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001 – Ethiopia Journal on Tape

Submitted by on October 25, 1998 – 10:56 pm
Coffee Ceremony 2

(Transcript of an audio journal  I kept on a micro-cassette recorder. I hung the recorder around my neck on a strap, and I made recordings throughout the day.)


Ethiopia Audio Journal: Tape 1


Journal 1 – October 25/98

Zebachew: By English or by Amharic?

Doug: Oh, English. I can’t understand Amharic.

Zebachew: OK, OK, OK start.

Doug: It’s already started.

Zebachew: Can I speak?

Doug: Yup. It’s on. When the red light is on then it’s recording.

Zebachew: First the coffee is washed. After that…what? Cook, cook, cook. What?

Doug: Roasted.

Zebachew: Roasted, yeah. After roasted, like change to powder. Yeah? After that, boiled with water. After that, drink.

Doug: But what does it mean? What is the meaning?

Zebachew: The meaning?

Doug: Of the ceremony.

Zebachew: What’s the meaning of the ceremony?

Doug: Yeah. Why do you do it?

Zebachew: Because it is our culture. So for New Years, for another happy New Year, at that time we do this culture.

Doug: But here you do it every day.

Zebachew: Every day. But do you know the New Year? 22. 22 days. That’s “oright”. “oright” in Amharic. Do you know? That is tawat. Do you know tawat? It’s our culture. Religion. Religious. So our religion is nice.

Doug: So you do it when the new year begins?

Zebachew: Yeah.

(rambling and nonsense)

Zabechew: Now we drink second. In Amharic, “tona.” In Amharic this tona. The first “abol”. The first is “abol”. The third “barraka”.

Doug: Why do you drink three cups?

Zabechew: Because it is our culture. Do you know? Our culture. First coffee is very fat. Do you know? Very strong. And the second it is gradually.

Doug: So three has no special meaning.

Zabechew: It is no have meaning yeah. It is our culture only.

Doug: What is your name?

Tegust. Sahel. Mabet.

I doubt that I can use this thing (cassette recorder) to keep any notes. I’ll probably have to stick with the journal but I just want to try it and see what it feels like.

I was sitting outside. The family was going about their day. One woman was washing clothes over by the water tank. All the men of course were in the game room. All this time I thought they were playing a cutthroat game of poker, but I stood and watched for a while and it turns out they’re playing gin rummy, which I thought was kind of funny.

I was sitting on the steps and the three waitresses that I took pictures of yesterday, they called me over to take part in… or have a cup of coffee with them. I wasn’t sure if that’s what the invitation was, but it turns out yeah they wanted me to come over to their room in the back there and have a cup of coffee. Actually up until that point, I didn’t even know that was their room. I thought… I didn’t have any idea, a clue. They could have lived somewhere else. They could have lived in the basement. They could have lived anywhere. So I went over to the room, and they opened the door and it was a single room with one bed against the far wall, kind of a double bed the same size as the bed that I have in my room. And on the right hand wall there was a couple of small tables covered in packages and duffle bags and plastic bags filled with clothes and that kind of thing. And on the floor, they had a complete coffee set, a little bit smaller but in every way identical to the one that the family used here inside the hotel. And they were in the middle of their own little coffee ceremony.

I don’t know all the ins and outs of the coffee ceremony. Whenever I ask someone a question to do with meaning or why they do this or that the only answer I ever get is “it’s our culture”. It’s like in the west we’re always looking for the meaning, you know why you do something, and when we ask that question we just get blank stares back. I found out that the three girls… well, one is twenty-one, the other is twenty-one and the third is twenty-five. I think two of them are sisters and the third is unrelated. Exactly where they’ve come from and when and all this kind of stuff, I mean it was impossible to find out because I don’t speak Amharic. But they used to work at another hotel here in Addis Ababa and they’ve just moved here three weeks ago if I’ve got that right. I mean that’s what they said but of course they could have meant anything. I could have misunderstood them, but it seems like they just started working here three weeks ago.

