There is an Amharic phrase that says:
‘Spiders webs joined together can catch a lion.’
It is fitting for a culture that still predominantly works to the principles of collectivism rather than the pursuit of personal gain. The tradition of co-operative working has deep roots in Ethiopian society, primarily to address rural challenges such as maintaining food security. In a country where the failure of the seasonal rains can literally mean the difference between food on the table or an empty stomach, collective action is the means by which communities are sustained through hard times. This mode of living starts, above all else, with the family unit.
At the invitation of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, I had the privilege to spend some time on a family run coffee farm in the southern highlands of Ethiopia. Set in thick vegetation under the shade of the colossal age-old oaks and the bird friendly Acacia, the ‘buna ersha’ (coffee farm) is one of 2000 member plantations that comprise the fairtrade and organic-certified Kilenso Mokonisa primary coffee cooperative. Following an introduction by his son, Yomilata, father of eighteen, Mando Dube, and his second wife, Gato, welcomed me to stay on their farm for a few days without a moment’s hesitation.
I’ve put up a tent hundreds of times before but never in front of an audience. My arrival on a push bike was clearly not going to go unnoticed and word quickly spread like wildfire as neighbours from all around the village came to watch the ‘faranj’i (foreigner) pitch his canvas ‘guju bet’ (home) in the family front garden bursting with shady enset (false banana), maize, bright yellow pumpkins, purple cabbage and a towering ten-foot sunflower. With countless helping hands, the tent was erected in no time before each child – and adult – took a good peek inside to nods of approval and gasps of ‘gobez’ (great)! I never thought that putting up a tent could be such a spectacle but it was nothing compared to the reaction that the stove received. Once the MSR was fired up with the familiar roar of its faithful blue flame, I turned to the Bialetti to make an espresso of gratitude for my kind hosts. As the silky lava flow of strong, fresh Tomoca coffee began to rise into the top chamber, a wide-eyed child shouted, ‘it’s crying!’ to ripples of laughter. I almost cried myself from the sheer joy of the moment and couldn’t have wished for a more heart warming welcome.
That evening, I was invited to join the family for a wholesome supper of guju (ground enset strained and leavened into rolls), accompanied by lashings of boiled cabbage washed down with creamy milk freshly squeezed from the resident cow which was taking a nap with its new-born calf in the room next door. Only after Gato had said of prayer of thanks, all thirteen of us sat down to eat around the soft light of an oil lamp that bathed the room in its warm glow. Shadows of animated conversation were cast against the mottled walls of mud and straw as the closely knit family shared their dealings of the day. The eldest daughter, Americh, undertook the revered responsibility of preparing the coffee before pouring it ceremoniously from a large, blackened earthenware ‘jabanna’ (coffee pot) which had been gently warmed on a charcoal stove. Outside, a torrential downpour hammered the canvas to Mando’s great concern. ‘It is too wet. You must sleep in the house with us,’ he implied as we leafed through our only conversational aid – a well used English-Orominya-Amharic dictionary – which was passed back and forth with great enthusiasm. Despite repeated reassurances that I would be fine, his mind was only put to rest when I found the translation for ‘waterproof’ which was received with more laughter and shared glances of relief.
At daybreak the following morning, Mando excitedly thrust a long slender machete into one hand and a fresh coffee into the other as I emerged from under the mud-splattered canvas which had clearly taken a serious battering from the storm. The sun had only just risen and there was already a hushed crowd peering through the garden gate to catch a glimpse of their new neighbour. To my amazement, a channel had been thoughtfully dug around my tent to drain away the torrents of water whilst I had slept soundly inside; blissfully unaware of the excavations that a taken place the previous night. But now it was time to muck in and do some digging of my own. After a breakfast of cooked maize we both set off into the dense undergrowth, armed with our machetes.
Weaving our way amongst the low branches of the heavily laden coffee trees straining under the weight of their fruit, the green cherries sparkled with beads of fresh morning dew. Set against a cloudless deep blue sky, the sun cast shafts of golden light through the gaps in the deciduous canopy. Around us, brightly coloured parrots called to each other in mid-flight. Huge green grasshoppers chirruped amongst the shrubs. The drone of honey bees emanated from the lozenge-shaped ‘gaagura’ (beehives) that were perched high up in the branches of shade trees above. Meanwhile, the ubiquitous bleating of goats and chuckles of young children as they made the long walk to school could be heard in the distance. Occasionally, the baritone chorus of amorous frogs rose to a crescendo before fading away again. The vibrant symphony of nature was in full swing.
Mando demonstrated my first task of the morning with a swift hacking motion. Fanning out across the undergrowth, we buckled down to work by cutting back the enormous leaves of the enset that had snapped under the weight of the night’s deluge and had come rest on the coffee trees. As we went, the sharp curved inside of the machete provided the perfect implement in which to cut back the weeds and nettles that had taken root in the fertile red earth. Weeding and hacking with broad, measured strokes, we gradually made our way to a nursery of coffee saplings which had been selected for their resistance to pests and disease. No GM dark science on this farm, just good knowledge-based natural selection.
