Notes on Spelling, Names, and Abbreviations
Coffee Is Our Bread
Part One: In the Forest
1. Sown by the Birds
2. Island Ethiopia
3. The Kingdom of Kafa
4. The Last King of Kafa
6. Gift for King and Country
Part Two: Out of the Forest
7. Coffea aethiopica
8. City of Saints
9. Out of Arabia
10. Beyond Waves
11. La Roya
Part Three: Back into the Forest
14. Ex Situ
16. A Matter of Degrees
17. In Situ
A Note on the Author
Also available from Jeff Koehler
Notes on Spelling, Names, and Abbreviations
The transliteration of words from Amharic, Arabic, and Kafinoonoo are phonetic and generally lack standardized spelling. Differences tend to be minor but numerous—from Kafa (Kaffa, Keffa, Kefa), Mocha (al-Makha, Mokka, Mokha), and Shawa (Shewa, Shoa) to the more than a dozen ways to spell Muhammad. I have kept the spelling of the original when quoting, but elsewhere followed the form that seems to me to be the most widely accepted. For Arabic words, I have left off macrons and subscript dots.
In Ethiopia, a second name is the father’s first name rather than the family name. For Ethiopians, then, I have used both names on first occurrence in a chapter, and the first rather than second name thereafter.
Abyssinia is often used as a synonym for Ethiopia and was popular usage in Europe in the past. Historically, it refers to the ancient kingdom on the central plateau, while Ethiopia more succinctly means the modern empire created by Menelik II at the closing of the nineteenth century. To avoid confusion, I have used Ethiopia throughout, except when quoting.
Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center)
coffee berry disease
Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (Center for International Cooperation in Agricultural Research for Development)
United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization
HT or HdT
Híbrido de Timor or Timor hybrid, a spontaneous hybrid between Arabica and Robusta
Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (Research Institute for Development)
Jimma Agricultural Research Center
Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, a German conservation charity
Office de la Recherche Scientifique et Technique Outre-Mer (Office of Scientific and Technical Research Overseas), precursor to IRD
Participatory Forest Management
Specialty Coffee Association of America
Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company)
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
United States Department of Agriculture
World Coffee Research
Coffee Is Our Bread
Asking for an after-lunch coffee at the popular Kofi Laande Hoteelo—aka Coffeeland—in Kafa’s regional capital of Bonga is not as simple as placing an order at Starbucks and stepping over to the pickup counter. And the woman preparing it is certainly far more than what that chain calls a barista. Sitting on a low stool in the corner of the restaurant-bar, she had sorted, cleaned, and then roasted the green coffee beans on a wide, lipless metal disk over a brazier of embers, moving them around with a hooked piece of metal until deep, glossy brown. Once they had cooled, she pounded the fragrant beans with a steel rod in a wooden mortar made from a hollowed log. Curling a piece of woven mat in her palm, she funneled the grounds into the narrow neck of the bulbous terra-cotta coffeepot called a jebena that was simmering on a brazier beside her.
Two dozen handleless demitasse cups with slightly flared lips crowded a low round table in front of her. On the cement floor beneath it, she had fanned out reedy grasses and arranged a handful of yellow and red blossoms. Nature, she said, had to be present, and the greens and flowers had come from the forest, where the spirits live. Wisps of smoke curled up from a smoldering dish of waxen incense, a blend of myrrh and local frankincense that recalled gloomy ancient churches and brought Orthodox sacredness into the preparations, too.
Preparing and drinking coffee is so stylized in Ethiopia that the process is known as a coffee ceremony, a slow ritual with requisite tools and a dozen unvarying steps. This was the shortened version.
It was a Friday, one of the week’s two fasting days, and lunch after a morning deep inside the cloud-shrouded forests of southwestern Ethiopia consisted of dollops of a dozen different legumes and vegetables atop spongy injera flatbread. The rattan blinds of Coffeeland had been rolled up, filling the room with glare and gusts of breeze that heralded another lashing sweep of unseasonable rain.
The isolated highlands of Kafa are a mosaic of deep valleys, dense forests, and hamlets of subsistence farmers. Nearly every home is surrounded by enset trees and a garden of field peas, fava and haricot beans, cabbage, and onions. Those living around the forest gather long pepper, dig for wild cardamom, and hang rudimentary cylindrical hives high in trees for honey to make murky, home-fermented tej. Coffee, though, is the cash crop. Eighty-five percent of Kafa’s people rely directly or indirectly on coffee for their livelihood, including lowlanders. In the highlands, it is close to 100 percent.1 Locals forage for it in the wild and grow it in their gardens, buy it, sell it, hoard it until prices go up, and, in the meantime, drink numerous cups of it a day. Even toddlers sip the drink. “When kids start walking, talking, and touching everything, they simultaneously start taking sips of coffee,” as one Kafa resident put it.
Ethiopia scarcely receives more than a sentence or two in the histories of coffee, and Kafa—the place that arguably gave everywhere outside Ethiopia its name for the drink—rarely gets any mention at all. Kafa is home to the world’s original coffee culture, yet remains virtually unknown.
The long-held, and often still-believed, narrative that Arabica coffee—the most prevalent and superior of the two main species of coffee cultivated today—came from Arabia is wrong. It came from the southwestern cloud forests a few hundred miles from Addis Ababa. Finding coffee’s origin story requires a journey into those forests. Not only did the Arabica coffee plant originate here, but so did coffee drinking. Historians generally credit Arabs or Sufi monks with developing and refining the brewing process, or even inventing it. Yet those living in and around the forests where coffee grew wild undoubtedly were the first to prepare it.
Part of the reason for attributing this to the Arabs is that there was no early written evidence of coffee being drunk in Kafa. The local language had no script until the 1990s (or by the time Starbucks had already opened its first thousand outlets). Stories of coffee’s discovery and how the people here gradually came to brew the drink were told over the generations but not written down. With the area difficult to reach and the long-unwelcoming attitude of rulers in Ethiopia and also in Kafa itself, Western travelers didn’t make it to the area until the mid-nineteenth century. The coffee forests remained virtually unvisited by Westerners until the 1930s.
Kafa’s obscurity is all that much more surprising because it was one of the richest kingdoms in the Horn of Africa. Bonga was the starting point of a trio of important ancient trade routes that connected the interior of Ethiopia with the coast, and along them traveled caravans with slaves, ivory, musk, and dried coffee pods. For five centuries an unbroken line of god-kings ruled Kafa, until it was nearly wiped out as Ethiopia forcibly absorbed the medieval kingdom into an expanding empire. At the end of the nineteenth century Kafa was home to one million people. Within two decades its population had fallen by up to 90 percent.2 The story of the lengthy reign, and fall, of the Kingdom of Kafa and its indigenous coffee culture is untold.
The jebena gurgled. The woman lifted the blackened pot off the embers and set it near her feet, tilted forward slightly, to allow the grounds to settle before pouring.
Coffee is one the world’s most traded commodities and is the livelihood of some 125 million people across the globe.
The first outsider to claim that the original source was Kafa—the eighteenth-century Scottish traveler James Bruce—had his travelogue mocked for its far-fetched tales of Ethiopia. Not until the 1960s, nearly two centuries later, did scientists say with any level of certainty that Arabica originated and grew wild in the southwestern highlands. These montane rain forests are the mother source of the world’s most spectacular cultivated coffees, grown from Kenya to Guatemala, Brazil, and Jamaica’s Blue Mountains. (Yet, somewhat perversely, even here the coffee goes by an official name that means “from Arabia.”)
In 2016, more than twelve billion pounds of Arabica was produced around the globe, enough to brew more than five hundred billion six-ounce cups of coffee. Latin America grows the vast majority of it. Yet that region’s coffee is in trouble. With an extraordinary lack of genetic diversity, cultivated Arabica is unable to withstand or adapt to increasing threats. Diseases and a changing climate are battering production. A fungus known as coffee leaf rust has sent Latin America’s coffee industry into a tailspin and left families hungry, communities desperate, and futures uncertain. In El Salvador, one the many countries dependent on its coffee crop, the 2015–16 harvest was down 80 percent from just four years before. Plummeting coffee yields have led to a surge of unaccompanied minors fleeing Central America for the United States and is impacting one of the most divisive issue in American politics today, illegal immigration.
From instant Sanka to a southern-Italian espresso so short that there is just enough liquid to dissolve a spoonful of sugar, perhaps no other substance holds sway over the human experience like coffee. For the past five centuries it has been a driver of great thoughts, a mother of inspiration, a provider of energy behind many of mankind’s greatest inventions. We wake to it, confab over it, reinvigorate with it, attempt to quit it only to return again. “If it is not indispensable to man’s happiness,” wrote one mid-twentieth-century coffee expert, “it certainly contributes a good deal to it.”3 Few would argue the conceit, and many would take it further. For some it is an obsession, for others an identity.
Ethiopia is one of the world’s largest producers of coffee. Yet it exports less than half of what it grows. To put that another way, it consumes more than half its own production. No other country comes even close to that. Coffee is not just the national drink but its staple. Buna dabo naw goes a popular expression: “Coffee is our bread.” Nowhere is that more true than in Kafa.
The woman lifted the jebena and poured out the coffee into a half dozen small cups in a single, smooth motion. As the pot had no filter, a gentle, continuous pour is key to keeping grounds inside the pot.
It had taken her an hour to prepare, making even the most elaborate manual pour-over coffee in a hipster joint in Brooklyn seem as easy as pressing the button on a Nespresso machine. In a couple of slurps it was gone.
The coffee was powerful and as viscous as a well-pulled espresso, with notes of citruses and of red berries from drying the coffee fruits on rudimentary bamboo beds in the sun. The beans had been gathered in the dense forests outside Bonga from scrawny, moss-covered trees, and unlike the bright, clean flavors of most Ethiopian coffees served in high-end specialty cafés in San Francisco, Oslo, and Seoul, wild coffee has an unevenness to it from the mismatched ripeness of the picked fruits—a wini-ness from overripe ones came through—and dusty aromas of the woods that it never shakes. Yet sipping coffee that carries with it such an earthy imprint is thrilling.
At the back of the throat came that familiar tingle, the sensation that energy, clarity, and excitement were close behind.
“Another?” the woman asked, taking back the empty cup.
Even though it was already the fourth of the day and not yet two o’clock, yes. It wouldn’t be the last coffee of the day. There would be one or two more—and probably another insomnia-plagued night from such unaccustomed levels of caffeine.
From smallholders in Antigua Guatemala to ones on the central highlands below Mount Kenya, from a bearded barista at Intelligentsia in Chicago wearing a flat-brim cap to dockworkers in Palermo before their morning shift or someone picking up a Skinny Cinnamon Dolce Latte in a Starbucks drive-through, each cup of their Arabica is linked to the undergrowth of Ethiopia’s coffee forests.
But the forests around Kafa are not just important because they are the origin of a drink that means so much to so many. They are important because deep in their shady understory lies a key to saving the faltering coffee industry. They hold not just the past but also the future of coffee.
In the Forest
Sown by the Birds
A tartan of paths wove through the weedy expanses at the edge of the hamlet. Banana-like enset trees, with peeling trunks and sword-shaped leaves standing erect as quills, clustered around each of the two dozen squat huts. The wattle-and-daub walls had long settled and cracked, and the conical tukuls sat slightly askew. They had no chimneys, and morning cook smoke rose like steam through the thatched roofs. Among snatches of conversations and the soft domestic clank of pots came the muted jingle of a brass cowbell.
Woldegiorgis Shawo crossed the bottom of his hamlet, cut into the quiet shade, and entered the Mankira Forest. The thin path disappeared as soon as he began winding down the slope. Fit and still strong at seventy-five, he walked with a quick, rolling gait, his shoulders thrown back, his knees coming up high as he stepped though the tangles of thistles and thorns and long grasses that covered the ground.
The damp forest was hushed but not still. Twitching movement above revealed a troop of black-and-white colobus monkeys with potbellies, bored expressions, and long tails that dangled like shaggy white lichen. Lanky branches arched overhead among cords of lianas, while yellow epiphytic orchids cascaded down dull tree trunks veined limpid emerald by leafy climbers. A ray of sunlight pierced the tunnel of foliage, catching the taut grid of a spider’s web and illuminating tiny, star-shaped topaz flowers that tattooed the sodden leaf litter. From the canopy above came the deep whoosh of a silvery-cheeked hornbill taking flight. Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa, it brayed like an agitated goat.
After twenty minutes or so, Woldegiorgis stopped. Through a fissure in the branches appeared a young man in an oversize cable-knit sweater and jacket, the sleeves thickly rolled past the elbow. He reached up, doubled over a spry branch, and began stripping off the fruits, spinning the deep red berries between thumb and fingers to separate them from the short stem. It was the end of October, and the gathering of wild coffee was just beginning in Kafa’s highland rain forests.
Wreathed in tender ferns, the smooth grayish-brown trunks were slender as forearms and forked and had long, drooping branches. Festoons of silvery-green moss hung from twigs like unkempt beards. The shiny dark-green coffee leaves—oval and ribbed, with fine, tapering ends—were sparse.
A trio of barefoot teenage girls materialized through the quiet lattice of woodsy green. The middle one, perhaps fourteen years old, stepped out last. Broken sunlight streaked her face with its shy smile, downcast eyes, and tight necklace strung with a single red bead that at first appeared to be a ripe coffee fruit. A small woven basket hung from an arm of each holding cherries, as the fruits are called.
Wild coffee trees grow spontaneously under the towering, broad-leafed canopy. They are neither cultivated nor maintained. Nor do the trees have a defined owner. Instead, a complex system of ancestral entitlements govern who is allowed to gather the ripe coffee berries and precisely from where in the forest. With a fluttering wave of his hand, Woldegiorgis indicated the sweep of the generous ten hectares (twenty-five acres) where the hereditary right for him to collect coffee had been passed down for generations. The forest has no boundary markers, but he knew his plot to the bush by the fall of the land and its natural features—the cuff of a certain hillock, a cluster of shrubs gathered in a hollow, a stream that forms part of its border.
The four pickers returned to stripping the fruits off the branches, working steadily and quietly, slipping, on occasion, into song, sung low and to themselves. Many of trees had few berries, and some none at all. The young man scaled a sturdy tree to get a group of higher fruits.
The cherries that brew the best cup are the supple ruby ones. But in the cloud-smothered rain forest wild coffee ripens asynchronously, and the pickers took pale fruits that were only beginning to blush, yellow ones, and even some still green, dropping them all in their baskets. It was an effort to return to this isolated spot, but it was also risky to leave any cherries on the branches. There was no guarantee that the ripe fruit would be there when they returned. While Woldegiorgis had the right to the coffee from these trees, and the remoteness ensured few would venture to the spot, access was open.
The main threat, though, Woldegiorgis said, gathering fistfuls of coffee while he spoke, isn’t people but the natural world. Heavy rains during the past evenings had knocked down many of the riper cherries. “This,” he said, motioning to the crimson coffee fruits scattered around the ground, a result of the fickle weather. “Also animals.” As the berries mature, they become more enticing to the baboons and monkeys, certain birds, and rodents that savor their sweet pulp. Woldegiorgis pointed to a branch that had been recently broken by the heavy weight of a baboon trying to get to the ripe fruit.
But animals are also key to the survival of wild coffee, as they sow the seeds around the forest. The white-cheeked turaco and large silvery-cheeked hornbill, known for its distinctive oversize cream-colored casque and bold, noisy call, carry the seeds the farthest.
“This coffee”—Woldegiorgis said, his hand around a lithe trunk—“is wof zerash.” Sown by the birds.
Kafa is officially a “zone” within Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region, a large state and one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse areas in Africa. Kafa measures some 4,250 square miles, a bit smaller than Connecticut, with an overwhelmingly rural population of 850,000. Its capital, Bonga, by far Kafa’s biggest city and, apart from Jimma, in the neighboring region, the largest for hundreds of miles in any direction, is home to just twenty-seven thousand people.
In Bonga, Mesfin Tekle, the leading authority on the forests of Kafa, said, “The legend tells us coffee started in Mankira.” Local tradition specifically points to this forest as the birthplace of coffee.1 Among a grove of trees inside Mankira, Woldegiorgis said, “This is the place.”
The Mankira Forest is only fifteen miles from Bonga. Some seven hundred people live around it in four hamlets and a larger, eponymous village. For much of the year they are inaccessible and remain difficult to reach the remainder of it. From Bonga, it is an hour’s drive in a Land Cruiser until the truck can go no farther on a washed-out road strewn with rocks and gouged with runoff channels, and another hour on foot down to the Gumi River, losing a thousand feet in elevation.
The Gumi (“dark”) marks the boundary of Mankira, and during the lengthy April-to-September rainy season, locally called yooyo, the swollen river cuts it off. (The other route, which is generally muddy and boggy, takes three hours to walk, and crosses several rivers, remains a desperate rather than realistic alternative.) In June, the river had been impassable and highly treacherous. Now, during harvest time four months later, and into the short qaawoo (dry season), the water should have been calf deep. But dry season is a relative term at best. Storms were breaking late at night, flashing across distant hills before arriving with thunderous urgency, pummeling the corrugated-metal roofs in Bonga and sending rivulets of water cascading down the unlit dirt roads. The Gumi was rushing through its ravine in near-full spate and laden with soil from the hills. A pair of Abyssinian horses, small grayish mares, carrying jute sacks of dried coffee from Mankira to be milled in Bonga, plunged to their bellies as they crossed. Two teenage boys prodded the animals through the strong current that pushed them downstream toward the rapids as they made their way to the opposite bank.
After they had crossed, a forester and guide named Alemayu Haile stepped into the water that nearly reached his waist. Stripping down, looping pants, boots, and backpack around his neck, Asaye Alemayehu, a forest guide from Bonga, took up one of the tall sticks left on the bank and walked into the swift magenta-orange water, lurching the fifteen yards across the river over jagged, hidden boulders that lined the riverbed.
From the Gumi it was nearly an hour climb to Gola, the first small hamlet, and then another hour to the village of Mankira itself. The path cleaved through dense forest, quickly gaining elevation. Troops of olive baboons mingled along the edge of the track. A scythe-billed hadada ibis fluttered up from a tree, calling Haa-haa-haaaa-haa, as a couple more laden mules came down the hill. Later, half a dozen people, each bearing a piece of living room furniture bound for sale in Bonga, filed passed. Black butterflies spun upward from rain puddles, and inch-wide columns of feisty red ants crossed the track. Along both side were groves of wild coffee. Scattered among their branches were brilliant, waxy yellowish and red coffee fruits that popped out of the leafy greens like berries on Christmas holly.
Unlike maize, carrots, or bananas, which are nearly unrecognizable beside their domesticated relatives, wild coffee fruits look identical to cultivated ones. About the size of a plump blueberry or cranberry, they are slightly elliptical and have a small nipple scar at the tip. Each fruit holds a pair of hard oval pale seeds—the beans. Wrapped in a fine silvery membrane and covered with a parchment, they are embedded in sticky, sugar-rich mucilage and enclosed in a thin layer of pulpy flesh (the mesocarp) and smooth outer skin (the exocarp).
The biggest differences between wild and cultivated coffee are in the trees, their height, the slimness of the trunks—and the amount of fruit they bear.
A fertile patch of well-tended, shade-grown Guatemalan coffee produces annually about 400 to 450 kilograms of green coffee—clean, unroasted coffee beans—per hectare. Colombia’s national average is nearly 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds), although some farms are producing more than three times that amount. In Kafa, the same-size piece of dense forest might yield as little as 15 kilograms, or 33 pounds, of wild coffee.2 “In the Kombo Forest if they get thirty kilos it is a good yield,” said Mesfin. Certain forests that are more open, with more light, might provide a couple hundred kilos of coffee per hectare. Even that, though, is cyclical: a (relatively) bounteous year is followed by a slack one. “It is like the teeth of a saw,” said a coffee collector encountered in another part of Mankira’s forest. “If this harvest is good, then next year’s will decline.”