The three of them sleep in that room together, which I was kind of surprised… I mean they’re tiny girls but still, three people in one bed with this kind of work doesn’t mean a lot of privacy. The room was pretty basic. It had a cement floor. The walls are kind of makeshift wood frame but overtop of it is a layer of straw mixed with mud, and then it’s put against the wall and I guess that’s a kind of insulation and the wallpaper was old newspaper stuck against this wet straw.

This was the first time that I’ve seen the coffee ceremony from beginning to end. There really isn’t much of a ceremony involved. It’s basically making a pot of coffee and drinking it. And I assume there is a meaning behind it all, but no one has been able to explain it to me yet. I’m going to ask Sidai and Derege tonight and hopefully they can explain it.

They bought coffee beans in a piece of paper that was wrapped up like a cone, with a point on the end. They said it cost twenty-five cents. Haya-amist sentim in Amharic for that little tube of coffee. They also buy sugar in the same kind of tubes and one tube of sugar is about ten cents. The other day when I saw them in the kitchen here in the hotel, I thought they were putting salt in because the coffee in fact had a very salty flavor. But I think what they were actually doing was adding sugar. So I don’t know where that salty taste came from. The beans, the coffee beans themselves, were white, fresh and they were put onto a steel plate on top of a kerosene burner. The kerosene burner was kind of interesting. It just had a big well, a big container at the bottom. There didn’t seem to be any kind of pressure or pumping involved. It has five wicks around it in a circle and a knob controls these wicks going up or down. Each of these wicks is lit and then a cone put over top of that, then another cone over that and then I believe a third one on which the coffee pot is put. Once it gets going, it burns quite cleanly and you don’t really smell the kerosene, but when they light it and blow it out you do get this powerful smell of kerosene.

The coffee pot itself is a small clay affair. It has no lid of any kind. It’s round on the bottom and then tapers to a very small neck. You can’t actually get a hand in there to wash it out or anything. It’s just a matter of rinsing it. Anyway, the beans are put on a steel plate almost like a frying pan, put on the kerosene burner and roasted until dark. And they give off a little smoke. They kind of burn a little bit, and it’s at that point that you are supposed to appreciate the aroma, not when you actually get the cup of coffee. I got that wrong the other day. When this aromatic smoke was coming off the coffee beans, they blew it towards me and towards themselves so that they can smell it. The beans when they’re roasted are put in this heavy metal mortar and then crushed for a very long time with this steel pestle that looked like it was a piece of machinery, like a car axle or something like that. The coffee grounds then are poured into… she pours them into her hand and then pours them into the coffee pot, which is put onto the flame to brew. I don’t know why she did it, if this was common, but she brewed it for a very long time and let it boil quite severely, and she would pour a cup of it out into a cup and then pour that cup of coffee back in. I can only surmise that that’s to mix it together to keep it cooking properly. It also had a tendency to boil over because of that thin neck, and it was a very small pot and pouring this coffee back in through the neck cooled it down and kept it from actually bubbling over. And she did this for an incredibly long time.

They were very glad to see me when I came in and the first pot of coffee went around quite well, and we each had three glasses, which is the ceremony, the Ethiopian culture as they explained. Nobody knows why they have three cups, except by the third cup I guess it’s so weak that that’s the last cup you want.

And then before I knew it, they got a second set of beans roasting and by that time I’d already been there quite a while, and they had that set of beans roasting, and then I ended up staying around for another complete ceremony of three cups and by the end of that period even they had had enough of the cross-cultural experience and were more than happy to see this 35-year-old Canadian who has the impact of a martian I’m sure, on their lives, you know, to see him leave.

