Coffee by Convention: keeping family traditions alive throughout generations

Guest post by Amira Omar

Ethiopian coffee ceremony, Addis Ababa “The coffee is ready when its fragrance fills your lungs and you can taste it from the aroma alone,” my mother says as she kneels next to me. I’ve been sitting in front of a jabena, a kettle made of dried clay sitting on a small furnace, given to my mother by my grandmother when she mastered the art of making traditional Ethiopian coffee.

“That’s such an abstract way of knowing; there has to be a more practical method,” I reply. Reflecting on the last two stages I spent, first, manually roasting each coffee bean by constantly stirring them on a flat methbesha, and then crushing the beans in a grinder (which was a shortcut; the all-out traditional way includes a metal club to crush each bean into a powder), this stage of the process is the most difficult.

“We [great-grandmother, grandmother, etc] did not need a tool to tell us when it’s ready. You have to master it before you have a daughter; so you can teach her.”

Making traditional Ethiopian coffee and performing the coffee ceremony are integral parts of an Ethiopian girl’s “right of passage,” if you will. My mother mastered them when she was 15, and at 23, I am sorely behind. They are two of several aspects of my cultural identity I did not give much thought to until I become a mother myself. Although my son will have a different skill set to learn from my husband, I suddenly feel the urgency to persue everything my mother tried to teach me before I had my own child, including the coffee making and ceremony.

Losing the Ethiopian portion of my ethnological integrity worries me. In fact, I’m downright terrified at the thought of my grandchildren not knowing about their ancestors, which is something I can already sense within my own generation. Having been here, in the States, since I was three, I consider myself adequately fluent in American societal norms, customs, and culture. However, I don’t feel the same ease when it comes to my Ethiopian background.

Fortunately, my husband, Saad, who is also from Ethiopia, but from — and I can’t believe I’m going say this — a different tribe, is more knowledgeable about our traditions. The most difficult part for us is finding a middle ground because we consider ourselves just as much Ethiopian as we are American, but where does one identity end and the other start?

I’m certain that Aiman, our son, will pick up American culture since he will spend the majority of his life here, but instilling his Abyssinian (ancient name for Ethiopian) roots will be more challenging. English will undoubtedly be a part of his life, but we also want him and his future siblings to be fluent in my dialect, Amharic, as well as his father’s, Oromo. We also want them to be very familiar with American and Ethiopian history.

Amira and her sister (in 1998) donning new clothes from Ethiopia.
Similarly to what my mother did for us, I will expect them to wear traditional Ethiopian attire during the Ethiopian New Year and other holidays. Additionally, although I haven’t learned how to make them yet, I would love for our children to ask for Ethiopian dishes for breakfast, lunch, or dinner from time to time. Ultimately, we desperately want to pass along as many traditions as possible so that they become a natural part of our lives and for future generations.

I’m also thankful that the adults from older eras in our family are well versed in folklore, proverbs, and games to teach not only the children, but as well as us young adults. Unexpectedly, having a child brought about much more than the roller coaster of parenthood; for me, it includes creating a cultural foundation that my progeny can be proud of while expanding my own. It’s an opportunity for me to learn who I am as I teach them where they come from. And I’m sincerely very thankful for that.

The house is now filled with the fragrance of fresh, natural coffee and the jabena begins to steam as I gently swirl it, mixing the powdered coffee inside. Maybe this time I’ll be able to taste the coffee from just the aroma.

Comments on Coffee by Convention: keeping family traditions alive throughout generations

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this. I’m not a mom yet, but the issue of passing on cultural traditions and languages is very close to my heart, and I’m always interested in how other families handle it. I’m mixed (Black, White, Filipina), and my husband is Mexican; we plan on raising our [future] children to be bilingual in Spanish and English, and to celebrate all of their heritage. But yes, I’m worried how to do this! It’s one thing to have an abstract goal (“celebrate heritage! be bilingual!”) and another thing to actually practice and integrate into your lives.

