Coffee, Chat and Ethiopian Community

Have you had your morning coffee yet? In our hazy A.M. fogs most of us understandably fail to think about the origin of that lifesaving brew, and I’m talking about the literal root of the coffee tree that produced a red cherry that magically woke you up this morning (or afternoon, depends what you did last night). Well, last week I traveled to the town of Jimma, a central hub of Ethiopian coffee.

Legend goes that coffee was first discovered when a man named Kaldi noticed that his herd of goats was jumping around with extraordinary energy after nibbling on a certain red cherry. Kaldi decided to try the cherry himself and suddenly became more awake, and through many steps of a story that I will omit, the first cup of coffee was eventually brewed. Voila! Now, coffee serves as a main staple in Ethiopian culture and tradition, as most people begin drinking the energizing beverage at age 6 about 4 times a day. Don’t worry, Kaldi is not a forgotten man either, as the most popular coffee chain in Ethiopia bears his name.

My job here works with smallholder coffee farmers in rural Ethiopia, and so I was lucky enough to travel to the town of Jimma to meet some of them. I knew I was in for a peculiar trip when I landed at the Jimma airport, where one room serves as the check-in area, security line, terminal, and baggage claim. Anyone who has traveled in a developing country knows what I am talking about; I think these airline employees would think LAX or SFO were signs of some sort of alien invasion.

The streets of Jimma are lined with shanty businesses selling orange soda, Ambo water, crackers, and used water bottles. In front of the chain of shanty stores are women presenting the crops from their farms, everything from mangoes to maize, chat to coffee. No no no, they don’t sell small talk, silly! Chat (or Khat) is a plant that when chewed, produces a state of euphoria and increased energy; naturally, a ton of people chew it because Ethiopia is one of the few countries that allow it. When someone has been chewing chat all day, their eyes become loopy similar to when Wile. E. Coyote falls off of one those many cliffs. Farmers grow chat, sell chat, and chew chat while chatting about all the chat that they chew and grow. Phew.

We arrived at the Honeyland Hotel, which boasts leather seats, a cracked sliding front door that doesn’t close, spotty electricity, American action movies, and the nicest restaurant in town. When the nicest joint in the area has a menu where ‘cooked’ is misspelled as ‘cocked,’ that’s when you know this is a different world.

We actually spent more time out in the ‘field’ a bit outside of Jimma talking to coffee farmers. These farmers live in homes made of thatch and mud with tin roofs and a tarp carpet, and receive their water from a weather-dependent river that usually runs brown. Some wear clothes that have been passed down for generations, patched up by other clothes that can no longer be used as dish towels. It showed me a perspective that allows me to better appreciate the resources I have in Berkeley — a running faucet and full plate of food for each meal, even if it is the 8th time I’ve eaten orange chicken that month.

Both my coworker and I are not Ethiopian, meaning that we stick out like no other. So when we would step out of the Land Cruiser to speak to some local farmers, kids would slowly gather around until about 30 of them were listening to us ask the translator to relay riveting questions about wet mill construction until someone would tell them to scram and they would all run away giggling only to gradually return to their listening posts. You would walk around the kebele, the Amharic word for community, and find yourself being trailed by an entourage of 10 year olds skipping behind you.

We stopped for lunch in someone’s home and they served us bread with honey made in the traditional honeybee hive in their backyard. This honey was unreal, the sweetest and freshest tasting kind I will ever have. It was not smooth and clear like the kind we usually think of, but had a sugary and granulated texture that saturated the fresh bread with a warm sweet taste. The mother of the household asked me if we have honey in America, speaking to the remoteness of their lives without a television or the most recent New York Times or Cosmo, depending on your reading preferences. I would be reminded of the same isolation when later that day someone would ask me where I buy my goats in California.

With a belly full of honey we returned into the car and headed out to the next location, dodging donkeys, goats, dogs, and cattle on the way. We spoke with the Duromina coffee farmers who produce the #1 coffee in Africa. I was later hugged, kissed, and spit on in appreciation by an old woman farmer that had been chewing chat since sunrise. We strolled through coffee trees and grazing land to find a beautiful waterfall nestled in the back of someone’s homestead. Those three days in those coffee farms of Jimma taught me so much more than where my early morning brew comes from.