It was very informative to me though to see this room that they sleep in. They also got out their own little photo albums. Each of them had one of these little photo albums exactly like the one I got my pictures in, and they each had maybe I’d say twenty to twenty-five pictures in their albums. None of them were very good and surprisingly, at least surprisingly to me, considering how important families are supposed to be in Africa, 90% of these pictures were all of themselves. Posed formal pictures of themselves in front of a tree, sitting down in a cafe in a nice dress, in front of a painted wall. Many things like that, but they had no pictures of their family or their relatives, that kind of thing. There was a couple. One picture of a boyfriend and some pictures of friends. But if I’d gotten around to bringing my own pictures from Canada I would have brought a very different set. I wouldn’t have brought twenty pictures of myself. I can look in the mirror and I know what I look like. So obviously they value quite a bit these pictures of themselves.

Just a couple of notes about the coffee ceremony that I forgot to mention, things that struck me. When they roasted the beans, the flames were very high and the beans themselves were snapping and popping and cracking very loudly. She had to move them very quickly using a spoon or else they would have gotten burned quite easily. And I’d like to describe what they looked like and what their names are. The most interesting to me, her name was Mebeet and she’s the one that isn’t a sister. When I took her picture the other day she wore a full white suit pants, like a skirt and jacket that was quite attractive. She has her hair done up in braids, not really dreadlocks but it has kind of a dreadlocky effect. Her face is thin and long, sort of a down pointing nose. She’s actually quite attractive. The two sisters are Sahay, which is Amharic for sun. She was in charge of the whole coffee ceremony and when she set about making the second pot, I assume it was for my benefit, she put on a set of clothing, kind of a gauze that she wrapped around her head and body that she called a “gabi”. And Sahay and her sister Tegust have a rounder, fuller face, kind of getting on the fat side and they’re a little bit stout through the body. I think Tegust and Sahay have more attractive features from an African point of view. Someone has pointed them out to me saying she has a very pretty face. Personally I found Mebeet… her features are much more attractive. Tegust had Amharic tattooing on her chin. Very light blue tattooing. It wasn’t very extensive. She had three lines running vertically from the bottom of her lip over her chin.

A description of my room. It’s by far the biggest room in the hotel. By itself it’s almost the same size as the dining area. That would put it about twenty-five feet long by twenty feet wide, something like that. There are two doors. The way it’s designed, there’s one door that opens out into the hallway and that is supposed to be the main entrance to the room. Then there’s a second door on the left that opens out into a private area with the bathroom and a closet, so in fact it’s supposed to be kind of a suite unto itself. But what they’ve done is taken that big door and closed it permanently and it’s blocked off so you don’t use it and the side door which is supposed to go to my only-you bathroom is in fact the main door to the room and that closet area with access to the bathroom is open for the whole family to use. In fact the closet has been converted into kind of a cupboard. I saw inside it this morning and the floor is covered in thousands of tiny little onions and on the right hand side are lots of plastic containers full of chilies and peppers and other spices and vegetables.

On that note I should mention the other day I noticed, well every day out in the backyard there are mats and a number of vegetables and spices and different things drying out there and one day I noticed carrots and the carrots were cut into crinkly shapes almost like fancy french fries and there were also potatoes out there cut up into what looked like our potato chips. Later on in the day as I was passing by the kitchen they called me in and gave me a handful of what looked like dried carrots and potato chips and the carrots were actually quite delicious. I assume they were just sun dried and maybe they cooked them as well in some way and they made a tasty little snack out of them.

That closet I must say, when they opened the door and I saw all the onions and everything I got the most, the strongest attack on my nose, just a wave of onion smell came pouring out of that room. And like every other room here it’s kept locked. This is something I’ve noticed in Ethiopia in general. Sidai started talking about it last night saying that the Mengistu period of terror did away with the trust in Ethiopian society. I don’t know how true that is cause books that I’ve read there never was a great deal of trust. People were not trusted to do a job. When you did a job you had to have proof it was finished and without that proof you got in trouble. But here now as I’ve noticed there isn’t much trust and even this onion room is kept under lock and key at all times. And when you go into the banks or any public building you are searched very carefully. There is nothing quick and easy about this search. They are really looking for things and they’re not going to pass you by. They look into every pocket and everything no matter how long it’s going to take.