Cultivated coffee exists because it is meant to exist, Mesfin had said in Kombo, south of Bonga. “Plantation coffee trees are bred, planted, and trained to produce. They are expected to do so.”
Not so these gangly wild ancestors. A coffee tree is here because it won the space. More than one seed fell in the same place, and many other plants want the nutrients of the humus beneath it, the water, and those flickers of precious sunlight that pierce the overhead canopy. “It exists not just to exist but to survive,” Mesfin said. Or because it has survived. This is one reason wild trees produce so little. Heavy bearing weakens a tree, and resources go into fending off diseases, pests, and beating competition—into simply surviving.
In the deep forest, Arabica trees are spindly, thin, and unusually tall as they stretch toward light filtering through a canopy of towering warqa (Ficus vasta, a type of wild fig tree), hundred-foot-tall butoo with yellowish leaves, and red stinkwood. Coffee trees have large leaves that are more supple than leathery in the shade, long gaps between the internodes, and few low branches. The more undisturbed the forest, the denser the canopy, the slower the trees grow, and the fewer cherries they produce—just enough to ensure the survival of the species.3
In Kombo, Mesfin pulled off a piece of moss and inhaled deeply. “The smell of the forest is the smell of dust. On the coffee tree there is a moisture which falls on the trunk, on the wood part, and that attracts dust, and in the dust mosses and ferns grow.” The moss was fine and a touch brittle. “On that insects also feed and live. Some of the insects are the most important pollinators.” He paused. “Listen.” Under the wispy silvery-green covering was a slight shifting.
The unkempt coffee trees are just one among four hundred other species of plants growing in the dense understory of the coffee forest,4 and an intricate piece of Kafa’s rich floristic diversity.
Woldegiorgis pinched the end of a fresh coffee cherry and shot the beans into his mouth. They have a delicate sweetness, with subtle hints of hibiscus, cherry, and watermelon, even mango. He spat out the seeds, pinched another pair into his mouth, and set off deeper into the forest.
Threading quickly through the dense woodland, skirting potholes dug by shy, nocturnal creatures, he stopped to point out fresh buffalo tracks, and then, farther along, baboon scat filled with pale coffee beans. “Snakes are active and more aggressive in the dry season when they are hunting,” Alemayu had warned. Green mamba—the most feared of the local creatures—lurked among the leafy foliage. (The electric-green skin of one spotted earlier was almost too vibrant to be real, and certainly too gorgeous not to be deadly.) A white-cheeked turaco, as stylized as a hand-painted ornament, scurried down a slender branch and then flashed its crimson wings as it darted off with a ripe fruit clamped in its orange beak. Deeper in the forest a solitary De Brazza’s monkey announced itself with a booming call.
Woldegiorgis finally stopped on a thickly treed slope. He wore a soiled army-green polo shirt with a yellow checked collar and cuffs and a grubby baseball hat whose logo had long since peeled away. Throwing an arm around one tree’s stout, forked trunk, he said, “Bune inde,” the “mother coffee tree.” Small tree ferns sprouted from its aging bark, and beardlike tufts clung to its branches. “The oldest in Mankira.”
Wild coffee trees can reach one hundred years old,5 and eventually they just topple over. Bune inde was much older, Woldegiorgis insisted. He remembered it as the same size when his father showed it to him as a boy seven decades before. Its trunk wasn’t thick, just five inches or so in diameter. In eastern Ethiopia, old cultivated Arabica trees growing on the sunny terraced hills around Harar are significantly stockier. This one had put its energy in growing upward through the middle strata. In the Gela coffee forest, they grow even taller, reaching fifty to sixty-five feet as they compete for light.
High, and seemingly out of reach, were a couple dozen still-yellow coffee cherries. “I will collect these myself,” Woldegiorgis said somewhat improbably. Only he gathers the fruits from bune inde.
All around, coffee trees and saplings of all ages sprouted up. This was the hidden wealth of Kafa. But pulling away a piece of gauzy moss and inhaling, one smells not profit but survival.
Back with the four others, Woldegiorgis told them to pack up and return to the hamlet for lunch. Those venturing farther into the forest to reach their designated area carry food with them—boiled beans, some cabbage, and kocho, a staple flatbread made from the fermented starches of enset—and, snug in a wicker basket, a jebena of coffee corked with a corncob. Collectors who go into the deepest reaches of the forests travel with horses and mules and set up makeshift camps to stay for a month or longer, returning in late December or January once the harvest has been collected and the coffee dried.
Woldegiorgis had hired these four to pick for the day. Some laborers receive 10 percent of the cherries they gather. Woldegiorgis prefers to pay cash. The rate was one birr (five cents) per kilogram. Because they had to carry the coffee some distance back from the forest, he paid them an additional birr per kilo. A basket held five kilos, and each could fill it once, maybe twice, in a morning, earning up to a dollar for their work.
The oldest girl, wearing a crudely carved wooden Orthodox cross and two small knotted cloth charm bags around her neck, held open a jute sack for the others to dump their baskets. A second sack had already been filled. She and another girl each balanced one on their heads and followed Woldegiorgis back through the forest, crouching with their loads under lianas and low branches.
The troop of colobus monkeys hadn’t moved far and were quietly plucking and chewing leaves. A cloak of spirituality clings to their patient, aloof demeanor, their stillness. “We call them monks,” said Alemayu. “They have fasting days.” People tolerate colobuses, unlike baboons or mischievous grivet monkeys, as they tend not to bother garden crops.
The forest eventually opened, and a trail that had taken form curled up into the hamlet. A stick with a white flower as big as a trumpet’s bell had been driven into the ground in front of a tukul, a sign that home-brewed tej (mead) was for sale.
Woldegiorgis turned into the compound of his home, a sturdy rectangular-shaped house with a corrugated roof. Years of smoke escaping under the eaves had blackened the top half of the mud walls. Coffee trees had been planted around the side and back. A rudimentary raised bed some four or five paces long and made with thin bamboo poles held drying coffee. The pods from the last few days had turned auburn and buff chestnut color, while the oldest ones, collected the previous week, were leathery and almost uniformly purplish black. He unknotted the gunnysacks and poured the fresh cherries at the far end of the bed, raking them with his fingers into an even layer to dry in the sun. Depending on the weather, they’d be ready in one to two weeks.
Each year Woldegiorgis harvests about a thousand kilograms of coffee cherriesa from the forest, he said, running a palm over the taunt smoothness of the fresh fruits, and another five hundred kilograms from the trees he tends on his plot and around his home. Half or so he sells to Mankira’s cooperative straightaway. The remainder he keeps until the market prices go up, and to use at home.
As he spoke, leaden clouds appeared over the hill, and soon after, a handful of pregnant drops splattered down. Woldegiorgis hurriedly pulled a plastic tarp over the bed. Once the clouds had bundled past, he uncovered the cherries again.
While the mill in Bonga can peel away the dried fruit and parchment surrounding the beans, coffee kept to use at home must be painstakingly peeled by hand with the help of a stone mortar. Woldegiorgis’s wife roasts the beans and brews coffee three or four times a day. (Preparing coffee is strictly a woman’s job in Ethiopia.) She pours the coffee out into small, smooth-worn bamboo cups glossy as horn. The handleless chinaware ones are only for when guests come. Woldegiorgis likes to add a dollop of butter and a pinch of salt to his coffee, transforming the brew into a lusty concoction. “If there is no butter, then honey,” he added.
Sometimes, before he takes his first drink, he tips out a bit onto the smooth-worn earth floor of his home. Others in rural Kafa shake some coffee along the inside of the door, but Woldegiorgis does it around the central pillar. It is a libation in the purest sense, a small offering to Showe Kollo, the spirit of the land. Without kollo, there would be no coffee.
The previous week, before starting to collect the year’s coffee harvest, Woldegiorgis and a dozen or so other men from the hamlet had walked to a secluded part of the forest carrying kocho, maize, and tella, a home-brewed beer made from teff.b They also had a live chicken. “Everything in the forest belongs to kollo,” an anthropologist recorded in his field notebook back in the 1960s. “If you wish to take something from him then you must give something in return.”6
Beside the buttressed trunk of a towering wild fig tree, they dug a shallow hole. The soil in Mankira is soft and loamy and easy to dig up. Kneeling, one of the men held the chicken, while Woldegiorgis unsheathed his knife and slit its throat, letting the blood seep into the ground at the base of the tree. He carved away a small piece from each part of the animal and placed them in the hole as an offering to Showe Kollo. He left, too, some kocho, maize, and tella at the base of the tree. Woldegiorgis then said a prayer and gave thanks for the harvest they were about to collect.
As a young boy ran back to the hamlet to announce that the sacrifice had taken place and the rest of the family could begin the celebration, the other men—only men attend these ceremonies—moved to a different part of the forest to roast the remainder of the chicken and eat it along with other foods they had brought with them. A few hours later, the group walked back out of the forest to join the festivities in the hamlet, which, fueled by tej and tella, continued until late.
In the morning Woldegiorgis returned to the sacrificial spot to see if the offering had been accepted. It had. The pieces placed at the base of the tree were gone. It would be a good harvest.
Saturday is the main market day in Bonga, and the sloped field in the center of town transforms as hundreds of traders, coming by bus, on foot, and with mules from miles away, display their goods on plastic tarps. Women with colorful wraps and black head scarves sit behind small mounds of pinkish garlic, hunks of orange squash, and piles of yams and white potatoes still smeared in earth. There are dried wild cardamom strung on lengths of twine like necklaces, folded enset leaves that hold fresh butter and cheese, wild honey with bits of comb and wax, piles of used clothes, black jebena coffeepots, and, down at the bottom, livestock.
In the center are the coffee sellers. Squatting among the half dozen or so of them that had gathered on a late-October morning was a barefoot man wearing a sweater, bunting coat, and loose khaki pants. His gunnysack of dried coffee berries was only a third full. He was asking two and a half birr (twelve cents) for a generous scoop with a plastic water cup. Four scoops equaled a kilogram, making it about twenty-five cents per pound. The season had just begun, and this was some of the first new coffee of the harvest. Women crowded around him, taking out handfuls to inspect. The most interested bit a pod between their molars and peeled away the dried coating to look at the beans on the inside.
A woman with braided pigtails nearby was selling “clean” coffee. Measuring with a similar plastic cup, she sold heaped scoops of the beans for thirteen birr, about fifty birr a kilogram (one dollar a pound).
“From Mankira,” said a guy standing beside her.
Pale, almost khaki green, and smelling of fresh peas, the beans ranged in size—wild coffee is more irregular than its cultivated cousins—with broken beans, grit, and small stones mixed in.
“Mankira,” he repeated, shielding his eyes from the midmorning sun with a notebook.
“Wof zerash,” the woman said.
This is the wild side of that glorious morning cappuccino with a leaf doodled in its foamy surface: the untamed side of coffee, the unknown one. This is the original side.
a. It takes 6 kilograms of fresh coffee cherries to get a kilo of dried coffee with the husk, which gives about 800 grams of clean, green coffee. The beans lose 15 to 20 percent of their weight when roasted, leaving around 660 grams, or 1.5 pounds, of roasted coffee from 13 pounds of fresh cherries, a rough nine-to-one ratio of picked fruit to ready-to-grind beans.
b. The tiny-seeded cereal is indigenous to Ethiopia and mostly used as a flour to make injera, the large, fermented pancake type of flatbread with a spongy, crumpet texture that, literally, is the base on which many meals are served.
A crown of an island in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia rises up above some half dozen countries that border its lowland peripheries: Sudan and South Sudan on the west; Kenya, Somalia, Somaliland, and Djibouti along the south and the east; and, across the north, Eritrea. The high central plateau, ranging from four thousand to ten thousand feet above sea level and covering two thirds of the country, is split diagonally into two unequal parts by the Rift Valley. The crevice in the earth’s crust averages thirty miles wide and runs like a narrow diaphragm, broadening into a flute shape in the northeast toward the Red Sea as the land flattens out into the Danakil Desert, among the lowest and hottest places on earth. Here, where the Rift widens, is the home of mankind. In 1974, archaeologists unearthed Lucy—or Denqenash as she is known in Ethiopia, “you are marvelous”—the 3.2-million-year-old skeleton of the oldest known hominid.
This is just one of the unique species to have developed in Ethiopia. Through a combination of geographic isolation and climate, it is an archipelago-like center of endemism with many unique species of animals and plants, from Prince Ruspoli’s turaco1 to staple crops such as teff and the drought-resistant enset, known as “false banana” because it looks like a banana tree but bears no edible fruit. And, of course, Arabica coffee.
Coffee comes from the Coffea genus of the large Rubiaceae family. Of the 124 known species of Coffea, only two are widely cultivated and considered commercially important: Arabica (Coffea arabica) and Robusta (Coffea canephora). Arabica accounts for the majority of coffee, and all of the fine coffee. It’s milder, more balanced, and has higher acidity, a positive attribute responsible for many of the fruity flavors experienced in a bright, lively cup. More difficult to grow but better appreciated by professional cuppers (tasters) as well as Main Street consumers, it fetches higher prices on the global market.
Arabica’s center of origin and diversity is the montane forests of Ethiopia.2 The natural range is restricted to the cool, forested highlands, predominately in the southwest of the country on the north side of the Rift, with the core wild coffee forests falling within the historical region of Kafa. The Harenna Forest, in the southern Bale Mountains, on the other side of the Rift, has some wild Arabica, too. A small population also is just over the South Sudan border on the Boma Plateau.a
It rains all year round in Kafa, peaking in June and July, with yearly rainfall across the region averaging between 1,500 and 2,500 mm (about sixty to one hundred inches;3 Seattle averages about thirty-six inches). The dominant greens, verdant lushness, and clouds that wedge into the valleys each morning dispel any preconceived notion of Ethiopia as simply an arid country of drought and famine. “When the Creator made the great Central African forest,” wrote the German explorer Max Grühl a century ago, “He took a piece and cast it down among the mountains bordering on the northern shore of Lake Rudolf.b Hence it came about that Kafa is a forest land of dark beauty.”4
Kafa is hilly, with few level stretches. According to local legend, the land had once been completely flat. “One day [the sky god] Yero came to the earth and lived with the people for a certain amount of time. The people hated him and tried to drive him away. The earth, on the other hand, loved him and did not want to leave him. Because of the hate of the people, Yero went back to the sky. The land began to follow him. He ordered it not to follow him anymore.” Of course it did. “You can see which hills followed him the furthest. They are the highest.”5
The low wetlands, with swamps and marshes—hippopotamuses, silvery-black African buffalo, and gangly yellow-billed storks that troll slowly for fish with their submerged bills partially open—quickly give way to savanna with shrubs and grasses, then to woodlands and the cloud-covered montane forests, where the sun does not appear for days at a time. Above these are dense stands of bamboo. The tallest peaks reach 11,000 feet.
Coffee forests—Mankira, Boginda, Kombo, Gela, and Bonga (outside its namesake town) are among the best-known—thread through the middle strata. Arabica grows between 3,200 to 6,500 feet above sea level but thrives from 4,250 to about 6,000 feet on flat or gentle slopes.
Ethiopia’s geography long protected its mile-high plateau from invaders and allowed it to develop in virtual isolation for more than two thousand years. It was, Homer said, “at the farthest limits of mankind,” where “the Sungod sets” but also “where the Sungod rises.”6 Covering the southwest corner of the plateau was the Kingdom of Kafa, which ruled these forests for five centuries. Grühl called it the “African Tibet.”7 It was inaccessible, unknown, and mysterious, a heightened version of what defined Ethiopia well into the twentieth century.
Historically, the northern half of Ethiopia’s plateau was a loose collection of kingdoms, principalities, and feudal states whose power shifted. They were ethnically and religiously diverse and often either at war with one another or paying tribute to remain at least somewhat autonomous. The most powerful ruler among them was the Negusa Nagast—King of Kings.
Little was known about Ethiopia at the time, even after the first Europeans made it into the emperor’s court. A handful of Venetian, Genoese, and Portuguese adventurers gained access in the 1400s; they were treated well, given land and wives, and even official positions. Nicolò Brancaleon painted for the church and state, while his fellow Venetian Hieronimo Bicini served as secretary to the emperor, with whom he reportedly traded rooks and knights over the chessboard for hours at a time. But visitors were essentially barred from leaving. Secrets of the empire could not be taken out.8 The mystique remained.
In the sixteenth century, the Basque knight-turned-mystic Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), took interest in Portuguese reports of the Ethiopian emperor’s refusal to convert from Orthodox Christianity, for twelve hundred years the main religion of northern Ethiopia, to Catholicism, and sent a six-man mission.9 It required a number of years, but the Jesuits eventually succeeded in their proselytizing, at least at the highest level: Emperor Susenyos converted and even changed the state religion to Roman Catholicism in 1622. After a decade of internal upheaval over the decision, he abdicated in favor of his son, Fasilides, who reinstated Orthodox Christianity to its official capacity and expelled the Jesuits.
Ethiopia’s flirtation with the West was over. Europe was rejected, and interaction with it simply ceased, marking the beginning of a long period of isolation. While European powers remained keen to establish themselves there, Ethiopia, nearly impenetrable and largely self-sufficient, remained aloof. It was, as Grühl put it in the 1920s, “a citadel.”
Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, only a couple of Westerners managed to pierce its seclusion. Charles-Jacques Poncet, a French physician and pharmacist living in Cairo, traveled by invitation to the emperor’s court to treat his skin disease.10 When Poncet crossed the Ethiopian frontier in June 1699, he was the first Frank (Christian) to reach Ethiopia since the Jesuits had been driven out.11 The book of his journey describes a great many things of interest, including no less than the first description of the coffee plant in its country of origin. Christians in the north, though, did not “esteem it much,”12 and Poncet didn’t mention drinking coffee.
The first Westerner to record that was James Bruce. In 1769, the thirty-nine-year-old Scot arrived on a quest to find the source of the Nile and was served coffee not long after landing in Massawa. He called it “excellent.”13 Standing six foot four inches in his stockings and topped with a mop of red hair, Bruce was an unexpected, striking figure in Ethiopia. While he had a remarkably strong constitution and was both a gifted marksman and competent horseman, his survival was nothing short of miraculous.
To reach the rugged center of the country after an often-difficult journey across the sea—Bruce’s ship wrecked off the coast of Libya and he lost his equipment—travelers had to first pass through the lowlands controlled by Muslim tribesmen who viewed Franks with disdain and distrust. Then came the climb. “The mountains of Abyssiniac have a singular aspect from this place,” Bruce wrote, “as they appear in three ridges. The first is of no considerable height, but full of gullies and broken ground, thinly covered with shrubs; the second, higher and steeper, still more rugged and bare; the third is a row of sharp, uneven-edged mountains, which would be counted high in any country in Europe.”d14 It is a dramatic, broken landscape, craggy and eroded, with rows of jagged summits, steep escarpments, and sharp, barren massifs that hurl upward and then slope down into grassy hills. Dotting the fretted plateau are ambas, tabled mountains topped with churches, monasteries, and fortress prisons.
Inland, rivers and ravines interlace the plateau, making travel difficult in the dry season and all but impossible during the wet one. It was necessary to leave the west of the country with the approach of the rains, a Portuguese expedition in the 1540s reported, “before the rivers rose, which are heavily flooded in that part and quite stop travel on the roads; because the winters are very rainy and the land mountainous; the rivers collect much water from these mountains, and swell vastly.”15
Bruce managed to reach the source of the Blue Nile on the southern end of Lake Tana, yet spent much of his energy trying to keep from being strangled in the web of the feuding court machinations. Bruce’s toughest challenge was getting permission to leave. When the emperor granted it in late December 1771, Bruce hurriedly departed Ethiopia via the Sudan, becoming the first European to trace the Blue Nile to its confluence with the White Nile. The route, though, was significantly more dangerous than returning via Massawa, and he came precariously close to dying during the leg across the desert.
