The spiritual dimension of Ethiopian coffee ceremony

 A long longtime ago, a young shepherd somewhere in what was then known as Kaffa district in Ethiopia observed his goats scamper with high spirits after eating some shrubs nearby and was inspired to know what these shrubs were and why the goats got “high” on them. He apparently tried the shrubs on himself and shared with others and instantly experienced the mood that uplifted the goat’s spirits. The legend about coffee was born.

Fast forward to modern times. The Japanese created their elaborate tea ceremony which is famous around the world. The Japanese tea ceremony like sushi in its gastronomy, is a Japanese specialty that has gone global. Even more elaborate is Ethiopian coffee ceremony which has several dimensions and manifestations. The Ethiopian coffee ceremony, unlike the Japanese tea ceremony, does not only consist in a meticulous ritual of preparing tea and drinking it according to a certain set of rules and etiquettes.

The Ethiopian coffee ceremony is multidimensional in its manifestations, significance and symbols. The Japanese tea ceremony has only a physical dimension. You drink it to satisfy your craving for tea and that is all. On the contrary, the Ethiopian coffee ceremony does not end with physical satisfaction. It has also a spiritual dimension and anyone who enjoys coffee prepares and drinks it according to their preferences to meet the cravings of the mind or spirit.

My comparison of Japanese tea ceremony with Ethiopian coffee ceremony is not meant to laud the former and denigrate the other or vice versa. Both the Japanese tea ceremony and the Ethiopian coffee ceremony have their own cultural relevance and justifications following the respective traditions.

It is rather to point out to the fact that the Japanese tea ceremony has gained wide popularity while the Ethiopian coffee ceremony is still largely unknown because of our lack of efforts to make it known and appreciated in other cultures. In industrialized Japan, tea has little significance as a cash crop while in Ethiopia coffee is not only the most important export product but also occupies a central place in the daily lives of tens of millions of Ethiopians. Coffee is as such the soul of Ethiopia.

As indicated above, coffee in Ethiopia is a multi dimensional daily beverage. First, it is a factor of social cohesion and social integration. Go to any Ethiopian household in any part of the country and you will be amazed not only by the diverse ways and styles coffee is prepared and served. You will also be flabbergasted by the role coffee plays in bringing up neighbors, relatives near and far together in a harmonious interaction in which they share their ideas, gossips and strike deals or bring quarrels in households to peaceful resolution.

The coffee ceremony in Ethiopian households is perhaps the rare moment people speak their minds, share their thoughts, express their likes and dislikes and discuss the most important political and economic topics without fear of being spied on or heard by invisible ears.

An Ethiopian coffee ceremony is perhaps the only place where people feel free in the true meaning of the term from outside intrusion as well as trust each other Second, the Ethiopian coffee ceremony has a psychologically healing effect on the consumers because it is the place where they tell the village or neighborhood healer what their troubles are and how they could get information on where to go to seek solace. That could be taken as social psychoanalysis without Freud and Adler.

The remedy ranges from a trip the holy water or to a clairvoyant, a village herbalist or a village healer. And many people are not disappointed. Traditional healers for centuries, did not enjoy the respect or appreciation they deserved despite their amazing knowledge of diseases and remedies simply because they either kept them secret of were considered mysterious phenomena by society. Most of them were ostracized or they led a reclusive life, unable to transfer their skills to the following generations.

Nowadays these healers are enjoying a very slow acceptance and visibility as many of them were disappointed with modern medicine that is often trying to heal the body and leave the mind or the spirit to its own design.

In a country where the majority of people do not enjoy modern medical treatment, these people are relying on traditional healing methods that are getting slow but certain recognition. So, the Ethiopian coffee ceremony is an occasion for the exchange of information on diseases and their remedies. To your surprise, coffee itself is considered a powerful healer as many people find relief for nagging headaches, stomach ailments and other discomfort thanks to powerful hot cups of coffee they sip two or three times a day. Sometimes, coffee is served with sugar but most Ethiopians like it with salt or only black and strong.

Sometime in the past, some quacks had spread the wrong information that coffee might be the source of ailment. Modern medicine has completely disproved and discredited this quackery. Nowadays coffee is believed to provide relief and protect people from serious illnesses like cancer to minor discomforts like a passing headache or depression about which our ancestors had deep empirical knowledge although we never cared about it very much, Recent medical findings testify the powerful effect of coffee in preventing or healing liver cancer for instance.