When I bought a towel the other day it was quite amusing because I found the towel I wanted and I told the women, yes I will take this towel and she took out a receipt book and wrote out quite a long and complicated receipt and I went to hand her the money and she said, no, no, no, no, not money. She handed me the receipt which she tore off three copies leaving a fourth copy in her book. I took three copies with carbon in between over to a cash register and the cashier was behind a plexiglass barrier, handed her the receipt. And I couldn’t take the towel with me. I had to leave the towel behind. I handed her the receipts. She looked at them, stamped them all, took my money, gave me my change, and handed back two of the copies of the receipt. So I took those two copies back to the first room. She took one of them for her files and then gave me the towel. The towel was in a plastic bag and the receipt was in there so I went to leave the store and while leaving the store I was stopped by another person who was the security guard and he wanted to see the receipt and look inside my bag to make sure my receipt matched the contents of my bag. And then he took the receipt and put a special tear into it to indicate that this receipt has been noted and that he did his job. The whole procedure was funny to me because it was such a small store and everyone watched me every step of the way. They could see where I went and what I did at all times. It wasn’t like a huge department store that needed a security system and I found the same sense of security operates almost everywhere when you pay for things using the token system to make sure that every penny is accounted for by everyone.

But back to my room. Inside my room as I said, it’s quite large. Half of it is kind of a sitting area. It has two chairs that are kind of like vinyl covered lounge office chairs that you might find in a waiting room at a dentist’s office and a matching vinyl covered couch with three cushions and in front of it a small coffee table. At first I thought that furniture would be of no use to me but in fact when I need a bit of sanctuary to write in my journal I find I sit at the couch and I bend over the coffee table and I write there.

The second half of the room, the far half, has the bed which is a double bed, wooden frame, has a very comfortable mattress and a full set of clean but of course very old sheets and one, two blankets and a cover on top of that. Opposite the bed is a very large wardrobe. When I moved in they made a big production out of emptying half of the wardrobe. There were all kinds of suitcases and different things stored in there and now it’s open for my use. The idea is that it has a lock on it so I can lock my room but I can also put valuables inside that half of the wardrobe and lock it. I can’t be bothered doing that of course. All my valuables pretty much go with me at all other times. The other half of the wardrobe stays locked. It still has family belongings in it and as effects me there is a big bag of dried meat kept in the top drawer – top shelf of this wardrobe. It’s called “kwanta” and once every two days or so, sometimes once a day someone comes and gets me and I have to let them into the room. Then they use their key to open up their half of the wardrobe and they bring out a scale and this big bag of kwanta and they set it up on the table and they measure out a kilo or two kilos, whatever they need and take it away.

Beside the wardrobe is another cabinet. It looks like a dining room cabinet where you would normally keep dishes and that kind of thing. There’s nothing at all in it now and the glass front is shattered so the two glass panes just rattle against each other when I walk. I eventually stopped that. I found a cardboard package of three condoms in the room and I stuck it between the two glass panes and that solved the rattling problem.

The window is in the far wall opposite the door and it’s about six feet by six feet, wooden storm shutters on the outside and glass doors on the inside that I can open and also lock into place and covered with the most incredibly ugly yellow curtains.

Lighting is a bit of a problem I find. They seem to favor the 25 watt bulb which does not throw a lot of light. When I first came, I noticed it was quite dim and I was squinting quite heavily to try and see and I thought maybe if I took the lamp shade off the single bulb it might help, and I took that off and it hasn’t really helped at all. I think if I stayed here much longer I would try and find a sixty or hundred watt bulb to shed a bit more light.

