In the Footsteps of Kaldi

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:

Goat footprints
'Insira' (Ethiopian water vessel)
Kaldi's footprint

 

 

 

 

 

Continents of the World #1
Continents of the World #2
Continents of the World #3

 

 

Continents of the World #4
Continents of the World #5
Continents of the World #6

 

 

Continents of the World #7
Ahmed points to an outline map of Ethiopia (prior to Eritrea)

 

 

 

Horse stirrup

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cultural pillow complete with lipstick holder

 

Monk's Habit

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Arabic script?

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.

Coffea Arabica: The stuff of legend

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.

Kaldi (his dancing goats) and the Origin of Coffee

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!

Washing the Cherry Harvest

Shortly after nightfall, the relaxed tempo suddenly stepped up a gear, or two. The prelude to this was the arrival of the co-operative’s rusting Toyota pick-up truck as it barrelled up the slope with just enough momentum to reach the top. The sense of the excitement in the air was palpable. With its suspension groaning under the weight of the precious load, a dozen or so co-operative members jumped out of the back and – one by one – carried the queshas (hessian sacks) of red cherry on their shoulders to be weighed in on an antique floor-standing set of scales. When you consider that some of the sacks weighed in at over 100kg, this was far easier said than done.

Under the dim glow of two 40 watt bulbs, the cherries were inspected (most of the time) and the weight recorded before the contents emptied into a large metal siphon at the end of a concrete ramp. The sweet, slightly fermented smell of the cherries perfumed the air as the thirty-year-old engine was cranked into life, filling the engine room momentarily with a thick plumb of diesel smoke. Next, the valve that connected a large water tank situated high up the hill to the rotary milling apparatus was opened and the various stages of the washing process sprang into life with a cascade of rushing water towards the large spinning hulling plates. This was all connected by a series of well-greased metal and leather exposed belt drives that would occasionally whip and snap the air with a loud crack over the rhythmic, deafening sound of mechanical noise. Once everything was working in tandem as it should do, Jerbose’s son, Jamal, who was perched at the head of the rotary eight-foot long miller, was given the ‘thumb’s up’ to open the siphon chute and allow the day’s batch of red cherries to begin the next stage in their long and arduous journey towards the coffee cup.

Collecting the washed coffee after fermentation

The process of washing coffee is seriously labour intensive, and every second counts. There is no time to lose valuable coffee at this stage once the milling machine is in full operation. As the cherries reach the first three large milling plates, the ‘flesh’ is removed under the pressure of their grinding action and the mucilage – the waste product – becomes separated from the beans by a large rotating eight-foot long funnel angled under a sprinkler system (by sprinkler system, I mean a copper pipe with holes drilled into it at regular intervals). With a sense of urgency, we climbed back and forth like yo-yos over the exposed drive belts to keep the turning chamber free of any build-up or blockage. It was a constant effort to keep the steady progress of the de-hulled cherries moving down towards the washing channel outside. Moving from the engine shed, I grabbed what I can only describe as a wooden-headed broom stick and helped to coax the bean’s steady advance towards their eventual resting place for 36 hours. In bare feet, six of us would work on alternating channels at a time, slowly driving milky wave-upon-wave of washed cherries towards the tanks for fermentation. Occasionally, the light-footed sprightly Temesgen who negotiated the two parallel washing channels with ease opened up another valve to give the cherries a secondary soaking under the dim row of light bulbs overhead. Working in the shadows, water was everywhere, and the going underfoot fast became treacherous. One step out-of-place and it could spell a six-foot fall into a fermentation tank, or worse. Meanwhile, the separated mucilage was being hurriedly cleared down another sloped channel for further filtration (in theory) whereby the waste  enters a separate collection chamber and the water finds its way back to the watercourse from which it was originally drawn.

With the combined effort of eight of us, it took a couple of hours to process just over 2000 kilos of red cherry. At the height of the harvest, the washing facility has the potential to process 30,000 kilos. That equates to a twelve hour night for the guys tasked with the labour-intensive process of hulling and washing.

Eventually, the rotary huller and water pump engines were cut and silence prevailed over the hillside once again. Returning to my tent that night, I felt elated by the adrenalin of the experience, yet exhausted and shocked at the conditions the guys have to work in, night after night. They are nothing short of heroes and I take my hat off to each and every one of them. By the end of the week, the volume of red cherry had rocketed –  largely due to some much-needed heavy showers on the last successive two nights that helped the green cherries to ripen further – and we were washing more 7000 kilos of organic, 100 percent Choche Arabica red cherry. A promising sign for a good harvest this year. Just a little more rain is all it requires for the ‘second and third phase’ green cherries (according to the time of flowering around Feb-March each year) to fully ripen.

Now, I knew that the process of washing coffee is water intensive but I never realised just how intensive it really is until I saw it with my eyes at firsthand. Despite numerous efforts to get close to a definitive figure, nobody seems to know for sure how much water is used. But I did get a little closer to the answer. Currently, the water tank on the wet mill station has a capacity of 50,000 litres and is refilled every day. There are two of them (although one of them has been decommissioned because of a leak). Combine this with the fact that there are 52 washing stations (privately and co-operative owned) on the 45km stretch from Jimma to Choche alone – and I’m not going to insult anyone’s intelligence here by doing the math – but it is patently evident that rivers of the stuff is used in the wet processing. This is the same water that people use to drink, wash and bathe in.