Coffee with the Queen of Sheba

‘Sit there’, he commanded, pointing his rifle towards the sand- filled sacks pushed against the walls of the main room. The tiny three- roomed stone bungalow was damp and freezing, yet despite this, a refuge from the swirling mists obscuring the Simien Mountains, just beyond the door.
Only hours earlier we’d walked in the sunshine alongside slopes carpeted with the fauna of the Ethiopian spring. Fields of Elephant Grass shimmered in the breeze, alternating between seas of pink and gold as the wind combed its silky surface this way and that. Tiny blue linseed flowers nestled amongst the wild thyme that heavily scented the air after short bursts of rain. Red Hot Pokers stood proud, and the vibrant yellow Enkutatash shone out, heralding the end of the long rains- or so we’d thought.
As we’d watched the gentle Gelada Baboons with their distinctive red ‘bleeding heart’ markings play daringly near the edge of a steep escarpment, the air had cooled and a distant mist had obscured the tip of the mighty Imet Gogo, ‘Place of Great Beauty’, which we’d climbed that morning. Passing through the weird and phallic landscape of Giant Lobelia the mists had begun to chase us, billowing towards us faster than we could walk, and icy bullets of rain had started to fall.
Now, in the chilly gloom of this small home in which we’d sought shelter, we were pointed to our seats by one of the mountain scouts and joined by three more men with Kalashnikovs, who wedged themselves between us on the sacking. Our cook smiled at me from across the room. He’d grown up in the mountains and knew these men well.
Some small, still- grubby clothes had been hung out to dry on a line strung across the room. Five young children in more dirty clothes and oversized gum boots stared at us from a shadowy corner, giggling behind their hands.
I didn’t notice her at first, such was the unassuming grace with which she carried herself. She was the young wife of one of the scouts and the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She was tall, regal and dignified and her dark skin unblemished and glowing: a modern day Sheba. Wearing the simple green dress of the rural people, stone and leather jewellery draped around her neck and a small baby tied to her back, she brought out a small charcoal stove and began to roast green coffee beans on a flat pan for the traditional coffee ceremony. She appeared unsurprised by the Farenji visitors to her home, and accepted her impromptu guests with understated hospitality.
Our hostess paraded the freshly browned, aromatic beans around the room, wafting the smoke towards us for our appreciation- a custom not even ignored here in the hills. Outside, the mist closed claustrophobically around the bungalow walls and the rain continued to fall, but I began to feel a little warmer.
The family lived more simply than most I’d encountered in the towns. In place of the jebona, the traditional clay curved coffee pot and the brightly painted machesha in which the incense was usually burned, were a blackened and well- used tin kettle and a simple burner fashioned from scrap metal.
Small cups were rinsed in a plastic bowl of grubby water and finally the coffee was ready. The explosively strong liquid was heaped with sugar- a precious commodity here in the mountains. We drank the customary three cups, each one stronger and grittier than the one before. Tona, Arbol and Baracka, each named after one of the three shepherds whose goats first discovered the precious beans in the Kaffa region of the south, centuries before.
Our hostess sat serenely behind the stove as the men chatted and laughed amongst themselves. Although I’d grasped the basics of the Amharic language, I was unable to understand many of the words but it didn’t matter. Their laughter and banter transcended international barriers and spoke the informal language of friends all over the world sharing a drink.
All at once, the strange encounter drew to a close. A car arrived to drive us through the mists, back to the town several hours to the south. Our legendary queen retreated to the back room, taking the remains of the coffee ceremony with her. The men, slinging their rifles over their shoulders shook our hands as we thanked them, happy to have had the opportunity to showcase their traditions and extend their unfailing Ethiopian hospitality.

J Griffin

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