By Begna Dugassa, Ph.D.
“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.
Coffee: Bunno’s Flesh and God’s Tear
Oromos believe that our pathways in life (prior of conception to death) are predetermined by God. God predetermine the causes of death before everyone is born. In an extraordinary child cases God speaks to the child’s parents about it. Before a child named Bunno was born, God spoke to his parent that he would be killed by a buffalo. As expected, Bunno grew from being a wise and humble child to a Holy man – God’s favorite person. One day Bunno did something silly and a fault in the eyes of God. He was ashamed of what he had done and felt remorse about seeing God. He felt that he did not deserve to stand in front of God anymore. Bunno used his manly wisdom to run away from God. Bunno knew how he was going to die. He knew that a buffalo would kill him. To avoid early death, Bunno ran to the area where there are no buffalo.
On his way, he went to a village and asked fellow villagers if he could stay the night in their house. As very often happened they said “maani haan waqayooti” – this house belongs to God – yes you can stay. Bunno knew that God will not kill him – but he knew that God would not protect him anymore. It was from this understanding that Bunno decided to go where there are no buffalo. That night it was rainy and windy. The wind was strong and it moved a tiny marble from where it was kept. The marble hit the tip of a stick. The stick hit the seal and dropped the horn of buffalo from where it was kept. Bunno did not know that the families with whom he stayed were buffalo hunters. He did not expect that there would be a buffalo’s horn in the house. The buffalo horn fall on Bunno’s head and killed him.
When the family walk-up next morning and were getting ready for work they found out that Bunno was dead. The buffalo’s horn had killed him. It was not a usual accident. In the Oromo tradition, they bury family members close to each other. Given that Bunno was from a distant place– from the lowland region, they took his body to the lowland region and buried him. God usually hear about the good dids of Bunno from people and the natural world. Sometimes Bunno personally went to see God for consultation. God waited for several days before he gave attention and started to look for Bunno. God soon found out that Bunno was buried in barren land. God felt sorry for the untimely death of Bunno. God loved Bunno. God poured his mighty tears on Bunno’s grave.
The family and community members of Bunno had been looking for him since the first day of his disappearance. When they gave up looking, they decided to visit Ekker Dubbistu. Ekker Dubistu told them what had happened to him and told them where he was buried. The family and community members followed the direction that Ekker Dubistu has given to them in search of Bunno’s grave. When they arrived after six months at Bunno’s burial place the local people were in a meeting trying to solve two puzzles. The first puzzle was, why God poured his tears on Bunno’s grave. The second puzzle was to find out if the plant now budding on Bunnos grave were growing elsewhere.
Bunno’s family and community were not sure of the nature of the meeting and somewhat worried. If the people were gathered to celebrate, it was not right for them to conduct mourning ceremony. They headed to the meeting and said “nagaan isiin hata’u – let you be in peace. The people at the meeting responded saying “isiniifiis hata’u – to you as well. Following this greeting they heard “nagaa fi fayyan hunda kesaniif hata’u- let you all be peace and good health. The third greetings come from a tree. No one ever heard a tree speaking before. Everyone looked at each other with surprise and some are concerned. They try to see, if someone was hiding on the tree or under the tree. Again, they heard a tree saying “tasgabahaa anaa – Waaqa Guracha” – calm down it is me the almighty Black God. It is not the tree that speaks; it is me who is using the tree to speak. When the people heard that, they said “tasgabi nukeeni Waaqi” give us calmness and order, God.
Ekker Dubistu is few among Oromo religious leaders who are anointed with the power of talking to the spirit of the dead.
Now everyone realized that Bunno was not an ordinary person. The local people asked the members of the Bunno’s family and community to speak at the meeting and give testimony about Bunno. When the family members started speaking everyone kept quiet and listened with undivided attention. The family and community members spoke one after the other about the fact that he was a very humble man. The family and the community loved Bunno. Bunno loved the family and the community. Bunno was God’s favorite person. The people at the meeting realized that they had to give the Bunno’s family and community members the time to express their grief over the death of this extraordinary man. The family members took their time to do so.
Everyone who attended the meeting and the family members were amazed hearing God speaking to them through tree. At the same time they were worried. One of the elders stood and turned his face to the tree and asked God to speak to them. He asked God to give them advice. God said “what I gave you is complete. Do not listen to those who claim to have new revelations. You always need to seek nagaa (peace), fayya (health) and tasgabi (social order) for yourself, your community and natural world. I gave you minds to think, eyes to see, arms to work, legs to walk. Use all your body parts effectively to bring peace, better health and social order. If you have problems use your minds, hands and legs to solve them. In extraordinary cases I will speak to Qaalu leaders through Kalacha. I also speak through mora (fatty tissues on the kidney of lamb). Let there be peace, health and social order” said God and left them.
Many people wanted to ask more questions. Some wanted to present their challenges in life and others wanted to ask the very many natural mysteries around them. When the people heard God was leaving some of them felt relief and others felt sorry. Others felt lonely and helpless. For a few minutes everyone kept silent. While many were still silent one of the elders rose from his seat and said, “I know we all wanted God to speak to us”. We want to tell God our problems. God has left, because he has things to do. By that, he is teaching us that we have things to do. He gave us minds to think smart. He gave us, arms to use smartly. He gave us legs to walk wisely. Now it is time to make wisely use of them”. When this elderly man finished his speech many of them collected their sense and diverted their attention to the initial topic of the meeting.
Is the plant that is budding on Bunno’s grave a unique plant or known elsewhere? Elders from both communities spoke one after the other and all agreed that the plant was unknown elsewhere. Initially they decided to name the plant Bunno’s Flesh and God’s tear. Although the experts agreed that the plant is Bunno’s Flesh and God’s tear, the proposed name did not follow the principle of Oromo nomenclature. A child born at night time is usually named Galgaloo or Galgaalee. The child born in the early morning is named Ganamoo or Ganamee. The Oromo named the zebra Haree Dido – the wild donkey. They named the fox as Saree Dido – wild dog. Then they suggested naming the tree Bunna. All agreed, and the tree became known as Bunna. Now the Oromos farm this plant and drink Bunna. Bunna – coffee is the flesh of the holy man Bunno and the tear of God. In the Western world when you see coffee brewing machine known as Bunn, the name comes from the Oromo word Bunna.
In the second section, I will discuss how coffee drinking started and bring into light the way an Oromo woman has noticed stimulating effects of coffee, the importance of coffee ceremony in Oromo culture and explore how the word coffee emerged. In the third part, I explore the health impacts of coffee, linking both to the legend and scientific literature.
I am collecting more information on coffee, if you have comments on the story please send me at:
Begna Dugassa firstname.lastname@example.org