Upon returning to Britain, Bruce was first feted but then mocked. What he told of Ethiopia was simply too wondrous to be true. A favorite jeering point was his description of eating raw beef that had been cut away from a living animal. Among his most vocal detractors were three highly influential men of letters: Horace Walpole, James Boswell, and Samuel Johnson. Considered the authority on Ethiopia, Johnson ridiculed Bruce, going so far as to cast doubt upon the Scot’s having even entered the country.16 Among Bruce’s claims was that coffee came from “Caffa” and grew “spontaneously everywhere in great abundance, from Caffa to the banks of the Nile.”17 This was ignored.
Bruce withdrew to his family’s crumbing laird in Scotland and married. After his second wife passed away nearly a decade later, he began working on a five-volume travelogue,18 published in 1790. It would be another fifty years after his death in 1794, as other travelers reported similar experiences, before the public began accepting that much of what Bruce had written about Ethiopia was generally true.19
By then, a trickle of missionaries and envoys were arriving in Ethiopia, and with them scientists and explorers. The hope was that proselytizing would help prize open area for trade.20 Neither really came about.
The 1869 opening of the Suez Canal turned the Red Sea from a cul-de-sac to a highway that stretched twelve hundred miles south to Bab el-Mandeb (Gates of Tears), the wasp-waisted entrance between Africa and Arabia, and steeply increased European interest in the region. The Scramble for Africa soon pitched into high gear as the great imperial powers rushed to divvy up the continent. In the Horn, Italy controlled Eritrea; the British, French, and Italians carved up Somalia; the French established a colony that would become Djibouti; and the British held Sudan and Kenya. Jutting up in the center of the jigsaw was the Ethiopian plateau. Not only was it uncolonized by Europeans, but it had the only African leader actively taking part in the continental land grab. Among his chief targets was the Kingdom of Kafa.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Ethiopia’s ruler, Menelik II, began expanding outward from the Amharic heartland, attempting to knit together a disparate array of territories. He was not the Negusa Nagast, but rather the ambitious ruler of the central Shawa kingdom.
Not long after Menelik’s father, the negus of Shawa, died in 1855, the newly crowned emperor of Ethiopia, Téwodros II, imprisoned the young heir in the sprawling hilltop fortress of Magdala. After nearly a decade of Menelik’s incarceration, the emperor made a reconciliatory move by offering his own daughter’s hand in marriage to the Shawan.21 Menelik agreed, but left her a year later in an audacious escape. Back in Shawa, he killed Téwodros’s loyal governor and declared himself king. The reign of two emperors and a quarter of a century would pass before Menelik himself would become the King of Kings.
He did not wait to begin annexing his neighbors, though by paying an annual tribute to Téwodros and not challenging him in the far north, Menelik had a free hand in his territorial ambitions elsewhere. In the mid-1870s, his forces moved west to conquer Gurage, Gojjam, and then areas south of the Blue Nile, and in the 1880s, he occupied a series of wealthy kingdoms along the Gibe River, between Kafa and present-day Addis Ababa.
Menelik’s forces had superior weapons, but were also driven by an ideology of a greater Ethiopia. “Menelik certainly believed that his was a holy crusade,” wrote his American biographer, “and his soldiers presumed, with considerable justification, that they would help their sovereign restore Ethiopia to its historic grandeur and size.”22 There was also motivation in the golden, ivory, and even human spoils, as prisoners became slaves. Menelik used the loot plus fresh tax revenue from the expanding empire to reward his generals, who raised and maintained their own armies; motivate the soldiers who fed themselves by pillage and plunder; and buy guns and ammunition to equip their swelling ranks.23
In 1884, Menelik’s forces arrived in Jimma, Kafa’s powerful Muslim neighbor and the largest of the Gibe states. “When you reach a city or land to fight against its inhabitants,” advised the thirteenth-century Fetha Nagast (Law of the Kings), which Menelik was heeding in his expansion,24 “offer them terms of peace. If they accept you and open their gates, the men who are there shall become subjects and give you tribute, but if they refuse the terms of peace and offer battle, go forward to assault and oppress them, since the Lord your God will make you master of them.”25
Abba Jifar, who claimed to be the twenty-sixth in an unbroken line of rulers of Jimma,26 took the advice of his mother and opened the gates. He agreed to pay a hefty annual tribute of 29,065 Austrian Maria Theresa silver thalers,e along with cattle, mules, and various household items.27 While Menelik’s government would appoint its own loyal men to key positions in newly acquired territories and nominally govern them from the central capital,28 compliant rulers remained on the throne as vassals, had their territory left more or less intact, and were given near autonomy—as long as they continued to pay tribute. Abba Jifar kept paying and ruled until his death in 1932, after fifty-four years in power.
Sitting on a hilltop about five miles outside Jimma, Jifar’s rambling, three-story wooden palace is derelict but surprisingly still standing after decades of rain, neglect, and political upheaval. Carved leaves and trees trellis along beams, hand-tooled dowels line stairwells, and stout wooden pillars whittled into Greek columns hold up sagging balconies. The intricate metalwork limning the eaves of the red tin roofs evoke the Swahili Coast.f Crowning the building is a watchtower with four windows, each looking in the direction of a powerful neighboring kingdom.
At the entrance of the compound, across a grassy expanse where thick-billed ravens—large, heavy birds with blunted black bills—dig for grubs, is a mosque. “He had six wives, fourteen children, and fifty-five slaves,” the mosque’s custodian, a gaunt man in a white skullcap and thin beard, recited as if by rote. Historians put the number of Jifar’s personal slaves considerably higher, to as many as ten thousand.29 He gave them as gifts and used them to work on coffee plantations and produce food for the court.30 Inside the mosque, an open lattice of wood ribs ran across the high-peaked ceiling, and patterned red carpets covered the floor. A scrappy green plastic sheet had been strung up to divide the men’s and women’s sections. It was the first day of Ramadan, the Muslim month of sunrise-to-sunset fasting, and the mosque would be full that evening, the custodian said.
On a grassy knoll not far below the palace stands a newer mosque. A broad covered porch built for heavy rain encircles the square, cupola-topped portico, and a pair of white minarets trimmed in baby blue flank the squat building. Two young boys appeared and led the way along a barely discernible path, through scraggy trees and gravestones overgrown with weeds, to Jifar’s tomb. It was ten feet long and shin high, with flaking plaster and a broken flowerpot sitting on one end. Set like a fin in the middle was a tombstone inscribed in Arabic. Surrounding Jifar in the form of a constellation were his wives. Spinning a slow circle with an arm outstretched, the oldest boy recited their names as he pointed toward the brush-covered grave of each.
Jifar had originally been buried in the other end of tomb, the boy explained. When it didn’t rain for three months, the people said it was because the body had been placed in the wrong position. The tomb was opened, and Jifar’s remains were shifted to the other end. “Soon after,” the boy said, “it rained.”
After annexing Jimma, Menelik’s forces didn’t continue across the Gojeb River into Kafa to conquer that kingdom next, but instead turned their attention east. The pastoral Oromo in Arsi had rebuffed an advance some years before with spears and bows and arrows,31 but not this time. Menelik used Arsi as a stepping-stone for Harar and conquered the powerful city-state with rich grazing lands and control of the caravan routes to the coast.
By 1887, befitting his expanding territory, Menelik relocated his capital farther south, building around a hot spring about eight thousand feet above sea level. His consort, Queen Taytu, named it Addis Ababa, “new flower.” Almost immediately, it was a boomtown, sprawling over several hills.g
When Emperor Yohannes died in 1889, the Shawan leader at last proclaimed himself the King of Kings and took the name Menelik II. That year also marked the beginning of a devastating three-year-long famine that struck all but the southernmost part of the country, triggered in part by a rinderpest outbreak and followed by drought and cholera. Menelik ordered his generals south—and to send food back north if possible. Over the next few years, as Menelik’s armies continued their slow domination of region, and to control territory closer to Kafa, they drew the large Ogaden region, Bale, and Sidamo into an expanding empire.
Meanwhile, rhetoric was escalating with Menelik’s main European antagonist, Italy, which was establishing itself in neighboring Eritrea. Initially the relationship was decorous. With unusual openness for an Ethiopian ruler, Menelik welcomed an Italian Geographical Society mission.32 The two countries grew closer, signing a treaty of amenity and commerce in 1883 and then another of alliance and friendship, even after Italy had seized Eritrea’s key port of Massawa. But a third treaty in 1889, recognizing Italy’s occupation of Eritrea, led to conflict. The problem stemmed from Italian subterfuge in producing different versions of the pact. The Italian-language one gave them power over Ethiopia’s dealings with other European nations; the Amharic one made no such provision.
In 1895, with tensions mounting, Italy moved forces from Eritrea across the border into northern Ethiopia. Menelik summoned his governors and amassed an army of more than 100,000.33 On March 1, 1896, an Italian contingent of 14,500 prepared a surprise attack at Adwa. The Ethiopians got word of it and struck first early that morning.
The Battle of Adwa was a rout. Within hours, the outmaneuvered Italian army lost nearly three fourths of its force, with four thousand Italian soldiers and two thousand Eritrean askaris killed, and numerous thousands more wounded or taken prisoner.34 The surviving remnants fled in haste, abandoning weapons and vehicles.
With this unprecedented victory of an African army over that of a modern European power, Menelik’s standing soared. Italy signed a peace agreement recognizing Ethiopia’s borders. The two other great powers in the Horn of Africa, France and Great Britain, hurriedly signed treaties as well, while the Ottoman pasha and Russian tsar sent missions.35 For a continent almost entirely subjugated in colonialism, the triumph offered a flash of hope. For Ethiopians, it was the defining, founding event of a new nation, its first great national epic.36
Defeating the Italians and sustaining Ethiopian sovereignty turned Menelik into a hero, an emblem of African freedom that paradoxically granted him a freer hand in conquering other autonomous territories in the Horn.
The emperor ordered his first cousin Ras Wolde Giorgish to lead an army southwest. Motivated and well armed with modern weapons, his forces were finally ready to conquer their last great territorial prize, Kafa.
a. There might be another tiny population in the sixty-square-mile patch of montane forest on northern Kenya’s Mount Marsabit. If it was originally wild remains disputed. Coffee’s leading taxonomist, Aaron Davis at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is inclined to say that it was not.
b. Renamed Lake Turkana in 1975.
c. See note here for the use of the term Abyssinia.
d. He was not exaggerating. Just shy of fifteen thousand feet, Ras Dashen in the Simien Mountains is nearly as high as the tallest peaks in France and Switzerland.
e. First minted in 1741, the coins were carried by merchants to the eastern Mediterranean, the Arabian Peninsula (used to pay for coffee just a decade after being struck in Vienna), and elsewhere, including Ethiopia, where it was the unit of currency for two centuries.
f. The style was perhaps not random. Among Jifar’s effects in the Jimma Museum is a bed with a red velvet canopy, a gift from the sultan of Zanzibar. “Jifar was 210 centimeters [six feet ten and a half inches] tall,” the museum attendant said. “It was only for sitting, not sleeping.”
g. Within twenty-five years it had seventy thousand permanent residents, with another thirty thousand to fifty thousand temporary ones (Pankhurst, Ethiopians, 195). Today Addis Ababa is by far the country’s largest city, with an estimated 3.5 million inhabitants.
h. The title ras signified a commander of an army of the emperor who, in times of peace, acted as the governor of an annexed region. Wolde Giorgis and Woldegiorgis are popular names in Ethiopia today.
The Kingdom of Kafa
Highway 5 runs southwest from Addis Ababa, through wide fields of teff, maize, and gaunt oxen tilling with wooden plows. The road drops down and along the scorching northern edge of the Rift Valley with acacia trees and onion-shaped birds’ nests, the sky charged with raptors wheeling on updrafts, before climbing back up on the high plateau. The soil darkens and runs from chocolate browns to orangish crimson, and the landscape begins to breathe with soft greens. Kids hold out handfuls of small, intensely sweet bananas and mangoes to sell to passing cars and herd skittish goats down the road. Clouds gather ahead, and the first gardens with some coffee trees appear. Nearly across Jimma, another historically powerful kingdom and major coffee producer, the highway drops down again, and one reaches, some nine hours after leaving the capital, the Gojeb River, a muddy torrent that marks Kafa’s eastern boundary. Along an upstream bend of riffles, people bathe in the shallows. By the bridge itself, when the water level is low, partially submerged hippos float in nearby pools. WAAMA DIGGOONA BUNEE DANE XAA’OOCH KAFA WAATOTE a listing billboard reads in Kafinoonoo, with Amharic and English equivalents below: WELCOME TO KAFFAa THE BIRTH PLACE OF COFFEE. It is an underwhelming announcement to a place where coffee, and coffee drinking, began.
Once over the Gojeb, the road climbs up through broad steps of cultivated hills and profuse shade trees that edge fields of teff, barley, and sorghum. After a dozen or so miles, a narrow pull-off appears beside the kilometer 441 marker post. A pair of young men picked up at the first village inside Kafa strode down the steep embankment to the beginning of a spiky seam of vegetation that ran across the undulating landscape and disappeared over the crest of a distant hill. It wasn’t a hedge but a hiriyo, a trench now overgrown with trees and shrubs. As the first line of defense against invasion, Kafa’s ancient kingdom had been ringed by them. Places particularly susceptible to enemy intrusions had two or three rows of deep ditches. Locals, one of the men said, knew the secret paths around them.
The two climbed down into the trench, which measured some twenty-five feet deep and thirty feet across. In the past, the ditches had sharpened bamboo spikes hidden by leaves to ensure that a leaping horse couldn’t make it across alive, one of the men explained after he had climbed out.
Back up on the road, they crossed above a small quarry of hard orange rock that had recently been used for road-building materials and dropped down into another hiriyo running in the opposite direction. How far did this one go? One, wearing an Ethiopian national soccer jersey with its distinctive broad yellow and green stripes, put his hands on his head and made a sound meaning “Who knows?” The other pointed to the horizon and named a far-off village.
The defense ditches formed an inverted version of the Great Wall of China and had once helped seal the kingdom almost hermetically from the surrounding territories.
Independent, well organized, and a source of legendary wealth, the extensive Kingdom of Kafa had twelve provinces, each with a royal residence.1 The most important was in the capital Andiracha, “a sort of African Lhasa.”2 The king forbid foreigners from entering and restricted traders to the commercial city of Bonga, about a dozen miles away.
“The king’s palace was very nice, and very luxurious,” said Tetera Mekonen Yemer, one of Andiracha’s elders. Ninety years old and bedridden, he lay propped up on a handful of flattened pillows in the front room of his home just down the hill from where the palace had stood. A dozen jute gunnysacks of coffee sat stacked in the corner beside a small TV. His daughter sat on a low stool in front of the door and picked through a dish of dry red lentils. Beside her, on a coal brazier, a black jebena with coffee was reaching a slow boil. “The king had his own ministers, his own borders, his own government,” Tetera said of Kafa’s ruler at the end of the nineteenth century. “It was like a country at that time.”
While stories tell of some five hundred years of kings, the end of the seventeenth century marked Kafa’s consolidation into a strong, unified state,3 with territorial expansion and economic growth well into the nineteenth century.4 At its apogee around the turn of the eighteenth century,5 the kingdom stretched from the grassy plains of the Sudan to the string of soda lakes that run along the Rift,6 and as far south as Lake Turkana, the brackish opaque-emerald body of water that straddles the Ethiopia-Kenya border. The northeast boundary was the Gibe River and included the states of Jimma and Limu.7 While the kingdom had shrunk from controlling thirty-eight kingdoms and chiefdoms that were paying it tribute in the early 1800s,8 Kafa remained one of the most powerful and populous states in Ethiopia through the nineteenth century.
Unlike the Amharas of northern Ethiopia, who have for centuries had a body of literature written first in Ge’ez, the ancient Semitic language, and then Amharic, those living in Kafa had no way to indelibly record their stories in their own language until quite recently.9 The name of the local language conveys its oral nature: Kafinoonoo literally translates to “Kafa mouth.”
Tetera’s daughter set down small, handleless cups filled to the brim with coffee. The tablecloth was a jute sack that had been cut open along its seam. Once it had cooled, Tetera picked up his cup, sloshing a bit into the saucer, and drank it quickly before continuing his story of a kingdom whose unbroken line of monarchs stretched back to A.D. 1390. His daughter, adding details to his comments, sat on the stool and sifted through the legumes for tiny stones as chickens fluttered in and out of the open door in front of her.
“Perhaps the absence of a script and written records blurs the past,” V. S. Naipaul wrote of African cultures like that of Kafa with spoken rather than written histories; “perhaps the oral story gives them only myths.”10
In Kafa, the stories—and myths—have survived, often told like this over coffee.
The Portuguese first mentioned Kafa, and it was known by name, or at least legend, in Europe centuries before travelers offered any firsthand accounts. They had come in search of the mythical Christian ruler Prester John, a certain ally and friend in the largely Muslim region. In the Narrative of the Portuguese Embassy to Abyssinia During the Years 1520–1527, the priest Francisco Álvarez referred to “Cafates,” a race in the west bordering the Christian kingdoms of Shawa and Gojjam. They were “pagans and great warriors,” Álvarez claimed, who “came to kill and plunder” his group “chiefly at night,” and then “by day they took refuge in the mountains and thickets, and the mountains (as they say) consist more in ravines than in heights.”11 Another Portuguese report twenty years later repeated much of the same hearsay about these people who “have much land, and are rich with gold,” but added a magical touch: “They say there is in the country an invisible wood that makes men invisible.”12 The Italian Franciscan friar and cartographer Vincenzo Coronelli included the “Regno di Cafate” on his 1690 map—the first to show Ethiopia being the source of the Blue Nile—as a narrow kingdom wedged between a Nile tributary and a mountain range. There was no hint that Kafa held coffee, and James Bruce’s claim a century later that it did made no impact.
Vincenzo Coronelli’s 1690 map showed Kafa—Regno di Cafate (bottom left)—for the first time.
Some reliable details on Kafa, including its location and rivers, finally surfaced in the 1840s from a German Anglican missionary named J. L. Krapf,13 even though he did not reach the kingdom himself. The first European to do that was the Dublin-born French Basque explorer Antoine d’Abbadie, in 1843. He had joined the caravan of a prince heading to fetch his twelfth wife in Kafa and spent eleven days in Bonga.14 Yet not until 1890, nearly fifty years later, did d’Abbadie publish his account in Géographie de l’Éthiopie.
At the end of 1855, a Capuchin friar (and later Catholic cardinal) Guglielmo Massaia, promoting Catholicism in Ethiopia, sent a priest named Cesare da Castelfranco and an Ethiopian convert to establish a mission in Kafa. Castelfranco married a local woman and was swiftly excommunicated, yet stayed on. Massaia himself arrived in 1859 with more local converts,15 and lived with Castelfranco until being expelled from the area two years later. Massaia lost his records and wrote of his time in Kafa from memory nearly three decades later.
In 1875, the Italian Geographical Society dispatched a scientific mission to the north of Ethiopia. Menelik gave them a large estate to use as a base to launch a series of expeditions.16 Two explorers traveled to Jimma and Kafa. En route, they were held as prisoners. One died. The other, Antonio Cecchi, made his way to Kafa through “a mixture of bribery and force.”17
Cecchi arrived in Kafa during the reign of Galli Sherocho, the penultimate king of Kafa, at a time when the kingdom was the richest in southwestern Ethiopia.18 The account Cecchi published upon his return is the first of the kingdom with real substance or veracity.
