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.