Of all the insights that I have gained into coffee culture on the trail to Ethiopia before returning back to the whirlpool of London life, there is one softly spoken truth that endures. It is a universal truth that runs through the coffee trade and culture like a golden thread, connecting every stage of its complex supply chain from field to cup. It is a philosophy that cannot be fully expressed in books, research papers or from the good intentions of policy-makers.
Its application cannot be taught out of a school textbook. Neither can it be bottled, packaged or commoditised in the interest of profit. It transcends all these things; yet it continues to be a unifying force that touches the hearts of everyone who has a respect for our fellow human being. It is the spirit of Ubuntu. Or to put it another way, it is the celebration of our shared humanity grounded in the common space that is community. By very definition, it means different things to different people but Ubuntu represents a maxim for life that is authentically African: “I relate, therefore I am”.
It is this deep, genuine, sense of human connection that binds the many linkages in the coffee value chain together. Just as the raw green beans are the farmer’s gift to the roaster, the roaster’s gift to the barista is, at the most fundamental level, an alchemy of a kind that completes the circle from soil to sip. Rooted both in a sense of place and time spent in the sharing of company with others, coffee creates long-term connections that live long after the annual harvest or momentary enjoyment of a cup of black gold. The spirit of Ubuntu is expressed in practical terms through the model of direct trade that allows mutually beneficial and respectful trading relationships to form. In essence, coffee communities along the supply chain are brought closer together to ensure better traceability, working and environmental conditions, a fairer price for the producer, and ultimately better quality coffee for the consumer.
The annual London Coffee Festival based in the beating heart of London’s East End is testament to a renaissance of fruitful connections that are flourishing in the enjoyment of coffee and coffee-based culture. Home to the UK Barista Championship (UKBC), it is a forum for coffee-lovers and those in the industry to come together to appreciate new single origins and blends, trends in brewing techniques and technologies, and to learn more about the provenance behind the wonderful drop of black gold in your cup at home, work or in the local coffee house. It is the brainchild of Jeffrey Young and his team at the Allegra Foundation, who have been researching the coffee market in the UK for fifteen years and helped to predict the ‘third-wave’ boom in small independent coffee shops and roasters trading on artisan-based values in the past decade. He says that the industry has a collective responsibility to promote sustainability at the production-level and for consumers to give something back at the counter. When asked about what coffee means to him, he adds, “I fundamentally believe that café culture and coffee houses are not just there for the product; coffee is a great connector of the human spirit.”
The profound effect of Ubuntu in coffee culture and how it has the potential to change lives as a real force for social and economic change is central to the story behind the flourishing of the Manchester-based Oromo Coffee Company (OCC). Based on social enterprise principles that ploughs its profits back into creating employment and training opportunities for the Oromo community in the UK, the OCC works to support coffee growers by sourcing beans directly from the smallholder farmer through the Oromia Coffee Farmer’s Cooperative Union in Ethiopia. Aspiring human rights lawyer and director of the social enterprise, Abiyot Shiferaw, explains: “Coffee in our society brings people together; it is important socially, culturally and economically. In Oromo culture, people come together under the Odaa tree to make the coffee ceremony and share stories so that we can teach other and manage our lives better. We are trading and working together so that we can increase the capacity of smallholder farmer. This means he can get a fair price so that he can send his children to school and get an education. That’s why coffee and trade has the power to change lives for the better”.
The challenges, of course, are many. Increasing unpredictability in extreme weather patterns caused by climate change threatens the sustainability of global coffee production at a time when demand is outstripping supply. But new innovative approaches to diversifying income streams through bee-keeping and inter-cropping, micro finance, less reliance on pesticides and fertilisers, better water management and improved training in agronomic practices are already providing answers to long-term, sustainable solutions that are locally owned. To compound matters, coffee farmers are still unjustly exposed to the volatility of financial markets. In an increasingly interconnected globalised world, however, we can all play our part in raising levels of social capital along the coffee value chain by demanding a fair price for the producer. This is the essence of relationship coffee. If coffee is a connector of the human spirit then it is also a leveller of human the condition; no matter who you are are or where you come from, the enjoyment of coffee transcends geography, cultures or creed. Ever since the reputed discovery of coffee by the Abyssinian goat herder, Kaldi, and his legendary herd of goats, coffee has been coveted by the communities it has touched through the centuries.
Revered for its potential to seduce the senses and invigorate the mind, the transformative power of coffee is a potential change-maker in a cup by aiding the exchange of ideas in a social setting. Throughout history, the consumption of coffee promotes the strengthening of humans bonds that sustain communities. Economically, it is a catalyst for commerce and fuels an industry that is worth more than $100bn a year on which millions depend for their livelihoods globally. Culturally, we only have to look to the rise of the coffee house in 17th century England and the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment to see that it has the potential to change the course of history. It will be interesting to see how the ‘third wave’ boom in coffee culture today will give rise to new sparks of creativity and innovation that will shape the world of tomorrow.
