Culture

Ethiopians in Kenya Savor Their Roots With Coffee Ceremony

 

Article Highlights

NAIROBI, KENYA  – Woizero Isul, 31, is a housewife from Ethiopia who lives with her husband and two children in one room in a large, modern flat in Kilimani, a leafy green suburb of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. She says they plan to live in Kenya for five years before moving to Germany to join relatives who live there.

Isul barely speaks English, so her husband of seven years, who easily communicates in English, gladly agrees to translate.

“There are lots of Ethiopians living in this community,” she says. “They all seem to concentrate in this neighborhood, possibly why we have several Ethiopian shops, Orthodox Churches and restaurants, such as the most popular, Habesha.”

Many Ethiopians who visit Kenya say that Habesha meals remind them of home because it serves “injera,” an Ethiopian staple food similar to flatbread.

She says that the house her family lives in has five bedrooms, but because of the high cost of living in a foreign country, she and her spouse pay partial rent for one of the bedrooms. The other four bedrooms and living room are rented by other Ethiopians or Eritreans. They share a common bathroom, toilet and kitchen area.

“It’s cheaper this way,” says Woizero Isul’s husband, Isul Bekele Sr., 34. “We would rather share a house with friends and family than live in the slums of Nairobi. We get additional help from our relatives now living abroad. We hope to join them in the near future.”

Isul says she and her family enjoy living in Kenya.

“I love it here,” she says. “We have lots of family, and my husband has a good job working for the local Orthodox Church at Yaya Center, located a few kilometers from the Central Business District of Nairobi. I sometimes work alongside him, and I love to sing in the choir and help out in preparations for daily prayer services.”

But one thing they haven’t been able to adapt to is the coffee.

“We simply cannot take Kenyan coffee [even though] coffee berries from home [are] a rare commodity,” she says.

Instead, Isul and her family trek to an Ethiopian market in Eastleigh, a booming Nairobi suburb, to gather the unique ingredients needed to make Ethiopian coffee themselves.

“There, we are able to find everything Ethiopian at fair prices, though it is far away from our house,” she says.

Then Isul makes homemade coffee in a “coffee ceremony,” a rich aspect of Ethiopian culture.

 

“It is a very lengthy process, and I perform the coffee ceremony once a day, mostly for my family,” Isul says. “It is symbolic of quality time spent with them to chat about the happening of the day, politics and, thereafter, a family prayer.”

 

But Isul says that because the coffee ceremony is long, she rarely has time to perform it for guests, as custom back home in Ethiopia.

 

“I am often busy with church activities and house chores that hosting guests for a coffee ceremony is quite rare, only for special holiday[s] or for a special guest,” she says.

 

Still, she says the coffee ceremony custom hasn’t been lost and is one that helps them feel more at home in Kenya and stay connected to their roots.

“It is a custom that we will carry with us, wherever we settle, because it is a central social and cultural practice that identifies us as a people,” she says.

 

Coffee is said to have originated in Ethiopia, which is one of the top coffee producers in the world. The coffee ceremony has emerged as a sacred tradition performed in households to honor guests. Ethiopians living in Kenya have carried this custom with them so that they can enjoy their coffee and stay connected to their homeland.

Ethiopia, located in the Horn of Africa, borders Kenya to the north. A series of famines during the 1980s and civil wars from the 1970s to the 1990s drove many Ethiopians to migrate to other countries, such as Kenya, in search of a better life.  

 

The coffee bean is said to have originated in Ethiopia. Coffee derives its name from Ethiopia’s Kaffa region, where the plant is thought to have first grown, according to the Ethiopian Embassy and Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.

 

Currently, Ethiopia is the top coffee-producing country in Africa, according to various sources. The coffee comes from three main regions in Ethiopia. Coffee beans from Harrar in eastern Ethiopia have a strong and rich aroma and are used in brewing espresso blends. Beans from Ghimbi in the western part of the country are more balanced and heavier than the beans from Harrar. Sidamo, or Yirgacheffe, coffee beans grown in southern Ethiopia are more mild, fruitlike and aromatic.

Mariamu Alemayhu, 35, lives in Addis Ababa. She is of Eritrean nationality but is married to an Ethiopian man. They have two kids.