Mando skilfully worked at the base of some of the young saplings and transplanted them to their new homes which enjoyed ample space and shade for them to flourish. He traded his machete for a wooden plough-shaped tool and promptly took the soil to task by digging a foot-deep hole with great effort. It was back-breaking work. But his 68 year-old body belied his age and he revealed an innate strength that has worked this land for decades, as his forefathers did. It struck me that this was not just young coffee trees that were being planted but carefully selected saplings that were the product of tireless agricultural endeavour that had been passed down through the generations. For the saplings themselves, it will take another four years before they begin to produce the next offspring of organically grown, heirloom coffee. Mando handed me one of the few cherries that had ripened already to a deep ruby-red with a glint of pride in his beaming bright eyes. A sign of the imminent harvest that – on his farm alone – will produce a yield of more than 2000 kilos of fine Ethiopian Kilenso Mokonisa coffee cherries. When the fruit eventually ripens in another four to six weeks, the whole family will pitch in together to collect their valuable crop.
That afternoon, we took a stroll (joined by a large group of excited, chattering children) down to the co-operative washing station that was being busily readied for this year’s harvest. At full capacity, the station can process more than 160 tonnes of high grade coffee over a twelve-day period. Row upon row of wooden drying beds on the hillside were being repaired in earnest. Wet concrete walls of newly built fermentation tanks slowly dried out in the baking hot sun. A storage warehouse was being cleared of dust. It was an industrious hive of activity as Colobus monkeys lazing in the shimmering mid-afternoon heat looked on from their sentry posts in the lofty pine trees that fenced the large, well maintained facility. We finished the day with a game of football on the village green as cattle loafed about the pitch and made surprisingly effective would-be defenders.
With clockwork regularity, the fresh, late afternoon rains began to fall – prematurely cutting short a decisive match-winning goal, and we returned back to the farm; drenched, covered in mud and in high spirits. Gato invited me into the round Tuku at the back of their house (a round straw and mud hut constructed out of a super structure of strongly bound Eucalyptus and Acacia wood – some can last up to 60 years before termites get the better of them) to demonstrate how to prepare the Oromia speciality of Buna Qualaa. And what a treat it was. Firstly, the coffee cherries – still encased in their skins – are boiled with thick butter in a vessel to the sound of spitting and popping over the hot embers of the fire.
Then sugar, milk and water is mixed and heated in a separate conical-shaped vessel before being poured into small cups. The cooked coffee cherries suspended in molten butter are then added slowly to form a top layer that sits on the piping hot milk.
It’s a difficult coffee-based beverage to describe but I can only liken it to the creamy smoothness of a macchiato with the crunchiness and wholesomeness of a tasty snack – a divine taste and texture in a class all if its own. The perfect way to replenish the energy levels. Yomilata later wryly recounted how his father is practically addicted to his daily quota of Buna Qualaa and can become quite discombobulated if he is deprived of it for any more than a couple of days. After enjoying this daily treat, I could easily empathise with his withdrawal symptoms.
Okay, I would be the first to admit that I am in danger of viewing this contented, unhurried rhythm of rural life through rose-tinted glasses. Living on a coffee farm is tough, by any standards. Whilst there is a clear division of labour between the men and women – young and old – the lack of electricity, poor sanitation, and access to clean water (it’s a twenty-minute walk to the local fresh water spring) mean that simple tasks can become time-consuming routines that take up much of the day. Yet the formula behind the communal effort to ‘catch the lion’ is a relatively straightforward one. Through collective action at the family, cooperative and union level, aided by the mechanism of the fairtrade premium supported by consumer solidarity – Mando can be confident of receiving a fair price for a premium product; thereby ensuring food security for his family. And food security means valuable time shared to strengthen the bonds that ultimately bind the wider community together. This is the reality behind the ‘label’.
After three memorable days of helping out on the farm and precious leisure time spent in the company of his children, it was time to pack up and reluctantly move on, but not before seizing the auspicious moment that I had been waiting for. Since leaving the UK late last year, I have carried a small quantity of unroasted Yirga Cheffe beans concealed in my bike frame kindly gifted to me by Master Roaster, Ian Steel, of Lancaster’s finest purveyors of speciality tea and coffee J. Atkinson & Co. A symbolic offering, if you will, from the roaster back to farmer. And so after nearly 200 days and 5000 kms on the road, it now seemed as good time as any to roast my beans. In actual fact, it wasn’t me but Mando’s son, Gelgallo, who took on the special responsibility using my newly acquired roasting pan as I looked on, savouring the moment.
We all watched intently as the beans slowly gave up their locked-in moisture and began to pop under a plumb of glorious blue fragrant smoke. Upon the second ‘crack’ the oils were released and the beans began to change colour from blue-grey to brown. Almost magically, the beans expanded in size and turned to a shiny brown-black on the third ‘crack.’ Sensing the right moment, I turned the stove off. Allowing time for the roasted beans to cool, Gelgallo first offered them to his father and then to his mother. Next were the elders who had turned up to watch the scene unfold, followed by the children in order of age. One by one, we all took a single bean from the pan and crunched away with relish. It was the bittersweet taste of accomplishment. The circle was finally complete. I could now turn my wheels back towards the direction of home.
To an emotional farewell , we said our goodbyes through blurry eyes before wheeling the Sherpa – which had received a spring clean thanks to the kids who had taken it upon themselves to give it some much needed TLC – up to the rough ungraded gravel of the main road. The whole family and I walked together silently in unison. During that special moment, I felt like we had all ‘caught the lion’ in more ways than one by forming an unbreakable web of friendship that will last the test of time.