Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony-A traditional medium


Tesfaye (Hope)is a 30-minute experimental documentary film based on the extraordinary life of an Ethiopian refugee, rescued from the sea in Madagascar and now living in Canada. Shot in Ethiopia and Canada, the film recounts the life of Tesfaye - caught between a nostalgia for his home country and the possibility of a better life in another one.

To experiment with alternative methods of film exhibition, this film is structured as a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony which is composed of three sections - ABOL, TONA, BEREKA.

The coffee ceremony is practiced all over Ethiopia for generations and is one of the cultural devices that help foster community discussions where people share their experiences and tell stories. Similar to the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, the film is also broken into three sections and screened in parallel with the ceremony. It is to be stopped at the end of each section for a refill of coffee and audience participation.

Cinema and Tradition

The 1934 Laval Decree sought to control all images of Africa and French colonialism, giving the French authorities the right to refuse anyone permission to film in the colonies. Consequently, it is interesting to note here that some pioneering African films were actually made outside of Africa and were about immigrant experiences. Afrique-sur-Seine (1955), by Paulin Soumanou Vieyra and his colleagues from Le Group Africain du Cinema, is largely regarded as the first film to be made by an African. It was shot in Paris, France and documented the plight of African students/immigrants living in another country and coping with the nostalgia they felt far away from their native land. Ten years after the release of Afrique-sur Seine, Ousamne Semebene released his seminal film, Black Girl, also raising a similar topic; the alienation felt by a Senegalese maid who moves to France after being employed by a French couple.

Image courtesy of Pxhere - creative commons

Image courtesy of Pxhere - creative commons

Since the advent of photography and cinema, power relations and access have always played a key role in how Africans represent themselves. While many Africans were prohibited from practicing cinema in pre-colonial times, it was outsiders driven by their own agendas who were largely responsible for majority of the images produced about Africa. Hence, Africans’ limited access to and knowledge of the image-making technologies of the day has resulted in an unbalanced representation of the continent.

Many argue that the question of cinematic access has shifted with the advent of smartphones and personal computers -- but for these technologies of photography and cinema to incorporate themselves into a pre-existing culture, they need to be ubiquitously available in the daily lives of the people. They need to be put in service through play, trial and error, relatively free from outside influences, until they serve a purpose for the community that collectively decide their value. Although the above is also true for the rest of the world, Africa in particular lags behind in truly adapting cinema technologies.
Instead, it is my opinion that this sudden access to mass media (smart phones et al) in Africa has arrived in the absence of a pre-existing homegrown cultural base on which Africans can adapt to these technologies. Instead, the sheer dominance of western content that was and still is available for consumption through these devices meant that more and more Africans were being inculcated into western pop-culture, bringing about an alienation of many young Africans from their traditions and history.

Sharing African Stories

African films have been plagued with poor distribution for decades, making them inaccessible to the general public that the films were intended for. Since the sixties, when many African countries gained independence, African film makers have tried to present a balanced view of Africa, using cinema as a tool to educate and transform their societies. However, these films remain out of reach of many Africans for various reasons, including the absence or limitation of exhibition halls and theatres, a homegrown culture of cinema viewing, and poor distribution. Instead, it is much easier to view these films in Europe and North America. Ironically, one of the main reasons Ousman Sembène stopped writing books and started to make films was to make his stories more accessible to the proletariat. The same problem of distribution and access still dogs African cinema today.

This problem of distribution is also further compounded for short format films and documentaries. Apart from limited exposure at a few short film festivals, there is no real distribution mechanism within the African/Ethiopian context for such films and they have always suffered poor viewership. Therefore, one of the challenges I would like to take on for this project is to look at alternate ways of exhibiting films, to make them accessible to the locals for which they were intended.

In his book, Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins discusses the function of a medium as two-fold: one is a communication-enabling mechanism (a piece of technology), and the other is a set of practices that develop around that technology. For this project, I will attempt to treat cinema purely as “a piece of technology”, divorced from the set of practices that have developed around it, and explore alternative ways of exhibiting/sharing films as accompaniments to traditional practices built on fostering community dialogue that are rooted in Ethiopian culture.

