Ethiopia is known for producing some truly amazing coffee. But during my trip to the Horn of Africa, I discovered that the reasons to visit this land go far beyond its beautiful beans. Even though the main purpose of my trip was to hunt for the best coffee in Ethiopia, I can’t resist sharing the other cultural experiences I encountered during my travels, as they are all part of the story and part of the process of bringing this delicious coffee back to Australia for everyone to enjoy.
After a tumultuous trip from Australia (including a cancelled flight and a 44-hour journey), I met up with my guide Hanna, and we arrived in Jimma, the largest city in south-western Ethiopia. It was the rainy season in Africa, and the mud was unlike anything I’d experienced before. On arrival in Jimma, my first sights were the structures that people had built to shelter themselves from the rain, often made out of scavenged plastics and other materials.
As we entered the town centre, most streets were lined with hundreds of guys cleaning shoes – a very popular business for the local men.
Early the next morning, a man called Abdulwahid picked us up and drove us about an hour to his farm, ‘Ketim’. Fortunately, the rain had stopped, so we could have a look around his lush property. We walked through the farm and descended a steep, muddy hill, with Abdulwahid’s friendly guard accompanying us everywhere and helping us down the slippery hill (with his other hand on his machine gun).
At the bottom of the hill, there was an area where ladies were preparing soil holders for coffee seedling, which is one of their usual off-season jobs. Every year, more and more coffee is being planted, so the plantation is constantly growing.
The families of the workers live on the farm, working together with the farm owner to maximise the crop yield. The farm had a real sense of community, but it was obvious that a lot of hard, physical labour goes into the production of the coffee.
Abdulwahid had owned the farm for six years, with the majority of his family being coffee farmers. He said he is always working, and on the rare occasion he isn’t working with the coffee, he is buying and selling houses.
We made a quick stop to visit a plantation owned by a man named Melaku Addis, which was incredibly remote, but absolutely stunning. Melaku invited us to his house for lunch and coffee. The house was beautifully prepared for visitors, with grass laid out all over the floor to ensure the house was dry and kept clean – and even the dog had grass to rest on.
Melaku’s lounge room was filled with graduation photos of his children – he and his wife value education and are very proud of their children’s achievements. They have seven children, and four of them work in the coffee industry.
Before Melaku bought the farm, he worked for a local government office. A law came in that all mandated all government staff to speak the local language, Oromifa, which he could not, so he left. One of his sons suggested that together, they should buy the land that had previously belonged to their grandfather. Melaku borrowed money from the bank and starting planting coffee, while his son built a house for his grandfather on the land. He was very happy that his farm had been so successful.
I asked Melaku what sort of difficulties he faced on the farm. He told me that it is often difficult to find labour, as there are not enough locals doing labour during the harvest, so hand pickers migrate from other areas and simply move between the farms that pay the highest.
Lunch was followed by a coffee ceremony, using the traditional way to make coffee when getting together with friends. The coffee ceremony usually starts with pan roasting the coffee, then grinding it in a wooden mortar and pestle. I was invited to finish making the coffee, so sat on the little seat and brewed the coffee in a bulbous clay pot with a tall spout, watching it come to the boil. I threw some incense onto the coals to perfume the room, and it emitted a beautiful, woody scent. The small cups were arranged on a tray, and I was instructed to fill them all in one pour.
The coffee was strong, smooth and heavy bodied, and the entire ceremony was a great cultural experience.
Once back in town, we went straight to a shoe cleaning guy, who cleaned our boots while we waited. What great service! He polished and conditioned the leather with cream, so they were better than when we started. The guy even put our shoes back on our feet, and I wished that more people offered this service in Australia!
On our last day, we visited a small dry mill in town. Here, the green coffee beans are removed from the parchment. Defects are removed by hand by a group of ladies who sit on the floor, spending their days picking through the coffee.
Ethiopian coffee has always been one of my favourites, and it was such a pleasure to finally meet some of the people whose lives revolve around producing this beautiful coffee.