Posts tagged ethiopian culture
Posts tagged ethiopian culture
Sometimes, it’s easy to forget how lucky I am. This weekend, though, the wedding of my counterpart to my favorite health extension worker reminded me how incredibly fortunate I am - to be in Peace Corps, to have amazing friends, and, yes, to be in Ethiopia.
When I found out that Brihan (my counterpart, who is intelligent, motivated, and has a great sense of humor) was going to marry his long-time girlfriend Aster (a self-assured, incredibly bright young woman), I was stoked. Even though I don’t understand most of what they say to each other (Amharic is their primary language of communication), you can tell just by watching them how much love and mutual respect underlies their relationship.
Then, Aster told me I’d be part of the mize, the bridal party. I thought she was joking, at first. She wasn’t. As has become the norm for me, I didn’t really know what I was getting into, but decided to go along with it anyway. (Is this a habit that will help me when I’m back in America, or is it a recipe for disaster?)
I’ve written before about the extensive preparation that goes into a wedding. I joined a bunch of the couple’s female friends and neighbors on Friday, primarily chopping onions and washing out old glass soda bottles that looked like they’d been in circulation since the reign of Haile Selassie (Has anyone in Ethiopia seen a Fanta bottle with a blue label?), which were then filled with a non-alcoholic honey drink called brrz. (Maybe there are vowel sounds in there, but it doesn’t feel like it.) On Satuday, I arrived a little late to help make the wat (that is, the meat stew), but the one Muslim woman who was helping had left by the time they added the salt, so they needed me to taste the Muslim stew to make sure they put enough in.
Then, it was round one of the wedding. People started showing up at noon for lunch. After I ate, I went home to change out of jeans and into a dress, then came back to hang out and help where I could. I spent time with some coworkers who were boiling buna, then was happy to help them drink it. I poured water for people to wash their hands, and cleared and washed some dishes. Mostly, though, I got to hang out with friends and neighbors.
The rain had loomed ominously around Mettu for most of Saturday afternoon, but it waited until the evening to hit. When I showed up at the couple’s house on Sunday morning, it was incredibly muddy. After eating a little breakfast (leftovers from the day before), I went with Aster to the beauty shop. I chatted with the hairdressers while they pinned fake curls onto her pulled-back hair. Aster said I was going to have my hair done to match the other bridesmaids, but the hairdressers decided that it looked fine as it was. I tried not to show my relief.
We went back to the house and got dressed, but we were running late. I quickly donned my bridesmaid dress, which was a modern take on a traditional Ethiopian style. Of course, 30 seconds before we were leaving, one of the very kind women who had been feeding guests as they arrived shoved a plate into my hands and insisted I have some food before the long journey. I had barely begun eating when the bridal party started leaving the house. I licked my fingers, threw on my hiking boots, and ran after them.
Of course, when we got to the nearest main road, the bus that was going to take us to the rural area hadn’t arrived yet, so we stood around waiting for it for a while. I had time to run home, use the bathroom, and wash the rest of the wat off of my hands. While we waited for the bus, we clapped and sang spiritual songs (well, I clapped, anyway, and joined in with the chorus when I could). Protestants in Ethiopia are forbidden from singing and dancing except in praise of God, so while we were with the couple, everyone refrained. On the bus, though, while Aster and Brihan were riding in a separate vehicle, their friends of different religions let loose a bit. We sang some Ethiopian wedding songs and even danced in the aisles.
About 10km outside of Suphee, we caught up to the car Brihan and Aster were riding in, which had pulled over to the side. We all got out, a little confused — was this our destination? I asked Aster. “The road disappeared, but there’s another car waiting for us on the other side,” she said. Disappeared? I thought. I turned around, and, sure enough, there was a huge hole where the road apparently used to be. It was as if Carmen Sandiego had come and just snatched it right out of the ground.
