Author: Arefaynie Fantahun

The fuelwood carriers of Addis Ababa

More than 15 000 women in Addis Ababa make their living from illegally collecting fuelwood from the protected eucalyptus grove atop Entoto Mountain. Every day they travel around 30km to collect and carry branches, twigs and leaves. They sell the fuelwood door-to-door, on street corners or in the many open markets in the city.

Amarech Dorota (52) has been collecting fuelwood for the past twenty years. After her husband died, she had to single-handedly provide for her kids, two of whom are now in high school. “It was challenging to feed the children, so I had to go to the forest every day except on Sundays,” she says.

Dorota is little over five feet tall, sturdily built, with deep wrinkles on her face and hands that testify to a hard-working life. She has no tools so she uses her hands to pull the branches. Once she’s collected enough, she carries the weighty load on her back, strapped to her body by a harness made of cloth which runs over her shoulders and across her chest, and uses a stick for support.

Amarech Dorota. (Pic: Arefaynie Fantahun)
Amarech Dorota outside her home in Dorze Sefer. (Pic: Arefaynie Fantahun)

Dorota is part of the Dorze ethnic group in Ethiopia who are known for their weaving of intricate, colourful borders on Ethiopian traditional dresses. She has lived in Dorze Sefer, which is above the Addis Ababa University and home to many other low-income families, for most of her life. Their houses are made of mud, with wooden doors that open directly onto the street.

Ethiopia now has one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. Despite recent gains in education and health, it still ranks 173 out of 187 countries listed on the Human Development Index. The cost of living and inflation in Ethiopia remains cripplingly high. This makes it harder for Dorota and her family to survive.

“I have now worked for around 20 years. It is not an easy job. It does not pay a lot either. But I am grateful that it helped me support my family without the need of external help. It is very small money. But we don’t complain. We survive,” she says.

Dorota earns about 60 birr ($3) a day selling fuelwood in the local market. She uses this money for food and her children’s school fees.

The eucalyptus plantations in the Entoto area are not privately owned and the women can’t buy the fuelwood legally. This means they often have to endure harassment from authorities. They are  vulnerable to beatings and rape at the hands of roving guards, and they often have to pay bribes to them so they do not lose their bundles.

“We encounter a number of problems,” says  Emebet Abera, a younger woman who also travels to Entoto to collect fuelwood. “Sometimes we are chased by the forest guards. Sometimes we fall down and break our legs.When the sun is hot, we get really tired and thirsty. Returning home takes longer because the wood is very heavy and we have to stop often to rest.  I wish I could have small amount of land around my house so I could sell vegetables and not have to walk all the way to the mountains for wood. But that is not easy,” she says.

Beletech Zewde from the area’s women affairs bureau says that the women are examples of hard work and diligence. “They have shown great courage and strength in dealing with their difficult lives, and their acceptance of adversity is remarkable,” she says. Her bureau, she says, is supporting the Former Women Fuel Wood Carriers Association (WFC) that has existed in the area for nearly two decades.  WFC is trying to provide a growing number of women – currently 790 – with alternative sources of income by teaching them skills such as weaving, embroidery, knitting and various handiwork.

The organisation has similar projects in the Yeka, Keranyo and Kolfe areas and is set to expand its reach, targeting an estimated 30 000 women across Addis Ababa who collect fuelwood. They’ll be offering a broader range of skills to them, including forestry management and the marketing of crafts and portable stoves.

Back at Dorota’s house, her daughter is preparing genfo (maize flour) that her mother bought with the money she earned that day from selling fuelwood. It’s nothing fancy, but Dorota says she is proud of being able to take care of her family without having to ask for help.

Arefaynie Fantahun is a blogger based in Addis Ababa. Follow his posts on fashion, art, travel and photography here

Ethiopia’s love affair with coffee

Addis Ababa may be the heart of Ethiopia, but coffee is its lifeline. The coffee-drinking ceremony is a daily ritual on the streets and in homes, and it trumps instant granules and pods by far.

