Thursday, November 7, 2013

Coffee in the Eyes of the First Coffee Drinkers – the Oromo People

By Begna Dugassa, Ph.D. | November 7, 2013

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.
― Philip Pullman
The above statement is the words of Philip Pullman— a British famous writer. Pullman placed story telling in the category of essential life sustaining conditions similar to that of the food that nourishes our physical body, shelter that shield us from social and natural environmental hazards and love that nourishes our soul. In agreement with the Pullmans words, I encourage everyone to tell their own stories and present their world in the lenses through which they see the world around them. Under the above title, in three separate short articles, I want to present stories to the curious minded coffee drinkers and readers. These articles will cover exclusively about coffee, written from the perspective of Oromo people – the first coffee drinkers.
Globally when billions of people are rushing every morning to work or simply when they are waking up feeling un-refreshed they sip cups of coffee. Indeed, as an Oromo farmer put it, “if the Oromo people did not introduce coffee to the world, the world community remains sleepy”. I am a coffee drinker.  I know most of the coffee drinkers are curious people- very often you see them read their favorite newspapers, journals or surf on internet. At the same time, I know billions of people who drink coffee do not know much about the hot beverage they are enjoying every day. They do not know much about the history of their favorite drink.  There are hundreds of coffee companies that compete with each other to try to attract us. If I use the language of business, the coffee brewers are competing to understand their customers tastes (our taste) and better serve their customers (us – me and you).  Most of those companies do not know much about the history of their business product. Having said this first let me briefly tell you how the need to write this story was initiated.
The word Faranji comes from the word French. The Oromo oral story suggests that their first contact with European was with the French person. When the Oromo man saw the white person he said, “I am an Oromo. Who are you?”  The white person said “I am French”. The Oromo mispronounced the word French and used the term “Faranii” to all fair skin people.
After my absence from my home village for over two decades, two years ago I visited my lovely village. When I say lovely, some of you might say it is not luxury. I live in one of the major metropolitan cities in North America. Compared to my fellow villagers, I have plenty. However, although I spend most of my days in a high-rise building, at night time in my dreams I go back to my sweet village Gooda Riqiicha. This means for me nothing is better than my village – Gooda Riqiicha.
When I visited my home village many of my childhood friends, elders and the younger generation came to see me.  They bombarded me with unexpected questions. One of the challenging questions they asked me was, what do the people in Biyya Faranji – (white man’s country) do that is different from what is done in Oromo country? I was not prepared to answer that question. When I looked at each of them they were all looking at me and waiting for my answer. Remembering the number of newspapers, magazines and books published every day and electronic information that circulates every second in the Western world, I said “in the white man’s world”, events are recorded and this helped each generation to learn from the mistake of the past. This helped them not to prevent the mistakes of the past generation.  Reporting and recording events helped them to keep details about events. If they do not have detailed information about the event they analyze and interpret the information they have”.  One of the elderly men asked me if I would recommend that the younger generation write about events.  I said ‘yes’.  However, in back of my mind, I knew that the Ethiopian government does not allow them write. I know the Ethiopian government is allergic to free media in general and the Oromo media in particular. One of the women asked me, if I have ever written anything. I felt that I failed them, because all of my writings are either in Russian or in English.  Most of the Oromo people cannot understand these languages. Yet, here I am again writing this story in English rather than Afaan Oromoo.
The point I want to raise is the importance of writing and recording events. My intention of writing about coffee is basically to speak the importance of telling stories and recording events.  I believe that telling a story about coffee gives a fresher aroma to the drink that many people enjoy every day. At the same time, telling a story helps coffee drinkers refresh their minds and satisfies their curiosity.
Many Oromo stories are told orally and it is rarely available in writing. Those foreigners who have told in writing about the Oromo people and about coffee have knowingly and unknowingly distorted it. This has distorted the authenticity of the information. Telling legends about coffee and telling stories from the perspective of the Oromo people is very important. Such stories introduce the Oromo people to the world and validate their knowledge. For example, coffee marketers and farmers know that there are two major varieties of coffee: Coffee Arabica and Coffee Robusta. It has been scud that the name coffee Arabica was given because it was the Yemenis who started trading it. Similarly coffee Robusta came about because the Belgian company Robusta stated trading the given variety from the Belgian colony – Congo or Zaire.  Although there are no dispute about the origin of coffee being Oromia and the neighboring region of Kafficho, the colonial mind-set is not ready to name these coffees the way they should be named – Coffee Oromia for coffee Arabica and Coffee Congo for Coffee Robusta. Having said this now let me directly go to the myth and legend about coffee plantation. The legend is based on the Oromo indigenous episteme.

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