Born in the Oromia town of Warra Jarso, 175kms north of the capital Addis Ababa, Abiyot Shiferaw was brought up with his two sisters and four brothers in a happy family environment. Like all Ethiopians, they celebrated special occasions by holding a traditional coffee ceremony. From an early age, Abiyot had a strong sense of fairness but saw injustice all around him. He saw how his fellow countrymen and women did not have access to clean water or could not pay for basic medical treatment. He observed how children were denied an education because their parents couldn’t afford to send them to school. He witnessed state-sponsored corruption at the hands of government officials and the police.
And his struggle for human rights, fairness and justice nearly cost him his life.
‘There were political problems in the school’, he says, ‘thirty-seven students including myself were arrested one day for being members of the Maccaa-Tulama Association, a civil society group in the Kuyyu Distinct banned by the Ethiopian government in 2002. The organisation was seen as a threat to the government’s political wishes. We were arrested without any reason or proof that we had done anything wrong’.
Abiyot was imprisoned for three months during which time his family were prevented from visiting him. He was eventually accused of being affiliated to the Oromia Liberation Front (OLF), a rebel group who are still fighting for self-determination.
‘We were investigated but there was no evidence,’ he adds.
After being released, Abiyot studied law in Addis Ababa and was later employed by an Oromo law firm. He says he found it almost impossible to act in the interests of his clients as a result of excessive police pressure or government administrators to exact a favourable verdict: ‘It was very difficult to apply the law independently. In the end, I realised that I couldn’t undertake my duties to represent the people fairly and decided that I could no longer continue’.
But the bloody aftermath of the 2005 national elections where hundreds of people lost their lives in protest was a turning point for Abiyot. He successfully ran as a candidate for the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) and was elected to represent his home town constituency in the federal parliament. The sweet taste of success soon turned sour when the national election results were called early by the incumbent alliance, the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front, and a state of emergency was declared.
In response to the public unrest that followed, public gatherings were outlawed and Prime Minister, Meles Zanawi, assumed direct command of the security forces, replacing the capital city police with Special Forces drawn from elite army units. Reports of massive human rights’ violations across the country were reported by international observers. ‘The election was stolen’, says Abiyot, with the zeal of a political activist; ‘the government was defeated. They did not win one seat in the capital but described themselves as the outright winner. The government should listen to the people’s voice’.
Shortly after the election, plain-clothed security police arrived at Abiyot and his friend’s residence in the dead of night. They were forced into a car and blindfolded. Abioyt tried to stop them by showing his parliamentary identification card, stating that (Article 54) stipulates that no member of the parliament shall be arrested or prosecuted unless his or her immunity is revoked by the legislature. ‘They trashed my identity card and told me to use it as toilet paper’ he recalls. They were driven to an unknown church cemetery out of Addis and told that their graves were already reserved for them. Severely beaten and threatened that they would be executed and buried unless they confessed that they were inciting students in Oromia to rise up against the government, Abiyot says he will never forget the terrifying moment when ‘one of them put the muzzle of his rifle into my mouth while another one poked my stomach with his gun’.
Determined to continue his struggle, he contacted the international media, NGOs and the British embassy to inform them of what had happened. Knowing that his life was in danger, a petition was presented to the federal parliament in a bid to stop the police intimidation; it was rejected. Abiyot could not go anywhere without being followed by the authorities. He could not visit his friends or family because he did not want to put them at risk. He realised that he had no choice but to flee.
It took six months for Abiyot to reach Kenya. He and a friend travelled on foot through the remote forests of the rural highlands in southern Ethiopia to evade the regular police checkpoints on the main highway. ‘Even in Nairobi, we weren’t safe. We were arrested by the security forces, tortured and imprisoned’ he says. With no one else to turn to, he contacted the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and European Parliamentarian, Ana Gomes MEP, for help.
In April 2008, Abiyot arrived safely in Greater Manchester after being granted refugee status. His first few months adjusting to life in the UK came as a shock to him: ‘When you come to a new country, it is the same as being like a new born child again. The impact of a new culture, different language, and different system of employment was a challenge. My qualifications were not accepted in this country’. However, Abiyot did not want to be reliant on welfare benefits and with the support of the pioneering Lorna Young Foundation, his local MP, James Purnell, and assistance from Refugee Action, he established the Oromo Coffee Company (OCC) with other members of the Oromo community in the Northwest.
Based on social enterprise principles that ploughs its profits back into creating employment and training opportunities, OCC works towards direct trade between Oromos in Ethiopia and the UK. All its coffee is sourced through the Oromia Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union is organic, Fairtrade certified, and expertly roasted in Huddersfield by Bolling Coffee. From spicy Harar, to floral Yirgacheffe and the darkly roasted after-dinner Limu, the OCC has some of the finest Ethiopian coffees covered:
“The Oromo Coffee Company brings a great concept to the world of Fairtrade and we are proud to be working with them. The coffee tastes great, originating from the birthplace of coffee itself in Ethiopia and the mission of the company is taking Fairtrade to the next level”.