We trekked through about a kilometer of woods, then met a pickup truck on the other side. It took the bridal party, the soda, the mosoob, and the sheep Brihan brought. (The groom brings the bride’s family a white sheep as a sign of respect. Brihan informed me that because it’s wedding season, now that Ethiopian Lent is over, white sheep fetch a premium at the market.) The plan was for the other guests to start walking, and the pickup would return to drive them the rest of the way.
We’d nearly arrived at the turnoff to Aster’s house, after which we’d have to go by foot, when the truck came to a stop. Not one, but both of its back tires blew. We waited around for a bit, but when the remaining guests started arriving, we decided to walk the rest of the way. Some loitering kids were recruited to carry the heavy stuff, and we continued down the muddy road, across a soccer field, and between farms to Aster’s family’s home.
When we arrived, singing songs that thanked God for bringing us together, the first order of business was to kill the sheep so that it could be eaten that day. It was pretty gruesome. One of the groomsmen was splattered with a lot of blood (though as it turns out, he’s a doctor specializing in emergency medicine, so I’m sure he’s used to it). Then we entered the house and greeted Aster’s parents and the other elder friends and relatives. We ate our first lunch of doro wat (chicken), k’ai wat (spicy meat), and alicha wat (mild meat). As I was finishing up my food, a friend from Mettu asked me when I was going to go make the t’ibs from the sheep, because that’s the job of the bridal party. I laughed, and said to her husband, “She’s joking, right?”
“No, it’s our culture!”
I turned to the other bridesmaids. “Really?”
Then Brihan chimed in. “Traditionally, it is the mize’s job to make the t’ibs.”
“Are you all in on this joke?”
They weren’t, and we started talking about whether I could do it if I needed to. T’ibs is really just meat sauteed with onions, hot peppers, oil, butter, and sometimes some rosemary. One of the women vouched for my onion chopping abilities, and we decided I could at least help the other two. We headed back to the kitchen, but the women in Aster’s family assured us that they had it under control. So we hung out for a bit, then returned to our seats.
One of the groomsmen read the marriage certificate aloud, and the couple exchanged rings. Once that was all taken care of, everyone seemed to relax a little bit. We took some pictures, and the bride’s family and friends presented gifts to the couple. The gifts were cash and household items, including an electric stove, a wide assortment of cooking pots, drinking glasses, plates, and various injera holders. One of Aster’s brothers bought them a refrigerator!
Next, it was time for round two of food. This time, though, the food was served on communal platters and the atmosphere was much more relaxed. Everyone was encouraging each other to eat, and feeding each other bites of food by hand (a tradition called gursha; it shows love and respect). I had a little 11-year-old sitting next to me who fed me progressively larger bites until I caught onto her game; everyone at the table was laughing about it as I struggled to swallow the final one.
As we finished the t’ibs, one of Aster’s relatives laid a new piece of injera and scooped some more wat on our plate, and one of the elders gave a blessing. He fed the couple, then her parents, then the friends who were representing Brihan’s family. Each in turn fed the groom and the bride. Then the same thing happened for the mize; the elder fed each of us, then we fed the couple. “It is a way of sharing the blessing,” Brihan explained.
It was about 5:30 by the time we left, carrying gifts (including the refrigerator) and empty soda bottles. This time, we were in a vehicle that took the long way around, through a town called Algee, on a road that still existed. Driving with a group of people in good spirits as the sun and a sliver of the moon both set in the west, I felt a sense of belonging that’s hard to find in a country where you stick out like a sore thumb. I felt like I was a part of something. And I am.
(Pictures to follow, once I figure out how to get them off of Kim’s camera!)
Here’s a moment I don’t ever want to forget:
My neighbor Alemi poked her head in my doorway. “Joanna. Kotuu.” Come here.
I followed her next door to the room where Seena and Getachew live. There were three other women sitting around a table, a plate in the middle. There were five spoons jutting out of a large helping of marqaa, a traditional porridge covered with butter and berbere. They told me to sit down, and we all started eating.
I visited Seena the night she gave birth to her first child, Bethlehem. Relatives and neighbors were gathered to welcome her into the world, drinking coffee and eating marqaa. I was sitting next to an exhausted and frustrated Seena while our other neighbor coached her through breast feeding for one of the first times. I tried to not let my discomfort show too plainly on my face.
