Wednesday, November 15th. 9.40pm. Hotel Desalegn, Addis Adaba.
Coffee courses through Ethiopia like lifeblood, rich and reinvigorating. Solomon claims the country gave coffee to the world, hence the region now named Kofa. It certainly seems to play an even most essential, characteristic role in daily life than does a cup of good old English tea back home.
Coffee is the country’s second main export, behind only oil – and Ethiopia is now the leading coffee producer on the continent, with exports up from 95,000 tonnes in 1991 to 146,000 tonnes 12 years later. Now, as well as satisfying – then again stimulating – a thirst, coffee may even be easing some of the suffering – and divisions – wreaked by the HIV epidemic.
We had already been struck by the strength – and sumptuous, spicy flavour – of Ethiopian coffee, as served at and after every meal or meeting, and urged Solomon to help us find and buy plenty of freshly-ground to take home for presents and personal indulgence. He should know his coffee beans – after all, he has been drinking the stuff since the age of three.
But this morning in Nazareth we got to take part – albeit tentatively, tangentially – in the time-honoured tradition of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, this one with a twist, Apparently, to drink coffee entirely alone is seen as a grievous anti-social offence. Instead, people habitually gather, often in a specified host’s shouse, to slowly savour the grinding, the boiling, the pouring of at least three rounds into dainty round cups, all the while discussing in detail the latest local issues of importance, family news, any other business. A little like a Women’s Institute morning meeting, albeit with a little less gossip and plenty more coffee (and sugar, stubbornly gritting the floor of each cup).
The Kale Heywet/Medan Acts people have hijacked these ceremonies to an even greater good, however, encouraging identified HIV sufferers to play mein host – and invite in all the neighbours, including those who might have been most hostile or suspicious, evening imagining a risk of infection from simply sharing dwelling space, crockery or basic conversation.
Instead of resentment and alienation, these social occasions have apparently instead fostered greater understanding, advice-sharing and mutual support – and our experience, alongside about 20 bolshy but gracious women cetrainly felt like very emotionally healthy fellowship, even if the coffeepot did take an age to be ready and even at one point explosively overflowed. (Tch, typical women, too busy gassing to keep paying attention…)
Here rises village elder Etagehn, recalling how she recoiled upon first hearing of daughter Tigist’s diagnosis, first blaming her and "acquitting" the husband – then dragging daughter to a series of re-tests, refusing to accept the awful reality. "I said, this can’t be true – it’s just too shameful."
Perhaps the coffee ceremonies can’t be entirely credited with changing her point of view to today’s acceptance and concern. But Etagehn insists such displays of community backing – and the breaking-down of barriers and misconceptions – helped reconcile the pair, ahead of the TB and skin complications that made more practical medical help a necessity.
Now Etagehn tells the rapt gathering: "If I’d stayed so angry with my daughter, she might have been dead by now, But she’s here, a lot happier and strengthened."
Here speaks up tearful Tirunesh: "I used to be afraid to come near other people, until someone told me about these ceremonies. They really helped me get away from my fears. Sometimes I don’t even feel I’m living with the virus – I almost forget. I come as close as possible to forgetting my problems, since I came into contact with this real fellowship. The fear has gone. I feel at one with the community."
Tales are told of HIV+ victims being thrown out of doors by their own families – forced to drink water from discarded tin cans or ketchup bottles, eat only off unwanted, cracked plates. But at least here, all can sip as one, suffererers and non-sufferers, grandmothers and even a few tastebud-opening toddlers. One little boy is almost crunching his cup as he slurps down every last drop. Tigist’s son, in contrast, steadfastly slumbers in her arms throughout.
These awareness-raising coffee ceremonies – "Buna Tettu" – won Kale Heywet a "Red Ribbon" award at this year’s UN Aids conference in Toronto, one of 25 projects to be honoured from a "shortlist" of 517, only three from Africa. In the last 18 months, the scheme has reached 1,593 bedridden patients (65 per cent of whom are female), and involved 7,000 people in HIV discyssions.
Among those tucking in this morning were a few familiar faces from shortly earlier in the day, in the half-hectare fields of the Nazareth Medan Acts base. (I’m not quite sure how these women beat us down to the open-air ceremony, having actually watched us drive away in advance from the Medan HQ).