Herriet Lamb, Executive Director the Fairtrade Foundation
Due to graduate in law from Huddersfield University in June this year, the aspiring human rights’ lawyer’s struggle is far from over. He says: ‘Coffee in our society brings people together; it is important socially, culturally and economically. In Oromo culture, people come together under the Odaa tree to make the coffee ceremony and share stories so that we can teach other and manage our lives better. It makes you feel positive and strong. Through the Oromo Coffee Company, we are trading and working together so that we can increase the capacity of the smallholder farmer. This means he can get a fair price so that he can send his children to school and get an education’.
Abiyot passionately believes coffee has the power to change the dire political situation in Ethiopia. More than a commodity, it holds the key to unlocking the vast potential of his country men and women by promoting skills and education through community-to-community trade: ‘If there are no skills or education, we are blind’ he says, ‘only through education can the people know their civic duty to protect and exercise their rights. That’s why coffee and trade has the power to change lives for the better’.
You can be part of that change by supporting the Oromo Coffee Company to help smallholder farmers in Ethiopia earn a decent living here.
You can understand why King Lalibela wanted to establish his ‘New Jerusulem’ in the back of beyond. Reaching the holy town is a journey in itself. Nearing the final leg of my ‘Tour de Ethiopique’, I set off at daybreak from the junction village of Gashana to get some kilometres behind me before reaching the fabled ‘pista’ that I knew lay in wait before me. Affectionately termed by Ethiopians as a road without tarmac, the ‘pista’ is by all intents and purposes a ‘road’ surface consisting of rubble, volcanic detritus and infinite quantities of dust. Riding it on two wheels is little like skiing without poles; it’s a controlled fall, even uphill. For the first few kilometres, the going was good until the inevitable ‘roughstuff’ kicked in with gusto. Zig-zagging my way through the scree, I went for a tumble a couple of times. The biggest effort of all was trying to keep my eyes on the road whilst the breathtaking table-top escarpments continually vie for your attention.
After an impromptu espresso stop (100% sun dried Harar Arabica) shared with a young shepherd and his two sisters on their way to school, I realised that I had run out of water. Never a good idea when you’re in the middle of nowhere and the oppressive midday sun is beating down on the rocks like a solar-charged anvil. So, I pressed on in the hope that I would reach a village with a water pump, that works. My map of Ethiopia that I had, by now, become so accustomed to its jaw-dropping inaccuracies (which has led me on wild goose chases in search of ‘ghost towns’ that did not exist on more than one occasion) pointed me in the direction of a river. For once, the map was right. And there was running water; a double bonus. Pulling up, three young shepherds and their father gathered to inspect the bike and proceeded to search for the absent engine as I unpacked the stove for a long-overdue brew.
I was in luck. The father’s fields bestriding the river were ripe with garlic, onion and capsicum peppers: Time for lunch. As I cooked up a slap up pasta over the MSR, the workmen that I had passed further back turned up in their rusting water tanker to refill, bathe and wash their clothes. ‘I’m the grading technician, how do you like the road?’ said one with beaming pride. ‘Smooth’, I replied, daring not to look up from stirring my spaghetti for fear that he would see a glint of untruth in my eyes. ‘In fact, the stretch of pista back there was surfaced with some of the best graded gravel I have experienced in a while’, I added, omitting the fact that my bum had turned completely numb for hours. Gobez! (great), he replied and stripped down to his birthday suit before plunging in to the cool, clear rushing water. As I ate, the three young shepherds came to watch. Not having the heart to continue my lunch, I offered them my concoction which they wolfed down with speed.
The next few moments proved to be surreal as I went on to brew an espresso with my trusty Bialetti for each of the gravel technicians. They lazed in the sun-kissed running waters enjoying their brew, without a thread between them; another of those priceless, unscripted, moments that occurs on the road.
Accounts of shiftas (bandits) started to creep into my mind as the sun banked low in the warm afternoon shimmer. I still had more than half way to go if I was to reach Lalibela by nightfall. Sure enough, the ascents got steadily steeper as I winded my way back up the twists and turns from the valley floor. This also meant that the descents got more treacherous. The gravel technicians clearly have a job on their hands if they’re going to grade this lot, I thought to myself, as the Sherpa bounced and shuddered from loose stone to stone of varying shape and size. The sun continued its inexorable course towards the horizon and by now, hung low in the deep spectrum of the African sky. Flat-topped acacias cast their long shadows across the naturally formed chimneys and minarets that had been carved out of the looming escarpment walls by nature’s hand. They grew with each minute as my leg muscles began to tire. Embracing the hopelessness of my situation, I stopped to watch the sun set in a last final burst of golden light before it sank behind the silhouetted teeth of a fold of mountains that faded into the growing darkness. Night began to close in and Lalibela seemed further away than ever.