As I ride around Addis Ababa on my bike – one of the most striking things that I notice, of course, are the various street people. I see them in covered bus stops, sleeping on sidewalks, alleyways, on little patches of grass here and there, everywhere in fact. Some of them sleeping uncovered. Some of them have built little shacks out of garbage and bits of branches and pieces of wood. Others have covered themselves with a blanket that they obviously carry around with them. Some are by themselves. Some are mothers with small children. Bigger areas of grass, where obviously a lot of people congregate at night, get a powerful sewage stench coming off these places. It’s a side of Ethiopia and a side of Addis that I’d really like to know better. But of course it’s something that strikes you pretty hard and it’s difficult what to do or how to feel. For one thing, I want to take pictures of these situations because they are so unusual and so typical of here, but how can you walk up to one of these people and shove a camera in their face? How can you? I don’t know because I haven’t done it, and I don’t see how I could do it. My very first day on the bicycle riding up this long steep hill towards City Hall and the piazza I noticed a couple of little shelters that some homeless people had built on the side there. I was riding very slowly down in the granny gear and far away they saw me coming, and I was moving so slowly that they had time to get ready for me and a man came out of one of these huts and he had legs but they were all twisted up underneath him and obviously of no use to him, and he was using his arms and hands to walk and he would lean forward like using his arms for canes, twist the trunk of his body forward, put it down on the ground, lean forward again, and walk forward that way. But the thing was that I wanted to stop and talk to him. I wanted to go over to these little houses – not houses, they were just pieces of trash made into a small shelter and find out “how do you live here?” – to experience that. But it’s a tough thing to do. How do you walk away afterwards? But it is a side of the city that I want to get to know. When I got back to the hotel, I even had little fantasies of going out there one night and sleeping there, saying hello I’m a tourist I want to experience all sides of Ethiopia and lie down and sleep there just as he did and see what that is like. But is that arrogant? How can we do that?

Maybe the question isn’t so much how can you do that, but are you willing to go further? Since this is a human being and not a giraffe that you take a picture of and then go away saying wow that was really interesting. I think the only way you could let yourself go that deeply into an experience is if you’re willing to go all the way and I don’t really know what all the way is.

Another example and a group of people that really interest me are the shoeshine boys. Ethiopians dress very well, as well as they can afford to dress and when they buy clothes they tend to go for more formal attire, dress pants, dress shirts then they get leather shoes or simulated leather shoes to go with them. And as in all third world countries to take care of these shoes you need shoe shine boys and an industry is formed. Everywhere you go in Addis you see them. They usually cluster together in groups as large as twenty in a row I’ve seen down in some of the squares. Out front of the Tiru Gondar hotel here there are at least twenty or thirty that I have to walk past between the Tiru Gondar and the Alem Bunna coffee shop. And they’re obviously not rich kids. I asked Sidai last night about them. And he said yeah they were all pretty much if not orphans they are here in the city by themselves and he said and David actually confirmed this himself that they sleep together generally ten or fifteen of them in a single room in the city. Those are the lucky ones. The ones that don’t have any place at all just bed down on the streets wherever they can find a spot. And I really want to see one of these rooms. I’d love to go outside, meet one of these shoeshine boys, talk to him and go with him on his day. But again there’s that side of… if someone said to me, what do you think you’re doing? Do you think poverty is here for your voyeuristic pleasure? I wouldn’t know how to answer him. But is sitting here in my room all by myself paying my 40 birr a night with my bathroom next door and all my comforts knowing that those boys are out there in that room, is that any better than going out there and finding out where they live? I know they’re there whether I acknowledge them or not. But it is something I’ve thought about in a lot of different countries. We call it poverty tourism. There’s a fine line. Are we just getting titillating pleasure, some voyeuristic pleasure out of seeing extreme poverty? Or is there some good human instinct at the base of it?