Being hard to reach and well defended was alone not enough for the Kingdom of Kafa to endure for more than five hundred years, a staggering length given the upheavals, wars, and conquests that embroiled the Horn of Africa. Another key factor was its unusual political stability. While not completely static, the basic structure remained in place from at least the end of the sixteenth century.19
At the top was the king, the tato. “The king is the law,” went a Kafa saying.20 Adorned in a green robe and gold jewelry—a bracelet on the right wrist, a ring on the right pinkie, and earrings21—the king was revered and worshipped by his subjects, who sacrificed a young boy each year to ensure his health.22
Once crowned, the tato could not touch the ground, and a cloth was laid before him as he walked.23 Nor was he allowed to eat with his own hands,24 in order, some said, to reserve them for fighting the enemy.25 Official feeders known as made nao, “slaves of the table,”26 placed small morsels in his mouth. (When not performing his royal duties, the official feeder kept his arm covered in a cloth sack to keep it from being contaminated or bewitched.)27 The king couldn’t drink by himself, either, and the royal cup bearer tipped ox horns of tej, beer, and coffee into his mouth. At mealtimes, a relay of drums sounded across the kingdom to warn the people to keep silent while he ate.28
For the majority of the population, the tato remained effectively invisible. Not daring to look him in the face,29 subjects prostrated themselves with their arms stretched forward and said, “For you I eat the soil.”30 Royal roads that only he and his entourage could travel connected his dozen palaces,31 and when he gave an audience, a curtain carefully obscured him.
Directly beneath the king were seven powerful councilors known as mikireco, and below them, a dozen provincial heads, who handled administrative, judicial, political, military, and economic elements. Under these came numerous occupational castes, including weavers, tanners, and satto, wandering bards, who sang, danced, and told stories of wars, celebrations of personal triumphs, and past glories. A massive class of serfs followed, making up one third to one half of the population.
The lowest on the hierarchy, and one of the original inhabitants of Kafa, were the Manjo, or hunter caste, who inhabited the dense forests. They served as trackers and trail finders, and border and royal-palace guards.32 As skillful tree climbers, they hung many of the hives in the forest and then retrieved them some months later, climbing with smoking branches to calm the bees. Yet the Manjo tradition of eating wild animals made them an ostracized community. They were the only ones in the kingdom who hunted for their food33—few Kafecho even ate meat34—and their diet consisted largely of porcupines, monkeys and baboons, and wild pigs.35 Other castes considered any item touched by a Manjo contaminated. Encountering a non-Manjo required a greeting that translated to “Let me die for you,” or, if it was a noble, “I bury myself in the ground.”36 When the king passed, the Manjo prostrated themselves on the ground like others but didn’t merely say they would eat soil for him, they literally did so.
Another factor in Kafa’s longevity was economic power generated through key trade routes that began around Bonga and connected the interior with northern Ethiopia and the seaports along the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Originating in medieval times, they reached their peak of prominence in the nineteenth century.37
From Bonga, the northern route passed through a string of key commercial towns as it headed to Gondar at the foothills of the Simien Mountains.38 Founded by Emperor Fasilides in 1635, following his expulsion of the Jesuits, the strategically situated city served as imperial capital for 250 years. At Gondar the route forked. A western branch traveled inland to Matamma, along the Nile. The hot, lowland riverside frontier town on the Sudan border linked trade up the Nile to Egypt and the Mediterranean. Another branch from Gondar crossed the plateau northeast via Aksum and Adwa and then dropped down to the port of Massawa on the Red Sea.
The other main route from Bonga traveled east to the coast. Caravans passed through Jimma and Shawa and across the Rift Valley to Harar, the main political and commercial center in the east and key trading link with the Arabian Peninsula. From Harar, it was a perilous stretch across Somalia to the ports of Zeila and Berbera.
Woven baskets strapped to mules and camels held forest coffee, honey, pods of dried wild cardamom, and butter wrapped in enset leaves. They carried, too, gold mined across the Rift, ivory from the elephants that roamed to the south in herds of thousands, and leopard skins. Musk was another key item. The secretion from the perineal glands of civet cats was extremely valuable as a fixative for floral perfumes. About the size of a raccoon, with a coat of darker stripes and blotches, civet were trapped in Kafa’s forests, kept in small bamboo cages, and fed a rich diet of meat, millet, milk, butter, and thin maize porridge. The cats had their anal pouches scraped of a secreted waxy pomade, which was packed in ox horns.39
Of all the trade items from Kafa, slaves were the most important. Slaving was endemic, and slaves considered plentiful, constituting, at times, between one half and two thirds of Kafa’s population.40 They were taken in raids from the tribes to the south of the kingdom, captured during wars, received as tribute, or bought on the market. People could be enslaved as punishment for debt, theft, the evil eye, or being found by a traditional priest of turning into a hyena at night.41 Women could also be sentenced to slavery for adultery or even, according to Massaia, eating alone.42 While some researchers estimate around half a million slaves were exported through ports along the Somali-Djibouti coast during the nineteenth century, Ethiopia’s most eminent scholar put the number at 1.25 million in only the first half of the 1800s.43 As part of the large Red Sea Islamic slave trade, most were bound for Arabian and Ottoman households rather than New World sugarcane, tobacco, or cotton plantations. Ethiopia was a source of eunuchs and, famous for their beauty, women for harems.
Caravans coming to Bonga brought beads and glass along with thin iron bars that could be smelted down for plowshares and agricultural tools. The prime imported good, though, was amole, salt cut into blocks. The salt was much sought after for people and for cattle and used, with the iron bars, as a form of money. Its value was not static but depended on how far it had come from the salt mines in the northeastern Danakil Depression and increased with each day along the caravan route. In the market of Andiracha in the 1870s, the Italian visitor Cecchi found coffee among “magnificent lion skins,” “chunks of black tobacco,” and silver ornaments. A mulletto (skin bag) that held ten to fifteen kilograms of dried, unhusked coffee pods was considered valuable and cost three or four salt bars.44 (For fifteen or sixteen kilograms of honey he had to barter only a single bar.)45 Trading with salt lasted well into the twentieth century. “Here above on the highland of Kaffa, money is an unknown concept,” the Austrian explorer Friedrich Bieber reported after visiting Kafa in 1905. They were using only salt bars.46
During the second half of the nineteenth century, coffee rose as one of the southwest’s most important commodities.47 As synthetic fixers replaced musk in perfume ateliers, as ivory stocks fell, and when authorities managed to finally halt the slave trade in the 1930s, coffee became its main export.48
When the Kafa king Tato Galli passed away in 1890, after twenty-two years in power, news of his death was kept secret for seven days.49 The councilors gathered at Andiracha to choose his successor. As he had neared death, all of the male members of his family had been put in chains until the council made its decision.50 While succession was not necessarily hereditary—“kingship was cosmologically conceived and transcendentally sanctioned”51—Galli had followed his father, and the nobles chose one of his sons, Gaki, to follow him.
With the announcement of the king’s death along with the name of his successor, public mourning began. Men shaved their heads and cut themselves on the crown with knives, while women, dressed in rags, scratched their shorn scalps with thorns until they bled. Mourners gathered at the royal palace in Andiracha, where all of the king’s possessions had been spread out on display.52 In the throne room, the body, washed, anointed with butter, and dressed in royal attire,53 laid in a coffin made from a hollowed tree.
Three days later the burial procession set off for the royal graves, and until then the people did not eat.54 Led by seven priests, who sacrificed oxen to purify the road that the body would take,55 it took a day to reach Shosha, traveling up through the forests of coffee and into the dense thickets of bamboo. Among the mourners walked the newly tapped Gaki, dressed symbolically in the rags of a peasant.
On the twelfth day after Galli’s death, attendants lowered the body into a twenty-foot-deep burial chamber. Along with an oxen sacrificed by each of the attending priests, fourteen more were slaughtered. Their hearts were placed on the supine king and his face sprinkled with their blood.56 A slave was sacrificed and buried alongside the tato to join his master in the next world. Inside the tomb of the king were placed jars of mead and cups of coffee.57
“The Kaffa bury their dead in very deep graves at the bottom of which they make a cave,” the Russian aristocrat, explorer, and military officer Alexander Bulatovich wrote at the very end of the 1800s. “They usually wrap up the corpse in palm branches, and, at the burial, lower coffee, money, and ivory together with it into the grave.”58
“These were things that were important to Kafecho,” said Mesfin Tekle. Coffee was considered special enough to be desired in the afterlife.
“Even nowadays,” Tetera said in his Andiracha front room that smelled of smoke and old leather, “if you are rich and you die, your family puts in some things—your gold, your ivory …” Glancing at the dozen jute sacks in the corner, he added, “Your coffee.”
For one year slaves and servants visited Galli’s grave to mourn, bringing with them food and drink.59 Once that time had passed, it was forbidden for anyone to come again. The grave was left to return to the wild. “Only the animals of the forest were permitted to be near it from then on,” wrote Bieber.b60
After a short period of seclusion for Gaki following the burial of his father, the head bard placed the gold bracelet on Gaki’s wrist and the ring on his pinkie, investing him with the royal insignia. People revered the office more than the person, and these symbols of kingship were key to his power.
Gaki Sherocho was in his twenties when he began his reign. Within a decade, five centuries of a sovereign Kafa would end. Cecchi had been one of the first outsiders to visit Kafa. He was also the last to see it in its independent splendor. Soon it would disappear like the tombs of Gaki’s royal predecessors.
a. Like virtually all of the region’s place names, Kafa has multiple spellings. I have left the original when quoting, but elsewhere use the most common version. See here for a note on spelling.
b. It remains impossible to visit it today, even for Kafa’s supreme traditional spiritual leader. “It is near the caves. There are guards—Manjo—they know where it is,” said Mesfin. “It has been converted to nature, so you don’t have the possibility of finding it among the bamboo groves.”
The Last King of Kafa
Menelik II had been making unfulfilled claims on Kafa for nearly two decades and even managed to extract a never-fulfilled promise of tribute in the form of slaves, musk, and coffee from Gaki Sherocho’s father during his reign.1 By 1896, though, Kafa was isolated, nearly surrounded by territories under Menelik’s control, and ill equipped against the large and powerful coalition force that the emperor could now muster.
Gaki had prohibited the import of arms into Kafa after repelling an incursion by the Ethiopians a few years before, most likely to avoid an internal uprising,2 and only three hundred or so outdated muskets were in the kingdom,3 hardly enough to slow, much less stop, Menelik’s troops. When the council of nobles gathered in Andiracha, Gaki proposed following the example of his neighbor Abba Jifar in Jimma and paying tribute to Menelik. The councilors, though, despite having few illusions as to the outcome,4 voted to wage war instead, vowing to “fight with the help of our forests and animals in our territory.”5
It would have to be a cunning defense. As Kafa had no standing army, every male from eight to eighty years old was called up6 to mount a guerrilla resistance. Gaki ordered the destruction of the grain supplies7 and forbade the planting or harvesting of any crops. He wanted to starve out the enemy, who would supply themselves exclusively from what they could find or pillage. “He hoped that the lack of provisions would force the Abyssinians to retreat, and that only the Kaffa, who were used to it, could nourish themselves,” wrote the Russian military adviser Alexander Bulatovich, who traveled with Menelik’s forces in Kafa the following year. “To this end, word was spread among the people that a revelation had come to the high priest that by exactly this means the Kaffa would defeat the Abyssinians.”8
During the June-to-September rainy season, when roads were muddy and rivers impassable, military campaigns were traditionally suspended.9 The Ras waited patiently. Once the trails dried and the rivers receded, a thirty-one-thousand-strong army with twenty thousand modern rifles launched its attack on the medieval kingdom from four different directions, including Jimma with the help of Abba Jifar.10 The warning drums begin to echo as Manjo guards beat the hollowed trunks from their posts every five or so miles along Kafa’s defensive ditches.
As people of the forest, the Kafecho could draw on unique resources in their fighting arsenal to accompany a primitive assortment of knives, swords, bows and arrows, lances, and shields made from hippopotamus and buffalo hides. Soldiers kept pots of bees along riverbanks and in other cool spots where they would stay calm, then used them to disperse the unsuspecting enemy when fighting at short range. (The bees could, of course, also attack Kafa troops, but simply knowing about them minimized the risk.)11 Less fierce but more effective at close range were red ants.12 Collected by dropping pieces of food or bones and kept in sacks made from animal skins, the parcels of feisty ants were hurled at the enemy in hand-to-hand combat.
“They had their own traditional ways of fighting,” said Tetera Mekonen Yemer in Andiracha. His grandfather had come from the north with Ras Wolde Giorgis’s soldiers and had told stories about such unique tactics. “They were clever in their fighting,” Tetera said with a light smile. Although the Kafecho had primitive weapons, he added, fingering his sparse gray beard, they were much feared as an enemy.
“Their spears are not the same simple shape as the Galla’s,a but are very intricate and almost always poisoned,” Bulatovich noted. “The Abyssinians consider war with them much more difficult than with the Galla. It is said that they poison the water and resort to all possible measures of war against the enemy, in which the terrain which is rugged, mountainous and forested helps them greatly.”13
Heightening their fierce renown was the custom of severing an enemy’s private parts. “All these tribes of Galla gird Abyssinia round at all points from east to west, making inroads, and burning and murdering all that fall into their hands,” wrote James Bruce. “The privities of the men they cut off, dry, and hang them up in their houses.”14
In Kafa, they didn’t hang them for decoration. To receive generous rewards for fighting—cattle, slaves, fiefs, black-leopard skins—the warriors had to present the enemy’s genitalia.15 They wore the trophies on their foreheads at victory celebrations, then buried them under the hearthstones.16 During September festivities in Andiracha, the warriors, stripped to the waist, their foreheads blackened with charcoal, would go before the seated king, shout out their heroic deeds, and toss the severed dried pudenda of the enemy at his feet.17
“They cut more than that,” Tetera said, raising a hand to the side of his face, indicating disfigurement, even mutilation. “You would be afraid if you see someone has no ear or something. Then the rest of the soldiers will not come.”
But reputation, rusty muskets, poison-tipped spears, and skin sacks of red ants could hardly match a force that had just defeated an Italian army in a single morning.
Ras Wolde Giorgis led his troops across Kafa’s eastern border, over the defense ditches, and made straight for Andiracha. They demolished the royal capital and established a military camp on the hill, from where the Ras directed a severe and remorseless campaign,18 razing whole villages, killing men, and enslaving women and children.19
While the coalition managed to take quick control of Kafa, the campaign would not be complete until Gaki Sherocho had been taken prisoner, and capturing him proved surprisingly difficult.
The dry season passed without sign of Gaki, and the rains began again, tentatively at first with late, battering showers. Ras ordered his soldiers to plant peppers and cabbage.20 As the rains steadied, the rivers rose, the trails became impassable, and nothing would dry. Mud and filth covered the camp. Dysentery broke out. “The troops of the Ras were totally worn out by hunger and disease,” wrote Bulatovich, who stayed shortly after at the military camp. “There arose an intolerable stench from the quantity of corpses in Andrachi.”b21
The Ras even began to consider abandoning his plans and returning to Addis Ababa.
Over the months, Gaki had been traveling with progressively fewer servants, sometimes dressed in rags and disguised as a peasant. With the Ras’s snare tightening, the king made a dash for the region to Kafa’s south, out of Menelik’s control. “He decided to break through the guard posts, at night, dressed as a simple Kaffa, accompanied only by a single servant,” soldiers told Bulatovich. “They noticed him and raised the alarm. [Gaki] ran into the nearby forest, which the Abyssinians quickly surrounded.” But they couldn’t locate him. “In the morning, they passed through it several times in a chain, but did not find the King.”22 It was as if he had vanished, perhaps using the magic wood that centuries before the Portuguese had claimed grew in Kafa’s forests.
That night, September 11, 1897,23 a solider looking in the brush for his missing mule accidentally stumbled upon Gaki, according to Bulatovich.24 The king hurled a silver and then a copper spear at him but missed. He had been on the run for nine months.
When news of the capture reached the camp, the Ras announced that the fighting was over. Prisoners were released, and word spread that war with the Amharas had finished.
The Ras ordered Gaki dressed in his finest clothes and brought to him.25 Upon meeting, both men bowed to the ground in respect. Gaki removed the gold bracelets from his arm and asked the Ras—the first to ever conquer Kafa—to accept them. “If you refuse to wear these bracelets, then I will despise you,” he said.26
The Ras instructed the guards to shackle Gaki. “I am not a wild animal to be chained with an iron chain,” he supposedly said, and offered one of his own made from gold.27 The Ras would need permission from Menelik for that, but compromised in allowing a silver one instead. Soldiers looped it around Gaki’s neck and hammered it closed. Attached to the other end of the chain was a servant, a traditional religious leader named Kameto.c
Before they could travel to Addis, the soldiers needed to recover Gaki’s crown. It was a symbol of Kafa: the kingdom would remain strong as long as the crown remained in its land. When Menelik’s armies invaded, Gaki had hidden the headdress along with the royal three-legged stool. Soldiers forced informants to reveal their hiding place,28 in the caves among the bamboo thickets on Mount Butta.29
With a small contingent left behind to govern the newly conquered territory, and Gaki’s wives living on an isolated farmstead a day’s journey outside Bonga,30d Ras Wolde Giorgis set off for Addis Ababa with his prisoner. Gaki rode a mule and held an umbrella open above himself.
The caravan stopped at the Gojeb River. Gaki dismounted and slipped the gold ring from his pinkie. It was the end of the rainy season. The water would have been running high and swift, twisting the brush along the shore in its urgency toward the Omo River. The hippos that congregate at dusk in the pools when the water level is low would have been absent. The Kingdom of Kafa has ended, Gaki supposedly said, as he threw the ring into the murky water.
“He dropped it into the river that runs around Kafa,” a government official in Bonga said recently with emotion, “so that a future generation may one day find it.”
On November 6, 1897, fettered and carrying a rock on his shoulder in a symbolic show of submission, Gaki passed through the gates of Menelik’s court in Addis Ababa.e31 “Finally he reached the imperial presence, where he fell flat and placed a stone upon the back of his neck, and thus waited for Menelik to speak,” wrote the head of the first U.S. diplomatic mission to Menelik’s court. “The Emperor’s wrath rose with the recollection of the wrongs which the Prince of Kaffa had done him, and his soldiers cried out injury after injury upon the unhappy King.”32
According to Menelik’s biographer, the famously forgiving (and certainly pragmatic) emperor would have allowed Gaki to be restored as head of Kafa in return for regular tribute payments. However, the crowd, including soldiers who had fought in the Kafa campaign, keenly aware of the long opposition that caused the deaths of many of their comrades, bayed for his execution.33 Ras Wolde Giorgis suggested a third alternative: imprisonment. The emperor agreed. The Ras also told Menelik that he wanted to rule Kafa himself. Menelik agreed to that, too.
There is a single photo of Gaki Sherocho taken after his capture. Wearing a dark robe, and with a light-colored shawl draped over his right arm, he stands behind a low wooden gate in what looks like the dock of a small-town courtroom. A thick chain encircles his neck like a noose and sags to his servant, whose face is tipped down and mostly covered by a wrap, at the edge of the image. Gaki appears unshaven. His hair has not been cut for some time and stands out in an unruly Afro. Looking directly at the camera—likely the first he had ever faced—he stands erect, even defiant.
The only known photograph of Gaki Sherocho was taken after his imprisonment.
