Ethiopian coffee

Coffee, Coffea arabica, comes from Ethiopia and its first records can be found as early as the 9th century in the Oromia region, more exactly in the former Keffa province (1).

Coffee plant drawing. (C)Guy Ackermans 2005. Credit: Franz Eugen Köhler / Public domain

In Bedele, located in the Ilubabor province next door, we were able to see ancient coffee plantations under flat top acacias from where coffee was harvested and sold locally and to stockers that would come to buy and take it to processing plants. To see these bushes covered with white flowers so close to the laboratory invited us to often walk through the plantations to enjoy the view and their amazing scent.

Coffee bushes in Brazil. Credit: FCRebelo / CC BY-SA (;

In 2006 it was estimated that Ethiopia produced a substantial amount of coffee (estimated at 260,000 metric tonnes) of which one half was consumed in the country, a lot of coffee! So, as expected, coffee drinking was a daily habit with most Ethiopians and we often drove out of the laboratory for coffee breaks. I must say that my Ethiopian colleagues always insisted in paying the bill! Although Italian-style coffee machines existed at the Bedele coffee shops, the coffee we drank was made following the traditional style.

In Addis we saw the traditional and colourful coffee ceremony being performed for tourists by beautifully dressed and nice-looking ladies seating on loose reeds or grass spread on the floor, often adorned with yellow flowers (probably Meskel flowers –Bidens macroptera– when available) while frankincense smoke rose from a small burner while the coffee was roasted on a larger one and then grounded and boiled. We made a point to return to the hotel to participate more closely in this lovely tradition.

We did not need to do this as, luckily, our good neighbour and friend Wolete (Lete) invited us to her house one afternoon with the purpose of having a cup of coffee! We immediately accepted and we were at her house (about forty metres away) on the dot. As soon as we left our house, we smelled the frankincense that reminded us of the catholic church ceremonies of our Uruguayan childhood, and we followed it to Lete’s house. Frankincense is an aromatic resin obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia.

Frankincense. Credit: snotch / Public domain.

Lete and her husband were waiting for us wearing traditional white garments from Tigray, both looking very handsome. Lete had put on a long dress and she was wearing her massive gold earrings and pendants. They were really pleased and honoured by our coming. On the veranda and inside the house, the floor had been covered with reeds and a small burner was already releasing the frankincense fumes that were quite dense and strongly aromatic.

We sat around on low chairs or on cushions on the floor while Lete, as expected, performed the ceremony. She sat down after we had done so and started to thoroughly wash the green coffee beans that she then dried over the charcoal burner. She then proceeded to roast the beans over the while explaining the procedure to us.

The smell of coffee slowly started to break through the frankincense to create a unique combination until it became the dominant aroma. Lete stood up and walked around the room with the coffee so that we could smell it and apprecite its quality. She then moved the grains to a mortar and started to grind the beans very gently. I could not help noticing that she was using an exploded mortar bomb as a mortar! “How appropriate”, I thought while pointing it to Mabel. “This one comes from the war in the north” she explained, “and it is really useful” said Lete smiling.

A close-up of our host wearing her traditional white dress and gold ornaments.

While the grinding was taking place a coffee pot –known as “jebena”- was put to heat up and the ground up coffee placed inside for boiling. After a while Lete proudly announced that the brew was ready and proceeded to pour the dark brown liquid into small handless cups called “si’ni” placed on a tray. She poured the coffee from some height filling each cup while announcing “this is the first coffee, and we call it “awel”. It was strong and dense and it left a thick deposit behind, similar to the better known Turkish version of coffee.

While we drank the awel Lete refilled the jebena and put it to the boil again. Once we finished, Lete offered the second coffee called “kale’i”, a lighter version, more to our taste. The process was repeated a third time and the “baraka” (to be blessed), the third and thinner brew, was produced.

We had our coffee with sugar and eating popcorn, but it could also be drinking while eating a flat bread called “ambasha” or peanuts.

Luckily, we established good relations with Lete and her husband and we were lucky to be invited a few times to enjoy coffee with them and to admire her performing this ritualized form of drinking coffee that had been developed in the area we were staying, by the south western Ethiopian people, a real treat!

(1) For more info, see

To Bedele, loaded

To get petrol for a journey in a war economy was not just filling up at a petrol station. It required the application for petrol coupons and getting them through a heavy government bureaucratic process as these were treated like golden sovereign coins by the Ministry of Agriculture’s administration.

Once that was achieved, a travel permit was necessary. Personal details were passed to the administration and that took a couple of days to be processed. Finally a small paper written in Amharic with a few stamps and signatures was given to me and we were ready to go.

Before departure, we were warned of a dangerous behaviour of pedestrians in some areas of Ethiopia where people would cross the road in front of your car at full speed apparently for no reason and, apparently, wishing to kill themselves. However, the real motive was the belief that thesepeople were closely followed by some kind of “evil spirit” and by the tight crossing the spirit would get ran over and therefore the person would be cleansed. Another extra precaution to be taken for the journey to the little known.

