Ethiopia, South Africa– 1995

…. And so, I was on my way to Africa. After a brief layover in London, which allowed me to take a four hour sojourn downtown, it was time for another eleven hour leg to Nairobi, via Zurich. Time in the smoke-filled cabin seemed to crawl, as dizziness from the lack of oxygen dominated my thoughts. It had been evening when I departed from London, morning when I arrived in Nairobi, and just about noon when I finally arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. As soon as I set foot in addis, I was aware that this was a different world. Strange sights, sounds and smells flooded my senses giving me mixed signals of mystery, fear, excitement, suspicion and adventure all thrown together in the Cuisinart of my mind.

Getting out of the airport was somewhat like crossing the berlin wall in the 1960’s. After being stamped and examined by several people, I reached the outside of the terminal where about forty taxi drivers vied for my business. Past this crowd and behind a fence, I saw my friend bereket. He was a welcome sight.

Bereket is a Geology teacher at Carlton College in Minnesota. The entire time that he studied for his Masters and Ph.D. degrees at the University of Utah, he would come in to ‘The Roasting Company’ and buy Ethiopian Coffee. Over the years we became good friends. This past Spring I found out that he was returning to his native Eritrea for the first time since graduating from the University of Ethiopia, which was eight years ago. We had agreed to meet in Addis so that he could show me this incredible land. Today the adventure began!

My initiation to Ethiopia was an urban one. In Addis Ababa, as in all big cities, there is a concentration of good and bad. One would need a heart of stone not to be effected by the poverty and the severely handicapped people seen on the streets. Overpopulation was evident everywhere — about 50% of the people I saw were children. It was so sad to see all of the kids and to know that their chances to receive decent educations and to get respectable jobs was less than slim. This is especially true in an economy recovering from war where unemployment runs between 40 and 55 percent!

With this in mind, it was interesting when Bereket took me to his alma mater, the University of Addis, where a fortunate few from different parts of the country could go to college. As we wandered around the university, I found it to be a quiet and beautiful refuge from the city. Although school was out for the summer and there were not many students around, we found three young graduates that talked to us at the student cafeteria. These guys were waiting around in hope of jobs. They felt that if they were lucky maybe in six months they would have some work.

Bereket and I bought them some ‘really good’ coffee and we all laughed about how bad the food was on campus. Bereket said that when he was here eight years ago, there was a beautiful counter girl named Ghenet who worked quite often at the cafeteria. When he and his friends could study no longer, they would say, “Let’s go see Ghenet” instead of saying, “Let’s go have coffee.” For me it was a moving experience to walk around the campus with Bereket and listen to his stories of his years in Addis: looking in the lecture halls, seeing the Geology labs, visiting the library. the facilities here did not compare to those on even a small university campus in the United States; nevertheless, I had no doubts that the work load and studies were much more demanding. Later on, as we wandered around the outskirts of the campus, Bereket and I ran into the cafeteria dream-girl, Ghenet. this amazing coincidence inspired a lot of laughter as he told her what they used to say many years ago…”Let’s go see Ghenet.”

We journeyed back to the city and on the way I saw a maze of poor shacks that dropped down a hillside in front of us. While gazing upon the narrow streets that seemed to weave and wander forever, Bereket told me that his people called this area “Erri Be Kentu,” or “to cry for no help.” In other words, “You will cry, but no one will hear or help you.” As we walked A little further down the road Bereket told another story that betrayed his people’s disdain of the Communist rule. We passed a statue that was around 100 feet tall, but very narrow in width, and was topped with a disproportionately wide red star . This structure was built during the “Dereg” Communist rule, a regime that was very unpopular due to the number of citizens who were tortured and killed during it. Bereket relayed to me that as the local people passed the edifice, they would contemptuously say, “There’s the Revolutionary Penis.”

Towards evening we visited a long-time friend of Bereket’s named Sonnet. She lives with her sister Sonja in a small home in a poor neighborhood of Addis. Sonnet has a four and a half year old daughter named Heaven, and Sonja has six children. Their home is simple: there are a couple of mattresses against the wall that are pulled out at night for beds, and a small entrance-way to a tiny closet-like area to prepare food. This twelve by ten foot room was home to these nine people. We brought a couple of kilos of bananas and oranges to share with them, and spent the time there just sitting around talking together (or in any case, attempting to, due to the language barrier). Regardless of their hardships, these people were loving, gentle and full of laughter. The little girl, Heaven, was extremely intelligent and displayed her wares by writing and speaking in both Amharic and English languages for us. Another young woman named Lily came by to visit while we were there. She had recently graduated third in her class in Mathematics from the University of Addis. Even with her high rating among graduates, Lily faced a difficult road ahead trying to find good employment. (I was happy to know that the next day Bereket helped her to prepare resumes while I was off on coffee business.)

