Episode Five: Lemlem Gebray
Traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremonies are focal points for making connections with friends and loved ones. It’s not a small undertaking, with three servings of coffee paired with popcorn, barley and other baked goods after a multi-course lunch or dinner. Lemlem Gebray is teaching her daughters, Datta and Akeza Seyoum, in the Ethiopian coffee ceremony tradition for the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program. In this Episode of Folklife Fieldnotes, we honor the coffee ceremony with Lemlem and her daughters.
Pat Jarrett: This year we have a very special pairing that's a mother and daughter team. That's Lemlem Gebray and her twin daughters Akeza and Datta - they're in Richmond. An Ethiopian coffee Ceremony is a really interesting experience. The coffee ceremony involves, yes making coffee, but let's put it this way, if you're invited to coffee at the house of someone from Ethiopia. Or if you're an Ethiopian and are invited over for coffee, you're not getting out of there in 20 minutes. To bring someone over for coffee is to have fellowship and to share stories and to perhaps work out issues that need to be talked over seriously over coffee. To invite someone for coffee in Ethiopia is to spend hours with them.
Lemlem Gebray: Coffee ceremony – come, get together. That means it’s not coffee only. Whatever you have - share. Give someone more sharing everything. My country, we have small stuff, but we share each other. So, coffee, not only coffee. We have a lunchtime, dinnertime coffee. Come drink coffee for a few minutes when you have time, drink a coffee. That means with lunch or with dinner.
Chris Boros: So, what is the apprenticeship program all about them? It's obviously not just about making coffee.
PJ: Correct. This is something that we do with the Folklife program, we see living traditions that are in our state. We identify them and we want to honor them. So we tend not to step in to tell someone what to do, but we support the instruction and the passing on of knowledge. So, Akeza and Datta are of the age where they're starting to learn how to do a coffee ceremony and Lemlem, their mother, is teaching them how to do this.
LG: Most every person drinks coffee a day, twice or one time. Some people doesn't have food. I think they guide them appetite, stay long, without food, or culture. Early morning, I would wake up with coffee and noon also everybody working outside and come back house. They drink coffee.
PJ: How coffee ceremony works or at least how I've experienced it, I've been invited to two of them so far. When I was invited for coffee at their home, there was a six-course buffet. I think at least six presented to me and it was chicken in this deeply savory sauce, served with injera bread, which is that kind of spongy, fermented bread. You eat with your hands. Chris, everything was delicious. There were salads, they were vegetables. There was wonderfully stewed meets, hard-boiled eggs in a savory sauce. And there are different breads, different treats, and then we're invited to the coffee ceremony after eating.
LG: First, you bring fresh coffee. You bring a whole material and you sit down after coffee. And after you give adult age has higher you, give someone fresh coffee and he pray over coffee. We have different age right now, for example, I show you downstairs. And you pray for all, president, we pray for poor people, for problem people, everything you pray after they give me back. And I make in the grinder. Coffee beans. We add it there and most times we do charcoal and after that we asked sugar or someone need milk and younger people like Akeza and Datta they serve you.
PJ: It's a very special ceremony, where the goal is, Lemlem was telling me, a lot of times people will come together over coffee to resolve an issue. So perhaps you've got to have a difficult discussion with one of your relatives or perhaps you just want to catch up with someone close to you, you invite them over and you light incense the children serve treats and bread and traditionally popcorn, sometimes barley. There's a lot of food going on itself. This is like a Sunday thing, actually Lemlem and her husband Sayoum do this on Sundays after church. So think of it like Sunday supper, you know, overeat spread the love. The incense is burning; it smells very nice, and green coffee beans are introduced and the elder of the room, whoever is the oldest, will pray over the beans and offer blessing. Then they are roasted there in a frying pan, at least Lemlem used a little cast-iron pan to brown them. The roasting of those beans is just to introduce the smell into the room. Traditionally, there is an altar set up with leaves under it, where 12 cups are placed. There's a heating element, and coffee grounds are placed in a jebena, which is a specific coffee pot. Water is boiled. It has a gooseneck and coffee is served after it roasts over charcoal.
LG: After ready the coffee, the young people, Akeza and Datta, they give popcorn and some cookies, some bread and they give around. After, coffee they give it to you after you eat a little bit. Probably the people is hungry to come to you. They have to eat first. And they give coffee. They cook not like machine. Coffee have a smell like, something very good. Good stuff. I show you over there. I show you next time when we go downstairs. We cook over there slowly and come down coffee and I give it to you.