I must say so far I’m very impressed with this tape recording business. I just read a page of my journal into my tape recorder and it took me just under a minute to read it when writing that page probably took fifteen or twenty minutes to do. I can also use this machine while I’m actually riding on the bike, in a part of the country that isn’t too crazy and too busy. I can just ride along, stop my bike, I see something interesting, whip this out, and I can describe it in my own words. It raises the question of whether when you speak into a microphone like this are the words any better or any worse or just the same as when you sit down and write them in a book? My complaint about writing in a notebook is that I can’t write fast enough and when I’m on a keyboard I can write, I can type as fast as I can think. So the question is when I sit down with my fingers on a keyboard and if as people have told me the words are fun to read, interesting to read, would I be getting the same kinds of words speaking?

I suppose one thing to do would be to create the same kind of mind set where I’m speaking to someone and not just talking into thin air. If I sit down and write in my journal and I’m just writing to myself I quickly lose interest and I stop. It’s only when I make a carbon copy and I begin it with “Dear Leon and Gerry”, that the impulse to be more clear in what I’m saying and make it more interesting comes up. Of course with these little micro cassettes I can mail them to someone but I would certainly hesitate to do that because they could easily get lost and there is only one copy. And at the same time about the only way to do it would be to make a promise to myself that these tapes will be transcribed and then sent on as a letter.

*5:37 and the music in the Tiru Gondar has started. The music here doesn’t even come close to the mind-bending power of the stereo system at the Palm Hotel – that’s the reason I came to sleep here – but the restaurant and bar is directly on the other side of that door and the music comes straight in. When they turn on the stereo I can almost hear them thinking to themselves, “Okay, put in the tape. Turn on the volume. Okay, now flatten it. All right. Stick some treble in there to make it real scratchy like you’re rubbing a file against glass. Nope. Scratchier, scratchier, boost the treble way up, yeah that’s good, that’s good. Now get rid of the bass. And if your ears positively bleed in agony and the music itself has no depth, no quality it’s just this noise searing at your brain, they figure that’s good. It sounds good.

A large panel truck came by and it had an open roof on top and they were blasting out music advertising something, perhaps public education, I don’t know what it was but they had music playing and several women in traditional clothing were dancing on the top and they had this very distinctive move they did staying perfectly straight and shifting to the side as if they’re throwing their shoulders roughly to the side, a real jerk, and then their head goes over a step and then they straighten up and to the beat of the music do this sideways jerk as if they’re trying to throw their head of their shoulders.

I’m so drunk that I shouldn’t even be trying to record anything but at the same time I’m so drunk I probably should record something just to get the contrast. Oh my goodness.

I just got back. I met Abiy and Derege and one of their friends. We were supposed to go to the Alem Bunna for a cup of coffee and then to an Azmari Beat for a cultural experience. But on our way to the Alem Bunna I guess they decided there wasn’t enough time to do the Alem Bunna plus the Azmari Beat so rather than do that they dispensed with the Alem Bunna and they dispensed with the Azmari Beat and we ended up at a favorite bar of theirs next to the stadium, sports stadium that is, where we sat down and drank a lot of beer I guess. I tried some tella which is the local variety of beer. We had a really interesting conversation which I assume I’m going to record tomorrow morning when I’m sober. We drank a lot more beer than I wanted to. The beer just kept coming and coming and coming and coming until I couldn’t take anymore. And from there we hopped a taxi and we ended up at the reggae bar right beside the Tiru Gondar where we had more beer and their friend just kept talking and talking and talking. I didn’t understand a word that he said but I just kept nodding my head pretending that I did until finally somebody took pity on me and said it was time to go home so here I am. I met Tadele and Zabechew in the restaurant on my way in and I was talking to them and I felt like I was sort of under control. But now that I”m sitting here in my bed lying on my back the whole world seems like it’s spinning and spinning and spinning so that I don’t even want to close my eyes because it just makes me nauseous. Anyway didn’t really have the cultural experience that I anticipated but hopefully I’ll record some more coherent thoughts in the morning. Good night.


024 - Asa Belobelo - Eat Fish
002 - Ethiopia Journal on Tape


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