The East African countries of Eritrea and Ethiopia have recently resolved a decades-long conflict, but you wouldn’t know that from their communities in Launceston. People from both countries came together on Thursday to enjoy one of the most treasured aspects of both of their cultures: a cup of coffee.
The Eritrean and Ethiopian Communities Coffee Ceremony was part of the Tamar Valley Peace Festival, and it had the halls of the Migrant Resource Centre North spilling with both bodies and piping hot cups of coffee. In fact, more people showed up than expected, with MRC North chief executive Ella Dixon feeling mixed about the large turnout.
“I don’t know if we’ll be able to keep up with coffee demand,” she said.
“Coffee is great, it’s a great meeting excuse, isn’t it? We know from the community kitchen project that if you introduce food or a beverage like coffee to an event that people do start to talk. It’s a great informal way of introducing people to one another.”
And this wasn’t just any coffee. Eritrean woman Samrawit Fitwi and her friends spent more than two hours the night before preparing the brew, starting with Ethiopian green beans and roasting and grinding them until they met the high East African standards.
“The coffee ceremony is a very, very important thing in our culture,” said Ms Fitwi.
“I know many countries drink coffee, but the way we make it is different from other places. In every moment we do coffee: when we get together with friends, when we get together with family, for any celebrations, in our sadness, in our happiness - everything.”
The coffee ceremony on Thursday mimicked the way it is performed in Ethiopia and Eritrea. The coffee is served by the women, who master the intricacies of its preparation over their lifetimes. It is brewed in a clay instrument called a jebena, and served three times over the course of a discussion. The first is called Awol, the second Kalai, and the third Bereka, and drinkers are supposed to be respectful and present for as long as the ceremony takes place.
The MRC event was held indoors, but in Eritrea the coffee would be boiled over charcoal - it makes it taste sweeter, according to Eritrean Community President Dawit Adhanom. He said if any event, good or bad, occurs in his motherland, he knows exactly what to do.
“You go to the shop, and you buy coffee, popcorn [for eating], jebena, and charcoal,” he said.
“The people of many years ago, the ancient people, were using coffee culturally to integrate. It was a way for them to share their lives, what they were feeling, their emotions, their happiness - it made them united.
“If there is some problem being faced by the people, the people demand a meeting and the meeting is going to be accompanied by coffee.”
The beverage also fulfils an important family function, Mr Adhanom said.
“In our culture the crucial thing is that coffee makes the family be in one place, at the one table,” he said.
“The children are all gathered at once, and the mum and the dad can share whatever they need to their children at the same time. The parents can also use the coffee to discuss what they are going to do; to make a plan for their future.
“Even the mother - that is sometimes the only time she can find with her husband. He has to go to work, but if there is coffee, the husband should never go somewhere. They can sit, she can look at him, they will share their love, and they can discuss their situation looking at each other, face-to-face.”
The importance of coffee is one tradition among many that is shared by the peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia. Mr Adhanom said that while the two countries have made the news for their border wars, for the everyday people, there is little difference between the citizens of the two countries.
“We are a separated country, but that doesn’t mean we are a separated people,” he said.
“Eritrea used to be part of the state of Ethiopia and after a lot of struggle, 30 years of struggle, we had a liberation. But religiously, culturally, we are the same people. Here in Launceston, we visit them, they visit us, if there is any baptism or so on we celebrate together.”
The Tamar Valley Peace Event is timely. This month Ethiopia sent an ambassador to Eritrea for the first time, and the leaders of the two countries were photographed embracing and declaring “a new era of peace and friendship.”
And their citizens who have fled the conflict and fled halfway across the world have found something in common with many Australians.
“Our people believe that the coffee is related to god,” said Mr Adhanom.
“It’s really, very important. They have to drink coffee early in the morning, or otherwise they will never go to work.”
For more information on this year’s Tamar Valley Peace Festival, including a full list of events and how to get involved, go to www.tamarcommunitypeace.org.au