PJ: The flavor is very strong. It's served in these very tiny, almost shot glasses, of coffee, But they're always 12 as a nod to the, at least Lemlem told me, as a nod to The Twelve Apostles. They’re Christian. One of the oldest forms of Christianity is practiced in Ethiopia. So the people in the room are asked how they like their coffee. It's not really specific. They don't look down on you. If you want sugar cream.
CB: I was going to ask you, if I asked for cream and sugar would I be laughed at?
PJ: You would not. I think they looked at me a little sideways when I said I like it black, but I just like the flavor of coffee. I think Ethiopia has the best beans, but I might be biased on that. Granted, Ethiopia is considered to be the birthplace of coffee. So give credit where credit's, due, right?
LG: Coffee means to relax. This is calm. Everybody is like spend time. Not for coffee only, spend time together. Laughing. Joking. Like someone have problem, fix it over coffee. And coffee is three times. You drink three times.
PJ: Something that's not typical is the children will serve snacks and food and coffee. They will walk around asking the adults in the room. So that's a unique perspective on this. And typically, there are three cups of coffee served, which is significant. The first one is the best cup of coffee. It's a strongest. That's the first one. 2 is less strong still, very good. And the third one is just for good luck, and you always have to drink the third one. I feel like everything in the Ethiopian coffee ceremony is designed to keep people together and having good conversation.
LG: But ceremony in processing, you involve it very young age, after five years or six years old.
Akeza: Some parents would teach you but for instance, me and Datta, we've gone to Ethiopia, like, millions, millions of times with Mom. Like a few times mom has taught us but usually we would always see the adults doing it.
LG: Because you girls were born in America that’s why they let you.
PJ: So coffee is poured, and it's distributed amongst the people in the room. And what's interesting is, if you don't compliment the coffee, this is kind of one of those traditions, if you don't say that's good coffee, or if you don't compliment that's delicious, you are made another cup of coffee until you say it's good coffee. They'll throw out the whole pot and they'll make another one if you don't say it's good. And it's funny because as a knee-jerk reaction in the morning, even if it's just me making coffee for myself, after I take my first sip of coffee, a lot of times, I find myself saying that's good coffee.
CB: That's beautiful. A little bit of this Ethiopian tradition has now worked its way into your personal life. I love it.
PJ: I mean, it was already there. I'll tell you, it was weird because that's the thing, Chris, the first time I went, I took a sip and I said, oh, that's good coffee. Just as a knee-jerk reaction. And Lemlem asked me how I knew that I needed to say that and I said, well, I just practice it this way. This is like, a knee-jerk reaction. I think it was the right move even though I did it. Unconsciously.
LG: Coffee have very big meaning. The way I grow as poor but very good heart. And look like the same, not high and low. No. All human being, you look like the same way. You’re treated the same way
Akeza: No matter who you are, whether you know them or not, they're all still family. We'd probably be serving, but we wouldn't be drinking the coffee, obviously, but we would be serving the adults having himbasha, which is a type of bread. Little types of candies, cookies, you know, stuff like that. Over time, it's like involved into, you know, more modern stuff.
Datta: Yeah, we serve, but we have to kneel down.
Akeza: You always kneel down just for a sign of respect to elders, or something like that.
Datta: Or if we’re in Ethiopia, we have to serve the older to the youngest. And we always have to ask everyone just in case.
LG: Yeah, most time we do Sunday after church because everybody is working and we take off Sunday afternoon and we do here. We fix it and they helped us, helping me.
Datta: It's really fun to do it. You get to learn new stuff.
Akeza: A lot about our culture we've learned. We still have way way much to learn but at first just baby steps.
Datta: Baby tiny steps but you’ll get used to it.
PJ: There is a civil war going on in the Tigray region right now in Ethiopia. They haven't been able to go back and Sayoum, Lemlem’s husband, works closely with the Afghan refugees coming in from Afghanistan. They have been going through a lot in their lives right now, and they haven't been able to go and visit their relatives in Ethiopia. And it's breaking their hearts because the children have such a connection to Ethiopia.
CB: Do you think this ceremony is a way for them to connect with their homeland?
PJ: I think it is. These children have seen it their whole lives. It has to be comforting. If you think about Sunday dinner at home with your family, I mean, I have fond memories of sitting around the table with my grandparents in Ohio having fried chicken because that's what Grandpa like to eat. And I'm sure that there's that connection to these girls and Ethiopia. They speak about that actually.
Datta: we get to like learn new family members. Visit them. We learn the culture and how to speak the culture.
Akeza: Now that I think about it, we've never actually been taught. I mean few times we’ve been taught, but we’ve actually never been taught any languages. We just like just seen and then we eventually hear other people saying the English version, I guess, and it just got in our head I guess. And that’s how we learned our first Saho.