It was a week later when Alemi summoned me back, and little Betie slept peacefully while we all chatted and encouraged each other to keep eating. When we finished the porridge, the other women, one by one, put down their spoons and grabbed onto the edge of the plate.
“She doesn’t know,” one whispered to the others. I looked up, and saw they were looking at me expectantly.
“Joanna. Hold onto the plate.”
I smiled sheepishly and did as commanded. Together, we raised and lowered the plate three times, ululating as we lifted.
We got up and left Seena and Betie to nap.
Weddings in Ethiopia are as big of a deal as in the U.S. I attended my first complete wedding — that is, I helped with the food preparation and stayed until the gabi came home (more on that later) — this past weekend. While traditions vary based on religion and region, here’s how it all went down:
In towns like mine, weddings are held in the home — or, rather, in two homes, those of the bride’s family and the groom’s family. Since Kim lives on the bride’s family’s compound, we got to see their side of the story firsthand. The week before the wedding is dedicated to getting the home ready to host dozens of guests.
The men busy themselves with manly things, namely killing animals (or taking them to the butcher) and erecting a tent for the ceremony. Then they return to sitting around while the women work, as men in this country are wont to do.
The women of the house are occupied for hours on end with food preparation, as well as cleaning and decorating. They chop kilos and kilos of onions, peel potatoes, and chop up a cow (or sheep) or two’s worth of meat. They make whatever dishes they like, but meat-filled wats are the centerpiece. The wedding I attended this past weekend also served french fries, veggie balls, baked pasta, and several dishes I couldn’t quite identify.
Preparations take place from early in the morning until late at night, and friends and neighbors come to lend a hand — or some plates, or some benches. Everyone pitches in.
Part 1: Here Comes the Groom
When the food is cooked and the house is decorated, there’s nothing to do but wait. The bride sits in a comfy chair looking miserable, as to look happy is considered an insult to the family she’s leaving. Her bridesmaids and friends sing, dance, and clap around her, as if at a pep rally for one. (N.B., Protestants in Ethiopia aren’t allowed to sing or dance except in praising God, so it’s safe to say all the songs weren’t addressed to the bride so much as to the Big Man Upstairs.) The older women bustle about, making sure everything is ready. The groom is late, but no one seems too worried: after all, we’re in Ethiopia.
All of a sudden, and with a great deal of honking, the groom rolls up with his posse in a few rented buses. His buddies are also clapping and singing, much more raucously than their female counterparts. They parade up to the house and the groom, baring flowers, enters to collect his bride while her parents sit in the aforementioned tent. He hands her the flowers, and they process back outside together. They sit at the front of the tent, with the bride’s family and friends on her side, the groom’s on his.
A quick benediction, then it’s time to eat, beginning with the bride, groom, and immediate families. Everyone else lines up for food as best as people can line up in this country, and grabs a bottle of honey water, or brrz (I swear there aren’t any vowels in that word) on their way to sit down. After everyone’s eaten, the bridal party is clapped out of the compound and back onto the buses.
Part 2: For Richer or Poorer
At this point, in terms of Ethiopian culture, the couple is married. But God hasn’t weighed in yet, so we head to the church. There, we sit through a ceremony just like most Protestant weddings in the U.S.: the couple exchanges vows and rings and lights a unity candle. It felt very familiar, which is strange in its own way.
Then back to the buses. At this point, the groom takes the bride to his family’s abode. In Afaan Oromo, the word for “married” is different for men and women: for men, it literally means “he has taken,” i.e., a bride. Fun, no? Anyway, they party there, I guess. We were with the bride’s family, so we missed that part.
Part 3: About Last Night…
The next evening, the newlyweds return to the bride’s family’s house. To show that there are no hard feelings (I mean, he did take a daughter…), the groom comes baring a sheep and a gabi, which is a traditional shawl. With more clapping and singing, the couple enters, some men slaughter the sheep, and everyone sits down and has dinner while some women butcher the sheep to prepare tibs (i.e., second dinner. They didn’t warn us.) Everyone drinks more brrz.
