Every culture is unique: Ethiopia's is more so. Over the years in this Eastern Africa country, many cultures have touched and exchanged motifs, phrases, food, and ideas, while still preserving the truly autonomous culture that refused colonization, alone in the continent. Next to the old man sitting beneath his vibrant purple shawl to guard a gate, patience writ across his face and a dazzling white lace prayer cap on his head, is a Land Rover of a new model and a driver with Ray-bans. Young men talk on their cell phones while driving donkey carts.
One cultural motif that appears everywhere—as insidious as frankincense in the wind–is the coffee, or buna, ceremony. Here in the land where coffee was discovered growing wild many centuries ago the ritual of preparing coffee has reached a fine point. In every home, from dirt floor to marble, you will find the charcoal burner, jabena pot, and tray with sini cups that form the ritual.
"Here, we always drink coffee together." my host tells me. "We are very connected with our neighbors, and we have buna and talk about life." Ceremonies can last for hours as the coffee is roasted, ground, brewed, and drunk. It is an essential safe place for the new and the old to meet, with nearly all 82 tribes uniting in ritual around Ethiopia. In rural areas it is part of witchcraft ceremonies, the smoke an offering to the spirits.
This week I had the privilege of experiencing my first Ethiopian buna ceremony. As a coffee professional of 8 years and counting, to spend the winter with my husband and daughter in the birthplace of coffee is highly romantic, a rich coming-home that I little expected when I said yes to the opportunity.
Our friend is a busy man in the export business. He first took us to his home to share white honey from his origin-place in the north of Ethiopia, Tigray. And then he offered us coffee. I said yes out of instinct: I had forgotten what that means here. He pulled up chairs for us in the courtyard and his wife began to drag out the geometric green-and-white mat, the white cupboard with six small white cups and saucers, the frankincense burner, the charcoal stove (medijah), the skillet filled with green coffee, and the straw fan for waving away smoke. She had a faint smile on her face as she began the ceremony.
I've been around a lot of roasting coffee and I'm familiar with its smells, sounds, and presence. But this experience was far more visceral. The beans rustle in the pan, back and forth, back and forth. The occasional flip of the wrist sends them into the air and collapsing back into the shallow skillet. The fire crackles and thick grey wisps of smoke rise to blow into our eyes, heavy with the chunks of frankincense, til now to me merely a mythical spice and now an unforgettable olfactory memory. We talk peacefully among ourselves, the sun dappling the children's cheeks as they run around us. When the coffee hits first, then second crack, it is startlingly loud. Our hostess begins fanning rapidly with a circular woven straw mat as the coffee darkens, oils surface, and finally it is held out to each guest to wave the smoke to his or her nose and nod approvingly.
In our brewing we emphasize keeping coffee from overextraction: we recommend using a timer, and brews are usually between 3 and 4 minutes. In buna, though, the coffee is boiled, poured into another vessel and back into the ornate pot, boiled and poured again, and over and over until the kadami (buna maker) deems it finished. A tiny amount of coffee is poured then from one small cup into the next until all have been coated with oily brown liquid, and then they are filled to the brim and handed with grace to each guest to be enjoyed at leisure.
The coffee is thick with particulates, especially at the bottom of the cup, and has a bracing woody hit on the palate. I know I'm lucky that this time around, the coffee is drawn from a Grade 2 Yirgacheffe sample our friend had on hand from the recent harvest cycle: often the coffee is local reject market (the scrapings of the quality barrel, in other words). White sugar is offered with each cup. Popcorn is eaten by the handful while the ceremony proceeds.
For me, coming from my hometown of Portland, Oregon, where I spend my days emailing, making hard decisions, interfacing with businesses, and trying hard to juggle the labor with parenthood and a healthy life, the buna ceremony offers a window into a kind of leisure I find I value more than I knew: a sweetness in everyday life and a magic found in familiar moments. Over the next few months I know I will partake in many more buna ceremonies, and each will be different while still calling forth the countless other ceremonies around this beautiful Ethiopian community worldwide. And further, the grace of buna will bestow an intention on my coffee preparation at other times. As I sleepily grind my coffee, measure and brew through my pourover, and drink with the day's first batch of emails, I will breathe a little deeper and remember the hard and beautiful lives of my friends in the Horn of Africa. The grace of buna, like the grace of the Ethiopian people themselves, can suffuse us in every facet of our lives, if we let it.
— Emily McIntyre