The Crossroads Between Eritrea and Greece

Papa Cristo's in Los Angeles is where Greece intersects with Eritrea and Ethiopia

Papa Cristo’s in Los Angeles is where Greece intersects with Eritrea and Ethiopia (Photo property of MamaAfrika.com)

I was in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago and while there, visited one of my favorite little places to shop.  Since you probably already know that I’m a real food lover (I still feel odd saying “foodie”), of course it’s related to where I can buy what I love most: cooking ingredients!

 Since I happened to be in LA on some other business; I took the occasion to make my way down to Papa Cristos Greek restaurant.  So, why on earth, you are certainly asking yourself, would I find myself so excited to go to a Greek place?  Well, because I do love Greek wines, baklava and Eritrean food.  Yes, I said it: Eritrea is (almost) in Greece. 

 Now, to try to turn that into something that makes sense: in LA, as in most large cities, there are ethnic neighborhoods.  Ethnic neighborhoods tend to blend, as opposed to having a clear line.  I’m sure that if I were to return to my childhood memory of New York’s Chinatown and Little Italy with a clearer view; I’d have realized that they too blended. But, that is a story for another time…

 

Photo property of MamaAfrika.com

Dinner at the Nyala Restaurant in L.A. (Photo property of MamaAfrika.com)

So, let’s return to LA:  There is a section of Los Angeles called “Little Ethiopia”. It is home to many Eritreans and the largest population of Ethiopians in the United States.   It is a great stop if you want to have a taste of Ethiopian or Eritrean cuisine.  I highly recommend the Nyala Restaurant on Pico if you decide to pop into the area.  They are famous for their lunch buffet.

But back to how Greece meets Eritrea… You see, the first time I realized that the connection isn’t automatic for a lot of people is when I first took a friend with me to Papa Cristo’s to pick up some injera (a soft sourdough “pancake” of sorts that is used to eat most Ethiopian and Eritrean dishes with).  She looked at me completely perplexed when we entered the place and asked the obvious question: “WHY on earth would this Greek guy sell African foods?”  I then had to explain to her that we were related in many ways.  Eritrea used to be a part of the Greek sphere of influence, we have traded for centuries and our foods reflect that, (as I’m sure would our DNA, if anyone bothered to check).  Eritrea’s name comes from the Greek name for the Red Sea coastline “Erythra Thalassa”. 

Queen Cleopatra of Egypt was from the Ptolemy family of Greece, not a woman of African or Arab descent, as many tend to imagine her.  And, since the Nile River flows north to Egypt, much trade was done in both directions.  Thus, ancient Greek archeological sites can be found in both Eritrea and Ethiopia.  This river has connected the peoples of the Mediterranean Sea to those in the Horn of Africa for ages.  After all, where there is water, there is commerce.  And, where there is commerce, there is an exchange of ideas, cultures and faiths. 

 Let’s compare cultures for a moment: Greece: Greek Orthodox Church, Eritrea: Coptic (Orthodox) Church.  Greek food has a particular flavor profile which uses: fenugreek, oregano, ginger, cumin, turmeric… Then you come to Eritrean food where you meet those same flavors again.  It’s all about the way in which they are blended and in what proportions.  Lamb?  Yes, we both eat it.  At the end of the day, the climates are the same and so are many aspects of the cultures.  Where food is concerned, Eritreans have much more in common with Greeks than we do with Senegalese or Namibians.  And Greeks have more in common with an Ethiopian Copt where faith is concerned than they do with fellow Europeans in Norway or even Catholics in Ireland.

 So, for me to walk into Papa Cristo’s store, it makes complete sense that he’d have incense burners, tiny coffee cups for our coffee ceremony, containers stacked high of spices we use for cooking and yes, even injera made by a local Ethiopian lady who runs a business from home.  Greece and Eritrea have always felt like cousins to me.  We might speak a different language and look a little different; but even that isn’t always the case.  But for my friend, as well as many others that I’ve had conversations with in the past… it is a healthy reminder that European influence in Africa didn’t start with colonization.  We’ve been trading together, praying together and eating together for eons before that nasty turn of events.  And, I have faith that with good will and a clear understanding of history, which is then put in its proper context… we’ll be working together to create a mutually beneficial experience for a long time to come.  Not because of politicians or debates in the United Nations.  But because of good hearted people who reach out to each other with sincere interest and good will.