Finally, guests present gifts to the bride and groom, and, with more clapping and singing, they’re off to their new home.
A little more than a month after Kim and I first arrived at site, Ethiopians celebrated their New Year. We were both a little sad: no one really invited us to their homes. Since then, we’ve been trying to make up for lost time on holidays, and Kim put together quite the program for us yesterday for Fassika, or Ethiopian Easter. Celeste and Sile warned us about their busy Fassika last year, but we poo-pooed their warnings and forged ahead. As usual, we couldn’t really understand what we were getting ourselves into.
The day, in statistics:
Homes visited: 14
Homes we thought we’d visit when we started off the day: 7
Spontaneous invitations politely declined: 4
Yesterday, I had coffee at a clinic, got a language lesson in the middle of the street, and — oh, yeah — crashed a funeral. Just an average day in the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer.
I’ve already discussed the extended greetings Ethiopians exchange. Additional fun twist: handshaking almost always accompanies the greeting, but you never know what form the handshake will take.
Sometimes, it’s a basic shake, though to be respectful it’s common to support your right arm with your left, as if the weight of this important person’s handshake is too great for just one hand to bear the burden alone.
When you start to become buddies, or if you’re shaking hands with a friend of a friend, things start to get interesting. The two major forms of more intimate handshaking are the shoulder bump (mostly among young people and men) and the cheek kissing (women do this with each other).
To perform the shoulder bump, you begin with a simple handshake, then lean in toward your greeting partner so your right shoulders touch, then withdraw and complete the handshake. Variations that increase the intimacy of the gesture include putting the left hand on the other’s back and/or swooping in for another bump. I really like this one — I think it will be a craze that will sweep America when I bring it back with me. Or maybe it will remain something of a secret handshake among those who have lived in Ethiopia.
The cheek kissing also begins as a handshake, and then the two parties lean in and touch cheeks — right, left, right — with or without air kissing noises.
When you greet more than one person, you usually greet each individual in the same manner: you extend the intimacy you have with one person to those with whom he or she is walking. Generally, an Ethiopian will greet the person to whom he or she is the closest first, then hold onto that person’s wrist with the left hand while greeting others with the right. It says to the American in me, “Don’t think you can sneak away while I’m distracted by this other person! I’m going to want to inquire after your health a few more times.”
I never know what’s coming, honestly; I just try to relax and follow the other person’s lead. There are more intense handshakes that involve kissing hands, kissing necks, or putting your chin on the other person’s shoulders (right, left, right), but these seem to be the cultural equivalent of a stereotypical cheek pinch or smack on the lips performed by an overzealous grandmother.
Little kids come up to shake my hand all the time, and, being the sucker I am, I find it hard to refuse. I regret this most of the time. Kids are gross, and they often have mud, drool, or another foreign substance on their hands. I’m not above pulling my hand away quickly and yelling “Harka kee xurri dha!” - your hand is dirty. Other PCVs have trained their neighborhood kids to favor the fist bump. I’ll get there someday. In the meantime, I just wash my hands thoroughly and often.
…well, not my wedding, but the first I’ve attended here. Peace Corps found each of us a family in our site that we could celebrate holidays with, and mine is the family of a man named Mitikoo. (It’s my understanding that Mitikoo is a name given to a child born after another child dies, supposedly to keep the dead child’s spirit from inhabiting the new baby. It literally means “it’s not me.”)
Mitikoo’s son (or brother? I got some mixed information) got married today — and the whole town, it seems, came by to offer congratulations and eat some delicious food. My counterpart passed along the invitation yesterday (while escorting Kim and I to a clinic, which is another story for another post). I was supposed to meet up with my tutor today, but she said she was going to the wedding, too. And then I found out over buna that my landlord was going, and he would walk with me — illustrating just how small this big town can be.