As we sat talking that evening, I noticed that one of the women was making “enjura,” a bread that is the basis for all Ethiopian food. It is a two-foot diameter pancake that is grilled on only one side. By placing a lid over the pan, one side is steamed while the other side grills. When fully cooked, a woven mat is slipped under the enjura and it is then placed on the dinner table. Various spicy stews** are placed on top of it and everyone in the dining party simply tears off a piece of the enjura and dip it into the food, then into their mouths; in other words, they use enjura as the European cultures use a fork or a spoon. The difference is that the effect of eating with enjura is a very communal one. **(In the appendix is a list of the different sauces and stews that accompany the enjura.) Bereket and I attempted to cook enjura –suffice it to say that our efforts were a source of entertainment for everyone present.

Night began to fall….it was time to leave. Later that evening I washed some clothes in the sink and hung them up to dry, but the next day they were still wet because it is so cold and rainy here, as Addis is on a high plateau at about 7800 feet. Later on, in different stores, I saw these tourism posters showing beautiful smiling people and various scenes in Ethiopia. At the bottom of the posters it always said the same thing … 13 Months of Sunshine! As i was walking around in my still damp clothes, it made me laugh. The following night Bereket and I had dinner together with only Sonnet, Heaven and Sonya By the time we were ready to leave, I wanted to take Heaven home with me. She had won my heart. My time with them gave me precious insight into the lives of the Ethiopian people. I felt humbled to see what appreciation and thankfulness they had for the most simple things. They reminded me that the greatest gift in life is a thankful heart.

Tuesday, Addis I met in the morning with Mr. Adal and we were picked up by Nassrella. Mr Adal was stately and kind; I’m sure that he knew the business well, but coffee ‘cupping’ or tasting probably wasn’t his forte. We went on a tour of a the company’s coffee mill. He showed me an unwashed Sidamo processed in the plant’s new huller from Germany. As we discussed the coffee in his country, the subject of new varietals being planted came up. He said that new hybrid trees were being planted, but no changes had occurred in the flavor of the coffee because it derives its taste from the soil.

This trend is happening all over the world. Such as: – Coffee Research station at Ruiru, Kenya with R11 – Coffee Research station at Pereira in Colombia with Varidad Colombiano – Coffee Research station in near Sao Paulo, Brazil with Catimor – Coffee Research station at San Jose, Costa Rica with Cauai.

New varieties with higher yield and better disease resistance are gradually taking the place of traditional rootstock. Oftentimes, flavor becomes the victim. I understand the reasoning from the growers point of view but I don’t believe these new hybrids all they’re cut out to be. Oten they need more fertilizer and water than traditional varietals and they seem to have a much shorter production life.

I asked Mr. Adal if they roasted their own coffee for in the office and he said, “of course.” Five minutes later his assistant produced a tin can with a tin handle (very rustic). This is actually a very common way to roast green beans in Ethiopia.

.From here my plans called for me to take a plane to Dira Dawa, which is near Harar, to meet with Mr. Adal’s boss, Mohamed Abbbdullahi Ogsadey. But alas, when in other cultures, things seldom go according to plans. I had no luck getting to Dira Dawa to meet with Mr. Ogsadey. The roads trains & planes were all overloaded due to a special Saint’s Day celebration in a nearby town. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it allowed more time for traveling to Sidamo and Jima in southern Ethiopia. Mr. Adal was kind enough to let Nasrella drive me around for the rest of the day. He would assist me in running errands and later take me to the coffee auction.

But first to the bank. What a hassle! They took my camera at the door, and then I had to write down the serial numbers of all the bills. Next I had to fill out an application which went through three desks of people. As the tellers counted my money out to me, ten people pushed for position around the window. It was only because I had connections that the process took a half hour! It made me appreciate how a free market operates.

