Probably more than anywhere else in Ethiopia, the people of the Jimma region of Ethiopia have coffee in their cultural blood. Every day begins with a coffee ceremony in most households. On my first visit to the birthplace of coffee in 2003, years before it became a mandatory trek for coffee enthusiasts, I visited the small house of sixty-year-old Hadjj Hussein, a member of Oromia Cooperative, to experience the ritual.
Hadjj Hussein lives far out of town. As is the case with many Ethiopian farmers, his coffee is “sun-dried,” meaning the coffee is processed by laying the coffee fruit out in the sun to dry like raisins. These are then picked up by the co-op and taken to Addis Ababa for further processing. Farmers sun-dry coffee when they are far from a coffee washing station that would allow the beans to be soaked and fermented in water immediately after harvest, and where they live in dry regions like Jimma or Harar. Sun-dried coffee often sells for considerably less than wet-processed coffee, so the farmers are that much poorer. Hadjj Hussein has fifteen children and twice as many grandchildren. I can’t tell which are which. Supersized families are not uncommon among rural Ethiopians. Back in Yirgacheffe, Tasew Gebru at seventy is about to have his tenth child, who will be named Toduru, meaning “What Will the Neighbors Say?” When he is born he will be Uncle Toduru to seven nieces and nephews in their early teens.
One of Hadjj Hussein’s younger daughters, twelve-year-old Rehima Hussein, comes out of the house swathed in brown-checkered fabric, her head wrapped in a proper Muslim white head scarf. She is the same age as my oldest daughter and carries that same shy smile. Her sisters spread sweetgrass on the ground and burn frankincense to purify the air around us. Fourteen-year-old Minah stokes a small charcoal brazier. Three-year-old Nejat sits dangerously close to the glowing coals. Rehima puts an old blackened skillet on the brazier and places several handfuls of green coffee beans on the skillet. She stirs the beans with a wooden spoon until they are smoking and cracking like popcorn—the first sign the coffee is nearly ready. Rehima skillfully stirs the beans until they are almost black.
“The coffee is ready when it is the color of a chicken’s eye,” says Hadjj Hussein approvingly. Yes, I did spend several minutes trying to look into the eyes of the few scrawny chickens in his yard, but to no avail. They were too fast for me.
Rehima pours the beans into a wooden mortar and crushes them with the rhythmic movement of a pestle, humming the whole time. She empties the ground coffee into a clay coffee pot, a jabana, the symbol of Ethiopian coffee. There are giant mock jabanas at the entrance to many coffee towns in Ethiopia. Rehima pours boiling water into the jabana and swishes it around for a minute. Her sister brings out a tray of porcelain teacups, like the ones in a Chinese restaurant.
“We bought them in Jimma market,” says Hadjj Hussein proudly. “They are made far away in China.”
Rehima pours each cup. She begins about six inches from the cup and pulls the jabana up to three feet away as she fills it. Each filling is a little ballet of black liquid. We each receive a cup. This is abol, the first round. We drink it quickly and say, “Buna gari” (Good coffee). There is a second round, the tonah, and then the third, the beraka or “blessing” round. Beraka is an Amharic word. It shares ancient roots with Hebrew and is thought to have been introduced to Ethiopia by the Queen of Sheba and the early Semitic migrations. The Oromo, though, are not a Semitic people. They are Black African pastoralists who migrated throughout this region over the centuries and have been “internally colonized” by the Amharic peoples for a long time. But at least here, during the coffee ceremony, such things are not discussed. Buna gari. The ceremony has ended and the day’s work can begin.
I take a photo of Rehima, proudly holding out the tray of small cups full of her family’s bounty. This photo would become iconic in the Fair Trade movement. Later, I would pay for her high school education in return for the use of the photo. Even later, the co-op would tell me that Rehima had graduated from high school and was being sent to Saudi Arabia as a “domestic servant,” as her family had no money to keep her in school and there were few jobs in the small towns around Jimma. I visited with Hadjj Hussein and offered to pay for her college tuition and upkeep; after all, I was still using the photo. He had aged immensely in the past four or five years but still held himself with immense grace and dignity. I gave him a framed copy of the photo, his young daughter’s beautiful face shining out of the past. The old man nearly cried, but he accepted my offer to pay for her schooling and in a brief ceremony made me Rehima’s “Second Father.” Rehima would not go to Saudi Arabia. We then visited the now seventeen-year-old Rehima, who was living with a sister at that time. When Masgabu, our translator, told her outside her sister’s house that her father had accepted my offer and she could stay in Ethiopia, she seemed only mildly interested. But when her sister invited us inside her one-room house, Rehima threw her arms around me and hugged me tightly.
“I accept you as my Second Father. I love you, I love you,” she whispered forcefully. She held my hand as we sat down on the floor and had coffee. I realized that outside, with a gathering crowd of about a hundred Muslim men, women, and children, she had felt uncomfortable expressing emotion to a ferangi (a foreigner). She needed to study English, as all university courses in Ethiopia are taught in English, and she wanted to study computer technology.
Two months later I received my first letter in English from my new daughter. It reminds me of the blessings that flow at the coffee ceremony. It began “Dear Dad,” and ended with, “I thank you for your innocent gift. Your daughter, Rehima.”
By Dean Cycon, Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Company