One-by-one, pinpricks of starlight began to appear in the celestial firmament above and I was now being guided by the reassuring glow the Sherpa’s Schmidt front beam. Outlines of young shepherds returning their cattle to the safety of their home ducked and dived in and out of the roadside gloom as I kept my wheels steadfastly turning. Their enthusiastic greetings were an encouragement to redouble my efforts and keep on pedaling. The spectre of shiftas (bandits) which I had been informed by the local police ‘sometimes’ ply their unwelcome trade at night became however an ever-present, intimidating thought. Just as my exhaustion levels and paranoia reached an all time high, the ‘pista’ – by some stroke of luck – gave way to asphalt again, and, buoyed on by my change in fortunes, I pushed on. The distant flickering of fires could be seen burning high up on the escarpment as farmers retreated into the warmth and safety of their mud and straw Tukus for the night. The occasional haunting whoop of the Hyena call echoed across the vast, empty expanse.
Eventually, I reached another village and stopped to pour the last remaining drops of water that I had filtered from the river earlier in the day down the back of my dry, dusty throat. With one last steep climb to tackle, I set off again with one final surge of determination. No sooner had I negotiated my way round the last territorial dog when a voice cried salem! (peace) from behind a row of thorns. ‘Please come inside,’ said the welcoming voice. Too exhausted to enquire further, I took off my cycling mitts, rested the Sherpa against the hedge and followed the voice into the Tuku. In the middle of the candle-lit circular space covered with goat skins was a young woman and her broad-smiling husband who was coaxing their one year-old daughter to sleep. ‘Please, stay and eat’, Endalitch said, offering me a tray of injera and helva (staple Ethiopian food), and a glass full of tella (an alcoholic home-brewed drink made from teff and maize). She returned to the fire at the back of the hut and soon enough, the aromatic smell of roasting coffee emanated from the tray that was placed on the embers. Endalitch stirred the beans gently to the percussive sound of popping and crackling. As I ate, the beans received a forceful pounding into a coarse grind and were placed into the earthenware jabana (coffee pot) which was being licked by the open flames as it rested on the fire. Her husband, Desal, rocked his six-month old daughter lovingly who had now woken to observe the pale-faced visitor with a short wail followed by a long yawn, before falling back asleep. Finally, some etan (incense) was placed on the burning charcoal. The Tuku infused with a warm spicy fragrance as we chatted and drank coffee. After the beureuka (blessing) – or third cup – I could stay awake no longer and retired to my tent, counting my lucky stars. Traditional Ethiopian hospitality, the incredible generosity of the human spirit, and a yeu buna a feulal (coffee ceremony) had, yet again, saved the day.
Once the circadian rhythms of cycle touring fully set in, it’s the simple things that take on a special significance:
The honey-dew light of daybreak as the early morning sun spreads its golden wings over a jagged table-top horizon; an aromatic stove-brewed espresso with the restorative power to clear the mist of a dream-state mind; the perceptible physical gear change of aching leg muscles as they burst back into life again; encounters with sprightly, giggling groups of children as they make the long walk to school; starbursts of luminous green aloe lining the roadside verge; the faltering flight of butterflies that pass miraculously through a blur of spokes in a dance with death or the soaring of arcs of buzzards as they warm their wings high above in the rising thermals; cooling quenches of (filtered) fresh stream water at the back of a dry, dusty throat; warm smiles and whoops of encouragement from passing drivers; exhilarating downhills that reward the punishing uphill with kilometre-after-kilometre of glorious freewheeling; pastel-coloured brushstrokes of wheat and barley clinging tenaciously to the terraced hillside; a deep endless blue African sky stroked by fingers of wispy white cloud; pit stops of freshly-picked, sweet, energy-giving bananas; the medicinal fragrance of eucalyptus and pine scenting the mountain air; or the staccato call of young shepherds carousing their wayward herd back to the safety of the homestead before the last precious rays of the day fade to a reveal the bright constellations of a starlit night sky.
It’s the heady kaleidoscope of sight, sound, and smells that make cycle touring so addictive.
Eat. Sleep. Cycle… (and drink coffee).
It took three attempts to face the stonewall of ambiguity at the Sudanese Embassy to realise that there is more chance of a camel passing through the eye of a needle than getting a transit visa cleared by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MFA). I don’t know whether they suspected that I was some kind of spy-on-two-wheels but I wouldn’t make a very good one considering my predictability for frequent coffee stops. The one saving grace is that the Sudanese authorities had the courtesy of being consistent in their ambiguity which is more than be said of their British counterparts. After liberating me of fifty beans sterling for the privilege of a cut and paste supporting letter onto FCO watermarked paper (politely folded into a ‘On her Majesty’s Service’ envelope), I was later informed that the embassy in Khartoum could not possibly put a kind word into the MFA on my behalf because of my lack of diplomatic credentials. Surely all nationals are effectively in the diplomatic service of their own country when they are traveling overseas? I maintained; the amiable civil servant behind the desk just shrugged his shoulders in response. I left the embassy in Addis feeling more like a crestfallen cash cow than a British national in need of some minor diplomatic assistance. At least I can now sleep well at night knowing that my contribution to consular coffers has gone towards the upkeep of the Ambassador’s golf course.
