It felt right. And I think it is important that we came here.
Seeing how many people came for the service and the respect we are getting from the Eritrean people is a deep honor. It is an honor for his many years of work and devotion for Eritrea. It shows that he is appreciated and respected by his people.
Thank you for being the people that you are and thank you for embracing him as a kid. I believe that he did all of his advocacy work for Eritrea because he felt loved by his people. I think growing up here was the core part of him being Eritrean. Meeting all of the people who knew him personally and through his works has been amazing. I wish we’d come here while he was alive and with him. But still, I strongly feel connected to Eritrea. I am inspired to come back and learn Tigrigna. I now clearly see why my father loved his home. He was always happy when he introduced himself as ‘Wedi Senafe’.”