13 January 2013

Ethiopia: Coffee Day Celebrated


When Coffee Day was celebrated for the third time in Keffa Zone, Oromia Region, few people may have linked the name Keffa to the birth place of coffee, the stimulant that almost all the world's people take as part of their routine daily consumption.

The genesis of its history goes back hundreds of years to the time when the unusual frolicking behaviors of his goats led a shepherd boy to discover that it was the taste of the reddish brown berries that had stimulated the quiet animals to run wild.

A bushfire had burnt some of the dried beans, causing not the suffocating smell of burning substance, but a sweet and pleasant aroma, which had a stimulating effect on humans as well. Thus, over the years, coffee has become almost an addiction and a part of our culture and daily beverage intake, in addition to water.

Before the commercialisation of coffee, where a small cup of coffee is sold for two Birr, brewing coffee was a highly revered ritual and served to guests as a sign of high regard and virtue.

Some years back, I recall that coffee beans were not ground and roasted on holidays, neither on Saturdays and Sundays. Even the water used to make coffee had to be fetched no later than Fridays. Coffee beans were also roasted at home, and before grinding, the roasted beans would be taken around the house so that guests could smell the intoxicating aroma.

The women who make coffee take their seat in the middle of the room, with a small charcoal stove and the coffee pot (jebbena) on their right, surrounded by a set of cups displayed on a small steal tray in from of them. The traditional earthenware pot, with a narrow neck and round bottom, is specially made for coffee, since clay is a good conductor of heat, making it easier to brew.

One or two pieces of burning charcoal are then put on a small clay stove, on which sweet smelling incense sticks are placed, to add to the aroma of the coffee. The jebbena is taken off from the fire once it has boiled, and it is then placed on a circular stand at a tilted angle; this is to allow the coffee grounds to settle at the bottom.

A few inaudible lines of thanksgiving are then offered to the Almighty, or the powers that be, before a small amount of coffee is poured into one of the cups. That same cup of coffee is then poured from cup to cup, until each cup has been rinsed. After which, full cups of coffee are poured into all the cups and served to guests.

Meanwhile, a "coffee snack", of either home baked bread or kollo (roasted cereal), or even injera with some powered pepper, is served to all present. Serving coffee without offering something to eat is usually considered to be ill-mannered.

Coffee is mainly a social event and close neighbours are invited to partake in the coffee ritual in turns. Some neighbours take the opportunity to gossip about current affairs or speculate on the comings and goings of people in the neighbourhood. Others use the time to catch up on sewing or other handicraft work.

These coffee sessions are, however, considered as time wasting practices. Drinking coffee is usually a three-round affair. The same batch of coffee is brewed again and again by adding more water after each round, making more people, especially women, victims of the addictive stimulant.

Aberash Woldu, a lady that I recently talked to, was an ordinary addict before she engaged herself in the act of making coffee for a living. With a bucket filled with fresh tap water and a set of supplies, necessary for the business, Aberash is now a popular mobile roadside coffee maker in the middle of Piazza, where minibus taxis line up.

Aberash, with her little baby on her back, sits under the shade of MIDROC's blue fence, with a sign that reads "Sip Coffee" affixed to the fence behind her. She has many customers that seek her services and a good number of them pay more than two Birr per cup; they do this more as a gesture of affiliation, than a strict business deal.

She sells tea for 1.50 Br a cup and homemade biscuits for two Birr a piece. Her prices are far below average, when considering that a cup of coffee in a middle-class café costs more than eight Birr, where the argument for the price increment is increased quality.

But this argument is refuted by many, who are of the opinion that the coffee at middle- class bars and cafés is not as genuine as suggested by their high price tags. The claim is that they are susceptible to malpractice, like mixing coffee grounds with foreign substances, like barley. Coffee peddlers, like Aberash, however, price their services down to the lowest possible level, so that they can make as much profit as God gives them for their fair and pure practices.

Coffee is a relatively new introduction to the Chinese population, who surpassed the one billion mark, in terms of total population, recently. Countries like Ethiopia can benefit from the growing Chinese coffee sipping market, as coffee is still a relative novelty to the one billion plus people.

Not all types of coffee taste the same, however. A consumer's favorite taste may depend on the variety of coffee one is used to.

I recall an incident that took place onboard a British Airways flight, flying from London to the midlands. I promptly told the stewardess to serve me black coffee, as soon as she begun going around with the drink cart.

I was promptly served with "black coffee", but it tasted like anything but coffee. I left the cup untouched for want of any place to get rid of it. My self-pride opened a leeway to do a little promotional explanation. I said, "I am from Ethiopia, the birth place of coffee", and showed her the in-flight magazine where the story of the shepherd boy from Keffa was written, to prove my argument. I'm not sure if it made any difference, but it certainly made me feel better.

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