Addis Ababa and the route eastward may be known as the "high corridor" of Aids in Ethiopia (though the climate in the Muslim-dominated eastern areas seems to be too scorching and unbearable for any notable UN or US aid efforts as yet). Nazareth is especially vulnerable to depressingly high infection rates. The smooth-ish, recently-completely main road that allowed us to cover the 100km route in about 90 minutes is also regulatly covered by high levels of transit truck traffic, to and from both the capital and Arabic/Middle Eastern neighbours. Nazareth is a major magnet for both prostitutes and prospective clients – or "commercial sex work", as our guides here so consistently, if a little coyly, describe this field. The many factories in the area also draw in hordes desperate for work, while even tourists are tempted – especially by Nazareth’s hot springs.
The Medan Acts, by some self-professed "miracle", secured from the Government a patch of land and buildings on the outskirts of Nazareth, where they base not only their educative and preventative work – involving 25 local schools and 23 churches – but also provide plots of soil for HIV+ women to work, and ultimately enjoy the fruits – and veg – of their labours.
Each woman, just about robust enough to toil thanks to ARV treatment, is gifted between three and ten plant beds to till tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, onions, carrots and cabbages. Should they harvest well, the 70 women signed up so far can take home some for themselves to eat, some to bed down in their own optimistic gardens, and some to sell on – indeed, Solomon later proves a satisfied customer as the coffee gathering breaks apart.
Selmawit Benti is a former prostitute – sorry, commercial sex worker – who may look relentlessly downcast and reluctant to peer up from beneath her pink net headscarf. But she is determined to make this most of this opportunity, despite having to struggle her way from the other side of the city. Orphaned and abandoned as a child, she dropped out of school early, journeyed her from Dredor 300km away, and could only find work – and quick, easy cash – in the bars and brothels. She was diagnosed HIV+ four years ago and, as seems to be a common symptom, first needed serious treatment for incipient TB.
After spending a gruelling two years in hospital, she was advised to seek support here – and now, after three months of planting, is eagerly awaiting her first full, and imminent, harvest. In the longer-term, she aspires to become entirely self-reliant – and to see similar schemes springing up just as bountifully across the country.
"They need more support, though," the newly-wise 25-year-old cautions. "This was all set up with just 60,000 Birr [about £3,750] for the whole project, and that all went straight away. We’ve all had to pay for things as a group, like the water buckets. It’s a good project, but it could be strengthened."
Sidling our way, or at least in the crouching photographer’s direction, 25-year-old Hirut Semu sets down her hose long enough to explain how she has so far survived not just HIV, but a suicide attempt in the depths of newly-diagnosed despair. After her husband died of Aids, the penny dropped that she too might be infected – and the unwanted confirmation came as she was pregnant with a son, now four.
"I was terrified – I really wanted to kill myself," she says. Hirut downed a stomachful of Malathion, a toxic chemical used to kill rats, but concerned neighbours managed to rush her to hospital in time for her life to be saved.
Happily, if surprisingly, her unborn child survived as well, though it was three months before Hirut could be discharged from hospital. Her digestive system is still warped by the after-effects of the poison, but ARV treatment has bolstered her enough to join the women in the fields.
"I’m relieved from my worst anxieties now. When I’m working here in my garden, I forget all my old traumas and I can hope to live a better life in future."
And so to share such tragic pasts, and defiant futures, over those steaming, stimulating cups of coffee.
On the long drive hotel-wards, Solomon pessimistically ponders the the condition and contradications of Africa – "We blame the old colonialists, byet Africa has subjected itself to new, local colonialists – our own tyrants" – plus the prospects for free and/or fair trade. We also ask whether or why African couldn’t exert more power over the coffee markets, in the way the Middle Eastern states can do over their oil. For Opec, see an Ethiopian-led Copec. But for now it seems the technology is too inadequate, the corruption too corrosive, the lip-service from our developed world too pathetic, dishonest about its intentions.
Ethiopia, literally meaning "the burnt-faced peoples", was once the byword not for famine and pitiable super-poverty, but instead the greater expanse of sub-Saharan Africa, a progressive civilisation pushing beyond the Middle Ages more progressively than many of those nations now Western powerhouses. But subsequent, seemingly-endless years of conflict, destruction and neglect have come to this – according to a strangely-precise calculation from Solomon, Ethiopia has enjoyed just 105 years of peace.
Outright colonial rule of the country may have been restricted to five years of Italian control during the Secomd World War. But bloody territorial disputes, still straggling today, with the likes of Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia, have crippled Ethiopia’s chances of effectively addressing such grinding poverty.
These still-green expanses trundle by – the slipshod painted Pepsi signs; the singular "Spare Part Garage"; a bumpy cross-section of the nation’s 350,000 trucks – a few overturned in a glassy, blood-soaked mess hopelessly remote from any ambulance or hospital help; and handfuls and hundreds of the thousands and millions of "burnt-faced people" simply walking onwards, somewhere.