Luckily, my landlord briefed me on the process before we got there: instead of bringing a present for the bride and groom, you offer some birr (10 or 20) as you walk in, and some helper dudes put your name in a little book so they know who gave what. After that’s taken care of, you wash your hands and grab some grub and a beverage. Today’s selection included two different kinds of delicious itoo foon (meat stew), a red one and a white one, and a drink made of honey and water. You sit down and tabaduu. A young woman from the regional finance office sat down next to me, and we made awkward conversation. She was very kind for putting up with my stilted Afaan Oromo, and even asked me a few questions (How is Ethiopian culture? — Great. How are weddings in the U.S. compared to this? — Pretty similar, actually).
There are a few differences, though. In Afaan Oromo, there are different words for men and women to indicate that they’re married — the male form is something like “he has taken a wife,” and they’re not kidding. Part of the ceremony is the groom going to the wife’s family, where they’re also partying, and bringing her back to his family. Coincidentally, I stumbled across one such caravan picking up a young woman on my way home last night. There was singing and clapping and all-around merriment; I sat with the neighborhood kids on a wall across the street, and we gaped together.
I also noticed that while I was at Mitikoo’s, there was no music, just chatting. I told my new buddy that there’s dancing at American weddings, so that was one difference, but she clarified that the dancing comes later. I’m a little tempted to go back (people come and go all day), but I can’t tell you how exhausting it is to chat in a different language with a few dozen strangers, all of whom are shocked at your mere presence. My foreignness isn’t something that can be hidden, so I feel like a distraction. It would be like if I showed up to an American wedding wearing a Halloween costume — most people would be confused as to why I was there, a few brave souls would want to talk to me to find out why, and I would surprise every new person I ran in to.
Overall, I felt like today was a success. I attended a cultural event. I made conversation. I saw (and remembered) several people I’ve met before, and they greeted me warmly. I made a new friend. Gobez, Joanna.
Baga Geesan! Happy New Year, everyone, and welcome to 2004. Yesterday, I celebrated in classic Ethiopian style — did a little buna crawl, ate some delicious food, sat around and made small talk with my neighbors, and when there was a lull in the conversation, was urged to play.
I spent the morning making preparations to do my own coffee ceremony, cleaning, roasting, and then manually grinding the beans, and boiling the water; just as everything was almost ready, my neighbor Garama came to my door. “Joanna, come drink a coffee!” So I did, joining the rest of the neighbors on my compound. Two coffees, actually — poor decision, but it was so delicious. I returned to my room, got the water going again, and summoned everyone. Mukreet showed up first, and since the coffee was ready, I poured us each a cup. Weak sauce. With a little coaching from her, I added some more grounds and put the jabana back on the fire, which had died down a bit, so I spent some time fanning the flames and trying not to get ashes all over my nice, clean house.
In the meantime, everyone showed up and was chatting away, waiting patiently for the promised buna to materialize. Sudden, my landlord said, “We have a new name for you. A local name.” Uh-oh. “Iyanu.” Sounds nice, but Ethiopian names all have meaning* — what does Iyanu mean? Bumbling idiot? Clumsy? Girl can’t boil buna to save her life? Apparently, it’s a name given to a girl born on New Year’s Day, and it means “lucky.” I was being born into my habesha self, I guess, by boiling buna for my neighbors. We’ll see if it catches on, but it felt really good to be named by my compound.
Despite my little habesha christening, the ultimate buna product was pretty mediocre. Luckily, there’s another holiday coming up: Sept. 28 is Meskel, the finding of the true cross. I’ll have the chance to redeem myself in the cultural integration department then — I’d better get some practice in in the meantime. (I have to say, I boiled up the leftover grounds in my espresso pot this morning, and the simplicity was incredible but vaguely unsatisfying.) Also on the to-do list: pick up some incense to burn, popcorn to pop, and grass to scatter on the floor — key components of a complete coffee ceremony.
The rest of the day was bunalicious; we continued the buna crawl at the houses of two couples who live in my compound. I have trouble saying no to that second cup, so I ended up drinking seven cups of the stuff yesterday — thank goodness they’re small. The day ended where it began: with Garama poking his head in and summoning me, this time for some delicious kai wot (spicy, meaty, red stew). Ethiopia sure knows how to celebrate a new year.