It seems that my Egyptian visa will have to go unstamped, for now.
Travel plans revised and some much-needed repairs to the Sherpa (bottom bracket went after 5000km of sterling service), I’m now on a final tour of the northern historical circuit before taking the silver bird back to Europa.
Next stop: The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela; Ethiopia’s very own ‘Jerusalem’.
The first sign of their arrival is the brilliant, luminous green orbs that beam back at you in the dead of night. Blinking and darting in the darkness, they come steadily closer in the feint light of a hand torch. At first, their steps are tentative, nervous even. But as the fetid smell of raw meat fills the night-time breeze they grow in confidence – and numbers. Holding a woven basket containing strips of sinew from the local butcher, the wide-eyed man sitting before us calls to them in a high pitched tone. He falls into an uncontrollable fit of laughter. Consumed in a momentary state of hysteria, he calls again: ‘Hyeeeeeena!’
One-by-one they approach with care, retreating into the safety of the shadows at the slightest movement or noise. Hunger drives them back into the dim light and they cautiously advance with the odd, peculiar gait of a quadruped whose front legs are twice as long as their hind pair. Feral tufts of hair bristling down his strong arched back, the dominant male of the group creeps within striking distance and sits down patiently in the dust. He licks his lips in anticipation like a dog waiting to be given a bone. Composing himself from his momentary bout of hysteria the Hyena Man casually reclines in a gesture of submission. Keeping eye contact to a minimum, he holds up a strip of meat draped over a short stick. The beast inches closer. Meanwhile, the youngsters yelp and snap at each other in the shadows behind as they vie for their turn to feed. It is difficult to be sure, but I could count nine of them in total.
The air is charged, almost reverential, as we stand in awe of this powerful predator that has travelled more than 50kms through the hot sands and scrub of the lowlands just to be here. The five of us (who have paid to watch) are transfixed by the spectacle as human and hyena become locked in a slow dance of trust where a wrong move could mean a painful ending… for the Hyena Man that is. Suddenly, the muscular haunches of the beast tense up and with a forceful thrust of its large pockmarked neck, he lunges for the meat with jaws wide open. The morsel is snapped up and gulped down in a split second.
The Hyena Man beckons me to sit down next to him. I can feel the beast sizing me up as I walk over and tentatively crouch down. Hyena Man gives me a stick and instructs me to put it in my mouth – which I do – with some reticence. He then pulls out a long strip of meat from the basket and carefully wraps it around the other end. I realise that I’m now inches away from a collision course with a ravenous hyena. The Hyena Man pulls back and in the same moment, the hyena lunges straight towards my face with gaping jaw. Rows of large sharp incisors flash in the light of my head torch before snapping shut with a rush of air. I flinch. The stick breaks. The flesh falls to the ground. The smell of halitosis and raw meat fills my nostrils as I take a deep life-affirming breath.
In a hushed voice, the Hyena Man reassures me with the words chigger yellum (no problem), as he prepares a new stick for the showtime feed. In a moment of self-deception, I pretend to think that I’m just feeding a very, very big dog in a futile attempt to stem the rush of adrenalin that has now exploded into my bloodstream. I clasp the stick with my own miniature (by comparison) incisors and hold it aloft, presenting the meat to the beast with eyes wide open, determined not to let the hyena smell my fear. He lunges again, this time with deadly accuracy and snatches the meat cleanly off the stick with the same rush of air and whiff of halitosis. Relieved and unscathed, I return to the shadows again as the Hyena Man throws the remaining scraps of flesh over his shoulder for the youngsters to fight over. Settling her head onto her two outstretched paws, the mother of the pack yawns a big sardonic yawn; as if to give one final lasting reminder of what damage those jaws can do. The youngsters – buoyed by their first taste of flesh of the night – roll around in a play of rough-and-tumble familial affection. As we leave, they settle down for a nap. In a few hours, they will enter the city to help out with the municipal duties of waste management. I touch my nose just to check that it is still there.
Hyena Man tells me that the nightly ritual of feeding the hyenas outside the walls of the old Islamic city of Harar has been going on for more than twenty years. Every year, the pack are treated to a lavish feast of traditional Ethiopian food to honour the special symbiotic relationship that hyena and human have developed over the last two decades. ‘Humans and hyena are one family… but only in Harar’, he states as we accelerate up the narrow street towards one of the five gates to the Old City, Assum Gate, in his 1960’s vintage Peugeot 404 taxi (affectionately referred to as the ‘blue donkey’). ‘If the humans ever leave Harar’, he adds hitting the brakes, ‘it will be the hyenas who will inherit the city.’ I get out and head to the nearest Buna Bet (coffee house) for a drop of spicy mocha-flavoured Harar coffee to contemplate my own mortality in the face of such a formidable animal, and the Hyena Man’s words.
