“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.
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.