We loaded our Hilux pick-up and departed early in the morning as I knew that the journey was a long one. The cats in their double travel box were placed on the back seat and it left little space for anything else apart from a few clothes bags and the cool box with our lunch and drinks.

The back was also packed chock-a-block with all the rest of our essentials. These included fridge and cooker as well as food stuff to last us for a month, cutlery and crockery, camp beds, bedding, camping chairs, music centre and other essentials that were required to spend a couple of months until the rest of our belongings arrived. We also took a couple of water jerry cans and, during the journey, made up a list of items we still needed but that we were not sure to find in Bedele.

We selected a Saturday for our journey and realized, too late, that it was a bad choice as Saturdays were market days and there were lots of people moving about, particularly on the road we were using. Although the large crowds thinned somehow as we left Addis, they reappeared whenever we approached some of the populated areas such as Wolkite, Woliso and, further on, Jimma.

The road to Bedele, near Addis.

The trip followed the main road west of Addis, a rather busy and new road for us so our progress was slow. This was not helped by the habit of people to walk on the road –as seen in India- and the number of livestock that was free ranging. Of interest were some moving grass mounds that turned out to be donkeys heavily loaded with teff straw and grass to feed the abundant and free ranging livestock. There were many and they did not seem to obey orders very well, forcing us to hoot very frequently and take evasive action.

Near Bedele.

The landscape was rather denuded from trees and the fields were being planted with teff (Eragrostis tef) the main crop of Ethiopia from which the injera I described earlier is made of. Farmers were busy planting and lots of them were seen on the fields. Then in a field we saw a circle of about twenty adult people crouching holding hands in a circle. We slowed down and, to our surprise, we witnessed our first and only communal defecation we have ever seen! Whether this is a common occurrence or something rare I cannot say!

The Ethiopian revolution was celebrated with colourful arches spanning the length of the road. These were rather substantial near Addis but they started to diminish in hierarchy as we moved on and, although approaching Jimma they revived, again, from there to Bedele these were almost absent or rather poor efforts that suggested to me that the revolution was not a priority in the interior.

Passing through Wolkite, on the way to Bedele.
Some of the beautiful large houses at Wolkite.

We arrived to Jimma late afternoon and decided to spend the night there at one of the few hotels available, I believe that it was called the Jimma Hotel. It was a rather basic facility but suitable for our needed rest. Dinner had a rather limited menu that consisted of chicken and chips or spaghetti with tomato sauce. We chose the latter, a clear consequence of the years of Italian occupation of parts of Ethiopia. We were the only commensals so the waiters literally fought to serve us and you needed to be careful as they would take away items from your table before you had finished with them!

Unfortunately, the pasta was not memorable but, tired and hungry, we were somehow satisfied and decided to retire early. On arrival to our room, Mabel remembered that she was told that the beds in some of these hotels had more wildlife than the countriside! So, apart from bringing the cats to our rooms, we slept inside our sleeping bags not before she attacked all invisible creepy crawlies with a white insecticide powder from our FAO medical kit that I hoped it was not DDT! In any case, it must have been effective as we slept like logs, hopefully not because of its fumes.

Mabel controlling insects by physical means!

The following morning, after a simple breakfast, we had a tour of Jimma, looking for fuel that was severely rationed. Eventually we arrived at one petrol station that took our Government fuel coupons and we left the asphalt to take the 140 km of the rather rough road to Bedele that would become familiar to us.

We drove for about two hours through farmland and then the landscape became forested and I knew that we were close to Bedele. We crossed true forests of large and ancient flat top acacias (Vachellia abyssinica) and we could see the coffee bushes thriving under their shade. We were arriving to the true origin of the arabica coffee!

After our afternoon arrival we needed to present ourselves to the political authority of Bedele to who we handed over our travel permit. The man examined our paper carefully and, after a while, he declared “your wife is not included in the permit and I need to ‘capture’ her and keep her at the police station”. I reacted strongly explaining that we were coming to live at Bedele and to work for the United Nations. The man seemed unimpressed by my arguments and remained unmoved, clearly full of his own importance!

Becoming rather worried I left Mabel with the political guy and drove to the veterinary laboratory to explain the situation to the Director who was really mortified by the situation and, immediately, came to our rescue. Luckily, after a short discussion (in Amharic), the Director announced that we could go with him and that we would go to the police the following day and inform them of our arrival.

We thanked the political administrator profusely for his understanding and left with the Director who took us to our bungalow and left us to unpack and organize our house before nightfall.

As agreed, the following morning I visited the police station accompanied by the Director and the Administrator of the laboratory. There we met with the political delegate of the previous day. A protracted discussion followed and, eventually, the Director (who was the only person that spoke English) explained to me the outcome.

The meeting had decided that Mabel’s omission from the Travel Permit was a serious mistake but also that we were allowed to stay. I was recommended to make sure in future that we were both included in our travel permits. I agreed wholeheartedly knowing full well that it was an impossible task but I was happy that I could now focus on my work.