 Papa Cristo is a man who is short in stature, but big in heart and personality! His father founded the store over 60 years ago with the idea of bringing a little of his homeland to Southern California. Considering his proximity to the Little Ethiopia neighborhood, they slowly added Eritrean and Ethiopian products to their list of wares.  It was a brilliant move considering there is so much cross-over of flavors.  If you think of Greek cuisine, you think of a few different spices and herbs off of the bat: Cumin, turmeric, fenugreek… all of which are also used in Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine.

Greece is tied to both of my cultures, Italian and Eritrean with a pretty tight knot.  Thus, it isn’t surprising that I feel at home among the olive oil jars, baklava and loud voices greeting one another as people come through the door. It is so typically Mediterranean and despite Eritrea lying on the Red Sea, it is a nation with a large Mediterranean influence and feel, due to decades of influence from Greece and Italy.

Caracalla, African born Roman emperor (215-217).  Image courtesy of British Museum

Caracalla, African born Roman emperor (215-217). Image courtesy of British Museum

 

It’s amazing how many people think of Africa as a dark continent first discovered by colonists in the late 1800’s.  When, in fact, we have had a rich common heritage for centuries before that.  We’ve shared queens, spices and art for ages.  We’ve been sending our vessels over the seas to trade, we’ve intermarried and yes there were even African rulers of the Roman Empire.

 

Africa and Europe, especially southern Europe have a common history that dates way before the Portuguese mimicked and greatly expanded the Arab method of slave trade.  And I suspect that our futures are tied as well.  So, the next time you hear people oversimplify the relationship between the evil white Europeans and the poor African victims… remember me sitting among the Greeks and buying freshly made injera, remember Cleopatra of Egypt- by way of Greece, remember the Roman emperors and generals who were of African heritage.

My mantra here on the blog is “Dialog matters”.  Well, honest, open dialog about our cultures and history is a part of what matters most.  Often, we find that as often as it opens the door to discussions about our past and current wounds… it also reminds us of our commonality.  So, let’s use this space as a place to keep the dialog going!  I anxiously await your comments.

Love,

Mama

100th Blog Post and Some Big News

I’m certainly no numerologist, but I do know that the number 100 has significance in many cultures. And even if I’m not a Korean mother preparing to celebrate her baby’s “100 days”, nor a biblical scholar counting the chapters in the Epistle of Paul; it has significance to me. Because this, my friends, is my 100th blog post!
I was tempted to do what you probably expect I would have done: become nostalgic and write about how much I’ve enjoyed blogging, been inspired by those who have joined me at Mama’s Round Table and loved getting to know my readers better through our contact via comments left on the blog or social media like Twitter or Facebook. Of course, I feel all of those things. But, I’m not going to write about them.
Instead, I’m using my 100th post to introduce an alter-ego of sorts: Mama Europa. This is where you’ll find me blogging about France, Italy and beyond…
Don’t think for a moment that it means I’ll be posting here less, because I won’t. Africa is my priority, and will always remain so. I am still absolutely dedicated to doing what I can to improve the lives of African women and children: from Ghana to Eritrea, from Tunisia to South Africa.
I wrote a few blogs last summer about a few of the connections between Europe and Africa. But, if you are a history buff, you already know that the ancient Greeks and Romans have strong ties to Northern Africa. If you love to cook, you know that spices and recipes have crossed the Mediterranean for ages and that the culinary influence between the two continents is strong.
The Roman Empire had a black African Caesar, Egypt’s strongest, wisest leader, Cleopatra was Greek… the historical connections are endless. And, they aren’t just about Europe colonizing Africa either. Yes, there are still negative effects of that terrible period. It is undoubtedly a subject worth covering; but I feel that the subject matter is already well covered.
I would like to focus on the positive connections without overlooking the negative effects. Not only because of dear friends like Tomás, clearly a European with a love and passion for Africa that is absolutely undeniable. But also because I think that all peoples have a story that is worth hearing.
We now live in a world where we are as likely to have a friend in Kenya as in Korea, where people travel across the planet for business or pleasure and where we can log onto our computers and talk to our grandmother or cousin nine time zones away while seeing their beautiful smile. I’m looking forward to the adventures ahead with my new blog; but I’m equally excited about the next 100 blog posts here at Mama Afrika’s World.  I’m working on a few really interesting posts and have some great interviews lined up, one of which is a follow-up with a guest many people have asked about, Nigel Mugamu. Thanks to everyone for your support and interest!
You know my mantra: “Dialog matters”.  So, I am really looking forward to continuing the dialog here while my new blog will be a place where I hope to begin many conversations with you about France, Italy and beyond…
Love,
Mama

Honest Scrap Award, wow!