And you know what? I believe him.
The Coffee Ceremony is so deeply woven into the cultural fabric of Ethiopian life that it unites the country, even more than football does. In Ethiopia, coffee is the ‘great leveller’. It binds the many different ethnic groups together like glue; Christian or Muslim, rich or poor. More than a coffee break, the event can last for hours as an opportunity for people to come together and share news in a relaxed setting. The traditional custom is an expression of respect to elders or guests, and a holiday or special occasion is never complete without one. An elaborate extension to Ethiopia’s warm sense of hospitality, the coffee ceremony is a daily social ritual to honour the importance of the bean, and strengthen human bonds.
‘Bunafi naga hinabina’
(May you not lack coffee and peace)
– Oromo saying
It was a moment that I had been looking forward to ever since I had arrived in Ethiopia, but had yet to experience without Birr crossing palms. That is, until my last day at the Bulbulo wet mill Station. With the Sherpa packed and ready to go, we all sat down to an emotional farewell yeu buna a-falafal (coffee ceremony). Buzio first prepared the coffee by washing the beans and roasting them over the fire until they were a deep brown, coated with a smooth sheen as the bean’s complex elixir of oils oozed to the surface. After receiving a resolute pounding using a wooden zezana (mortar) and mogatcha (pestle), the ground beans were then transferred to be brewed in a jebana (clay coffee pot). Demesse’s son, Solomon, went out collecting blades of grass. In a symbolic gesture to invite the freshness of nature into the room, he scattered them over the floor. To one side, billows of smoke from the etan (incense) rose from the yekasal mandeja (small charcoal burner), scenting the room with a sweet, spicy smell.
As the coffee settled in the steaming jebana, the host of the ceremony, Buzio, (the host is always the woman of the house) passed the fendisha (popcorn) around in a large colourful round woven basket. Just as the Ottoman’s made an art out of the preparation and drinking of coffee, the Ethiopian coffee ceremony is an aromatic delight to the senses. Sitting on a three-legged berchuma (stool) wearing traditional clothes, Buzio poured the coffee expertly from a height. The third cup is of special importance and bestows a berekha (blessing). I didn’t want it to finish.
A final round of reluctant farewells and I was waved off wearing an ‘I Love Ethiopia’ headscarf, a gift from the cooperative’s quick-witted accountant, Bilay. My pannier was carrying a generous kilo of fine organic coffee Arabica beans and a bag of sweet Choche honey. A present from those at the mill to keep me sustained on the road ahead, with the message ‘don’t forget us.’ (I never will). A bunch of flowers colourfully adorned the handlebars. Overwhelmed by the moment and sad to leave, the reluctant 50km pedal back to Jimma was perfumed all the way with the fresh fragrance of Choche wild meadow flowers.
‘Akka dama mia, akka buna urga’
(As sweet as honey, as savoury as coffee)
– Oromo saying
Determined to get to the bottom of the legend concerning Kaldi and his Dancing Goats, the coffee trail pointed me in the direction of the hallowed ground of Keta Muduga; conveniently situated just a few kilometres away from Choche village. It is said that all those centuries ago, the Abyssinian goat herder took his flock there to graze. The ‘proof’ of the matter can be found in the earth said my guide, Ahmed, who agreed to show me the Arabic ‘inscriptions’ carved into the rock surface that I had heard so much about. He told me how the history of Kaldi had been transmitted down the generations by his forefathers.
Joined by the stoic Bulbulo wet mill foreman, Jerbose, who battled the heat in a lambswool three-piece suit, we strolled passed the patchwork of deep red hues from the coffee cherries that had been left out to dry on tables before taking a detour to visit to the Choche Primary School’s very own coffee farm. Under the shade trees, kids were enthusiastically helping out with the harvest. Their small fingers were nimbly adept at picking the red coffee cherries. The familiar cry of ‘Choche buna bureadu!’ (beautiful Choche coffee!) could be heard over the excitable hubbub of children playing. In Choche, coffee runs in the blood. Children are expected to take part in the harvesting activities on the family farm from an early age. Now they were engaged in picking their very own fine organic Choche Primary School coffee cherry, to be later sold to the cooperative. The profits are then returned back to the school to fund the provision of educational materials.
‘It’s a good example of how trade can have a direct and positive impact in the community’, explained the Director of the school, Sisay Akassa, who had kindly given up his afternoon to help translate for me. ‘Most of our students are the children of coffee farmers. Fairtrade helps those farmers get a fair payment for their coffee so that they can improve their living conditions’, he added.
