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Wisdom Poured from a Bent Tin Can: The Enduring Art of Making Injera

It was with great sadness that I left my home town of Senafe, Eritrea in East Africa, at the tender age of sixteen.  As I began the journey on the windy mountain road to the capital city of Asmara that led to the port City of Massawa and a long boat ride to New York City, I gazed back at the beautiful mountainous valley that cradled the village of Senafe.  It was a village that I might never see again.  I wanted to tuck into my being every memory, every sight and smell, all the relationships I was leaving behind.  I wanted to preserve all I had learned from time alone on the mountain peaks and the wisdom of this culture.


I learned the art of African bread-making as a young child squatting at the feet of a wise Eritrean woman, Abrahet.  Abrahet always sang quietly in her native language of Tigrinya as she went through every step of making injera—the thin flat bread that was a central part of nearly every Eritrean meal.  The mogogo oven, built from mud and cow dung, had a smooth flat black surface that needed to be rubbed with castor beans.  The oil from the beans lubricated the surface.  Tiny solid pieces of this bean, which is highly poisonous if ingested, needed to be carefully wiped away once the oil from the bean was used.


The injera batter of teff flour is mixed and allowed to ferment for days before injera is made. Now, Abrahet pours it with care and great concentration from a bent tin can onto the surface of the oven.  The pouring process begins at the outside of the surface and moves inward to the center.  As the batter hits the warm surface, it forms bubbles that look like hundreds of tiny eyes.


It took nearly twenty years of living in the fast-paced Western world that is now my home, before I found the courage to try making injera on my own. There were many failed tries.  First, I had to slow down!  I had to let go of my thinking in terms of measuring both ingredients and baking times.  I had to let go of expecting there to be a script to follow or a ‘right’ way and a ‘wrong’ way.  Injera-making is less about teaching and more about transmission.


This is an ancient art passed down through generations of Eritrean women who have fed their children, their families, their villages and the liberation fighters in the mountains fighting to win the independence of their country from occupying forces from Ethiopia.  Injera—made from this simple mixture of teff flour, a little leavening and water—nurtured life in Eritrea through wars, adversity and famines.  It fed communities celebrating together a marriage or the birth of a child.  Somehow, there was always enough of this thin batter to make another stack of soft, aromatic injera for another meal of spicy African meat and vegetable dishes served from a shared platter.


Injera making is work.  It is also ritual and a prayerful practice.  It is the relational practice of Eritrean women connecting a village together around a shared meal that is physical sustenance. It is also sustaining of the rich conversations and stories that enhance identity across generations and are sense-making of life in the village.


I step into this this ancient tradition of making injera fully aware that I come as an outsider and a novice.  In the Eritrean community I work with in Seattle, Washington, my claim-to-fame is not my published Ph.D. dissertation, but that I am “one of the only white guys in North America who makes injera.”


The practice of making injera, as I learned it from Abrahet, in Senafe, Eritrea years ago, has been a treasure to me.  It gives me one way to nurture my family and my circle of friends.  But, it also deepens my work as a facilitator and consultant.  The motion of pouring batter from the outside of the circle in toward the center—slowly and purposefully—is a discipline for me in ‘centering in’—finding my own center in this sometimes frenetic world.  I still use the tin can, bent to form a spout, to pour injera onto the griddle.  It reminds me that the most profound acts require only the simplest of instruments.  There is deep faith in trusting that a shared meal, made from simple ingredients, can be extended to feed a village.  Injera-making touches the wisdom that measurements and recipes contribute little to defining acts of immeasurable kindness.


Making injera as a white male, tutored by an African woman, reminds me of how much our still male-dominated leadership culture has to learn from the indigenous wisdom of women who have birthed, woven and sustained the web of life throughout human history.


The slow fermenting process of injera-making, reminds me to be patient with community conversations and visioning processes—to allow these processes to ferment and to allow the wisdom of participants to bubble up to the surface forming the ‘many eyes’ of shared perspectives that grow from deep dialogue.


Injera is never eaten alone.  It is broken and passed around and shared with family and friends.  It is shared with the stranger who may be passing by in the custom of generosity so inherent in Eritrean culture.  Sharing injera is an act of communion—it is breaking bread together—participating together in the relational practices that sustain life.  I will bear the side-ways glances of fellow congregants in my church when I change the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer from “give us this day our daily bread” to “give us today our daily injera”!  This is a prayer, not only for food, but for all that is sustaining of life and relationship.


My injera-making is far from perfect. Still, it is an art I pass on to both my son and my daughters knowing their skills already far exceed my own.  As they feed and nourish the villages they will take their place in as adults, I pray that they will experience the depth of sharing and nurturing of relationships that is forged from the simple act of serving others and from eating together as a community from a common dish.

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