Elleni Kassaye (26) runs a small coffee shop in the Haya Hulet district, located on the eastern part of the sprawling capital. She wears her Ethiopian heritage with grace, translating it into her establishment and its array of beverages and foods. Elleni’s specialty is jebena buna, a coffee prepared in a clay pot, with a wide round bottom that leads up to a long, narrow spout with a handle. Like the mothers and grandmothers of many generations before her, she is wearing a traditional white dress with a colourful woven border.

I watch Elleni as she slowly stirs a pan of beans over a flame while aromas of frankincense float across the room, which has grass spread on it to add to a relaxed ambience. She waits patiently for the beans to change to a darker colour. The café is packed with people both young and old, chatting, laughing, gossiping, and discussing news. Ellen continues stirring and shaking the pan back and forth so that the beans don’t burn. As they start to pop, she removes them from the heat and passes them around for the customers to inhale the aroma.

Elleni preparing coffee for her customers. (Pic: Arefaynie Fantahun)
Elleni preparing coffee for her customers. (Pic: Arefaynie Fantahun)

While still warm, she grinds the beans into a powder with a mortar and pestle and places them in the jebena (clay pot) that contains boiled water. The pot sits over the fire for a while, before Elleni starts pouring it from high up into small cups. Pouring a thin stream of coffee into each little cup without spilling requires skill and experience, and Elleni does it gracefully. She serves the small cups to us with sugar and popcorn on the side to complement the coffee.

While jebena buna is most often enjoyed black, some have it with sugar to tone down the bitter taste. Though most of Elleni’s customers often drink the first brew and leave, the coffee-drinking ceremony in Ethiopia consists of three rounds. The first cup, called abol, happens to be the strongest one. The second brew, called tona, is slightly less strong, and the third, baraka, which means “blessing”, is mildest in flavour.

Time, patience and skill are required to make jebena coffee. (Pic: Arefaynie Fantahun)
Time, patience and skill are required to make the three brews. (Pic: Arefaynie Fantahun)

Ethiopia is often described by historians as the birthplace of coffee. According to legend, inhabitants of the Kaffa province were the first to discover the value of coffee as a stimulating beverage. Coffee shops are booming and have become a major fixture in Addis Ababa’s urban landscape. Sisay Alemayehu, a barista at Mankira Café in Piassa, says that people are increasingly opting for jebena coffee because of their superior flavour and the opportunity to watch the cycle of coffee preparation.

Today, more than 60% of Ethiopia’s foreign exchange income derives from coffee exports and an estimated 15 million Ethiopians depend on the livelihood from the production, processing, trade, and transport of coffee. Ethiopians drink about half of all the coffee they produce, preparing and serving it in elaborate rituals that are as popular as ever.

With the introduction of the espresso machines during the Italian occupation of the late 1930s, new methods were adopted. The macchiato, locally spelled ‘makyato’, a creamy, delicate balance of coffee and milk, and spris, a layered mix of coffee and tea became very popular, if not more popular than jebena coffee. Ethiopians also acquired the habit of drinking coffee with sugar around this time. Before this, coffee was served with salt, cardamom or butter.

Addis’s jebena coffee shops boast old-fashioned goodness, but there are plenty of contemporary cafés around to cater for different tastes. “Let’s go get coffee” is a line that never gets old around here; it’s a routine that we look forward to daily. If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s this: the city is unlikely to end its love affair with coffee anytime soon.

From the countless number of coffee shops around, these are my favourites:

Tomoca, the city’s most famous café, started roasting beans in 1953. It’s located off Churchill Road, Addis’s main shopping district. Some say it is touristy and expensive, but the coffee is as good as you will find anywhere.

Mokarar, located on Semien Hotel Road, is famous for its unique style of coffee and down-to-earth vibe.

Café Choche is in the century-old railway station, La Gare. This coffee shop is making a name for itself with the quality of its beans. Expect to pay10 birr ($0.54) for a cup.

The 20-year-old Robera Coffee Gallery is located in the Gerji area near the Mexican embassy. It’s a cosy place to hang out with friends. The beans are roasted daily in the big roaster out front, filling the air with irresistible aromas. A cup of good, earthy coffee costs $0.42.

Arefaynie Fantahun is a blogger based in Addis Ababa. Follow his posts on fashion, art, travel and photography here