After a steep climb amongst the coffee trees, ducking and diving under branches bursting with red and green cherries, the path eventually led to an open clearing. Tufts of golden grass swayed in the breeze. A natural vantage point, tree-clad hills were set against a hazy horizon all around us. The early afternoon sun beat down mercilessly on the red rocks. A concrete shell of a half constructed guard-house and the octoganel skeleton of a museum (that has remained uncompleted for more than a year due to funds drying up) were the only blight on the scenery. They looked more like crumbling coastline WWII gun batteries than a celebration of coffee. A plaque at the top of the hill reads:
With a spring in his step, Ahmed led us to the start of our story; Kaldi’s very own spot in which to recline and while away the sunny afternoon hours in his chair. I have to say that it really was quite comfortable… for a stone chair. Reclined in Kaldi’s seat, Ahmed, proudly unfolded the events that are believed to have taken place here. He described how Kaldi, a man of artistic pursuasion, had hewn messages into the rocks to remind the world of his important discovery. We next moved to another spot of exposed rock, eroded by the elements. Partly covered by lichen, grass and dry leaves, there are some truly fascinating features to be found, and one-by-one, Ahmed related the significance of each. Here was the evidence presented:
He said there were many more examples but they needed help to fully uncover and conserve the ‘handiwork’ of Kaldi for future generations. Now, here’s the rub… I’m not in the business of stealing anybody’s thunder, such as Ahmed’s was, but I have my reservations. To me, these distinctive features are the work of nature’s hand, not that of a legendary goat herder. Although some of the ‘inscriptions’ do have a striking resemblance, they are to my eyes, forged through unimaginable metamorphic forces in the melting pot that was Ethiopia millions of years ago.
But where were the Arabic inscriptions?
Anticipating this moment for a while now, I somehow expected to find ancient Arabic script that had been carved into the rocks containing early references to coffee and the trade links that the old Ethiopian kingdoms enjoyed with the Persians and Arabs. This was to be the defining moment I had been waiting for – to see for my own eyes a a small piece in the great jigsaw puzzle that is the history of the bean and how it went on to conquer the world. But, like life itself, what you look for isn’t necessarily what you find. For one, my own expectations were far to literal. In fact, what I found at Keta Muduga was evidence of something deeper, far richer, and much more profound. In that special clearing surrounded by miles of coffee forest, I had been privileged to witness a proud and passionate claim that this was the work of Kaldi and hence the birthplace of coffee, just as the coffee forest that surrounded us is. Surveying the landscape, I felt like I was standing on a giant, elaborate storyboard that connected Ahmed like an umbilical cord through the past to his ancestral heritage.
Surely this was also an example of early ‘coffee culture’ long before the macchiato or tall-skinny latte was ever dreamed up? In those sun-kissed rocks was a communities’ burning desire to tell their story to a wider world about the origin of coffee, and their place in it. And the overriding message rang loud and clear; coffee is as old as time memorial.
Winding our way back, we stopped to speak to Kalifa and Rida who were collecting the fruit in handwoven straw baskets. Two of them were brimming full of bright red berries already. A few kilometres further and we came across the Institute of Biodiversity Conservation (Choche Coffee Field Gene Bank), a government body dedicated to protecting the country’s biodiversity. Inside its 41 hectares it houses – at the last count – 4898 different strains of the coffee Arabica genus discovered in Ethiopia alone. The Manager of the Field Gene Bank, Jara Negash, had this to say: ‘More strains are being found each year. Genetically speaking, Ethiopia has the most diversified varieties of coffee types to be found anywhere in the world. We have only just scratched the surface.’
A tour of the carefully tended nursery beds revealed the marked difference in the foliage and fruit of each strain (there are largely two main groups in Ethiopia; Bourbon and Typica varieties). Planted in neat rows, the beds contain samples of the bean in various stages of development from young sapling through to mature tree. It was like walking through a living open-air museum; breathing, fruiting proof of the incredible genetic diversity of the genus coffea Arabica. Heart warming also to see the important role that the gene bank plays in conserving a unique part of Ethiopia’s rich national heritage – and indeed the world – for generations to come.
Energy levels flagging, Ahmed, Jerbose, Sisay and I headed off in search of a brew of the Choche nectar in one of its many Buna Bets (coffee houses). As we sipped and savoured a refreshing cup of coffee, Ahmed turned to me and said: `We have the evidence that explains the origin of coffee but we don’t have the support or materials in which to tell our story. Kaldi was a learned person who wanted to show how Choche gave coffee to the world. Go back to your country and help us to tell the history of the origin of coffee. This is coffee Arabica. Ethiopia’s gift to the world’.
Disclaimer: It is important to mention at this point that another place rivals Choche as the birthplace of coffee. Found in the vast wild coffee forests that characterise the Kaffa region just 150kms away, it is claimed that Mankira village near the town of Bonga is the true origin. A manifestation of the growing regional rivalry (Choche is in the state of Oromiya whilst Mankira lies just across the border in Kaffa. Both were considered to be in the same region of Kaffa until forty years ago when the boundaries were redrawn) is that both states are now locked in a cultural arms-race to build their own respective coffee museums, evidently with questionable progress so far. Of course I would not wish to offend anyone’s sensibilities, pride or rightful sense of heritage. There is validity to both claims, because they are both right. When you boil it right down, it is Ethiopia that is undisputedly the world’s cradle of coffee, and that’s good enough for me.
