by Mesfin Woldemariam
Professor of Geography

The first part of this article is available here.

Coffee was a cultural crop before it ever acquired its present economic importance as a cash crop. It still plays a pivotal role in the Ethiopian culture of hospitality. “come and have coffee,” (note that we do not say a ‘cup of coffee’ because Ethiopian’s do not drink only one cup of coffee,) may mean many things.

It may be for a discussion of some family problems, or for introducing a relative or a friend, or for a serious business, or for a trivial chat, or it may be an invitation to a special treat of raw meat, an Ethiopian delicacy.

It is ironic that this country that has now come to be associated with famine, the tradition has been that food is not a commodity. It is extremely disgraceful to sell food. Food must be given not sold. In fact feeding travelers is considered as a God given opportunity to do good.

It is still not uncommon to find oneself in a strange situation in small hotels in rural towns. When one asks for the bill, one gets it only for the rent of the room but not for food or coffee.  Ethiopian hospitality knows no bounds. Whatever food or drink is available must be finished to satisfy the host.

For traditional drinks the more one would please the host or hostess. It would be wrong to assume that this applies only to the well-to-do. This is true for the poorest Ethiopian peasant. Eating and drinking is a very important social function in Ethiopia.

If there is nothing else, there will always be coffee in the house of the poorest Ethiopian. It serves a double purpose, it socializes and it curbs hunger.

The socialization associated with eating and drinking in general and of drinking coffee together in particular may not be unique to Ethiopians. But there is a certain friendly warmth and sincerity that makes it special.

That may be the reason for the fact that very often Ethiopia humanizes visitors in very subtle ways. That is why many outsiders literally fall in love with Ethiopia.

If one lives in Ethiopia for some years, one will surely fall in love with it. James Marshall, a Scotsman, a man of many talents and who was teaching mathematics in Ethiopia, made Ethiopia his permanent home, even after death. He wrote and sang the song which begins with the following words.

One you have drunk of the waters of Ethiopia, You will return to imbibe in them again. That, too is one of the mysteries of Ethiopia.

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