Outside the bank we tried to use the pay phone. This proved to be a real challenge. First we needed to “buy” change from some kids that were strategically positioned next to the phones. Then there was the thrill of dealing with the phones themselves. As I deposited coins, the phone gave me credit–but only one out of every five coins inserted would register; the others fell through uselessly. When the call finally connected the amount of credit started to decrease. Two people were necessary to keep it working–while one talked and inserted a coin or two, the other frantically jammed in coins up top and gathered the rejects below. This was more demanding than any video game I’ve ever played; but what a satisfying feeling to actually complete a phone call!

We had a great lunch at the National Hotel, and from there he and I went to the coffee auction in Addis. During the busy times of the year the auction is held daily. On this day there were 146 samples of coffee available for purchase. There were 100 growers on one side, and 40 buyers sitting across from them. There was coffee from every region, both washed and unwashed. The best transportation around town was in mini-vans called ‘Wee Eeuts’ which drive through the city or it’s outskirts on specific routes . Transport in these vehicles is an adventure in itself. The drivers usually go real fast and there is always room for a few more customers! The name ‘wee eeut’ is derived from the name give to the old communist party meetings. Everyone was forced to go, but they would just sit around and say nothing. So they gave these group taxis the same name as the old meetings …. lots of people sitting around and saying nothing!

Wednesday, south of Addis

While staying at the hotel, I met a young guy named Milako. He was the son of the hotel owner and worked there buying food supplies for the restaurant. Milako was the proud owner of a valuable commodity in Ethiopia …. an Isuzu Trooper! After a little negociating, Bereket was able to talk him into driving us down to the southern part of the country for a few days. We promised he would have fun and told him we would teach him how to become a tour guide for future hotel guests. So now we were ready to hit the road after running a few more errands. I finally found a store with maps, postcards and various sundries. We had spent a couple hours yesterday looking for a decent map of Ethiopia. By the time we left Addis after shopping it was 11AM. It was an awesome trip south through the Rift Valley on a very rustic one and a half lane road; we stopped often for goats, oxen, chickens, cows…and people. We went through many towns. There were thirty or more villages. Everywhere the kids were wonderful with big smiles. The countryside was lush with Acacia trees to the horizon. The rift valley lakes were jewels; Lake Awasa was one of them. Here, at Awasa, which is the north tip of the province of Sidamo, we had dinner and stayed in a decent motel room for 78 birr (about eleven dollars).

Thursday, Sidamo

What a bizarre world. Last night, I slept at a government run hotel near Lake Awasa. There were big birds, lots of mosquitoes, and highly unusual sounds all night in the monkey/ bird realm. Driving south with Milako we listened to a jazz tape from a radio station in Washington D.C. Milako’s brother, who lives in the states, sent the tape. We heard it over and over. The drive was quite an adventure, with Milako on the horn constantly. If we had to stop for any reason, it would be only a matter of seconds before the car would be surrounded — first by kids, then by the older people who were more suspicious.

We passed town after town in our journey south in Sidamo. Coffee was growing all along the narrow one and a half lane road. Many trucks were on the road; some were new but most were vintage. As they approached they would always be in the middle of the road trying to avoid potholes. Many times we would have to go off the road to avoid them. I developed a system whereby, even if I wasn’t looking, I could tell what obstacle lay ahead by how many times Milako had to blow the horn. Goats received the quickest signals…one beep; people got two beeps; cows received three beeps; and dogs were the slowest four beeps …. funny, there were not a lot of dogs around.

Often we would stop in very small towns and go into a Chai Baat. These “Houses of Tea” added a new dimension to the word funky. In the small towns tea was the favored beverage over coffee, three to one. I think coffee was reserved for entertaining at home, when one had more leisure time. The servers in the Chai Baat were usually shy and everyone was incredibly beautiful. All of these little “restaurants” had espresso machines but ninety percent of the time they were only used for hot water to brew tea. After brewing, the tea was frothed by the steamer with lots of sugar, so when it was served it would be very foamy. Often we would buy everyone something to drink to break the ice. Usually they would have beer or coke. Bathrooms in the country were very difficult to bear– even if you breathed through your mouth the foul odor was overwhelming.

All along the way we found coffee growing, and we stopped many times to talk to the growers. We found many sections of trees that were diseased with black (dead) cherries. When we asked the growers what caused this they answered, “Cholera.” They complained that the government used to spray but had stopped. It seems that under communist rule they sprayed, but then again the government also took all of the crop. Any large growers or mills had their land confiscated. We encouraged the growers to quit complaining, get together with their neighbors and spray the crops themselves. But it seemed like they got more pleasure out of complaining.

