Memories of Life on an Ethiopian Coffee Farm

Alem and BerhaneWhen I sat down with Alemayehu Boka Waggie to hear about his life as the son of an Ethiopian coffee farmer, he started by saying, “It’s a lot to tell.”  That was an understatement. After an hour and a half conversation, I felt as if we’d only scratched the surface.

Alemayehu is from the town of Ghimbi in Ehtiopia’s Wollega province.  From a very early age, he helped his father on the coffee farm.   “I was his right hand,” Alemayehu said of his relationship to his dad.  Alemayehu assisted on the farm after school, on the weekends, during school holidays, and especially during the winter, when coffee was harvested. 

Alemayehu, who has multiple degrees and certifications in Agricultural Development, Educational Administration, and Cooperative Organization, vividly recalled all of the activity that would burst to life during coffee picking season. 

“When the coffee berries turned red it was time for picking,” Alemayehu explained.   Picking season started in November and lasted for nearly four months.    “Seasonal migrants from different areas of Ethiopia would come to our farm during harvesting time.”  In those days, the 1950s, pickers were paid with a portion of the coffee that they harvested, which they, in turn, sold.  They were also provided with room and board.  An industrious picker could earn enough during picking season to go back home after the harvest and purchase his own oxen.

Alemayehu fondly remembered the taste of just ripe coffee berries, saying that when they were red and juicy, there were deliciously sweet.  “As a child, I would pick the berries and eat them.  I loved the taste of the juice in my mouth.”  Apparently, so did the local wildlife–monkeys and apes.  Alemayehu chuckled as he told me about their not-always-successful attempts to keep the clever primates away from the precious berries.    

Alemayehu’s father was an adept and prodigious farmer.  He was able to grow the best type of coffee, which they called Kuburi.  Coffee grows wild in Ethiopia and it takes a trained eye to detect the Kuburi variety for cultivation.  Alemayehu’s father also grew tef, corn, barley, beans, and peas.   

Alemayehu’s family farm was on hilly land with many slopes.  The land was terraced, with the upper elevation used for vegetables, grains, and legumes.  The lower portion, the valley, was where the coffee was planted.  Coffee is a shade plant.  Farmers would clear out the brush and bushes in the forest and leave the tree canopy.  This created a perfect spot for coffee growing.

When he got older, Alemayehu left the farm to go to Addis Ababa University.  It was while he was away at school that the Ethiopian Revolution began.  Alemayehu recalled that one of the popular slogans at the time was, “Land to the tiller.”  Ethiopia’s new socialist government nationalized all rural land and distributed it to the tenant farmers, the tillers.  Alemayehu’s wife, Berhane, was from a prosperous family that lost its land in this way. 

After finishing school in Addis and completing degrees at universities in the UK, Alemayehu came back to Ethiopia to work as a Co-operative Organizer.  He worked in the nomadic region of Ethiopia, helping small coffee farmers organize into co-operatives.  When small farmers banded together they had more leveraging power in the coffee markets.  They could also borrow money from the co-operatives to maintain and grow their farms. 

Alemayehu was one of the consultants who worked on developing the Oromia Cooperative Bank.  This is the bank of the 240,000 member Oromia Coffee Farmer’s Cooperative which is managed by Blessed Coffee friend and advisor, Tadesse Meskela. 

Today, Alemayehu and Berhane are the proud parents of five adult children and grandparents to seven.  Alemayehu has brought his love of farming to the US.  He works for the University of the District of Columbia in the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences (CAUSES).  Alemayehu spends much of his time at Muirkirk Research Farm in Beltsville, Maryland where he is experimenting with growing Ethiopian ethnic herbs and spices.

006Alemayehu brought some specimens from the Research Farm to our meeting.  He had me touch and smell the mossy green cuttings. The plant names were foreign to me—Rue, Besobila, Abish, Tikur Azmud.  According to Alemayehu, they are common plants in Ethiopia that are widely used in spice preparations.  With a twinkle in his eye, Alemayehu proudly said of his work:  “I’m showing people that we can grow Ethiopian plants right here.”

Talking to Alemayehu, I got a glimpse of Ethiopia’s proud agricultural heritage and the potential for that heritage to enrich the lives of those far beyond Ethiopia’s borders, all the way around the world.