“Most of our coffee is brewed locally,” Alemayhu says with a chuckle. “The making of coffee is often always ceremonious. It takes two to three hours to prepare and is often served to the most respected and honored of guests.”

A hostess, who often wears white traditional Ethiopian attire, performs the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. The clothing is hand-embroidered along its borders with the colors of the Ethiopian flag: yellow, green and red.

In the ceremony – used to honor and express appreciation to guests – the coffee is roasted, grinded and served in front of them.

The hostess brings out freshly washed green coffee beans. The hostess roasts the coffee, or “bunna,” as Ethiopians call it, in a small, traditional pan over a small, metallic coal furnace. The metallic pan has a long handle to keep the hostess from burning her hands as she turns the beans from side to side to prevent them from burning.

As the beans begin to pop like popcorn, the hostess invites the guests to smell the aroma, which fills the air. She then shakes the beans to further separate husks and other debris as the beans darken and shimmer with their rich internal oils.

Now the roasted beans are ready for grinding by hand with a wooden pestle, or “zenezena,” and mortar, or “mukecha.” They are crushed into powder using a rhythmic up-and-down motion. The coffee is then placed in a traditional clay pot, a “jebena,” and boiled on the coal furnace.

As the boiling coffee brews, its rich aroma again fills the air. The hostess then serves the coffee in small coffee cups, “cini,” which are made in Ethiopia but resemble those from China. The coffee ceremony is complete when delicately popped popcorn is served in a traditional Ethiopian bowl, as friends and guests chat about life, politics and other matters that concern them.

“That’s just how we love to take our coffee,” Alemayhu says. “And no matter how stuffed we are after a meal, we always have space for the brew and buttered popcorn.”

The hostess also sets some coffee powder aside so guests can enjoy more.

“One cannot help but have two or more servings of the sweet coffee,” Alemayhu says.

She says they also have coffee several times a day.

“My family customarily has coffee thrice a day: morning, noon and evening, especially on the weekends,” she says.

Assefa Teshome, 41, a children’s rights advocate in Ethiopia, says coffee is a crucial part of his day.

“I take coffee all day,” he says. “I cannot work without my homemade Ethiopian coffee. It keeps me awake in the mornings.”

Ethiopians says that coffee is such a large part of their day that the custom travels with them when they move out of the country.

Alemayhu says she used to live in the Hurlingham neighborhood of Nairobi for six years in the late 1990s. She says her husband had a job there, and she was a career woman.

“I loved living in Nairobi,” she says. “While living in [Kenya], I interacted with so many other Ethiopians [who were] on transition to Europe or South Africa. It always felt like home.”

But she says the coffee in Kenya paled in comparison to Ethiopian coffee.  

“We drink our coffee [in its] purest form, straight from the farm, and we do not have it processed like Nescafe that you have in Kenya,” she says. “Ours is richer in aroma and taste.” 

So Alemayhu says she would make Ethiopian coffee while living in Kenya. 

“Traditionally, brewing coffee is the responsibility of the woman of the house or the youngest female,” Alemayhu says. “Because my daughter was still a toddler and too young to brew, while we were living in Kenya, I was forced to make homemade coffee powder in plenty and save some for the more busy days.”

She says they held coffee ceremonies on special occasions.

“On special occasions, though, such as religious festivals or holidays, [the] coffee ceremony was a must-have, as I hosted or connected with Ethiopian friends and family in my home.”

Coffee ceremonies done locally by Ethiopians living in Kenya are similar to the original tradition that they practice back home. But most of those living in Kenya enjoy coffee just once a day, compared with three times, as done in Ethiopia.

Titi Bekele, 33, is an Ethiopian who has lived and worked in Kenya as a hairdresser for the last seven years with her husband and son. She says that the coffee ceremony is still an integral part of her weekly activities with her family and close friends.

“My son is studying here, and I love Kenya,” she says. “I am here to stay, although I have not seen my family for the past seven years. I am saving up to visit them in Addis Ababa soon.”

The Ethiopians in Kenya have also shared the process with Kenyan neighbors.

“Many of my neighbors are Ethiopians,” says Sylvia Muthoni, 52, a Kenyan mother of five. “One often invites me to her ceremonies, and I love the coffee and popcorn. But it’s too strong. I can only take one cup. I often wonder why they don’t add milk to it.”  

But Ethiopians say they wouldn’t have it any other way.