*To elaborate on the name thing: it’s very common for folks in Ethiopia to ask what your name means. Name meanings here can be related to the person’s birthday or their place in the family; for example, I know a guy named Fassika (Easter), and another named Wandim (brother). Bigger concepts or things in nature are also common: Meheret (mercy) and Sahai (sun) are two women’s names. Oh, and Biblical names are all the rage: Dawit (David), Bethlehem, Eden, Solomon, Aster (Esther), Samuel, Yakob (Jacob)…you get the picture.
I didn’t often think about my name’s meaning back in the States, but “Joanna” means “God is gracious,” which is hard to explain when you aren’t great at the language and folks aren’t necessarily great at English. So when discussing the meaning with my host family, we settled on “gift of God,” which happens to be the name of my oldest host sister. So now when people ask what my name means, I tell them it’s Bereket, sacrificing a little bit of accuracy for the recollection of that moment with my Ethiopian family when I felt like I belonged.
Today is Id Mubaarak, or the feast marking the end of Ramadan, a month of fasting for Muslims around the world. Basically, the rules are that you can’t consume anything during daylight hours, including liquids. NBD if you’re this close to the equator: you skip lunch and abstain from buna during the day. It’s much more of a sacrifice for Muslims in places like America, who suffer through long days of summer without even a glass of water.
I knew the holiday was coming up because of the sudden appearance of a sheep on the compound yesterday afternoon. My landlord, who’s Muslim, had acquired him at the market that day, and the sheep was unhappy about it, bleating all yesterday evening.
I wasn’t fully prepared for the implications of the holiday, though: Id Mubaarak in Ethiopia means that all government offices are closed, which I didn’t learn until I texted my counterpart to try to meet up this morning, and there is no bread available anywhere, which I didn’t know until I tried to get some for breakfast. Everyone was home on my compound, the Christians enjoying their day off despite the persistent rain, the Muslim family hosting guests throughout the day. Kim came over for lunch and we were invited to buna next door (“Joanna, come drink a coffee.”) with all the neighbors and some of their adorable young relatives. Seena, 3 years old, knows the parts of the body in English. It’s pretty impressive.
After three rounds of buna, we took our leave and commenced a long afternoon of watching old Sherlock Holmes flicks and reading magazines from my latest care package. Kim took advantage of a break in the rain to go home, and that’s when my landlord’s sister brought over a bowl of what I’m sure my friend Jean would call “sheepy biz” — basically, minced offal sauteed with peppers and spices — and this delicious, sweet bread that’s apparently a holiday thing. I managed to eat about half of it (it honestly wasn’t bad) by focusing very hard on its taste, and not what this sheep’s digestive system will likely do to my own. As darkness fell, I realized the power was out, and wasn’t looking forward to an evening of getting things done by candlelight.
Cue a second “Joanna, come drink a coffee,” this time at the landlord’s place. I went, and enjoyed a party like most other Ethiopian celebrations: people sit around awkwardly, there’s incense, they pass around the popcorn, everyone drinks coffee and chitchats. Children are scared of me, and adults ask me how I like living in Ethiopia. How is the culture? The weather? The people? And when there’s a break in the conversation, someone picks somebody out of the group and says (for example), “Joanna. Tabatuu.”
(There’s no good translation for “tabatuu.” It translates directly as “Let’s play!” but no one expects you to whip out a football or a board game. It’s basically telling you to interact with the people around you. As PCV Scott has pointed out, in our culture, if you want to interact with someone, you just do it.)
Since today was a special day, the buna had a little something extra in it: dha dha, or butter. In all honesty, Ethiopian butter smells a little bit like old socks. I’d heard rumors that it was sometimes added to buna, but part of me hoped against hope that it wasn’t true. It is. And it’s surprisingly good. Somehow the musty taste, when mixed with the bitter buna and a lot of sugar, really works. It tastes almost nutty, and has an extra smoothness about it.
