Cup of Ethiopian coffee with the flag of Judah on it (Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

No coffee, please, but Ethiopia can burn

Ethiopia, the home of coffee, falls apart under the world’s muddled gaze while Portugal implements arbitrary Covid-19 restrictions on caffeine consumption

Portugal recently captured the world media’s Covid-19 headlines due to rapidly worsening infection and death rates. It had the highest seven-day average globally of daily cases and deaths per million in January. Beyond the tragedy implicit in that for so many Portuguese families, at a more practical everyday level I found I was more impacted by one of the counter measures taken by the Portuguese government: allowing cafés to stay open for takeaway, but with no coffee permitted to be served.

Ethiopians take their coffee birth right very seriously

Forlorn-looking Portuguese café owners—the bits of the face you could see around the mask evoked mournfulness—told me the policy was proving a nightmare for business because very few people go to a café to just buy a pastry to go. A person goes to get a coffee to go and likely a pastry with it—but not to only get a pastry. It just doesn’t work like that. Of course it doesn’t: a pastry isn’t a psychotropic drug, which is exactly what coffee delivers. Caffeine is the most widely used psychotropic—also known as psychoactive—drug in the world. And if you are not convinced by that and are a regular coffee drinker, go cold turkey for a few days without having a coffee and see how you feel. It’s not nice.

I came to terms with being a habitual user of this psychotropic drug long ago, primarily because it would have been rude not to when I was living and working in Ethiopia, the godly home of Arabica coffee. Ethiopians take their coffee birth right very seriously. Coffee is traditionally served in Ethiopia with a ceremony lasting a couple of hours involving “abol” (the first round), “tona” (the second round), followed by the final round “beureuka”, which means blessing.

The term “coffee” is said to derive from Kaffa, the ancient name for Ethiopia’s present-day Oromia region, where legend has it that sometime around the sixth century, a curious goatherder named Khaldi spotted his goats eating red berries from a shrub he’d never seen before, after which they became particularly frisky. So Khaldi gave the berries a try himself and felt similarly frisky.

However the coffee bean was actually discovered in Ethiopia, breakfast times across the world would never be the same again without the multibillion-dollar global coffee industry we have developed. Coffee is the world’s second-most valuable exported legal commodity after oil. Exports during 2020 alone were worth some $17.87 billion, according to the International Coffee Organisation.

Coffee eventually replaced beer and wine as a breakfast drink in the mid-seventeenth century

But while the superior Arabica coffee bean began in Ethiopia—as did the human race when our forebears headed out from the Rift Valley about 400,000 years ago—the stirring beverage we know today only began to receive attention after Ethiopian beans reached what is now known as Yemen, spreading to Egypt, Syria and Turkey during the sixteenth century while beginning to be infused with heated water. After European travellers and traders encountered the rich black liquid, coffee made it to Europe by the seventeenth century. After encountering some initial resistance, coffee eventually replaced beer and wine as a breakfast drink in the mid-seventeenth century at the same time coffee house culture began, with profound implications on the course of history.

“This coffee falls into your stomach, and straightway there is a general commotion,” remarked the nineteenth-century French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac as he sipped his coffee for inspiration. “Ideas begin to move like the battalions of the Grand Army of the battlefield, and the battle takes place.” I remember a shortened version of the quote dangling from the roof in Tomoca coffee house in the centre of Addis Ababa, a bastion of the Ethiopian capital’s coffee scene since 1953 when it was just one of a handful of firms in Ethiopia roasting coffee.

The commotion that Balzac alludes to meant coffee houses in seventeenth-century Europe became a spot not just to enjoy a cup but to exchange ideas with all sorts of people. “The idea that you could go and sit next to someone as an equal was radical,” says Markman Ellis, author of The Coffee House: A Cultural History.

This breaking down of hierarchies happened in coffee houses all over Europe and beyond, with no small impact. Literature, newspapers and even the works of great composers like Bach and Beethoven were spurred on in coffee houses, it’s claimed, while some argue the French and American revolutions were planned in coffee houses. Might all this be on the minds of our governments now as they impose draconian restrictions, including how and when we can imbibe some thought-provoking caffeine?

It was explained to me that the Portuguese government’s logic for permitting cafes to open for takeaway but not to sell coffee was because, previously, after buying takeaway coffees talkative Portuguese lingered outside chatting to everyone else doing likewise, potentially contravening social distancing guidance. Given the way so many people appear to be going along unquestioningly with everything they are told by governments, scientists and the rotating door of modern-day seers, I suspect the Portuguese government weren’t as concerned about the risk of coffee-fuelled dissenting fervour as about social distancing being flouted.

