It may seem strange that an organizational facilitator with a deep passion for peacemaking would write a cookbook. It is even stranger coming from a man who loves to cook, but rarely measures any ingredient! Beyond strange, it may seem presumptuous that a white man in the United States would explain how to make injera—an art traditionally practiced by women of East Africa who feed villages and families in Eritrea and Ethiopia. So I have some explaining to do!
This work is about much more than cooking. Yes, it contains recipes growing out of the Mahaffy family’s experience of living in Eritrea for very many years. It is dedicated in honor of Arlena Mahaffy, the matriarch of our family, who raised seven children of her own in Eritrea, embraced many other children, and provided medical care and a helping hand to countless Eritreans.
But, this book is as much about relationships as it is about recipes. It is a narrative about the people and culture of Eritrea. It shares some insights on what the West might learn from the cultural traditions of East Africa. Finally, it is a narrative that weaves from the metaphor of eating from a common dish an emerging understanding of a new approach to peacemaking through relational presence.
The core message of this narrative is a simple one: Peacemaking is more likely to succeed if it begins with the relationship instead of beginning with the agenda. Efforts at peacemaking most often begin with an agenda. The agenda, of course, is to end the conflict at-hand. What happens when we begin with the agenda in any decision making process, is that we immediately loop back into the positions that are oppositional and that set us apart.
In the East African practice of eating from a common dish I find a rich metaphor for peacemaking that begins with valuing the relationship above the agenda. This insight comes from my experience of community gatherings in the United States that include Eritreans and Ethiopians sharing a meal from a common dish. This sharing of a meal is significant because of the deadly war between Eritrea and Ethiopia that cost so many lives. Somehow, refugees from both sides of this war, find a way to share a meal together and discover ways they can build community and collaborate in their new homeland.
At the celebration of my Ph.D. graduation at Tilburg University in the Netherlands through the Taos Institute, Dr. John Rijsman of Tilburg University remarked that many of the great peace treaties between nations were first forged after parties shared a meal together in one of the many fine restaurants in Brussels, Belgium. This is another example of peacemaking that grows from beginning with relationships instead of beginning with an agenda. “First, come sit with me and share a meal.”
I wonder how global conflicts and efforts at peace negotiations might be different if the starting place of engagement was a shared meal. Might Israelis and Palestinians begin with breaking bread together instead of beginning with negotiations about territory? Had the run-over of Crimea by Russia been paused long enough for a shared meal and a deep conversation, might there have been a different outcome that did not leave the world’s great military powers posturing for positional power?
I can imagine some readers scoffing right now and suggesting that this is a simplistic view. Yes, it is simplistic. It is as simplistic as the view of Eritrean women like Abrahet Kidane who believe that with a little teff flour and a little water they can feed a family, a village and a nation fighting for its independence. You see, Abrahet Kidane was my Eritrean teacher many years ago who taught me the art of making injera. It is an art that she practiced with joy and a song on her lips as she bent over an outdoor mogogo oven, carefully pouring batter onto the flat surface of a covered oven constructed from mud and cow dung.
Eritrean Cooking weaves rich relationships and recipes together to frame a dream that the world can find a more peaceful path. It invites the reader to slow down and smell the rich aroma of spices from East Africa being merged into an exquisite meal. It suggests that the place where we are present to each other is the place where peacemaking begins. So step into some peacemaking. Like injera making it will take persistence to get it right. It will require slowing down and practicing attentiveness.
The shared feast and the deepening of relationships will be reward enough. As the steam escapes and rises when the lid covering the injera is removed, may our prayer rise with it for peace between nations. May we hold hope and vision for the day when the lion lies down with the lamb and when ‘enemies’ sit down to share a meal from a common dish.