Gaki was imprisoned first in the old Shawan capital of Ankober, then in the northeastern province of Wollo, and finally in Addis Ababa, where he died in 1919, after more than two decades in prison.f
Gaki’s body was not returned to Kafa to be buried among the imperial graves on Mount Shosha. He was interred north of Addis Ababa in the monastery of Debre Libanos, reached at that time through a cleft in a cliff.g Founded in the thirteenth century, it was the leading monastery in Shawa, Menelik’s heartland, and center of the Orthodox Church in the Horn of Africa during the Middle Ages. Undoubtedly Gaki was put to rest without the heart of an oxen laid atop his own, nor coffee and tej placed in his tomb for the afterlife.
Bulatovich offers the closest account of the conquest of Kafa and its immediate aftereffects. A classically educated cavalry officer from the Cossack regimes, he had joined the Russian Red Cross’s mission to treat Ethiopian soldiers wounded in their victory over the Italians at Adwa. Before heading home to Russia, he accompanied a military expedition to conquer a far-western region along the Baro River. Bulatovich returned to Ethiopia straightaway as part of a trade delegation. In Addis Ababa the Russian actively but unsuccessfully petitioned Menelik to allow him to help Ras Wolde Giorgis capture the elusive Kafa king, who was then still on the run, and managed to photograph the arrival of the Ras and his captive in the capital.
After delivering Gaki, Menelik’s southern strongman headed back to Kafa to establish his rule over the territory. But almost immediately, Menelik sent the Ras farther south to claim the lands between Kafa and Lake Rudolf on the Kenya border for Ethiopia.34 On his previous visit Bulatovich had impressed Menelik, perhaps with his legendary horsemanship. Concerned about clashing with the British, who claimed the adjacent territories, Menelik invited the Russian to join Ras Wolde Giorgis’s army as an observer.
Bulatovich crossed the Gojeb River in early January 1898 and entered Kafa on his way to Andiracha, where he would meet up with the Ras. The Russian wrote rapturously of the landscape as he climbed through dense forests: “In nature some kind of joy of living was felt—a surplus of strength hidden within it. The charming beauty of the place carried one off to some place far away, to a magical world. It was as if in front of you stood the enchanted forest from Sleeping Beauty. All that was missing were the princess, her palace, and her subjects. But instead of the poetic circumstances of a fine story, before us appeared the dreadful signs of death and destruction.”35
Only a few months had passed since Gaki’s capture. The kingdom lay in ruins. “Amid the green grass, the white of human bones shone here and there. Settlements were nowhere to be seen—only thick weeds, growing on plots of recently cultivated earth, bear testimony of the people who once lived here,” Bulatovich wrote. “The closer we came to the capital of Kaffa, the more noticeable became the signs of recent battles. Near [Andiracha] itself, clearings were completely strewn with human bones.”36
With fields destroyed and gardens unplanted across Kafa, Bulatovich encountered “unending files of bearers—tall and strong Galla, carrying on their heads to Kaffa big skins of grain, or returning from Kaffa loaded with coffee and mead.”37 Wild coffee was one of the only products people could still find, and they bartered it for food. Coffee was a livelihood and cultural touchstone; now it was a salvation against starvation. “On the large area in front of the palace, a market assembles twice a week, to which the natives of the neighborhood throng. For bread from Jimma, they exchange coffee, which today constitutes the only wealth of the region.”38
Camped in Kafa, Bulatovich found the situation dire. “Completely naked hungry Kaffa children wandered around our bivouac, picking up any garbage. It made you feel sorry to look at them. They had lost the appearance of humans and were terribly thin; more precisely, they were skeletons covered with skin. On their thin legs, which were almost devoid of meat, the joints at the knees were sharply delineated. The cheeks and eyes were sunken, and the stomachs were distended.”39
Up to 60 percent of Kafa’s one million people were killed or displaced in the war and its aftermath.40 In the first quarter of the twentieth century, the population of Kafa fell to perhaps as low as 100,000,41 just one tenth of what it had been. The two areas that showed the strongest resistance to Menelik—Arsi and Kafa—were effectively depopulated.42
Bulatovich was in the recently conquered Andiracha for nearly two weeks as a force of thirty-two thousand men assembled. Before the rains set in, they marched south to Lake Rudolf, making the Russian the first foreigner to cross Kafa. The journey was arduous and uncharted, but the soldiers met little resistance. Two months later they planted Menelik’s green, red, and yellow flag and gave a five-thousand-gun salute,43 marking the far southwest corner of the empire. Ras Wolde Giorgis and his army had just annexed eighteen thousand square miles,44 an area the size of New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island together.
Menelik’s aggressive expansion was effectively over, with Ethiopia’s modern, and current, size established. From the isolated, semi-independent Kingdom of Shawa, Menelik had extended his reach to all of the areas of East Africa not colonized by Europeans and created an immense empire encompassing some 435,000 square miles—as large in size as France, Spain, and Portugal combined—with Addis Ababa as its perfectly centered capital. It was landlocked, requiring access to the sea through Somalia, Djibouti, or Eritrea. But it was vast, with the core central highlands protected by a buffer zone of arid or tropical lowlands.
Bulatovich spent four months in the company of the Ras and the officers and soldiers who had recently fought in Kafa. With the Armies of Menelik II, published in Russian in 1900, and finally translated into English exactly one hundred years later, offers nearly the sole record of the conquest of Kafa.h Only a single report about the war appeared in the international press, a short piece in the Parisian daily Le Temps.45
The story of the loss of a great African kingdom and the world’s first coffee culture has not so much been forgotten as simply not known. Menelik’s forces destroyed what they could of it in a literal scorched-earth campaign.
“They burnt everything,” said Tetera, sitting up in his bed. Fire was a weapon of war, and the soldiers wielded it with alacrity, burning down nearly every major town in Kafa. They destroyed not just the buildings, but evidence of the kingdom with it. “These detachments laid waste to the country,” wrote Bulatovich, “setting fire to everything that could burn.”46 In the mid-1920s, Max Grühl reported that Bonga “no longer exists. Only a few huts peep out from the luxurious green covering the Castle Hill and the neighbouring ravine cut by the Dincha. Not a trace remains of the magnificence of the Imperial days.”47
The same happened to Andiracha and its royal palace. “The Abyssinians, having torn the city asunder, had to spend a long time trying to destroy this colossal building, until they finally succeeded in burning it down,” Bulatovich wrote.48 A few years later, Friedrich Bieber visited the site and found only a few palisades and a hut. Soon there was even less. “Of the Imperial palace nothing remains,” reported Grühl. “A peasant was ploughing on the spot where the throne room (Harabi) had formerly stood. Thick brushwood covered the sites of the living-rooms and the women’s quarters.” Only a quarter of a century had passed since the kingdom had been conquered. “The palace is vanished and forgotten like all the rest of the glory of the Kafa Empire.”49
In 1954, the Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie visited Vienna. He went to the city’s Museum of Ethnology to see the Friedrich Bieber exhibition, with objects the Austrian explorer had collected in Kafa. Peering into cabinets with swords, woven belts, and notebooks propped open to particularly interesting pages, the diminutive emperor, swaddled in a double-breasted woolen overcoat, asked if anyone knew what had happened to the royal crown. Bieber’s son, Otto, accompanying the entourage, explained that it was in a Zurich bank vault. Not long after the crown had arrived at Menelik II’s palace in Addis Ababa, a group of Kafecho managed to steal it. They headed back with it to Kafa, but soldiers apprehended them en route. Menelik understood its emblematic power and gave it one of his longtime close advisers, a Swiss engineer named Alfred Ilg, with instructions to send it to Switzerland.
Selassie cut short his visit to Vienna and went immediately to Zurich. He met with Ilg’s widow and two sons and began negotiating for the crown’s return.50 Ten days later he flew back to Ethiopia on a Swissair DC-6 transport plane with it.
On display today at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa, the crown sits in a framed glass case the size of an antique telephone booth. Beside it is a three-legged stool whose stubby legs curve up like field hockey sticks. Gaki’s old crown does not have the traditional corona shape or even that of a wreath. The curious piece is more like a two-toned metal joker’s hat with a large phallic spout at the front. The nozzle morphs into a trio of similar phalli with bulbous, mushroom-shaped tips. White ostrich feathers rise from the top of the crown and in various clumps around the front and sides, and thin, foot-long silver chains dangle around the base like hair extensions.
The local Kafa government has asked Addis Ababa for its return for their new museum in Bonga. The museum is grand but unfinished, and nearly empty of its cultural heritage. Officially it is the National Coffee Museum. But for people in Kafa, their own culture irrevocably intertwines with coffee: to celebrate one is to celebrate the other.
The request for a talisman of memorabilia so heavily imbued with nationalist symbolism and sentiment is unlikely to be granted, especially given the current ethnic tensions in nearby Gambela and with the Oromo people, whose protests caused the Ethiopian government to enact a draconian state of emergency in 2016.
a. Galla is an outdated and often derogatory term for the ethnic Oromo people. In the past it was often used to mean the non-Amhara people of the south and west, including Kafecho, and shorthand for those that had been conquered. Bulatovich is one of the few early Europeans to differentiate.
b. Andiracha. See note here on spelling.
c. Friedrich Bieber identified him as a slave named Aruru. Grühl called Aruru a “guard.”
d. Bulatovich photographed the wives three months later. “On a spread out oxhide in the shade of banana trees, a young, rather beautiful woman sat, and behind her stood the chief guard of the captive harem—a large beardless eunuch. Two other wives were with her, as well as four concubines of the king and his bold beautiful twelve-year-old sister.” Bulatovich, Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes, 253.
e. Versions told in Kafa often depict a more defiant king. When Kameto knocked at the first palace gate, the guards would not open until Gaki bowed. He refused. Guards wound his neck chain around a heavy stone to force him down. Only then did the gate open.
f. Gaki outlived Menelik II. The emperor, ailing with syphilis and partially paralyzed since 1907, suffered a string of debilitating strokes and lingered on until his death at the end of 1913. Fearing civil war, authorities kept his death a secret for nearly three years. Marcus, History of Ethiopia, 110; and Underhill, “Abyssinia Under Menelik and After,” 49.
g. In Kafa today some are skeptical of the official version and claim that there is no proof of when or exactly where Gaki was buried.
h. Before leaving, Bulatovich received many gifts from the Ras, including the silver spear that Gaki had thrown at the Ras’s solider. In Addis Ababa, Menelik awarded him a gold shield, a rare and outstanding decoration (Bulatovich, Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes, 380). Not long after returning to Russia, Bulatovich gave up his army commission, became a monk, and lived on Mount Athos, where he led a dogmatic movement within the Eastern Orthodox Church. But the soldier in him never fully disappeared. During World War I, he served as an army priest and is said to have led battle charges himself. He was excommunicated for heretical beliefs and killed in eastern Ukraine by bandits in 1919 (ibid., 417).
At the center of Bonga is a small empty roundabout whose central island held the city’s symbol, a giant jebena coffeepot. It was removed a few years ago during road construction and now sits junked in a weedy lot. A few hundred yards up from the traffic circle is the town’s new symbol, the National Coffee Museum, with its distinctive burgundy roof topped by a giant cutout of a coffee bean. In front is another giant coffee bean that looks like a giant war shield. Around the platform are the names Kafa and Mankira printed a dozen times.
The cornerstone of the building had been laid in 2007, and the Ethiopian prime minister inaugurated it in 2015, but it remained unfinished and still closed to the public in late 2016, although access was possible on certain occasions. On a July day, wires stood out of the vast walls awaiting light fixtures. A stairwell curled around a thick column at the center of the oversize building. A couple feet of stagnant water flooded the basement level. The rooms were locked and mostly empty. A worker opened the three that held information on Kafa (a chart of the political structure of the old kingdom, a hand-drawn map of the four-pronged attack on Kafa in 1897) and a paltry collection of coffee curios: rusted, Italian-era espresso machines, heavy scales used at the cooperative for weighing burlap bags of beans, and, in dusty glass cases, ox-horn cups and clay jebenas. A couple of stout wooden mortars with rodlike pestles leaned against the corner.
Lending the white walls some color was a selection of paintings of Kaldi, the Ethiopian goatherd who discovered coffee.
Kaldi’s story is familiar. One day, according to the standard version retold in books and on coffee companies’ websites around the world, he fell asleep and his herd of goats wandered off. He blew his washint (bamboo flute), but they didn’t respond. After searching for a while, he finally found them—not placidly grazing but acting excited and dancing on their hind legs. Kaldi noticed that they were eating red berries growing on the branches. He chewed some himself, felt their stimulating effects, and began dancing alongside his goats. Filling his pockets with the strange fruits, he returned home. When he showed his wife, she made him take them to the local monastery. The abbot was less than enthusiastic about Kaldi’s discovery and tossed them into a fire. Enticing aromas soon filled the room, drawing in some of the abbey’s monks, who raked the toasted beans from the embers, crushed them, and prepared a hot drink. After imbibing, the monks found themselves unusually alert during their lengthy nighttime prayers. Word—and the drink—gradually spread, initially among monks and then the rest of the people.
This old tale was included in the first printed treatise devoted solely to coffee in Europe. Written in Latin by Antoine Faustus Nairon, a Syrian Christian professor of languages at the College of Rome, it was published in 1671. The story spread widely, although almost immediately it had its critics. The French orientalist Antoine Galland—official antiquarian of King Louis XIV and the original translator from Arabic of One Thousand and One Nights and the sixteenth-century manuscript by Abd al-Qadir al-Jaziri describing coffee’s origins—criticized Nairon for accepting or even inventing the story of the goatherd. “[Galland] says they are unworthy of belief as facts of history,” wrote coffee’s supreme authority, William Ukers, in 1922, “although he is careful to add that there is some truth in the story of the discovery of coffee by the Abyssinian goats and the abbot who prescribed the use of the berries for his monks.”1
But the story also holds certain similarities to versions of coffee’s discovery that those living around the wild coffee forests themselves tell.
“At a stretch of a hundred to two hundred kilometres, everywhere the eye randomly looks, the undergrowth of the jungle consists of the wild coffee shrubs,” wrote Friedrich Bieber at the beginning of the twentieth century.2 In Ethiopia as part of an Austrian trade commission, he was the first foreigner since Alexander Bulatovich to see the region. Menelik had granted Bieber’s specific request to visit Kafa once he had finished his trade business in the capital and helped outfit a caravan that included fifty men, seven riding horses, and twenty mules carrying luggage.
With a lifelong obsession for Africa and Ethiopia in particular, Bieber had become fluent in Amharic on a previous trip to the country and added Kafinoonoo to his linguistic repertoire. In Kafa, conquered just a half dozen years before, he asked a continual stream of questions about the land, its people, and their history and wrote everything down in his notebooks, earning him, according to his grandson, Klaus, the nickname Abu Kitaba (Father of the Book). Bieber spent a month in Kafa and collected five hundred objects and enough information to write the most substantial work ever produced on the region, an unrivaled thousand-page monograph that captured details of the culture before they had completely vanished. “We have our oral tradition,” said a civil servant in Kafa’s Department of Education, “but we also have Bieber.”
Traveling through the countryside one day, Bieber stopped for a midday rest near a rural farmstead, where he found an elderly Kafecho preparing coffee. Bieber set the peaked white pith helmet he wore on the ground by his feet, “slurped the exquisite coffee with joy,” and listened as the man told him the story of its discovery. Bieber recorded in his diary, according to his son, Otto:
A long time ago goats and sheep from a herd nibbled on the coffee beans lying on the jungle ground and instead of lying asleep during the night, they kicked and jumped around. So, they have been told, the shepherds would have become aware of the strange effect of the small bean. And then as they themselves ate the beans, they quickly gained strength and endurance and also needed no sleep during night. And later, as the Kafecho told it, they burnt the beans of the coffee shrub over an open fire in small containers.3
The resemblance between this and the early European version is certainly of interest, especially considering the isolation of Kafa at the time. Only a few other Europeans had ever reached Kafa before him. Bieber, moreover, heard it not from a well-traveled merchant in Bonga but at a random farmstead.
The differences, though, are even more compelling. While some might appear trivial—there are goats and sheep; they eat berries from the ground, not the tree—other elements are weightier and correspond with the half dozen versions of the tale recently heard in coffee forests around rural Kafa.
However, in local versions monks never appear in them, and for good reason. Orthodox Christianity probably didn’t reach Kafa until the sixteenth century—the earliest churches date to the 1520s—by which time coffeehouses in Mecca, Damascus, and Cairo were already serving the drink. The coffee in the tales had no immediate religious use.
More significant, the classic version conflates the discovery of the coffee fruit with making a beverage from its roasted and ground beans and gives monks credit for an immediate eureka moment. Brewing coffee would come later. The drink as we know it evolved gradually. Coffee began as food.
“The king of the area around Mankira had a goatherd named Kali Adu—Adu being his father’s name,” began Tamirat Haile, a man in his twenties wearing a track suit tucked into low rubber boots, in a Mankira Forest hamlet. He spoke in Kafinoonoo, and the dozen or so men that had gathered around a raised bamboo bed covered with drying wild coffee listened closely. “One day when he took out the king’s flock, they were acting different, with a very different character. All night they continued to act excited. In the morning, the king said to Kali Adu, ‘Follow the goats to see what they have eaten. Then bring some back.’ The goatherd did so, gathering the leaves and red berries that they ate. The king looked them over and ate some of the berries.”
“Yes,” Tamirat said. “But then later the king roasted them.”
“He didn’t just toss them into the fire? And then smelled …”
“No. It was not accidental.” Tamirat shook his head. “Other things we gather we roast and they taste better. Things from the forest. Or things from the garden, like maize.”
A couple of the men nodded in agreement.
“After the king had roasted the coffee, smelled it, and ate some coffee beans,” Tamirat continued, “the king announced the news to his followers.”
“The king didn’t drink it?”
“Pounding the beans to make a drink came with the next king.”
In local versions of coffee’s origins, tales like Tamarit’s learned from village elders, people first ate it. Early bands of gatherers no doubt appreciated the berries: the brilliant crimson-red coffee cherries, enticing on the trees, are slightly sweet, somewhat refreshing, and have a mild stimulating effect from the caffeine.
While it is impossible to say precisely how early people in Kafa began using coffee beans, in 2004 and 2005 an American-French archaeological project found among primitive flints and tools a pair of coffee beans in a rock shelter just south of Bonga, not far from Mankira. According to the carbon dating, they are at least eighteen hundred years old.4
Those living around the coffee forests of Kafa not only chew the cherries when ripe but also cook them. In the nineteenth century Antonio Cecchi wrote of the fruits being salted and fried in butter, a dish that people still prepare on special occasions during the harvesting season.
Woldegiorgis Shawo has a different version of coffee’s founding, one that he had heard as a boy. On a damp March morning some months later, the forest still wet, he cut plate-size leaves with his panga and layered them along a low dirt bank to sit on and tell his story. It was something of an origin story, too, as it also explained that the Manjo clan became outcasts not from hunting and eating monkeys, per the standard account, but from their leader’s greedy desire to taste coffee.
“Before,” Woldegiorgis said in a low, laconic voice, “nature was dense, and people stayed in their houses. They got food from the forest but they didn’t know coffee. One day, the goatherd of a gepetatoa found the flock full of energy. He tasted some of the berries that they were eating. He liked their flavor and began bringing them home for his wife to cook.” Woldegiorgis took off his baseball cap and set it beside his panga. The morning clouds that stubbornly clung to the forests were finally burning off. “Kafa had a king called Matto, with three wives and three houses. As a present to the king, the wife of the gepetato taught one of them to prepare coffee fruits. The Manjo had their own king. He heard about the coffee and wanted to taste it. Manjo had ninety-nine wives and ninety-nine houses, and he told Matto, ‘I will give you forty wives and forty houses for your one wife that makes you coffee.’ Matto refused. But Manjo was desperate to taste the coffee. He hired some people to kill the king and kidnap the wife that knew how to make coffee.”
