When in Ethiopia, smell the coffee

The Ethiopian tradition of drinking coffee makes friends of strangers.

Published : Jan 12, 2023 10:15 IST

Ethiopian coffee served in Stone Town, Zanzibar. 

Ethiopian coffee served in Stone Town, Zanzibar.  | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“I am Nabira,” she said, gesturing towards me to take a seat. Adjusting the flowy chiffon drape of her habesha kemis, she sat down at the centre of the ceremonial table. “I am your hostess for Bona Tetu. Welcome.”

One usually has to be invited to this highly personal Ethiopian tradition meaning “drink coffee”, but as somebody passing through, I had to make do with the only available option—a T20 take on a lengthy ceremony rife with symbolism. Once the ritual comes to an end, nobody is a stranger—everyone a friend, some for life. Nabira had an intensity which made you need to know more about her—she requested me to change her name and not to photograph her.

“Where are you from?” I enquired, a bit too eagerly perhaps, wanting answers for the historic confusion—or similarity—between south Indians and Ethiopians.

“I am from Oromia,” she answered.

Nabira stirred some incense in a pot, which spewed fragrant smoke. It was how the elaborations began—by warding off evil spirits. She warned me, warm eyes behind smoke screen, that she would be going through some of the customs a bit hurriedly owing to lack of time. It was fine, I had a flight to catch as well. The ripe red coffee beans would not be washed and cleaned as was the custom, but the already de-husked and dried beans would be roasted in a pan preheated over a low flame.

“Where is Oromia?” I asked.

She glanced at me briefly while throwing a few handfuls of beans into the vessel and shaking it by the handle for evenness. The seeds turned a shiny dark and began springing around, making popping sounds. Fanning the roast sent out aromatic wafts. Coffee in the air. Kaldi, the goatherd from Ethiopia’s Kaffa region whose charges had the first ever shot of coffee in history, would be beaming. It was a good smell to be hanging around.

“You don’t know Oromia?” she asked without looking at me.

Usually, I do a spot of reading up before visiting any place, but this time I was summoned at short notice for work. I shook my head.

“The international media doesn’t report it as it’s just another day in Africa.”

What is just another day in Africa? It was no longer the dark continent but the rising one. I had been to Namibia, South Africa, and a few other countries before reaching Ethiopia. Everyone I met brimmed with energy, hope, their heads were held high, and leaderships invariably had a vision for the future.

Using a mortar and pestle, Nabira ground the crispy beans, which were then transferred into a flat-bottomed clay pitcher known as jebena. She poured water into it and placed it over the fire.

“I came to Addis in 2019 when fights broke out between the Oromia and Amhara communities. Hundreds have been killed and thousands displaced since then.”

I could have said I was sorry. But she did not look like she needed sympathy, more like a survivor who needed understanding. For over three years, Ethiopia has been in the grip of ethnic violence involving the Oromo and Amhara rebels; drought in 2022 has made the humanitarian crisis worse. The violence is getting more and more out of hand every day. Media coverage has been in spurts, with reports from unidentified, unverified sources. 

“Many from my family were killed, we lost our houses. I walked for several days fearing reprisal or death at the hands of the militia,” Nabira said. She dabbled in many jobs before joining a travel company and honing her skills as a coffee ceremony hostess.

The boiling coffee was poured into a decanter and cooled, poured back again and boiled, thrice. Finally, it was poured through a filter into cups. A thick, aromatic, frothy brew. Nothing like it. I took a cup and sipped, lost.

The Oromos’ plight goes back to 1973 when they wanted to form an independent state because of the prejudice and abuse they faced. The movement continues to this day, albeit in spurts. “I got many cousins at the forefront of these protests,” she said in a conspiratorial tone, leaning a little forward.

Three rounds of coffee apparently named after the three goats—Abol, Tona, and Baraka—that first ate the seeds which made them frisky is the norm. I was on my second one.

“Protesters are planning to spread out from December regardless of how hard they come down on us.”

Baraka, the name of the third cup, means to “be blessed.”

“We will hoist our own flag, if not today then tomorrow,” Nabira said.

Thommen Jose is a long-distance motorcyclist and travel writer.

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