In this series, we introduce you to the four inspiring Ethiopian women with recipes to teach and stories of hope and courage to share. Brett Tarver travelled with Dennis Prescott, as part of the Hunger Free campaign.
Ejigayehu is bent over the cookstove, jiggling a small pan atop the flames. I sit down beside her, to watch what happens next.
The aroma rising from the pan is something the world’s fanciest coffee shops can’t touch. It’s the scent of roasting coffee beans, plucked by Ejigayehu’s own hands from her own coffee plants, then laid out to dry in the hot Ethiopian sun.
The fire is hot, and Eligayehu’s friend gives her a break! Photo: Brett Tarver
As the beans near fresh-roasted perfection, I hear conversations and laughter outside. Ejigayehu's friends and neighbors are drifting up the path, then stepping through her doorway. One steps in, to finish the roasting.
It’s afternoon coffee time in rural Ethiopia. And I can’t wait to participate.
People take seats, as Ejigayehu spreads out a carpet of fresh, green grasses. The grinding is about to begin. She pulverizes the beans with a simple mortar and pestle. The rhythmic pounding is almost hypnotic.
Ejigayehu grinds her own beans, part of the traditional afternoon coffee ceremony. Photo: Dennis Prescott
As she works, the household buzz starts up again. People are catching up on the days’ news and gossip. It feels just like mid-morning at my local Timmies. Except today, I’m more than 11,000 kilometres from my house. I don’t know much of the language. And the people I’m sitting with are brand new in my life.
Yet, as the water boils, and the cups set out on a tray, I feel completely and totally at home. I can’t wait to learn more about my new friends…and what binds them so tightly together. It’s got to be more than the heavenly coffee.
The beans Ejigayehu ground were hot off the fire, expertly roasted. Photo: Brett Tarver
I turn to my Meron, my translator with World Vision Ethiopia, and begin asking questions. What I learn from the answers will draw me close to a woman from my own past – a woman I said farewell to a long time ago.
This isn’t a journey I’d expected to take today.
Steeped in strength
Through all of life’s storms, the people in this room have held each other close. They’ve celebrated many wonderful times together, too, and a great many successes. The secret of their shared strength, they tell me, is their community savings and loans group.
Interesting. In Canada, we often try and keep business and friendship separate. But here, there’s no distinction. These women celebrate the partnership that’s changed their lives – and those of their children.
Ejigayehu’s kids are learning to save money, thanks to her example and experience. Photo: Brett Tarver
“It used to be that only rich men saved money,” explains Ejigayehu, as the coffee begins to brew. “We never considered we could do it. We never knew our value.”
Learning their value
Today, they know their value. The women of this savings group, and the men who’ve joined also, hold a respected place in the economy of their community – and the power to help change the lives of those around them.
Women who started with just a little money are now growing their economic influence. Those with dreams for expanding their businesses can do so. They have a place to turn when disaster strikes.
“It’s changing our lives,” says Ejigayehu, standing straight and proud. “We no longer have to count on our husbands for money. We now feel valuable – like our men.”
Hearing those words, I think again about that special woman in my life, a person who knew her worth and helped me find my own. But there’s no time to explore that memory. Not yet.
It’s nearly coffee time, and everyone is finding a seat. I sit forward in my own chair. How does this ancient tradition work?
Drinking deep of tradition
Ejigayehu pours coffee for everyone in the room by moving her tilted coffee pot over a tray filled with cups. She holds the pot a foot above, pouring in one continuous movement, until each cup is full.
This steaming coffee has just been removed from the fire. I’m reminded of the cardboard sleeves we use back in Canada to protect our fingers. Can my city hands withstand the heat?
But when my cup is offered, I relax. Some traditional cups have no handles, but these do. I’m glad not to be specifying “how I’d like my coffee” in the local language! My coffee is served sweetened and without milk – though I learn this group sometimes likes it with traditional butter and salt.
We all raise our cups. And in that moment, I’m connected with every person in this room. We’re all sharing a brew made from the same plants, grown in the same few square metres of Ethiopian soil. Coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia, and the Arabica we drink today can be traced back here.
These coffee beans weren’t transported anywhere by truck – just by basket. They weren’t packaged in a warehouse – just laid out to dry in the sun. And they’ve never, once, been touched by a stranger.
Growing only the best
Coffee ceremonies are three pots long, with each serving growing a little weaker as the grounds give up their best.
As my third cup is poured, I’m offered a bowl of roasted barley and nuts, known locally as ‘kolo’. There’s also bread from a large loaf, called ‘difo dabo’.
Closely bonded, yet infinitely welcoming to newcomers! Photo: Brett Tarver
I feel warm inside. And so extraordinarily relaxed, for a stranger in a strange land. As I look around the room at the faces of strong women around me, I’m reminded again of that special woman I knew.
She was my grandmother in Canada, Edna. She had the same eyes as Ejigayehu, revealing such intelligence. Edna’s work was largely invisible, raising children and keeping house, at a time when the arenas of power and influence were largely reserved for men.
But my grandmother had a special power. She handled the family finances. Edna did her research, asked advice when needed and invested the family’s earnings in stocks. And, like the women in this savings group, my grandmother’s money grew.
When I was in high school, taking an investing course, I remember consulting with my grandmother. She helped me build the highest-performing portfolio in the class.
I had seen the same thing happen earlier that day, when Ejigayehu’s young son opened his own savings box. It was bursting with money, even more than my own daughters have in their piggy banks. Ejigayehu was so proud that she was empowering her children this way.
Ejigayehu’s warmth, her wisdom, reminded me of my grandmother. Photo: Brett Tarver
On this, my final stop here in Ethiopia, I’ve been given a lasting memory to carry home to Canada.
I nurse my final cup of coffee. And I think about the power, the influence, that women can have in their families and their communities. I remember Edna and feel so grateful to have met her here today in the face of Ejigayehu.
Experiencing what Ejigayehu, her community and World Vision have accomplished here, fills me with hope for a hunger-free Ethiopia. And a hunger-free world. It’s amazing where a great cup of coffee can take you.