Third, coffee is a confirmed remover of not only physical symptoms but also spiritual illnesses such as depression, but also a powerful ingredient that opens human minds to states of deep trance and provides great energy and vision into past and present states of minds. Like any African country, Ethiopia has a rich spiritual tradition in the form of religious events or non-religious rituals and faiths that bring man at the centre of their interest or concern. Unfortunately, these traditional practices and knowledge are either ignored or fallen victims to biases and prejudices.

Like the shamans among American Indians who use tobacco or other plants as a catalyst potion to shamanic vision, Ethiopian coffee is used as a trigger of powerful revelations among the traditional dream interpreters and spirit communicators who are famed for their insights into the lives of people in great distress. As Ethiopians, we have memories of mothers and the elderly telling their dreams to an interpreter first thing in the morning after the first cup of coffee is served. There are also people who have the talent to read events by consulting the patterns of the dregs of coffee that are left at the bottom of the cups.

Coffee, like kaht in the eastern and southern parts of the country, plays great spiritual role as a tranquilizer of distressed souls and as a trigger of hidden visions into the invisible world or as a kind of hallucinatory drug that open the mind to the secret world beyond the visible one. This aspect of coffee’s usage is sometimes confused with acts of sorcery but this is not corroborated by facts. On the contrary, modern medicine maintains that coffee heightens the creative spirit and some people might have a special predisposition to indulge in telepathic communication or in a “the meeting of the souls” as it is described in American Indian culture, whenever they drink coffee in a particular ceremony that may involve chants and drumbeats and other rituals. That is why coffee is part of the traditional lore both in Christian communities in the north and Muslim communities in the east and south of the country.

The fourth point is the form or style with which coffee is ground, boiled and served in many communities across the country, in the towns as well as in the deep countryside. Coffee is generally boiled in earthen kettles because that is the way to get the best taste and aroma from coffee. This is also the most natural way coffee is boiled in the Ethiopian way although the shape and color of the kettles may be different in different communities. There are kettles with short and long ‘necks”, a single or double faucet or slim or rounded kettles with decorations on their bodies that have different symbolic meanings depending on the faith and rituals of the artists who produce the patterns.

The coffee kettles in Gurage communities of southern Ethiopia are for instance shorter in height and have bigger and round shapes below their necks. On the contrary kettles in the Amhara region of Gojjam have taller and leaner structures and are bigger or contain more coffee maybe because many people attend a given coffee ceremony.

By the same token, the cups are different in shape, size and color. They are usually arranged on a wooden tray and the number of cups may range from half a dozen to fifty or seventy depending on the occasion and ritual.

The cups are filled with coffee and distributed among those present and the same cups are usually used by the same drinkers until the end of the ceremony. The coffee server knows which cup belongs to whom and serves them accordingly three times in a row as the first round is called abol, the second tona and third bereka or blessing because a blessing ceremony takes place after each coffee ceremony.

Incense is burned on each occasion and the fumes make strange shapes and fill the room and waft through the doors and windows. it is inconceivable to have a coffee ceremony without incense burning, simply because the ceremony or the ritual is deemed incomplete without incense and scenting sticks. They create the ideal mood of relaxation that is indispensable for a good coffee ceremony.

The fifth point is that coffee is part of the welcoming ceremony whenever a visitor comes to a house. In fact it is a way of honoring them and getting the opportunity to have a hearty chat or exchange information if not use the opportunity to reconcile quarreling neighbors or individuals. So, the Ethiopian coffee ceremony is an occasion for peace making or achieve peace of mind.

Recently, the Ethiopian coffee ceremony is enjoying a kind of revival albeit in a different form and setting. It is appearing on the doorsteps of many hotels and under the sheds of trees, on the verandahs and small rooms by the sides of many streets. “Come and Drink Coffee” says the signs hanging about these outlets.

And when you go to these places you find often pretty damsels sitting in front of huge wooden trays exhibiting their cups and pouring the golden brown beverage from earthen kettles of all shapes and sizes. Avid coffee drinkers are usually sitting nearby expecting to enjoy themselves with Ethiopia’s most famous public beverage.

The ubiquitous incense is burning on an earthen burner and is quickly dispersed as it is taken away by the wind. Civil servants go there after lunch to boost their spirits before resuming their work. You can perhaps call this the modern face of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony that is keeping on metamorphosing and assuming a new face while members of the new generation find work and income serving it with passion.

The Ethiopian Herald Sunday Edition 28 July 2019


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