Honest Scrap Award

Honest Scrap Award

Seems Michelle Masters has nominated me for an Honest Scrap Award. Like you, I asked myself “What the heck is that?!” After some research I learned that it is an award that bloggers nominate one another for. Most often, when they find a blogger puts their heart and soul into their blog. I’m really honored Michelle, thanks!

So now, in spirit of the award; it’s up to me to tell you 10 things that you might not otherwise know about me. Here’s my “honest scrap”:

1. I love dark chocolate in all its forms… and the darker the chocolate the better. I’m one of those nuts you hear about that actually enjoys 70% or 80% dark chocolate! I love making truffles with it, having a small square with coffee. Love, love, love it! (Only fair trade though, of course! 😉

2. I believe in people. I know they are able of killing, committing atrocities and abusing each other. But I also know that they are able to save a stranger, donate their time to children, teach adults to read and select sustainable products because they know it helps someone else live better.

3. I really like architecture.

4. I love God. And for some absurd reason, I hear He loves me back. I hardly deserve it most days; but He just keeps on loving me anyway.

5. I am always ready to laugh. Life is too serious to not laugh.

6. My favorite museum to date is the Dapper (Musée Dapper) in Paris. It’s small; but does a wonderful job of sharing information about the exhibits. I encourage you to go if ever you are in the area. You’ll learn a lot about African art and culture there trust me!

7. When I was a kid, I was sledding for the first time and landed myself in a little creek (ICE cold!) because I didn’t know how to steer the sled well enough. Missed the whole sledding trip since I spent it in the kitchen of a really nice German lady at the only inn for miles. She made me hot cocoa, brought me cookies and told me that although it looked fun through the window, I was better off being indoors wrapped in my giant towel sitting by the kitchen fire while my clothes dried. I’ll never forget her face. Vielen Dank, Madame! (…wherever you are).

8. I was a bodybuilder.

9. I’ve rappelled down a mountain and loved it.

10. Most of my favorite foods start with: olive oil, garlic and onion…

And, in the tradition of the award, I’ll tell you about 7 other bloggers that I’d like to nominate for the Honest Scrap Award. These are blogs that I, even with my busy schedule, go to regularly. I think you’ll find that they love what they blog about, just as I love discussing African people, cultures and art. You might just find that although they aren’t directly related to what I do (not all of them anyway); they have a lot to offer! I’ve given you a hint as to what I love best about each one… enjoy!

1. Robin Locker of My Melange Her blog is straight from the heart, if you love Italy or France; you HAVE to stop by her blog! Great photos, great information on traveling on a budget (What smart girl doesn’t like a bargain, right?)

2. Clement Nyirenda’s Blog world. A blog about the role of technology in the fight against poverty in Africa.  From Malawi, but based in Japan, his is a blog I think you’ll like.

3. Miss Expatria is living the dream, sharing her time between Montpellier, France and Rome, Italy… poor girl! *laugh* She’s got a way of describing her travels that makes you feel like you’re on vacation with her. If you want to see and read about Europe’s hidden treasures, she’s your gal!

4. Margaret F, over at Italian American Girl is a woman who is passionate about all things (Italian and) Italian-American: family, culture, food, events and travel. You’re sure to love her as much as I do!

5. Elaine, of GourmetGirlMagazine is a food lover at heart.  When I hear the term “foodie”, I think of her.  Her blog is a nice place to get recipes, read interviews with top chefs and she definitely pours her heart into her writing.  Pop by her blog when you get a chance!

6. Jennifer, has a cheese-lover’s paradise at ChezLoulou She is living in the gorgeous Languedoc region of the south of France and blogs about one of my favorite foods: cheese! A must see blog for foodies, travelers, francophiles or people who like to impress their friends with detailed information about rare delectable French artisan cheeses… and the photos!

(Others will be added as soon as I receive their permission to list their blogs. Check back daily until you find all 7, they’ll be worth it, promise!)