Traditional Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony - Wiki Commons

Traditional Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony - Wiki Commons

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

Legend has it that an Ethiopian goat shepherd called Kaldi discovered coffee. Noticing his goats frolicking after eating the red berries and leaves of an unfamiliar tree, Kaldi decided to try some for himself, and soon joined his goats in experiencing the energizing effects of caffeine. Kaldi would later bring the berries to a monk in a nearby monastery who had difficulty staying up during prayer times. Upon first inspection of the berries, the monk disapproved of their use and threw them into a fire, from which an enticing aroma billowed. The roasted beans were quickly raked from the embers, ground up and dissolved in hot water, yielding the world’s first cup of coffee.

The Ethiopian coffee ceremony is a unique cultural practice that has been handed down for generations. Throughout the ceremony, participants drink three cups of coffee marking the three stages of the ritual: Abol (first), Tona and Bereka (Blessings). During the ceremony, people share stories, stay updated on current events and discuss various subjects while enjoying their coffees with servings of popcorn or traditional bread.

Mostly frequented by women in both traditional/rural and urban settings, it is very customary for neighboring women to invite one another for coffee and a lively chat two to three times a day. It is also common to all cultures and ethnicities in Ethiopia, with very small variations on the utensils used. However, the number of cups of coffee consumed during the ceremony is common to all variations.

“A medium's content may shift, its audience may change and its social status may rise or fall but once a medium establishes itself as satisfying some core human demand, it continues to function within the larger system of communication options. Hence old media are not being displaced. Rather, their functions and status are shifted by the introduction of new technologies.”

– Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture

Henry Jenkins defines Media Convergence as the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences. He also argues that this convergence should not be understood purely as a technological phenomenon but also a cultural one.

Consequently, for this project, I look at the traditional coffee ceremony as an age- old medium for exchanging stories and ideas and explore its commonalities and differences with cinema as I look into integrating one into the other.

Image courtesy Pixabay - creative commons

Image courtesy Pixabay - creative commons

Audience Engagement/Participation

Cinema, in its current exhibition form of theatrical screening or home viewing, is a one-sided affair. The audience is but a witness to the culmination of images, consuming ideas on the screen without an invitation for engagement. Cinema can be an authoritarian figure where it does all the “talking” and we passively listen and watch with amazement. Although an openly accepted reality, this one-sided interaction is not common in many African cultures, where interactivity is an ingrained sensibility.

Traditional Coffee Ceremony - Wiki Commons

Traditional Coffee Ceremony - Wiki Commons

The exchange/interaction that takes place during an Ethiopian coffee ceremony is the very fabric of social life that has connected people for generations, serving as a support mechanism and reservoir of experiences and memories. I think cinema can learn from the coffee ceremony in opening up the space for people to interact with the work and amongst themselves and occasionally, also embody the work themselves. Consequently, this thought process has informed the decision to open up the form of the film, inviting audience participation at periodic intervals in the film.

This stopping and resuming the film also has the effect of nudging the audience out of the “spell” of watching images on a silver screen - the film diverts attention away from itself and acknowledges another age old medium - the coffee ceremony, opening up the space and time for audience input in moving the story forward.

To encourage this interaction, certain details in the story are left open for the audience to fill in through conversation and their imaginations, drawing from their own feelings and experiences.

Recently, the Ethiopian ceremony has made an interesting mutation to keep up with an increasingly fast-paced and developed world. Currently in the urban parts of Ethiopia, coffee kiosks offering the traditional ceremony are popping up everywhere. It is very common to see them at the entrances to buildings, government offices and shopping malls and many Ethiopians prefer them to the modern coffee shops widely available in the big cities like the capital, Addis Ababa. Although it is encouraging to see many Ethiopians preserving a piece of their culture in a fast developing region, these “updated” coffee kiosks that provide traditional coffee come with one variation – the number of cups consumed. One rarely stops to enjoy a full coffee ceremony (3 cups), which usually lasts at least half an hour.

The fast-paced busy urban existence has made it difficult for one to stop and enjoy things. The repercussions of this lifestyle on a traditional coffee ceremony might seem small compared to the number of cups. But the extended time one has to be there to enjoy the full ceremony was the setting for a community forum that brought people together and seems to be disappearing as Ethiopia continues to be one of the fast developing countries in Africa.