In Ethiopia, the origin of coffee depends on who you speak to, and where they come from. The legend of its discovery that still endures today is that of Kaldi. For such an important find, the story has an unlikely cast of characters that include a goatherder, his wife, a monastery of monks, and a troupe of dancing goats. Here is just one version of that story:
A young Abyssinian goatherder named Kaldi – or Kalid as he was known locally – who lived around the year AD850 noticed to his amazement, that after chewing the bright red berries from a certain tree, his goats pranced around in an unusually exuberant manner. Curiosity got the better him and he tried a handful of the berries that were growing on the bushes nearby. Feeling a novel sense of elation, Kaldi realised that there was something out of the ordinary about this fruit and, filling his pockets, rushed back to his wife to share his discovery. ‘They are heaven sent!’ she declared, ‘you must take them to the monastery.’ Kaldi then presented the cherries to the chief monk, relating the miraculous effect they had on him, and his goats.
On hearing the story and the cherries’ extraordinary properties, the monk threw them onto the fire denouncing them to be the work of the devil. Within minutes, the monastery began to fill up with the heavenly smell of roasting beans and the other monks gathered to investigate. Raking the spitting and popping beans from the embers, they were placed in a ewer and covered with hot water to preserve their freshness.
That night, the monks sat up drinking the rich and fragrant brew and vowed that they should drink it daily to help with their nightly prayers. Word of the cherries’ magical properties spread far and wide. It was not long before the monastic folk across the realm became accustomed to drinking the invigorating beverage as an accompaniment to their nocturnal devotions…
But don’t take my word for it. Here is an early account of the origin of coffee retold by an Italian historian of coffee, Faustus Naironi, in 1671:
“A certain person that look’d after camels, or, as others report it, goats, [this is the common tradition amongst the Eastern people] complained to the religious of a certain Monastery in the Kingdom of Ayaman [Yemen], that is Arabia Felix, that his herds twice or thrice a week, not only kept awake all night long, but spent it in frisking and dancing in an unusual manner.
The Prior of the Monastery, led by his curiosity, and weighing the matter, believ’d this must happen from the food of the creatures: Marking, therefore, diligently, that every night, in company with one of the monks, the very place where the goats or camels pastured, when they danc’d, found there certain shrubs or bushes, on the fruit or rather berries of which they fed.
He resolv’d to try the virtues of these berries himself; thereupon, boiling them in water, and drinking thereof, he found by experience, it kept him awake in the night. Hence it happen’d, that he enjoin’d his Monastery the daily use of it, for this procuring watchfulness made them more readily and surely attend their devotions which they were obliged to perform in the night.
When, by this frequent use of it, they daily experienced its wholesomeness, and how effectually it conduced to the preserving them in perfect health, the drink grew in request throughout the whole Kingdom, and in progress of time, other nations and provinces of the East fell into the use of it. Thus by a mere accident, and the great and wonderful providence of the Almighty, the fame of its wholesomeness spread itself more and more, even to the Western parts, more especially those of Europe”.
There is now a consensus amongst historians and botanists that coffee – especially the genus Coffea Arabica – is indigenous to Ethiopia where it still continues to grow wild in the Bale Mountains, Gamo Gofa, Ilubabor and Kaffa Forest regions. Many etymologists interpret ‘coffee’ from the name of the ancient Ethiopian kingdom, ‘Kaffa’. Others assert it comes from ‘qahwah’ (meaning ‘wine’) as it came to be known in the Arabian peninsula , especially Yemen, where there is evidence of coffee roasting as early as the 13th century. (It’s not by accident or sheer coincidence that Yemen has a sea port called Mocha). But if I were a betting man? My money’s on Kaffa.
Whether there is any basis to the story of Kaldi and his dancing goats or not, the undeniable fact is that the legend of Kaldi is a masterstroke in public relations. (Whenever has PR allowed the facts get in the way of a good story?). In an attempt to separate reality from myth, I spoke to a number of people who said that coffee was first used by the Oromo tribes people. By way of preparation, the ground beans were mixed with butter or fat to form a ‘chewing gum’ that could be carried easily. It was then taken to help sustain them in covering long distances on foot to graze their cattle and no doubt, on the battlefield. This was the portable precursor to the Oromiya speciality – Buna Quala – arguably the world’s first ever energy drink.
In many respects, I think it’s a good thing that Kaldi’s reputed discovery continues to remain shrouded in the mists of antiquity. It’s all part of the bean’s magic. Chasing ghosts? Chasing goats more like… Long live Kaldi!