Another beverage that’s common at Ethiopian celebrations, and that I spilled all over the area rug at this particular one, is a beverage made from pressed barley and sugar that tastes vaguely like Coca-Cola, and so is often referred to as coka. I’m pretty sure it’s called kenneto, but don’t hold me to it. I tried asking, but was misunderstood, and was treated to an explanation of how it’s made.
But don’t think you can get away with just sitting there, quietly sipping your beverage and smiling politely. “Joanna. Tabatuu” is the natural way to fill any silence. Never mind that I don’t know these folks very well, that their English is shaky and my Afaan Oromo even shakier. They want me to chat, but it’s hard to converse when you’re just told to, without any help or topic suggestions. As a direct result of this awkwardness and the desperate search for conversation, I’m pretty sure my neighbor is going to braid my hair tomorrow. Stay tuned for some awesome pictures if that happens.
A long day of celebrating a holiday I only vaguely understand has come to an end. Luckily, the power came back on, so I won’t have to pass my night heavily caffeinated and in the dark.
Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee. Legend has it that a goatherd noticed his flock got a little saucy after eating the bean of a certain tree, and decided to give it a shot. He enjoyed the stimulating effects of the bean, and he and his buddies experimented with different ways of preparing it. After some trial and error, they settled on the roasting, grinding, and boiling method we’re familiar with today, and my favorite beverage was born.
Ethiopians love their coffee, or buna, as it’s called here (and as I will call it in this blog post, because it just feels right). It’s served in cafes and restaurants, of course, but it’s also available under bright tarps that line the streets between or in front of buildings. You can pop under the tarp of your choosing and grab a cuppa any time during the day. The flimsiness of the structures themselves belies their constancy: the same buna lady will be there every day, serving many of the same customers, remembering whether they prefer buna or tea, and at what time, and whether or not they take sugar. The regulars know each other as well as they would in any neighborhood bar in America.
The reason buna can be served anywhere is because its preparation doesn’t depend on electricity. The Ethiopian preparation of coffee goes something like this: you buy the dried coffee beans from your neighbor, or local shopkeeper, or whomever. You take them home and roast them in a pan over a fire, shaking to ensure they don’t burn (shake, shake). When they’ve roasted to your liking, you cool them off, then grind them with a mortar and pestle (thump, thump). You boil water over a charcoal stove in a clay pot called a jabana, then scoop in the coffee grounds and swirl (swish, swish). After boiling the mixed water and grounds for a few minutes, you take it off the heat and let it settle for a bit (tick, tock).
If you’re running a buna shop, you pour it into a thermos and serve it up to your customers as they arrive (glug, glug). In the traditional coffee ceremony, you pour a round of buna into little cups (the size of espresso cups, roughly) for everyone present, then sit back and relax as they sip (slurp, slurp). If you’ve done a poor job of grinding the beans, your guests will find little chunks of buna in your coffee (the big ones float and so are poured out with the buna; the fine grounds stay at the bottom of the pot) and will spit them onto the floor (ptewy!). When folks are done, they’ll pass their cups back to you (or you or another helper will go get them). You’ll rinse off the cups and saucers, then pour a second round from the jabana (glug, glug). While folks are enjoying their second cup of buna, you’ll pour more water into the jabana and bring it back to a boil. After you get the cups back, you’ll pour out a third round, the weakest batch, to finish everyone off.
Honestly, it was exhausting just writing that all out. You’d think, with this being such a process, that Ethiopians would only have coffee on special occasions. And you’d be wrong. Most have it every day after dinner; some go through this ordeal at lunch, as well. Between the lengthy prep process and the caffeine consumption itself, it’s a wonder that women get any sleep at all in this country.
Although I know the process of making buna, I’ve only done it once, and that was under the heavy coaching of my host sister. The art of boiling some good buna is largely a product of experience: you know how much coffee to make for the number of people present, how thick it should be when you first add the grounds, and how long to let it rest by years of trial and error. I certainly don’t have that, but I’ll have to boil up buna at some point, especially now that I have two jabanas.