It was my interest to revive the communal experience of the coffee ceremony and my desire to make my work more accessible by placing it in an already established cultural practice that I decided to adopt the Ethiopian traditional coffee ceremony as the setting for exhibiting my work.

AR-AFRICAN/augmented reality



An AR (augmented reality) headgear and an African mask both serve as instruments that enable experiences and interactions on another dimension.

One is driven by science and technology and the other by spiritual connections and mysticism. 



Introduction to African Masks

In the early 20th Century, artists like Picasso and Derain were inspired by the bold abstract designs in African tribal masks and used them to influence their own styles - Cubism and Fauvism.


However, African masks should be seen as part of a ceremonial costume. They are used in religious and social events to represent the spirits of ancestors or to control the good and evil forces in the community. They come to life, possessed by their spirit in the performance of the dance, and are enhanced by both the music and atmosphere of the occasion. Some combine human and animal features to unite man with his natural environment. This bond with nature is of great importance to Africans and through the ages masks have always been used to express this relationship.


tribal artist.png

The African Tribal Artist

The artist holds a respected position in African tribal society. It is his job to provide the various masks and sculptures for use in ritual ceremonies. His work is valued for its spiritual, rather than its aesthetic qualities. Art without a 'spiritual dimension', in the broadest sense of the term, never transcends the level of mere craftsmanship and is unable to communicate those elevated emotions that are born from a deeper mystical inspiration.



Skilled craftsmanship, fine detail and quality of finish are of great importance. Highly polished surfaces, which represent a youthful healthy skin, reflect the idea of beauty and virtue, while rough dirty surfaces suggest fear and evil. Many African carvings portray the idealized human figure in its prime, brimming with health, strength, and celebrating fertility or virility.

The African tribal artist's training, which may last many years, involves the knowledge of traditional carving techniques and how these apply to the social and religious objects he creates. His craft can be learned as an apprentice in the workshop of a master carver, or sometimes these skills are passed down from father to son through many generations of his family.


Although African masks are made from a variety of materials including bronze, copper and ivory, the majority of masks and sculptures, however, are made of wood for two reasons:


1. Trees are in plentiful supply in the forest.

2. The carver believes that the tree has a spiritual soul and its wood is the most natural home for the spirit in the mask.

Before any tree is cut down, a sacrifice may be offered as a mark of respect to the spirit of the tree requesting its permission for the carving. The life of the tree is governed by the same natural and supernatural forces that inspire the artist and his community. This type of ritual is common to many cultures that have a close spiritual bond with nature.



The tools used to make a carving - traditionally the Adze - are also endowed with their own particular spirits.

When tools are passed down through different generations, they sometimes inherit the spirit and skills of their previous owners. They, like the artist, his carving, and the tree from which it came, are all part of that 'oneness' of nature - the ecological vision that informs all African tribal culture.

The DOGON TRIBE (West Africa)


The Dogon with ceremonial masks.

The Dogon with ceremonial masks.

Similar to other African tribes, Dogon masks evoke the behavior of animals that are common in the area - antelopes, hares, lions, hyenas, cows, birds and monkeys.



Monkey Mask from West Africa.

Monkey Mask from West Africa.



The Dogon utilize three types of monkey masks, which are identified solely by their color rather than their shape. Dege is the black monkey, while the white monkey is known as Omono, and the red monkey is called Ko.


The myths of all are not identified, but it is known that the black monkey (Dege) represents wild, uncivilized, dangerous, and antisocial behavior – the direct opposite of the Dogons’ beliefs about the way a proper, solid, upstanding Dogon person is expected to behave.


More info on African Masks



Griot with a Camera - SEMBENE

“To produce a film in Africa is an act of resistance…it is also about making Africans realize that cinema is a powerful tool for development.” - Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda

Semebene Behind Camera.jpeg


Ousmane Sembene was a ‘self-taught” man who was born a fisherman’s son in Southern Senegal. He took manual jobs until the French Army of West Africa recruited him. On his discharge, he moved to France in 1947 where he worked on the docks in Marseille up until 1960.