Datta: We hear our parents speak it every single day, so we get kind of used to it and we hear new words and we get the point where we can speak it fluently.
Akeza: Yeah, like our dad, he speaks English to us and then our mom speaks Saho to us, which is one of our languages. So it's like a win-win.
CB: I think everyone listening right now about the ceremony is a little jealous of you, Pat. I mean, it sounds like who wouldn't want to have a six-course meal and have beautiful coffee prepared right in front of your face. This sounds like a beautiful thing that you were able to be a part of.
PJ: I'm really lucky to know these people, to make friends. They’re in Richmond and there are Ethiopian communities around DC and in Richmond. I just think it's very interesting that coffee is never just coffee with Ethiopians. You know, we kind of joked, about how this isn’t really Starbucks, is it?
CB: If there was an Ethiopian coffee shop, they’d have a sign on the door that says you need four hours to come in here.
PJ: You know, at one time when I was in DC, you could schedule an Ethiopian coffee ceremony at one of these coffee shops. And I forget which Cafe it was. However, I don't think you'd want to do that in a coffee shop. It being in someone's home lends so much to the comfort lends so much to the connection. And there's, I want to say, social vulnerability, isn't there? With inviting someone into your home and spending time with them. It's great.
LG: Even if I’m mad with my mommy, my neighbor say, oh no, you have to respect to your mommy. Let's drink coffee with me, this time, this afternoon and when I go she bring up that issue. She find out. It's a hug hug, like just forgiveness. You try like that and a really good heart. I mean, you hear good thing, you treat people good thing and some misunderstanding you correct over for.
PJ: It's also, Chris, mostly a family thing. These girls were talking about how when they would go back with her mother in Ethiopia, they weren't serving because they were guests, but they were all family so they all knew each other and it's great. These girls aren't just picking up on the practice of the coffee ceremony, but they're also picking up on the language because there's so many languages spoken in Ethiopia. I think around 100 languages. And so they're learning their family’s language. They speak the language with their mother. It's wonderful.
Akeza: You always want to learn your culture. Obviously, since we were born in America and our parents were born in Ethiopia, it’s probably like if you were born in America and your parents are from, you know, not from here.
Datta: You want to learn a little bit of American and Ethiopian because when you go there, you'll know …
Akeza: … every single step. So you’re not confused.
LG: It’s a good thing also, respect adult. Share good heart. Share with someone who doesn’t have. Share information and share love. Anything helpful. Helpful – my country is very helpful. So coffee time means like meeting with family, with someone, with your neighbor, with your friend, with your family. You meet – misunderstand, he mad at you. Or just feel bad. You have to over coffee get together and be together. I mean, help him. Some people is poor, some people is middle class and high class. If we like I don't have this, I don't have that. You have to find out over coffee.
CB: When you were at the ceremony where they speaking these languages or do they speak English?
PJ: It was a little bit of both. Lemlem doesn’t speak English quite as well as her daughter's do; her daughter's don't speak as well as she does. It's interesting because they're all Virginians. Lemlem kept coming back to coffee being a medium for connection. Much like a lot of these communities that we've talked about before on the show. We've talked about music being a medium and martial arts being a medium and this particular relationship, it's a smaller community because it's more focused on a family unit, and the medium is coffee.
LG: Some times, a parent, also, is not healthy, parent is tired, and even Grandma. We live far away from each other. When I married, I go somewhere, I sent for my mommy. That’s why we learn early coffee. Most adults drink coffee. When we come here, little bit for us adults, little bit confusing. I mean - very social in my country, we touch each other and here …
Akeza: … nobody talks.
LG: From many countries people come, I am not blame them, but it’s a little bit different.
Akeza: Now that I realized going to Ethiopia and going here is basically with the people. A lot of people in Ethiopia are very loving. Very, very loving. They welcome you. But also it doesn't matter what you look like, who look like, who you are. They're still family.
Datta: They'll accept you.
Akeza: Accept you whoever you are, but over here you are judged by so many people.
LG: Even if you go right now, me and you, we treat you the same.
Datta: They’ll treat you like we’re equal.
CB: I wonder if we can learn from this. A lot of us take our coffee to go and we're running to work, but maybe we should just make a cup of coffee, sit down with our loved ones, talk it out, and have a great Sunday afternoon.
PJ: Chris, I’ve certainly taken something away from this, and I am trying to be more intentional with my time. What else do we have in life that's finite is time? And so I want to savor that as I would savor a nice cup of coffee on my porch with someone I really care about.
CB: Well, you're invited over to my place for coffee any time, Pat.
PJ: I'll see you Sunday.