It would take a gargantuan effort by Abiy’s government to put a lid on caffeine-fuelled meetings in Ethiopia

It’s hard to imagine that Portuguese coffee drinkers would have got to talking about revolution—the longer I spend in this fine country, the more conscious I am of how acquiescent the Portuguese are to restrictions compared to the likes of Americans, whose often maddening and unhelpful libertarian streak I can’t deny missing as whole societies seem intent on mimicking Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis. That said, had the Portuguese been able to remain gathering outside their cafés, coffee cups in hands, they might have got to talking more about why Portuguese hospitals became so overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases. They might have asked whether the hospitals running out of beds, with dwindling oxygen supplies and overstretched doctors and nurses that resulted in military medics being flown in from Germany to help, was simply because of the scale of the pandemic or the lack of support and investment by the country’s left-wing government.

I’ve heard particularly harsh words from some Portuguese for their socialist-rhetoric-espousing leaders, noting the discrepancy between their one-for-all-and-all-for-one Musketeer pretensions and their capitalistic personal behaviour, hoovering up the best real estate deals and the like. Does this historical dynamic ever change? Is it ever any different anywhere in the world? you start to wonder as your tears fall into your coffee cup brewed in isolation at home while you rail against the hypocrisy of the world and its leaders.

Even the world’s largest and most genuine and effective socialistic organisation—the Catholic Church—keeps succumbing to mercantile temptations going off reports of the Vatican taking an annual billion-dollar stipend from China, as detailed in Damian Thompson’s punchy Holy Smoke podcast.

The Portuguese government’s limitations on caffeine consumed in the public sphere makes me think again of Ethiopia, whose previous authoritarian regimes, along with the current one that is doing a damn good job of shifting at speed in a similar direction—since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military offensive against the country’s most northern region of Tigray, the Nobel Peace Prize he won in 2019 has presumably been moved to a less noticeable spot in the prime minister’s residence—have always done their best to snuff out dissent wherever it might happen.

During the years of political unrest that led to Abiy coming to power in 2018, at one point the khat houses of Addis Ababa began to be raided by the police. Previously, these louche dens where you could while away a nice Saturday afternoon chewing on the leaves of the khat plant and enjoy their mildly narcotic effect had been left alone. I was told the government had become concerned there was too much talk taking place in the khat houses that dovetailed with the protests happening on the streets.

Journalists I worked with in Ethiopia tell me that the situation now is worse than anything they have ever known

Coffee consumption in Ethiopia’s public realm is so widespread and multi-layered—from the likes of the venerable Tomoca to mainstream coffee shops impersonating Starbucks to individuals running street-side brewing stations—that it would take a gargantuan effort by Abiy’s government and its security apparatus to put a lid on caffeine-fuelled meetings in Ethiopia, plus they probably realise that could really provoke revolution, so ingrained is coffee drinking in Ethiopian culture. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the Ethiopian government is going to such efforts to control how the media reports on the clandestine Tigray offensive and its terrible fallout.

“The Ethiopian government is hellbent on its path to intimidate and detain journalists so as to undermine the right to press freedom and the right to know of its citizens,” Angela Quintal, the Africa program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement following the December arrest of 38-year-old Kumerra Gemechu, an Ethiopian cameraman working for Reuters. He was released after being detained without charge for 12 days, his experience being the tip of the iceberg for journalists based in Ethiopia.

They are trying to report on events in Tigray including artillery strikes on populated areas, deliberate targeting and massacres of civilians, extrajudicial killings and widespread looting and rape—including reports of the use of gang rape and forced incestuous rape as a tool of psychological warfare—by troops, including Eritrean soldiers being harnessed by Abiy to assist his government’s endeavours. Journalists I worked with in Ethiopia tell me that the situation now is worse than anything they have ever known. Journalists are being detained, facing threats and harassment, and it looks like some may have been killed because of their work.

The next time you enjoy a coffee, do spare a thought for its beleaguered home

Reports about the conflict indicate a scale of butchery that had a disturbing Spectator article make comparisons with the type of brutality that occurred in Rwanda. The article also notes, as previously discussed in The Critic, the mutability of which Black Lives (actually) Matter. Alleged massacres in Tigray have been given credence by the likes of Amnesty International and other international groups—it is only the Ethiopian government’s lockdown of Tigray and enforced information blackout that is stopping these massacres being verified, along with, I fear, many others that have happened and those that are yet to happen.

Another important takeaway from the Rwanda comparison, beyond the fact that the grizzly deaths in Tigray are happening under the rule of a man to whom the international community awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, should be how that hellish catastrophe in 1994 took place when the world had nothing like Covid-19 to distract attention and discombobulate the international response.

The next time you enjoy a coffee, do spare a thought for its beleaguered home and for those once again falling beneath the machetes and knives in Africa.

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