    Also – you’re a great writer – keep it up!!

  2. It’s funny how having a child makes so many of us want to reach back while we reach forward. My sister learned to crochet after her daughter was born, a skill from our Appalachian grandmother. I can’t think of a particular skill I felt compelled to learn when my child was born, but I did a lot of writing examining our family’s roots. This is a beautiful essay!

  3. Beautiful! I have no children (yet), but I know that it would be very important to instill a love of my Russian culture in my offspring. It’s wonderful to have such a melting pot of cultures in the U.S., but it would be a shame to have the next generation lose the knowledge of what is beautiful and unique to their own family background.

  4. Thank you to you all for reading and providing your input!

    I love learning about what traditions are important to people, and more interestingly, how they try to integrate different backgrounds, culturally or religiously, into their family.

    Thanks, again!

  5. This is something I think about often and am extremely worried about for the future. We don’t have children yet, but my husband and I come from very different cultures and will probably raise a family in a country that is not either of our home countries. I would want my children to know both of our native languages and cultures, but how do you do that away from family and only one person in the household knowing either one? It’s worrying.

    • I’m unsure if you meant your question rhetorically, but juuuuust in case you didn’t -I think that’s where learning your own background while teaching your children comes in. At least it seems to me.

      I’m not fluent in my dialect, but I can get by. Something I do to “practice” speaking it is trying to always speak in it with my mom (who will understand what I’m trying to say no matter how much I butcher it up), and speak to Aiman (my son) in as much as I can. But undoubtedly, English is my comfort zone, so most days, I do speak just that.

      Something else I did was ask my mom to send me recipes for cultural dishes, tell me all of the things she did for us growing up (like always making sure we had new Ethiopian clothes for every New Year or whatnot), and what she wishes she had done for us, etc.

      It’s never too late and can definitely be a little daunting, but remember to enjoy the learning process!

    • I used to teach preschool at a very diverse center, so I had the opportunity to see how many families dealt with this same problem. The most successful example I saw was a family in which the Mom was from Spain and the dad was English (they lived in the US). Mom spoke almost exclusively Spanish to their daughter and Dad spoke English (with a little Spanish). With the help of yearly visits to Spain and contact with Mom’s family, the little girl was perfectly biligual at age 3. On the other hand, I’ve seen other families in which the kids are a bit more resistant to speaking the second language (that is to say, the one they here spoken only by one parent rather than at school, etc.), though their receptive language was perfectly fine. In my opinion, these cases had more to do with the stubborness of the child than anything the parents were/weren’t doing. 🙂 So, basically, the more exposure, the better, and you should strive to be at least as stubborn as your child. But try not to stress to much over it or your child may rebel. Just be patient and content in the knowledge you are doing a wonderful thing by giving your child the gift of other languages.

      • “I’ve seen other families in which the kids are a bit more resistant to speaking the second language (that is to say, the one they here spoken only by one parent rather than at school, etc.), though their receptive language was perfectly fine. In my opinion, these cases had more to do with the stubborness of the child than anything the parents were/weren’t doing.”

        I teach elementary school in a very diverse part of Toronto, and I have to comment on this. While it is true that some children don’t want to speak their parents language, the situation where a parent/caregiver speaks to the child in one language and the child responds in English can be a warning sign of a learning disability or other exceptionality especially if the child’s English is underdeveloped for their age as well.

        When I say this, I’m not talking about kids who just won’t speak their first language in public, I’m talking about kids who even at home don’t respond in their first language, especially when the parents don’t have a lot of English and mostly use the first language.

        In the situation where a child has more than one language, the stronger their language skills in the first language, the more likely it is that they will develop strong English skills. If kids are having lively conversations in the first language where they are learning about lots of different topics, then when they learn the English words for those same topics they already have knowledge and skills in those areas that can just be connected to the English words.

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