A little further down the road in Meleka, Sidamo (at 6,000 feet), the coffee trees were doing great. Here the growers were also cultivating “chat,” which is a mild stimulant. To get the stimulant effect, the leaves are chewed, and it is pretty popular with the older people, especially over in Harar and Yemen. I took a picture of all the kids in the local Meleka school and told them that I would send them a copy. A little further on we stopped and met an older man named Ato who knew a lot about coffee. He said he was lucky because he had mostly “black” coffee trees which are resistant to the disease. The white trees were not resistant. I tried hard to see the difference between the black and white trees but it escaped me. Ato and I talked about many things, including how to plant new trees, pruning, rainfall and soil conditions. He said they sold the coffee in cherry form and that they picked their fields three or four times monthly. “Inset” (false banana), banana, corn, and chat coffee all grew together. The inset leaf is used to make a meal called “Kecho,” which is cooked in a big cast iron pan inside of the houses with grass roofs. As you are driving along, usually in the rain, you can look to the horizon and see all these thatched roof houses that appear to be smoking. In actuality, Kecho, or “Injura,” are being cooked over open fires inside. Since these dwellings have no chimney, the whole roof seems to be smoking.

Ato, the coffee farmer, invited us inside his home; it was dark and smokey. Many of the little kids had lots of mucous in the corner of their eyes. I was told this was the result of living in a constantly smokey environment. Squatting over the fire was a young woman with a child and she was cooking the ‘kecho’. The hut was circular and large, perhaps 700 square. ft. A cow took up nearly a third of the space. Fifty feet away a second home was being built. There was a ‘door specialist’ working on it at the time. The whole project would end up costing 1000 Bier (about $135.) and take 25 days to complete.

As we drove there were younger and older people on the side of the road selling green (unroasted) coffee beans. My theory was this was the ‘fly’ crop. In many places near the equator, a second harvest of 10-20 percent occurs six months later than normal crop. (I had found a similar situation when I was in Colombia.) Anyhow, this fly-crop coffee still had its outer parchment on the beans. Normally, for the main crop, this would be removed at the big mills in Addis Ababa. But for this small crop they had a more rustic technique. Often half of the road would be covered with coffee still in parchment! People, at least the ones with shoes, would walk around on top of it to crunch off the pergamino (outer husk). This coffee was sold unwashed as opposed to the typical washed style commonly available in the US. While I was bartering over the price, I heard a horn honking and quickly jumped off the road. A truck barreled by going right over the coffee on the road. And presto!….ten minutes of foot stomping is taken care of! A little ways down the road, I saw a group of kids, possessing great dexterity, playing with a large footbag. As are most ‘balls’ in Ethiopia, this one was handmade. They took plastic bags and scrunched them, then wrapped them in cloth, sewed them and–Voila! A custom footbag.

What a great end to a wonderful day! After covering many kilometers and sucking in lots of dust and smoke, laying in a hot spring pool was a welcome comfort. About 75 kilometers off the main road and tucked up into the eastern side of the Rift Valley escarpment is this lush oasis which was at one time the retreat for Haile Selassie. While languishing under a steady flow of thermal waters I looked out over the lush Rift Valley, giving way in the distance to the vast expanse of Lake Awasa and an African sunset beyond. There are few if any foreigners here to take in this setting, mainly locals and vacationing Ethiopians from within the country. To complete the evening, Bereket, Milako, and myself had a fine Ethiopian dinner, cognac and pineapple for dessert under the stars. It cost about 58 birr (about $9).

Friday, Addis Ababa

After a refreshing rain that night, we awoke to the sounds of an injured Isuzu Trooper in need of minor repairs…..too many pot holes! When some locals finished helping I expanded my Ambaric vocabulary with a new way to say ‘Thank You’….’Egabher Yeesterling’….meaning roughly, ‘May God bless you because I cannot repay you in this lifetime!’ So today coffee will take the back seat to my friend Bereket’s obsession with and love of the geology of the Rift Valley. Back in August of ’94 Bereket heard on the internet that a volcano eruption had occurred only 130 kilometers from our current location. (For the last hour or so we have been traveling West from Awasa towards the Western escarpment of the Rift Valley.) Every time we passed through a small town, we asked the people if they’ve heard about the ‘issate gomorrah’ (volcano). Typically the response was a quiet blank look, but some asked if we were referring to the place of the ‘blessed waters’ (te’ble). Believing that they think the lava is actually water we say “yes” and they point down the road. After a few more small town stops and questioning of locals, the truth begins to surface. There really wasn’t an ‘issate gomorrah; instead a large geyser had erupted in the valley near the western escarpment- so the people were right! Deep from the earth had shot forth te’ble, or ‘blessed waters’.