Woldegiorgis stood up. The half dozen oxen he was grazing had wandered off. He listened for a moment and caught from deeper inside the forest the faint tinkle of bells they wore around their neck. “The people of Kafa didn’t like the Manjo after that,” he said, drawing the story to a quick end, “and still today avoid them.”
The fullest, most nuanced local version of coffee’s discovery comes from Kafa historian Bekele Woldemariam. While a folktale, it illustrates the gradual progression of coffee from a food to a drink.
Nothing in the woodlands is wasted; everything has a use. Those who live around the forest learn to take advantage of all that it offers. People usually begin with the most accessible. For coffee trees, that is their leaves. These—rather than beans—were the first used from the tree to brew a drink.
It was some time in the second century A.D., Woldemariam’s story begins:
a shepherd of goats and later his family noticed the special smell of coffee from the breath of goats. The shepherd was called Kalli or Kalliti.b Kalli followed the route of the goats and noticed the type of plant leaves which the goats anxiously ate. Kalliti then picked some of the leaves, took them home and told the story of how he had discovered them. The family of Kalliti curiously and eagerly put the leaves later to be known as coffee in the boiled water. When they tasted the water they found it to have a pleasant and unique taste. The discovery of this taste soon spread throughout Kaffa. The leaves of the coffee were ground and boiled for drinking purposes for an uncertain period of time; i.e., before the beans of the coffee were discovered.5
While berries are only ripe for a short period, leaves can be found year-round. They are easy to gather, require none of the labor of drying and peeling the coffee fruits to get to the beans, and need only to be steeped in hot water to make a drink. A tisane from coffee leaves has long been prepared in Kafa not only by poor people foraging along the forest fringes, but even the ancient kings, who drank a brew of “yellow coffee leaves ground and mixed with honey.”6
Yellow—or, more precisely, bronze—is the key trait when gathering the leaves in the forest, as locals stress that these are the most flavorful. They are left to dry for a few days before being pan-toasted until brittle. (Some go about it in an easier fashion, simply gathering dry leaves and crumbling them into hot water.) The brewed flavor of the infusion is similar to a light pu-erh tea, earthy with a natural sweetness. (The infusion is also high in antioxidants.)
Kuti is especially prevalent in eastern Ethiopia around Harar and Dire Dawa as an accompaniment to khat, the mildly narcotic leaf chewed fresh in the afternoons. “But not only with khat,” insisted Mignot Solomon, on a balmy late morning in Dire Dawa, as she tossed a handful of leaves onto a hot, wide steel disk. With a metal hook she stirred the leaves until toasty brown, then placed them into a teapot of boiling water along with a pinch of salt. After a couple of minutes, she strained the liquid into teacups and added a large sugar cube to each. The infusion glowed the bronzy tone of a fine black tea. The luminous brew was mild and lacked astringency, without tannins coating the gums.
Children in Harar also sip the simple infusion. “Kids here start drinking coffee at twelve or thirteen,” said a Harari in a coffee bar. “But kuti at any age.”
Kafa also has a more complex leaf infusion called chamo (literally “bitter”), which includes wild garlic, foraged forest ginger, the aromatic herb rue, and even chilies. One version, popular to the south of Kafa, simmers toasted and ground leaves with chilies, wild cardamom, and a dollop of seasoned clarified butter, making a savory concoction that explodes on the palate and blows out the senses. “For flavor,” said Mesfin Tekle on drinking chamo, “but also medicinal. It’s strong but good for the throat.” Parents give it to kids as young as two years old in Kafa, he said, the same age they start giving them coffee.
“It is not surprising that in Ethiopia,” wrote anthropologist Rita Pankhurst, “where there is so much popular knowledge about the properties of the country’s extensive flora”—according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), more than 85 percent of the population uses herbal remedies or products from wild animals as their primary source of health care7—“the wild coffee plant should also, at some unknown period, have yielded its secret.”8
That secret included, finally, its beans, and using them to brew coffee.
“Many years later the elderly people of Kaffa noticed the red and green beans of coffee,” wrote Woldemariam, continuing his story. “They also noticed that birds were eating these coffee beans. So they picked the beans and put them in an earthenware pan. The aroma from the roasted beans gave off a stronger, and a more attractive sensitive smell than the former leaves.”
At first people ate the beans toasted—a habit not lost today among Kafa residents, who eat handfuls of them like nuts—but then they began pounding the beans and simmering them in water to prepare a drink. “They also discovered that roasted, ground, and boiled coffee [beans] had a more stimulating power and more flavor than the ground and boiled leaves.”9
While Arabs or Sufis generally get credit for first brewing coffee, preparing the decoction was most likely begun by those living here among wild coffee trees. The progression would have been natural, more gradual than wholly accidental. In London, Aaron Davis, head of coffee at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, said, “Roasting coffee, or cooking with it, at some point you are going to produce a liquor, aren’t you?”
How the Kafecho first brewed it is unknown. Without a written language, they were unable to record their methods themselves. But scouring the works of the first Europeans to reach the region yields some intriguing clues on early—and unique—methods of preparing coffee at its source.
In the mid-1920s, the German explorer Max Grühl drank “superb Kafa coffee made with butter, honey and spices.”10 Grühl asked his guide Chinito how the women made the coffee, then quoted him at length on the precise process:
They take the beans and roast them well over the fire. Before each meal they roast the beans afresh until they are a fine brown colour and then they grind them into a very fine powder. The powder is in a modo (a wooden mortar about twenty inches long with a wooden pestle over three feet in length), mixed with a little butter and honey, and made into tiny balls. The balls are placed in the coffee-pot and well boiled. The woman who makes the coffee, at this stage adds a few grains of ofio (spice of some kind—paradise or African pepper—the pods strung together on a thread). The coffee is then ready for drinking. Coffee has always been made in this way in Kafa. In very early times the Mancho [Manjo]—the predecessors of the Kafitsho in Kafa—prepared it in the same manner. The coffee is often made to-day without butter and honey, in the Habesho [Ethiopian] manner. But that is not Kafa coffee.
Learning the authentic version thrilled Grühl. “I suppose Chinito had given me the oldest recipe in the world for making coffee!”11
Or at least one version of it. Two decades earlier, Bieber had witnessed an even more rudimentary method from the “old Kaficho” on the rural farmstead who told him the story of the goatherd. Bieber watched the coffee beans being “finely pulverized between two rough stones, then mixed with wild, dense honey, made into small balls, and thrown into boiling water.”12 This, Bieber wrote, was “the original way.”
To have butter meant having cattle, and not everyone in Kafa did so. Even for those with cows, it took time to collect the milk and churn. Wild forest honey, though, was plentiful. It has a light woodiness to its sweetness and overtones of ripe fruits, and Kafecho slather it on soft bread for breakfast or ferment it into their beloved, headache-inducing tej.
Honey was also traditionally used in a way to carry roasted and ground coffee by those going into the forest or taking a journey. Unlike the typical runny variety from Western supermarkets, Kafa’s forest honey is dense and opaque and can be shaped into a sticky ball with coarse coffee grounds and carried in a pouch. A pinch of the mixture could be dropped into hot water for a cup of essentially ready-to-brew instant coffee or simply eaten on its own.
Pastoralists with herds of cattle often used butter instead of honey for carrying coffee, which early European travelers in Ethiopia found highly surprising. “It is not a matter of small curiosity to know what is their food, that is so easy of carriage as to enable them to traverse immense deserts, that they may, without warning, fall upon the towns and villages in the cultivated country of Abyssinia,” the eighteenth-century Nile explorer James Bruce wrote.
This is nothing but coffee roasted, till it can be pulverised, and then mixed with butter to a consistency that will suffer it to be rolled up in balls, and put in a leather bag. A ball of this composition, between the circumference of a shilling and half-a-crown, about the size of a billiard-ball, keeps them, they say, in strength and spirits during a whole day’s fatigue, better than a loaf of bread, or a meal of meat.13
These were essentially early energy bars.
The early travelers to Kafa came across people drinking coffee so frequently that each made note of the zealous habit. When Alexander Bulatovich crossed Kafa in 1898, he found locals sipping it “several times a day, up until and after eating. They boil coffee in earthenware vessels and pour it out into little cups made of ox horn.”14 Along with the “original way,” Bieber saw that women prepared it fresh and hot before each meal, “roasting coffee beans on the baking bowl, crushing these roasted beans to powder in the mortar, and then boiling up the powder in the coffee-boiling jug on the hearth with water.”15 The coffee was served from the pot and drunk from small horn cups, and those who liked it spiced, he noted, added some grains of paradise or a pinch of cloves.
Horn cups can still be found in Kafa, although many have replaced them with small, handleless ceramic ones made in China. Some people—Woldegiorgis in Mankira among them—continue to prefer cups made from bamboo.
“I cannot have more than three cups of coffee,” Mesfin said, laughing. “But the rural people can have eight or nine cups in one day”—two or three times at home, and the remainder with friends in their homes. Every invitation includes coffee. (“If coffee is not part of an invitation,” Woldemariam counsels, “it is said that the invitation is incomplete.”)16 But even that is not needed. If you smell coffee being prepared, there is nothing strange about simply walking inside for a cup, Mesfin said. There will always be extra coffee and plenty of cups on the low table. “You don’t need to feel ashamed or embarrassed. You go into the house and they will serve you coffee.”
From traditional sacrifices to the forest spirits and socializing to a family’s economy, coffee is always present. “For those in Kafa it is part of their life,” Mesfin explained. “Most of the time when they are shopping, when they’re buying clothes or whatever, they think in coffee terms.”
Coffee, the American anthropologist Amnon Orent noted after living in a rural hamlet in Kafa for eighteen months in the 1960s, is a measure of, and a means to, prosperity. “Wealth in Kafa today means the amount of coffee one can gather on his lands. This coffee is generally sold in Bonga for cash. Cash in turn is used to buy additional cattle, which raises an individual’s status in the community. The cattle can then be used to arrange better marriages for one’s children. These better marriages open up [beneficial] ties with higher clans.”17
Coffee has long been central to Kafa’s culture, and it retains unparalleled importance on numerous levels today. “People,” Mesfin said, “consider coffee is their identity.”
a. A powerful traditional spiritual leader.
b. According to Woldemariam, “Kalliti (or when shortened to Kalli) is the local name of a Kaffa man or Kaffecho. It literally means ‘brave,’ ‘fast,’ ‘alert’ ” (Woldemariam, History of the Kingdom of Kaffa, 56). The spelling is a transliteration that might be more accurately rendered as Kali Di’i.
Gift for King and Country
Coffee, in Kafa and in most of the numerous languages in Ethiopia, is a variation of bun.1 “Buno means ‘coffee’ in Kafinoonoo,” explained an articulate young manager in the Department of Education in Bonga. “But the word also means ‘red fire.’ ” He was referring to an ember, a rather poetic reference to the color of a ripe coffee cherry. In his office at the end of an unlit corridor, large cupboards with their doors ajar held sloping stacks of dusty, donated chemistry, mathematics, and geography textbooks, many of them decades old. “There is also a village named Buna near Mankira,” he said, “the original coffee forest.” That seemed more telling as the source of the word. He thought for a minute and added that it also meant “warning.”
These are coincidences, according to Mesfin Tekle, and have little to do with coffee’s name. “The root of the word is a gift for the king.” Buno derives from bono, a formal way to refer to the king, and kaafo, meaning a cover or wrapping for a gift. “Bono kaafo, bono kaafo,” he repeated in quick succession, “becomes buno.” He formed the word slowly, pulling it out into two long syllables—boo-noo—with a soft ending, the o nearly as open as an a.
It was a quiet March weekend afternoon in Coffeeland’s restaurant-bar. The two dozen white Land Cruisers that crowd the parking lot each day hadn’t yet arrived. Behind him, a woman on a low stool roasted coffee on a flat metal disk over embers, rhythmically stirring as they darkened, and sweetly pungent smoke wafted about the room. She brought Mesfin a handful of warm beans. He popped one into his mouth and crunched down on it like a corn nut.
“It is related to a gift,” he continued. “There is a gift that is owed to the king.” He used the word euphemistically; it was a tribute. Different items were acceptable to give. “One was coffee. One was civet musk. And ivory. And honey. So these were the gifts to give to the king. In the early times, coffee was a valuable means which everybody can access, and because of that, his gift was coffee.” In the 1850s, the Capuchin priest Guglielmo Massaia found that people in Kafa were obliged to supply coffee beans to the ruler.2
The cover for the gift was made from an enset leaf. Held over fire, the stiff, banana-like leaves become flexible, and skilled hands shaped them into containers. They are still used, and in Bonga’s weekly Saturday market, certain goods—cheese, butter, salt, kocho, coffee—are sold wrapped in them.
Mesfin crunched another coffee bean. “When [Kafecho] people go on a journey, they take coffee with them. People want to not only drink coffee, but to smell it. Because of that, they take coffee beans with them and put them in a container.” From the saucer on the table he picked up another bean. It was a deep shade of brown, nearly black. “Bono kaafo, bono kaafo,” he said again quickly, “buno.” He crunched the bean. “That is the legend.”
With news of its discovery, coffee “spread from village to village and from province to province of the Kaffa Highlands,” wrote Bekele Woldemariam. “In the traditional way, the people of Kaffa who had coffee plants at their disposal sent a parcel of berries or coffee beans to their friends and families in the distant areas.”3 Nearly all could get some, either from nearby forests or trees planted around their homes. At the end of the 1870s, Antonio Cecchi, a member of the Italian Geographical Society, found few huts in Kafa not surrounded by coffee trees. He reported two ways of cultivation, transplanted from the forest—simply going into the woods and pulling up saplings, or raised from seeds.4 This remains virtually unchanged today, and in rural Kafa it is rare not to have at least a few coffee trees growing beside the house and a simple raised bed for drying the beans.
Merchants traveling in caravans throughout the Ethiopian highlands took coffee farther. “There were houses along the ancient trade routes,” Mesfin explained, permanent settlements that acted as places to stop, rest, and resupply. Traveling with servants, merchants were gone for months, even years, at a time. “They took seeds and seedlings, planting them, little by little, on the way,” he said. These are the tales that have been passed down. Mesfin is a keen collector of such stories, but he is also a trained scientist. “This is the most probable,” he added as a caveat.
Along the paths that radiated out from Kafa, coffee also spread in less intentional ways. “The Arabica coffee plant exhibits weedy tendencies as indicated by the rapid spread of the plant along trails, under isolated trees in abandoned fields, and in clearings in the forest area near village sites,” reads a 1960s Food and Agriculture Organization report on Ethiopian coffee. “Humans, mules, monkeys and other animals are factors in the dissemination of coffee seeds.”5 Hornbills and other large birds and certain primates might have been an especially effective if haphazard means of spreading Arabica, but merchant caravans contributed to the accidental scattering as well.
The main trade routes can be traced directly over Ethiopia’s key coffee-producing areas: north from Kafa through Limu, Illubabor, and Wollega on the way to Gondar; and east through Jimma, across the Rift to Sidamo, Arsi, and Harar. Bonga was the starting point for both routes.
The dried coffee berries were carried in rudimentary containers made from woven palms and strapped to mules or camels. They were imperfect and unsealed, and beans trickled through gaps in the weave along the journey as the animals bumped into things (or each other), scraped their loads against trees, and were loaded and unloaded by handlers. Some of the beans would germinate and grow along the path. On these tracks, locals also took seedlings or seeds from trees and planted them in their own gardens.
Slaves traveled along these same routes, and one idea—anecdotal, intriguing, not improbable—is that they helped spread coffee as they chewed fresh cherries and spit out the seeds on their journey. These caravans departed once the rains had stopped, the rivers had receded, and the mud had dried. This was also harvest time, and they would find ripe cherries on the trees. The slaves traveled on the forced marches in shackles or wooden halters, barefoot, usually naked, and with scant food.6 Coffee fruits have little pulp, but they are somewhat refreshing in the mouth and offer a bit of caffeine stimulation.
Halting for the night in the 1850s along one of the main routes from the Somali port of Zeila inland to Harar, an area with a long history of coffee cultivation, the explorer and linguist Richard Burton encountered people chewing coffee fruits. It must have been somewhat common, for his comment about it is offhand and alludes only to an associated superstition: “Those who chew coffee berries are careful not to place an even number in their mouths.”7
Once Menelik had a hold over a united country, road connections improved, movement increased, and the spread of coffee quickened. Menelik rewarded victorious generals—many of whom were relatives—with annexed areas to govern. These were unpaid positions, and the new governors received fiefdoms “to eat.”8 In Kafa, Ras Wolde Giorgis confiscated land from the Kafa nobility and redistributed it largely among outsiders. In lieu of a salary, settlers from the north, mostly soldiers, received rights over land or labor.9 Departing governors stripped the fiefdom of what they could. When Ras Wolde Giorgis was transferred in 1910, his soldiers rounded up as many slaves and as much livestock as possible to take with them.10 In 1926, Max Grühl came across a column of hundreds of naked captives that took hours to pass him on the muddy trail: “Men and women practically naked chained to one another, leading naked children by the hand or carrying them like bundles on their backs, dragged themselves through the filth and were driven like cattle by their heartless captors.”11 Seized by an outgoing governor, they were likely heading to Jimma to be sold.12
From Kafa, there was not only rife plunder in slaves, ivory, and musk, but also coffee.13 Elders in Yirgalem, Sidamo, say that when Haile Selassie’s son-in-law Ras Desta Damtew left Kafa in 1932 after serving as governor for four years, his soldiers carried coffee seedlings to his new posting in their region. Today it is one of Ethiopia’s preeminent coffee-growing areas.
In most of the world, the single way to farm coffee is on plantations, in orderly and often large fields of well-tended rows. In Ethiopia, the first modern plantations were established to the southwest of Kafa just a half century ago. Bebeka, Tepi, and Limu are the largest in the area, with a scattered handful of smaller ones. Yet despite modernization, particularly over the last decade, the system still remains uncommon in Ethiopia and accounts for less than 5 percent of the country’s exportable production.
The most common method of cultivation is “garden coffee.” Grown on small patches in a family compound or on nearby small plots, and generally intercropped with various fruit trees, enset, maize, and, in the east, khat, this style accounts for at least half of Ethiopia’s coffee. The country’s three best-known producing areas—Sidamo, Yirgacheffe, and Harar—rely completely on garden coffee.
One unique way of farming in Ethiopia is called semiforest. Along the edges of wild coffee forests, farmers remove some of the canopy to allow more light, slash back lianas, shrubs, and undergrowth a couple of times a year, and even slightly trim the coffee trees themselves, stimulating growth and substantially increasing yields.
Too much openness, though, can kill trees accustomed to growing under heavy shade. The spindly, slow-growing wild Arabica luxuriates in the newfound light and nutrients and bears more fruit. However, without the upper canopy, they often suffer from overproducing; the trees require more nutrients than they can take from the soil, and the roots begin to die. With a significant amount of cover removed, they also lose some of their resistance and become more prone to diseases. “Nature is always the winner,” Mesfin said with a droll grin.
The fourth way is wild forest coffee. This only amounts to a fraction of Ethiopia’s total production, up to 5 percent. Quality is mixed, and yields are extremely low. With little manipulation, the trees follow a natural biennial up-and-down crop cycle.
In Kafa, people consider forest and semiforest the same and refer to both as wof zerash. The only difference is some slight tending and more open growing conditions in the latter. The trees themselves are wild and have been naturally sown.
Apart from a few companies that have begun marketing it in Europe,a wild coffee is nearly impossible to find outside the region—at least unblended. Homes around the coffee forests use foraged beans, which also get traded in Kafa’s local markets. Some of it ends up being mixed in with other beans from around Kafa, Limu, and Jimma with similar flavor profiles and auctioned on the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange as Jimma Grade 5.