Soon after Senegal’s independence from the French in 1961, he decided that he wanted to make films and took the opportunity of a scholarship to train at the Gorky studios in Moscow. He returned to his country in 1962 with an old Russian camera and a desire to put “ordinary Africans” onto the screen.


Having written books prior to making films, Literature was his first choice of artistic expression. But Sembène realized his written works were only accessible to the cultural elites and decided to make films to reach a broader African audience. He started using whatever was accessible to make his films including pieces of scrapped and expired film that was sent to him from his friends in Europe. He worked with non-actors, using natural light and filmed on the open streets of Senegal showing African life through an African lens.

The mechanisms of Sembene’s film closely resemble neo-realist cinema but Sembène also incorporated other traditional ways of story telling in his films; the most notable of which is the Griot.

The West African Griots.

Senegalese chief and his griot.jpeg


Before the written word became a prevalent form of self-expression in West Africa, the griot served as the oral historian, musician and entertainer of the community. The function of the griot is a complex mixture of storytelling, historical preservation, and performance. He belonged to the lowest caste, yet, by virtue of his societal function, he was privy to much historical and political information. In fact, one of his assigned tasks was to preserve the history of the county through story and song.


Corruption of the Griot


The Guinean author Camara Laye once wrote the following about the griot.


“in truth, the griot (…) before being a historian is, above all, an artist. Therefore, it would follow that his songs, chants, poems and legend are all works of art. The oral tradition is more closely related to art than science. Exactly like the African sculptor, the historical reality placed in front of the griot is not always told as it is.”


This quote describes the ‘artistic’ license taken by griots when recounting historic narratives in society. During the colonial period, this ‘artistic license’ became even more subjective and problematic - since storytelling was how the griot made his living, his stories often changed according to the social or political agenda of his patron. The role of the griot can be compared to that of a Renaissance artist forced, by virtue of his social standing and profession, to seek patronage from wealthy noblemen in order to pursue his own artists projects. However, at a certain point, his projects no longer become his, and he is used purely as a political tool for those in power.




As West African countries, such as Senegal, sought to establish a national identity after the end of French colonial rule, the griot’s role became increasingly political. The role of the griot shifted along with the extreme sociopolitical change Senegal experienced during its emergence as a nation after independence. During this time, many self-proclaimed griots and artists emerged.


Semebene was one of the most prolific and influential members of this group of professional modern griots. By relating filmmaking to the West African griot, he calls for a reinterpretation of past griotic functions. In doing so, he both critiques and redefines the role of the griot in West African society.


Primarily, Sembene was concerned with redefining the griot as a character who upholds truth and justice in the face of moral corruption. He was in essence, attempting to create a “new-griotism” for modern Africa.

Whereas the griot of the past was an empty vessel into which historical information was poured, in order to be accessed by those in power. Semebene’s work exemplifies the ways in which a griot could use his information for the benefit of not only himself, but the proletariat as well.




Xala is a film Semebene adapted from his 1973 novel of the same name.  Xala is a wolof word meaning temporary sexual impotence. The film depicts El Hadji, a businessman in Senegal, who is cursed with crippling erectile dysfunction upon the day of his marriage to his third wife.  After postulating that the Xala (curse) was caused by his second wife, El Hadji realizes that it was in fact a beggar, which embodies the figure of the griot in the film, which had cursed him because El Hadji had stolen land that was rightfully his. The film satirizes the corruption in African post-independence governments and attracted a fair share of negative response from the Senegalese bourgeoisie leading up to the film being banned in Senegal. By exposing the truth regarding the monetary and moral corruption of the nouvelle-bourgeoisie, Semebene lessens their power within the societal framework, thus imposing a xala of sorts on the ruling class.




In 1988, another one of Semebne’s films, Camp de Thiaroye, was also banned in France because it depicted the mass killing of French West African troops by French forces on the night of November 30 to December 1, 1944. 


It can be argued Sembene’s films serve griotic functions by critically reframing African history, culture and identity. But ironically, Sembene was regularly faced with the challenge of striking a delicate balance between appeasing the mainly French funders of his film projects and his own aspirations for a truthful griot.