The more we travelled, the more I realized that the ‘road’ was the artery, the life blood, of the people. All facets of life center around the road. Since virtually no one owns vehicles, every one walks along the road….coming or going to town….visiting neighbors …. selling goods …. bartering… processions carrying sick people to the get help …. processions carrying a deceased to their final rest. Cars and trucks play a minor role compared to all this activity. The road belongs to the people not the cars. I kept noticing the kids rolling 55 gallon barrels down the streets in town. I asked Bereket if this was some kind of game. “No,” he said, ” these houses have no water, it has to be carried or rolled from the town’s spring or well and that is the childrens job”.

On the way back to Addis we stopped at one last ‘House of Tea’. I will describe this typical ‘Chai Baat’. It was a small room with a very nice, quiet lady behind a little counter. Behind her, on little wall shelves, were ten to twelve old bottles of different types of alcohol which looked like they had resided there quite a while. There were three tables in the room. I watched as she washed three 5oz rocks glasses in a small bowl and then rinsed them off in another. The water didn’t look very clean. It was somewhat of a leap of faith to drink our tea. I have dined in many rural, rustic settings in Ethiopia, but by the grace of God, never became sick once.

Later that night we arrived in Addis and went to dinner where there was live music and Ethiopian dancing. Things were fairly subdued while we ate but all hell broke loose when the music started. The music had a non-western dissonance which one acquires a taste for with time. I found myself right next to the stage where these incredibly supple dancers moved their bodies in ways I thought impossible! In payment for their efforts, many patrons came forward and gave them money in very creative ways. One extremely large Arabian man kept jumping up to dance with the lady on the stage until eventually being escorted out of the building. His boldness was no doubt enhanced by a highly unusual mixture of whiskey and milk which he was drinking! Add to this bizarre setting the sounds of no less than eight or ten languages being spoken and copious amounts of smoke…. it was quite the scene! I couldn’t help but to recall the bar scene in the first Star Wars movie.

Saturday–Addis Ababa

The following morning Bereket and I woke at 5am and went to the Saturday market in Addis Ababa. This is a huge setting and where they sell everything imaginable. Because we were early the hordes of people hadn’t arrived yet though it was still busy. Since the streets were crowded everything was carried in to sell, and often times it had to be carried for several blocks. I witnessed many ten year old kids carrying baskets on their heads laden with melons or tomatoes. These baskets easily weighed twice as much as their porters. I think the spices I saw were probably the most interesting items at the market. The mixtures of smells was very intriguing. Also the flavored butters and cheeses revealed the diverse tastes and unique heritage that is north east Africa.

It seems that Airports are always an adventure in the Third World and Addis proved no exception. After being a good boy by arriving one and a half hours before my flight, I discovered that my reservation had been cancelled….severe stress! After discussing the matter with ten people at Ethiopian Air (moving up the hierarchy one at a time), I was blessed with the last seat on the plane. Next to me was a futball (soccer) player from Cameroon on his way back to the team he played for in Sweden.

Ten years from now, I’ll think back on my trip to Africa …. I’m sure many of the memories will get cloudy …. vivid images will be rounded and softened by time. But when all begins to fade, I know one thing will remain …. the faces of the children. Some that were sad and hopeless; others imploring; but many more were big, beautiful smiling faces, especially those that I saw in the country side. But regardless of the expression, none will be forgotten.


  • * Duro Wott –chicken with HB egg and paprika
  • * Bege Wott — sheep
  • * Sheb Wott- — garbanzo beans
  • * Seega Wott — spicy cooked beef stew
  • * Kutfo — tartare beef seasoned with butter and cayenne
  • * Mulase — curry tongue
  • * Gomen Wott- — cooked meat and spinach
  • * Kuk Wot — lentils
  • * Alicha Wot — carrot, potatoes, and lentils
  • * Injura — sourdoughpancake bread Useful words in Amharic

– John Bolton …… Salt Lake Roasting Co.

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