The coffee beans need to be dried after picking, and there are two main methods to do this. The first is sun dried or “natural”: the fresh cherries are spread out on beds to allow the beans to dry inside the fruit before being milled and cleaned.
This indigenous method of drying brings out wild-berry flavors and tropical aromas in the coffee and gives the body density and a creaminess in the mouth. The final cup, though, has less uniformity. It is nearly impossible to control that only perfectly ripe red cherries have been picked. Farmers sell natural coffees to mills and cooperatives only once they have already been dried, at which point the pods all look the same. A green cherry and an overripe one have a near-identical bluish-purple color when dry, even if their eventual flavors in the cup are wildly dissimilar.
The second style of drying is “washed.” It’s modern, large scale, and requires expensive equipment. A machine removes the outer peel of the fruits just after picking. The beans move to a large cement tank of water, where the sugars and alcohols of the dense, sticky mucilage break down through soaking and then rinsing in a washing channel. Workers spread out the beans on long raised beds in the sun to dry. Still wet and greenish yellow in color, they give off a slightly fermented, pickled aroma. As they dry over the next few days, the outer parchment turns the color of bleached bones (and will later be removed when milled). The beans feel like small shells when raked through the fingers.
Immediately removing the fruit after picking yields a cleaner, brighter, and more mild final cup of brewed coffee. Fruity flavors turn gentler, rounder, and more delicately complex. The fermentation that happens when soaking away the mucilage improves acidity—leaving not the tangy, sour acidity of a lemon but that of a green apple. A crisp sensation is left in the mouth, and the coffee feels lively rather than flat.
The first washing station in Ethiopia opened in 1972. In 1975, washed coffee accounted for just 5 percent of Ethiopian exports.14 The method is more expensive. It requires substantial water and creates more waste, including the mucilage-rich water from soaking. The resulting coffees are more consistent and fetch more on the international market than sun-dried. The Ethiopian government and aid agencies such as USAID and TechnoServe, as well as Menno Simons’s import company, Trabocca, have helped finance and set up washing stations. While today washed coffee has grown to 20 to 30 percent of Ethiopia’s production,15 it makes up the majority of its exports.
In Harar, coffee is exclusively sun dried, and in Kafa it remains the main method. Only seven of the forty-three cooperatives that form the Kafa Forest Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union have washing stations.
In the mid-nineteenth century, merchants divided Ethiopian coffee into two categories: Abyssinia—largely wild beans from the southwest—and Harar. It continued to be mainly exported under those two names in the 1920s.16 The crop expanded, and during the twentieth century coffee took on an unrivaled importance in the country’s economic life. During the first decade of the twenty-first century, the country’s production more than doubled. In 2014 coffee exports brought Ethiopia $880 million.17 Somewhere around 95 percent of the production is done by smallholders with less than two hectares.
Ethiopia is the largest coffee producer in Africa, and the fifth largest in the world. Its 2016–17 crop was around 6.5 million sixty-kilogram bags, or 390,500 metric tons (860,905,134 pounds) of green coffee. It produces purely Arabica coffee. Usually referred to as Ethiopian heirloom, the variety is a wily mix from wild, old-growth trees, taken, over time, from the forests and raised in gardens, and seeds selected from the best-producing trees and passed around. This gives Ethiopian coffees the broadest spectrum of flavors found in any producing country. In the cup, it tends to be smooth with intense aromatics and flavors, carrying a berry fruitiness with some citrus notes and chocolaty tones. “Ethiopian coffees are irreplaceable in their flavor profiles,” said Menno Simons, the most important importer of specialty coffee from Ethiopia.
Coffee accounts for about a third of the country’s foreign exchange and is one of the few sources of hard currency, necessary to buy refined petroleum products and equip the military, the third largest in Africa. The government requires that export-grade coffee be exported; only low-quality coffee beans can be sold on the domestic market, meaning that Ethiopians are forced to buy rejects, broken beans, or ones damaged by moisture or insects. Yet demand is so great that prices are often higher than for export-quality coffee. If the laws were liberalized, the export market would largely collapse.
While certain Central and South American countries might be synonymous with coffee, Ethiopia is the only country that consumes over half of its own production. That’s almost five hundred million pounds of coffee for a population of nearly one hundred million, a particularly impressive quantity as nearly half the population is under fourteen years of age. (By contrast, Kenya consumes just 3 percent of its production, while Colombia exports over 86 percent of its coffee.)
Coffee, though, was not immediately popular everywhere in the country even after it had spread across Ethiopia’s plateau. In the north, Orthodox Christians initially saw it as the drink of Muslims, who controlled trade and also grew it in the east. “The Abyssinian Christians, probably to distinguish themselves from Moslems, object to coffee as well as to tobacco,” noted Richard Burton on his travels to eastern Ethiopia and Somalia in the 1850s.18 Prejudice against drinking coffee died away in the second half of that century, and coffee became not just the national drink but a staple.
Interwoven in the country’s distinctive fabric, coffee is an incomparable strand in Ethiopian life. “It is so much part of the culture,” wrote the social anthropologist Alula Pankhurst, “that it is a symbol of sociability, a metaphor for social relations and a vehicle for spiritual blessings.”19 It is everywhere, seemingly all the time.
The common phrase for getting together, to talk, is buna tetu, which literally translates to “drinking coffee.” This captures both aspects of its significance: a meeting rarely lacks coffee, and coffee rarely lacks company. Drinking buna in Ethiopia is a communal rather than solitary activity and is rarely done alone. Or quickly.
At the core of Ethiopian life is the traditional coffee ceremony, which many consider the most important part of their culture. The ritual binds the diverse population from eighty different ethnic groups, a cohesive to a disparate country cobbled together not much more than a century ago.
On a small knoll edging a brooding patch of forest, Lemlem Dubale spread out long grasses and ferns and then arranged two dozen pink and bell-shaped yellow blossoms around the spot that she had cut just inside the forest. In a semicircle facing it, she arranged chairs. Wearing an ankle-length short-sleeve dress of coarse white cotton striped with red, her hair pulled back in a short bun, she lit the charcoal in a brazier and patiently fanned until it was glowing. She pinched an ember with tongs and placed it in a second, smaller brazier with chunks of chalky incense, sending up puffs of fragrant white smoke. The coffee ceremony was beginning.
This was in Sidamo, on the south side of the Rift, but it could have been nearly anywhere in Ethiopia, so prescribed is the ritual, so familiar are its steps. Appreciation and pleasure come in the exquisite execution of each anticipated step.
On an ornate wooden serving tray sat tiny cups with slight tulip lips. Lemlem had more than a dozen of them even though she only expected half that number for coffee. Others might smell it being prepared, she said in a low voice, and come to join the ceremony. “All would be welcome.”
She shook some green coffee beans from a tin onto a wide, slightly concave metal disk. After carefully picking them over for broken beans and small stones, she washed the beans with a touch of water. Setting the griddle down on the brazier, she began to slowly roast the coffee, moving the beans around with a bent strip of metal. Sitting on a fallen tree stump, she stirred steadily as the beans darkened to chocolaty brown and began to smoke, the aromas blending with the freshly cut grass, charcoal, and incense.
After almost fifteen minutes, once the beans were shiny and nearly black, she took the griddle off the brazier and fluttered a hand through the aromatic smoke. Alerted by the aromas, a handful of people had begun to gather and take a seat. Lemlem made a slow pass among the plastic chairs, allowing each person to take in the evocative aroma of the just-roasted beans. Showing appreciation is key, and impressed aahs came from the small group.
While the roasted beans cooled for a few minutes, she filled the jebena with water and nestled it into the hot embers.
The most important among the requisite tools of the coffee ceremony is this bulbous, long-necked pot. Made from clay and darkened black to a high polish, the jebena had a short, pointed spout. “Coffee comes from the forest,” said Jacques Dubois, author of a book for UNESCO on traditional Ethiopian crafts, in his Addis Ababa pottery studio. “The spirit in the forest sometimes manages to get in with the coffee. And inside the jebena.” The front spout, he said, offering one theory for the shape, allows the spirit to slip away peacefully during the ceremony.b
Lemlem placed a fresh ember on the incense burner. From a small wooden box she took a generous pinch of crumbled incense. (“Special blend?” “Yeah,” she said, leaving her mouth slightly agape and letting the soft h fade to whispered exhale.) She sprinkled it over the top. Aromatic smoke billowed up. The smell was reminiscent of an Orthodox church, and with the association of sacred rituals, voices became hushed.
Scooping the beans into a cylindrical mortar made from a hollowed tree stump as thick as a thigh, she began to pound using a blunt, rodlike piston, keeping a hand cupped around the top of the mortar to stop any grounds from being flung out. The crushed beans released a strong, fruity aroma. In parts of Ethiopia, wild cardamom or a clove sometimes gets pounded with the beans, or, near the Sudan border, a curl of cinnamon bark. In Kafa the addition, if any, is fresh wild ginger. Lemlem tipped the grounds down into the slim neck of the jebena.
While the coffee brewed, she passed around wooden bowls of popcorn and puffed barley.
A man named Alemayhu from a nearby compound took a handful of kernels from the bowl. “In your country, you drink for the taste,” he said when asked about the savory accompaniments. He meant that the actual experience largely focused on that singular sense. “But here it is for all five senses,” a complete sensual experience. He touched a finger on his hand and said, “First: seeing. The setting. The grass. The way the flowers are arranged. The woman preparing coffee who is smiling, happy.” Touching a second finger, he said, “Smell.” Of these there were many: the just-roasted coffee, the incense, the cut greens and flowers, the fresh grounds. He indicated his ear. “Grinding the coffee in front of you by hand, the sound. That is the third.” There was also the crack of the roasting beans, the pebbly tinkle during stirring, and the riverlike hush of pouring coffee. Then there is touch. “Drinking,” he said, “we use a handleless cup. It fits nice in the hand and warms the fingers.”
He took another handful of popcorn from the bowl. From inside the forest a hyena called. Its deep bellow started low and finished on a sharp, quick upward pitch: WHHHHooop!
A guard from the compound passed through and at the edge of the woods dumped out a bucket of food scraps. He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Amba! Amba!” (“Come! Come!”)
“Yes. And taste.” Alemayhu laughed. “To satisfy these five senses with coffee takes time,” he said, finally getting at the answer. “Half hour, one hour. More. So we are giving a coffee ‘breakfast.’ That’s why you need something to eat. Popcorn. Injera. Kocho. It’s a special meal, not lunch or dinner, but a coffee ceremony meal.”
A murmur of bubbling came from the jebena. Alemayhu put a finger back to an ear, indicating another of the pleasing sounds. Lemlem lifted the pot off the embers and set it on the ground. The bubbling stopped, and the grounds began to settle. As the jebena doesn’t have a filter, letting the grounds settle and using a method of pouring that does not disturb them are paramount for a good cup of coffee.
It was dusk, and the light was quickly fading. A pair of spotted hyenas lumbered silently out of the forest and approached the scraps. When a couple of vultures fluttered heavily down, one of the hyenas charged to flush the birds off.
Lemlem wiped each of the cups with a clean cloth and arranged them on the tray so that their lips touched. She poured out the coffee in a graceful, continuous stream from high above. Alemayhu touched his ear again and raised his eyebrows, indicating the cascading sound.
Lemlem carried around the wooden tray, offering coffee to the dozen people who had quietly gathered. The warm cups nestled snugly in palms.
It had taken an hour to prepare. Anticipation had built. In a moment the cup was empty. The coffee had a familiar thickness to it, a smoothness, and an evenness that wild coffee from Kafa often lacks. These beans had come from trees growing among avocado, banana, and enset in a walled garden attached to a compound.
Lemlem collected the empty cups. But the ceremony was not over. Like tea in the Sahara, coffee traditionally comes in three rounds, each diminishing a touch in strength. Lemlem added water to the jebena and set it back on the embers. Bowls of popcorn and barley came around again, and also kocho, with its spongy, almost rubbery texture. Prepared using the pulped starch of enset that has been buried and fermented in pits for months, it is unfamiliar, even unpalatable at first. (“This bread is inedible to anyone not accustomed to it,” wrote the Capuchin friar Guglielmo Massaia after encountering it in the mid-nineteenth century.)20
Those sitting in a semicircle facing Lemlem watched her delicate and precise movements. Conversation had slowed. The leisurely, almost meditative pace of preparing the coffee seemed to contrast, or perhaps counter, the energizing effects from the caffeine. WHHHHooop! a hyena yipped.
Lemlem poured out the second serving, then added water for a third. The last one—called baraka—bestows a blessing on the guest, and to leave before it is served is considered rude. Or worse. In Kafa, people say bune marako gačheto when someone has had an accident. “It means that you didn’t respect the coffee spirit,” Mesfin explained at the Coffeeland in Bonga while crunching on just-roasted coffee beans. “The ceremony needs to be finished before you leave. You cannot just drink and go.” If you do, he said, “You’ll break the coffee spirit.”
When a gurgling came up through the neck of the jebena, Lemlem took the pot from the coals and set it on the ground for a moment. It was nearly dark. The sky had turned an inky purple. WHHHHooop! WHHHHooop! came from the forest. The shadowy figure of a hyena slunk along its edge as Lemlem poured out the final round.
a. A collaborative project launched in 2014 between Union Hand-Roasted Coffee in East London, Aaron Davis at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and local partners in Ethiopia has worked to improve the quality of wild beans from Yayu Coffee Forest Reserve and bring them to a market abroad.
b. In Mankira, the traditional jebena is less bulbous, with a long, narrow unflared neck, and no front spout. They call it Kafeo jebena, a woman in Mankira explained, “the original style.” Ingredients go into the top opening and brewed coffee is poured out the same. Butter is a common ingredient. It floats on the surface and comes out only if there is just the single opening, she said, not if there is a front spout.
Out of the Forest
The horse-drawn carriage jolted along the Herenweg, the road running from Haarlem, outside Amsterdam, to Leiden, some twenty miles south, past grand summer estates built by those wealthy enough to escape the pungent sewer smells of Amsterdam in the heat. About halfway, near the famed Dutch bulb fields, the carriage turned into the short drive of Hartekamp. The name means “deer park,” and while herten no longer roam wild on the grounds today, a weather vane of a leaping stag atop the pale-yellow main house recalls its more bucolic origins. Once the coach halted, the young Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus alighted.
Linnaeus had been developing a system of classifying plants according to their sexual organs, innovative work that would transform the son of a Lutheran vicar and avid gardener into the father of taxonomy and one of the greatest natural historians. But on that mid-August 1735 day, he was largely unknown. He had come to the Netherlands two months before to take a medical degree, awarded in mere days after he presented an already-written thesis.1
Hartekamp’s owner, George Clifford III, welcomed his guest. Part of a wealthy Anglo-Dutch banking family, the widowed fifty-year-old was a director of the Dutch East India Company, the powerful trading company. Clifford’s real passion, though, was the natural world, and he had spent many guilders indulging it. The house and the conservatory had been built before his family had purchased the estate. Clifford bought the adjoining land, expanded the gardens, and had four heated greenhouses erected2—one for plants from southern Europe, another Asia, a third Africa, and a fourth the New World. These complemented a research library and world-class herbarium with thousands of dried specimens.
Linnaeus was “dumbstruck” and “captivated” by Hartekamp’s renowned treasures. “I was enthralled by your menageries, crowded with tigers, apes and monkeys, wild dogs, antelope, wild goats, peccaries [javelinas] and warthogs, and by the myriad flocks of birds whose calls and songs echo through your garden, among them parrots, pheasants, peacocks and doves,” Linnaeus wrote of his visit that summer day. “I was astonished when I entered your hothouses, crammed with such profusion, such variety of plants as to enchant a son of the cold north, uncomprehending of the strange, new world into which you had brought him.”3
Linnaeus’s botanical knowledge and ability to classify plants new to him impressed his host, and Clifford asked him to organize and care for Hartekamp’s collection, and to prepare a record of its contents.4 This last item particularly interested the Swede: “I had no greater desire than to see an account of such a garden made public, and no greater fear than that I might not be able to extend a helping hand.”5
Within a week he had accepted the position of hortulanus (superintendent of the garden) and resident physician. Clifford was something of a hypochondriac, and Linnaeus would act as his personal doctor as well. Along with room, board, and salary, Linnaeus received a generous budget to buy books for Hartekamp’s library, specimens for the collection, and even travel expenses to visit England. He lived, though, “like a monk”6 and focused his attention on work, including cataloging Clifford’s collection. He prepared the manuscript of Hortus Cliffortianus in just nine months.
With the support of his patron, Linnaeus published a limited edition of the large, folio-size work in 1737. Written in Latin and heavily illustrated, it detailed some 1,251 living plants growing in the greenhouses, gardens, and nearby woods of Hartekamp, and the 2,536 dried ones preserved in the herbarium. Among the latter was coffee.
In preparing the coffee entry, Linnaeus consulted the work done two decades before on the plant by Antoine de Jussieu at the Jardin du Roia in Paris.7 Jussieu had made the first study in Europe of the coffee plant and offered its original taxonomic description, identifying it as a member of the laurel family.
Linnaeus’s dried sample was a direct descendant of the one that Jussieu had studied.8 Fixed to the sheet with slim strips of strapping tape, the foot-long branch appeared to be standing upright in an ornate vase. In eighteenth-century Holland, decorative vases, medallions, elaborate labels, and pennants helped identify the owner of the collection. Kept unbound, herbarium sheets could be lent and duplicates exchanged.
In Hortus Cliffortianus, Linnaeus included the Frenchman’s account—Jasminum arabicum, lauri folio, cujus femen apud nos Caffé dicitur9 (“Arab jasmine, with laurel leaves, the beans of which we can call coffee”)—but rejected the conclusion that it was a laurel. Instead, he created a new genus, Coffea.
Linnaeus left Hartekamp not long after publishing Hortus Cliffortianus and, back in Sweden, continued to perfect his taxonomical system to make a clearer, simpler way to identify plants, then animals, and eventually all manner of living things. To each he gave a binomial name. The genus was the first part of Linnaeus’s scientific classification. The second part, the specific name, was the species epithet, an adjective that indicated the origin or gave a characteristic.
The first clues to what he might name coffee had appeared in Jan Wanderlaar’s allegorical frontispiece of Hortus Cliffortianus. The crowned goddess Mother Earth (Europe) holds the heavy keys to the garden of Hartekamp (the botanical kingdom), whose gates open just behind her.b A map of the estate unfurls on the floor among garden tools, a compass, a Celsius thermometer (which Linnaeus helped invent), and a pair of cherubs. Sitting atop a lion and a lioness, she accepts horticultural tributes: an American Indian proffers hernandia from the New World, an African woman aloe, and an Arabian woman a heavy flowerpot with a coffee tree.
Inside the book’s page-long coffee entry, Linnaeus was less coy: Crescit in sola Arabia felici—“It grows only in Felix Arabia [Yemen].”10
The Linnean Society of London keeps the dried specimen sheet from Linnaeus’s personal herbarium in its secure vault beneath Burlington House on Piccadilly. In a subterranean, wood-paneled room lined with Linnaeus’s library, a librarian carefully unwrapped the Coffea sheet. Unlike the ornate sample from the Clifford herbarium,c it was plain and unadorned. Two of the leaves had come off, leaving fossil-like veined imprints on the sheet. On the left side, and somewhat smeared, read “Caffe.” At the bottom, written in a lighter ink and in Linnaeus’s own hand according the librarian, was “arabica.”
Jan Wanderlaar’s allegorical frontispiece of Linnaeus’s Hortus Cliffortianus.
In 1753, Linnaeus published his botanical magnum opus, Species Plantarum, which included all known plants, some fifty-nine hundred of them. He gave coffee its official binominal. To Coffea he added the epithet arabica. “From Arabia.”
The Horn of Africa juts far out into the Red Sea, nearly pinching it off at the Gulf of Aden. A mere twenty miles across at its narrowest point, and only some two hundred at its widest, the slender slip of sea has been a key commercial trade route since antiquity, a well-traveled strip connecting Egypt and the empires of the Mediterranean with India, the Indian Ocean, and the East. Along the eastern side of the sea is the Arabian Peninsula, homeland of Islam and the Arabs, and one of the oldest inhabited regions in the world.
Tucked just inside the Red Sea’s southern entrance on the Arabian side is the port of Mocha. “The edge of town is like the concavity of a half moon, and is flanked by two mouldering castles,” wrote an English traveler who visited in 1795. It had stucco buildings of mud or coral, white fortifications, and towers crowned with battlements. “The coast is low, sandy, and deficient of verdure; it seems to have been, formerly, part of the sea, but inland mountains rise, at a great distance, among fertile valleys. The opposite coast of Abyssinia, which is dimly visible in clear weather, appears more mountainous.”11
Established in the thirteenth century, Mocha came to prominence after the Ottomans took control of it in the mid-1500s as they gradually conquered Yemen (and the nearby Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina). Mocha grew quickly from fishing village to prosperous port. A Dutch East India Company cloth merchant named Pieter Van den Broecke, calling at Mocha in 1616, reported more than thirty ships from as far away as India and Persia in port,12 as well as the arrival of a caravan numbering one thousand camels.13
Ottoman rule of Mocha was soon truncated by the al-Qasimi dynasty, which ousted the Turks from Yemen in 1635.14 Under the al-Qasimi, Mocha flourished as a key Red Sea port and important destination on the global trade network, an entrepôt of spices from the Indies, Indian cotton textiles, New World silver, and Chinese silks.15 But coffee was its key commodity.
Yemen was the first to commercialize coffee on a large scale, and Mocha held for nearly two centuries—into Linnaeus’s lifetime—a virtual global monopoly on its trade. As coffee drinking spread across the Middle East and Europe, the Arabian Peninsula was synonymous with the product, and the port the sole source of beans.16 Mocha became so closely associated with it that coffee sold in its markets took the port’s name.d
Loaded onto Arab and Turkish ships, sacks of coffee traveled up the Red Sea to Jeddah and then Suez, where camels carried them to the warehouses of spice and coffee merchants in Cairo and Alexandria.17 From there, traders shipped the beans around the Mediterranean.
As demand grew in Europe, trading companies wanted to cut out intermediaries, and merchants began visiting Mocha. The British East India Company established itself first in Yemen, followed by its Dutch counterpart in 1696.18 The Dutch received permission to open a “factory”—a trading establishment headed by a commercial agent known as a factor—and to send six hundred bales of coffee annually free of duty.19 French and English factories followed.
By 1720 Mocha’s coffee trade had peaked,20 and it lost its monopoly. Demand shrank, and competition increased sharply from coffee grown in European colonies. The port’s decline was steady.21
The Ottomans regained control of Mocha in the mid-1800s, but the port had already suffered a competitive blow when the British conquered Aden in 1839—the first acquisition of Queen Victoria’s empire—and made its fine natural harbor their main regional port. Other Europeans did likewise. “All of the Mokha [coffee] comes from here,” wrote a French trader in Aden in 1885, “because Mokha [the port] has been deserted.”22
Mocha remained under Ottoman control until World War I. But its wells dried, the port sanded up, and the town slowly wilted as the population shrank and the magnificent merchant houses crumbled, leaving few traces of its past importance.
Until the mid-sixteenth century, the global coffee market was still quite limited, and Ethiopia was perhaps able to fulfill Mocha’s requirements for beans.23 While cultivation had begun on a formal but limited scale in Yemen earlier, significant coffee farming started once the Ottomans brought Yemen under their control around 1550. With surging demand from coffee’s growing popularity in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, the Turks financed construction of terraces, irrigation networks, and planting on the slopes running between Ta’iz and the port of Mocha, and along the western escarpment that runs parallel up the coastline. Farmers cultivated coffee in the moist bottoms of wadis (ravines that fill with the seasonal rains) and on hillside terraces, some wedged so tightly into the narrow valleys that their stone faces rose up twenty feet.
Within half a century, Yemen usurped Ethiopia as the main source of coffee.24 It was an improbable achievement. Just over 2 percent of Yemeni land is arable and suitable for farming.25 Even if conditions were somewhat better at the time, water was scarce, conditions harsh, and most of the coffee needed to be irrigated. On a royal Danish expedition to Yemen in 1762–63, Carsten Niebuhr and Peter Forsskål trekked into the hills to see the coffee terraces. They noted the careful, snug cultivation in beds placed stepwise above each other. Some were watered by rain, others used a sophisticated system of gravity-fed irrigation: The upper levels had large cisterns or wells that channeled springwater downward through terraces so densely planted that the sun rarely struck the ground.26 The Yemenis excelled in cultivating not just coffee but a wide variety of fruits and vegetables on their dry terraces by having complete mastery of the scant water resources available.
Yemeni coffee farmers had a reputation for taking care of their fields, selectively harvesting the coffee, and meticulously tending the fruits as they dried naturally. They loaded the dried pods into straw baskets and brought them to storehouses, from where camels transported the coffee to the port of Mocha to be sorted and sold.
An engraving from the royal Danish expedition to Yemen (1762–1763) shows the steep slopes of coffee. In order to clearly illustrate the agricultural system, only a few trees are shown.
In the high, hilltop citadels on the road down from Ta’iz, tower houses still rise up among the terraced fields. Fanlights with alabaster and colored glass arch gracefully over windows outlined in chalk, freshly washed carpets hang out over the sills, and, on the flat roofs, spreads of drying red cherries turn plummy purple in the cool sun.
When he attached the arabica suffix in 1753, Linnaeus unintentionally hijacked Ethiopia’s proprietorship of coffee. A decade later he published Potus Coffea, an eighteen-page pamphlet made of rag scrap with words running to the edges, adding that the plant grew spontaneously in “Arabia felici & Aethiopia.”27 It was too late. He had named it Coffea arabica, not Coffea aethiopica, and Arabia would continue to be regarded in the public mind as the original source of coffee.
From the earliest works on the subject, beginning with Abd al-Qadir al-Jaziri’s treatise The Best Defense for the Legitimacy of Coffee28 and Dawud al-Antaki’s The Nature of the Drink Kauhi, or Coffe, and the Berry of Which it is Made, Described by an Arabian Phisitian,29 Arabia was recognized as coffee’s origin.
By the time Linnaeus was classifying coffee, only a small number of references had pointed across the Red Sea to Ethiopia. Charles-Jacques Poncet had recorded it growing in Ethiopia, and the English botanist Richard Bradley reiterated in A Short Historical Account of Coffee (1715) Poncet’s observation that it was “a Native of that country; it was transplanted from thence to Arabia Felix.”30
A decade or so after Linnaeus’s misnaming, members of the Danish expedition to Yemen wrote that, according to Arabs they met, the coffee tree was originally brought from Ethiopia.31 At the end of the eighteenth century, James Bruce, writing with extraordinary prescience, pinpointed “Caffa” as its specific source a century and a half before anyone else.32 At the time, Bruce’s observations were widely distrusted, and his point ignored.
While gradually more reports indicated Ethiopia as Arabica’s native home, the belief that it originated in Arabia stubbornly endured well into the second half of the twentieth century, even among researchers. Following two years in Ethiopia and Yemen on a United Nations–sponsored coffee project in the mid-1950s, Pierre Sylvain wrote that the former could “be considered as the native home, and probably the excusive native home of Coffea arabica L.”33 But without irrefutable scientific proof, he still needed to couch his assertion in qualifiers. In 1958, A. E. Haarer published his referential Modern Coffee Production, where he argued that Yemen wasn’t the native home of coffee not by offering proof for Ethiopia but by laying out a case against Yemen. Rainfall was far from sufficient “to provide the ecological conditions necessary for an ‘Arabian’ coffee and forest community.” Wild coffees are always found under forest cover, which Yemen simply did not have. Or even had: there are no historical references to Arabian forests. The soil types were wrong, there didn’t appear to be as many forms of Arabica in Yemen as in Ethiopia,34 and no authentic records existed of Arabica growing wild in its namesake region.35 In 1961, Frederick Wellman could be only slightly more forthright in his comprehensive work Coffee: Botany, Cultivation, and Utilization: “The place of its origin is well recognized as the highland of Ethiopia and its extension into the southeastern corner of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, not far from Kenya.”36
How, and precisely when, coffee arrived in Arabia has been, Wellman noted, “lost in the haze of tradition and fable.”37 Even with the most advanced DNA techniques, it remains one of coffee’s mysteries.
Coffee is strangely absent from early literature. There are no known mentions of it by the ancient Egyptians, who explored down the Red Sea coast and up the Nile, or the ancient Greeks, who also sailed the Red Sea. Nor do the Hebrew Scriptures have any clear references to coffee, or the Bible, or even the Koran, which was definitively compiled in the mid-seventh century A.D. The Persian-Iraqi physician and philosopher Rhazes (c. 865–925) wrote of a medicinal black infusion called bunchum—from the fruit called bun, the name in Ethiopia and Arabia for the coffee berry.38 This is often considered the earliest reference, followed by a similar one by the Persian-born scientist and thinker Avicenna (Ibn Sina) around A.D. 1000. However, scholars have long asserted that bunchum actually referred to a root.39 There are essentially no persuasive comments regarding coffee in historical documents, or depictions on pottery shards, until the fifteenth century, and not with any frequency until the sixteenth. (That both Rhazes and Avicenna were referring to coffee remains highly suspect, since no other reference would be made to it for this gap of five hundred years.)
So when did coffee arrive on the Arabian Peninsula? The range offered by the most esteemed experts is remarkably broad, between fifteen hundred and three hundred years ago.40 Wellman placed the first movements of coffee in A.D. 575, when the Aksumite Kingdom was the most powerful state between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia,41 and its control stretched from northern Ethiopia to southern Arabia,42 and then again about 890.43 An Ethiopian Coffee Board publication claimed, “We know for certain that sometime before the 9th century A.D., Arab traders took coffee and planted it in Arabia.”44
The sixth century seems far too early—it is implausible to not have verifiable references to coffee from such a highly sophisticated culture for eight or nine hundred years—and just three centuries ago far too late,45 as coffee had long been growing in the hills around Ta’iz by then. It was probably the fourteenth century,46 and certainly no later than 1400.47 By the 1500s, as demand surged, cultivation was in full swing in Yemen.
In Ethiopia, pictorial versions of coffee’s journey to Arabia hang on countless walls, from the National Coffee Museum in Bonga to hotel lobbies in Jimma, Addis Ababa, and Harar. The opening panels show Kaldi and his goats discovering coffee, followed by a woman preparing the drink. Muslim merchants sip the coffee and then buy bags of beans. At the seashore, the traders board a small boat that takes them to Arabia.
“This Kaffa bean tree was brought by Muslim merchants to Arabia,” Friedrich Bieber wrote in 1920. “These merchants had so far been supplied with its beans via Massawa from Kaffa at the time of the reign of King Madi Gado or Wodi Gafo, who reigned from about 1530 to 1565.”48 That coincides with the period that Yemen was expanding planting and terracing under newfound Ottoman rule. “Wrongfully, Arabia is regarded as the home of the coffee tree,” the Austrian explorer wrote in his journal. “Arab traders brought the coffee tree—Kaffatree or coffee tree—there to Yemen, and then from there it started its triumphal march over the whole world. Kaffa is the original home of coffee.”49
In some illustrations the merchants appear sneaky, carrying bulging sacks of money and offering furtive glances. It’s not clear if they are being devious or are simply afraid. “A story runs that at the risk of his life an Arab succeeded in smuggling coffee-seedlings out of Kafa and in bringing them safely to Arabia,” the German explorer Max Grühl wrote. “Thus the way was paved for the establishment of the coffee-plantations in the highlands of Yemen.”50
“It wasn’t stolen,” said Mesfin Tekle on a wet day in Bonga, shaking his head. “Trade, that was the way. The link [between Kafa and Yemen] is Tengola,” he said, referring to the ancient mosque and trading center established by Muslim merchants.
Located halfway between Bonga and Andiracha, Tengola sits some fifteen minutes off the road down a slender, ambling path. On a November afternoon, sunbirds and flycatchers darted from the trees along the overgrown creekbed paralleling the trail. Enset with swordlike leaves veined in beetroot crimson surrounded a handful of small farmsteads on the hillside. The mosque’s compound was a grassy expanse with a dozen or so mud homes girdled by a living fence of closely planted shrubs and spiny candlestick euphorbia trees cropped at chest height. The mosque itself, a low rectangular building with a rusted red corrugated roof and no minaret, sat along the back.
The first to bring Islam to Kafa was Abidir Selam, said the mosque’s imam, Sheki Kedir Sedik, as he unlatched a pair of heavy padlocks on the wooden door. Abidir Selam came from Hejaz, the Red Sea coastal strip in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and established a mosque on this spot, some seven hundred years ago, he explained. That original building, a traditional mud hut, had long fallen to the elements and had been rebuilt many times. The current one had an interlacing wattle of sticks smeared with mud that contained crushed white stones and a generous amount of teff that swirled through the crumbling walls like unbraided rope. Along the covered portico that ran the length of the building, a soft layer of hay had been spread.
Kedir pushed open the double doors and flicked a switch. A trio of bare lightbulbs dangling from the ceiling gave off an orange, low-wattage glow. The handful of patterned carpets didn’t cover the entire earthen floor, and hay had been scattered across the remainder of it. Some fifty or sixty people gather for Friday prayers, but hundreds come during the important festivals, camping on the grassy field for a few days.
“The grove of Abidir Selam,” Kedir said, gesturing toward a small patch of woods just beyond the mosque. The heavy gold ring he wore was loose and slid around his finger. “His house was there.”
Kedir had been appointed imam of Tengola mosque forty years ago following religious training in neighboring Oromia. He was the eighth generation in his family to be imam, he said proudly. Though the afternoon was warm, he wore an oversize gray suit and knitted white skullcap embroidered with dull golden thread. His forehead was damp with perspiration.
Kedir knew the history from his father and grandfather, past imams of Tengola. Kedir’s oral history dating Islam’s arrival in Kafa to the 1300s is a few centuries earlier than historians generally put it. Arab traders, though, likely predated Abidir Selam and those who initially brought the faith. Islam in Kafa is nagade gibino, “religion of traders,”51 and the name for a Muslim remains negado, literally “trader.” Mesfin said, “First came trade, then friendship and gifts, and finally religion.”
Between Tengola and Andiracha is the important ancient market grounds of Tiffa. While an hour off the road and no more than a tiny hamlet today, when Antonio Cecchi visited in 1878, the market still gathered four days a week and was the largest in the region. Muslims traded at Tiffa for coffee, honey, and musk from the nearby forests, and gold and ivory from the south, Kedir said. “They left with these and came back with salt.” (He didn’t mention slaves, but traders also bartered for them with salt.)
It would certainly have been possible to carry coffee seeds from Kafa to the Arabian Peninsula and have them arrive in viable condition some months later. Optimal germination happens by sowing fresh seeds, and a journey to Yemen would require ones that had been prepared in a way so farmers in Arabia could plant them.
In Kafa today, farmers such as Woldegiorgis Shawo continue to follow traditional methods of preserving some of the best seeds each year by peeling away the outer skin of the freshly picked fruit by hand, dusting with ash or charcoal, which acts as an antifungal, and storing in a cool part of the house. According to Jean-Pierre Labouisse, a global expert in preserving coffee resources with deep experience in Ethiopia, coffee beans that aren’t fully dried and are stored at room temperature in a humid place can be kept viable for up to two years, which is plenty of time for the journey to Yemen and any wait for the correct moment to sow.
At Tengola, when asked about how coffee spread from the wild forests of Kafa, Kedir shouted impatiently, “Oromo!”—referring to Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. “The Oromo came and took coffee. They traded east, among the Muslims. Probably Harar.” Kedir waved his hand vaguely eastward but also dismissively. “I only know what my grandfather told me.” It came from the stories he had heard growing up. He shrugged, his bony shoulders marooned within his jacket, and crossed the overgrown field back to his home.
His grandfather was likely more correct than Kedir realized.
In the 1990s, using newly available DNA technology, studies began to indicate that Yemen’s coffee might not be as closely related to the wild Arabica of Kafa and surrounding forests as to stock from further east, perhaps around Harar. “A clear separation was observed between the Ethiopian germplasm collected in the southwest highlands of Ethiopia (Illubabor and Kaffa provinces), and the cultivated material spread world-wide from Yemen,” wrote Philippe Lashermes, coffee’s leading geneticist, in 1995. “This result supports the hypothesis that the arabica plants transferred to Yemen for cultivation by the Arabs originated from the south eastern part of the evergreen mountainous region of Ethiopia (Sidamo and Harar provinces).”52
Looking out over his laboratory at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) in Montpellier, France, the low hum of expensive and delicate machines piercing the glass walls of the conference room, Lashermes rejected those findings. The work was done two decades ago, he said, using an outdated technique. The paper had been presented at a colloquium in Kyoto, he noted, and not peer reviewed. The study didn’t have a broad enough range of samples, and a close reading suggested that it didn’t fully lead to the conclusion. He shrugged. He didn’t know if Harar was a transit point and didn’t want to speculate.
His colleague Benoît Bertrand, though, had just completed a diversity study on Ethiopian and Yemeni coffee using the latest DNA technology and was putting the final touches on a paper. The study had sequenced the genotypes of 798 coffee samples, one hundred from Yemen. On a large, wall-mounted dry-erase board in his office, Bertrand, another of the industry’s leading geneticists as well as one of its foremost coffee breeders, wrote:
“All the modern varieties are coming from Yemen,” he said, connecting the bottom two with a line. “And Yemen passed from Ethiopia.” He made a short line between the top ones. “There was not coffee in Yemen before Ethiopia.”
He vigorously cleaned the board and drew the rough outlines of the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. “Somewhere between Ethiopia and Yemen was the first domestication of coffee.” He traced the bulging curve of the Horn that swept in close to Arabia across the Red Sea. “But, if coffee came directly from Ethiopia to Yemen, or if Harar was the first center of domestication, we cannot say.”
He moved to his computer and touched the mouse, waking the screen to the paper. “We can see that it started in Ethiopia,” he said, scrolling down to a diagram mapping out three distinct clusters of coffee types—modern varieties, Yemeni coffees, wild Ethiopian ones—based on genetic markers.
From the data, though, it was impossible to know if there was a step in Harar. “It is not possible for the moment, no.” Gaps remain in understanding coffee’s complex heritage.
While “one bag of beans would have been enough” to start the entire Yemen industry, as Lashermes pointed out, it was almost certainly through disparate introductions.
The coffee from the southwest region in Ethiopia would have needed to adapt to the dry and sunny conditions in Yemen. Bertrand stood in front of the uneven hourglass outline of the Horn of Africa and Arabia. “This is forest.” He pointed to the Ethiopian side. “There was an adaptation to the dry and sunny conditions of the population of Yemen.” He tapped on the Arabia part of the map. “But you lost lots of types of coffee. Only some were able to adapt to Yemen’s conditions.”
This seems why pinpointing the year of the original attempt is not precise. “The first one? I don’t know,” Labouisse said. He shrugged, as if to say that the exact date of initial introduction isn’t important, as there were many of them over the years. That Yemen sustains far more genetic coffee variety than anywhere else outside Ethiopia indicates that Yemen’s terraces of coffee were established not only with wild plants from the southwestern forests, but likely from elsewhere in Ethiopia, including around the legendary trading enclave of Harar. Of all the seeds carried to Yemen, those from the dry east of Ethiopia would have had the easiest time adapting.