November 19, 2010

The Day of Six Coffees

That title pretty much says enough to be an entry in and of itself, right?  Especially if you’ve ever been around me to see my typical un-caffeinated energy level!  But, as those of you who’ve been kind enough to peruse through my Facebook pictures (and you’re reading my blog now—anyone who’s taken the time to do both, you are incredible!!  Much, much love!) know, The Day of Six Coffees was about a lot more than coffee. 

The second school that I teach at is located on the outskirts of town; the students from this school struggle the most to get to and from school and most spend all of their free time helping their parents with their farms.  One student approached me, full of shame and guilt, to tell me that she will not be able to attend many of my classes because there is too much work at the house—I of course reassured her that she is always welcome in class, and told her she was amazing for working so hard both at school and at home.  Another student told me that she has not seen her parents in two years because they live in the country, where she would not have access to school, so they sent her here to live with her aunt and uncle, and even though it has been a long time since she has been home, she is still plagued with homesickeness.  These students face the greatest struggles, by far, out of all of the students that I work with.  They are also the most enthusiastic, cheerful, and grateful to work with me.

My former teaching partner (he was at the end of his trip and returned to England) and I are the first volunteers to teach at this school, and as such, the students were extraordinarily excited when we began working with them.  They clinged to us when we walked through the long, dusty field back to the main road, teaching us Amharic, singing songs, and asking questions about English.  One day, several of the students began persistently asking me if I liked coffee—their diligence seemed a little odd, but since coffee is essentially THE national drink, I assumed they were just trying to see how well I’m fitting in here (people often expect farenji’s [foreigners] to dislike the local food and drink, as it is far different from most other global cuisine).  I assured them that I love coffee, and even drink it in America (something which comes as a surprise to a lot of the people I have spoken to, who think most Americans only drink instant coffee—a misconception that I am determined to rectify…).  Entirely unbeknownst to me, they had a very different motive for asking this question. 

The following day at class, all of the students began begging the other teacher and I to attend a party they wanted to throw for us (they needn’t have begged—of course we would have come regardless, but they were incredibly concerned that we would not show up), so we agreed on a time to meet at the school.  Now, I don’t know what the other teacher expected, but I anticipated that the students would have a bit of food, maybe some music, and that it was more of an excuse for the students to socialize with each other than anything else—essentially what one might expect from young teenagers in America.  (Not a diss on America, just saying…)

I could not have been more wrong.  When I arrived at the school, dressed extremely casually, and carrying a couple of packets of cookies, several of my students appeared out of nowhere, dressed in what were clearly their fanciest clothes running toward me, nearly giddy.  They grabbed my arms and rushed me to a classroom constructed of mud and straw on the far side of campus, where all of the students waited exuberantly (sounds like an oxymoron, but that’s the best description I can think of), also dressed in their finest, primarily traditional clothes.  They had cleared the room of all of its furniture, except for two chairs, which they placed next to each other—for my co-teacher and I.  They promptly placed me in my seat, and asked if the other teacher was coming.  Unfortunately, he had a commitment elsewhere, and was not able to arrive for an hour or so.  When I broke this news to the students, the room erupted in a flurry of discussion—apparently on whether to begin the party or not.  As the debate amongst the students raged on, I surveyed the room that they had so elaborately prepared.  Several of the girls hovered over the necessary components of a traditional coffee ceremony: a large tray made of dark, carved wood, with several small china espresso cups, a large bowl full of coffee and candy, an hourglass-shaped pedestal, full of fragrant burning wood, a black clay pan full of unroasted coffee beans, and a black vase-like coffee pot, all atop a pile of freshly-cut grasses.  The traditional clothing that the many of the children were wearing was incredibly beautiful—the girls in long, white muslin dresses with colorful embroidery; the boys in similar pantsuits, or brightly-colored zig-zagged patterned outfits with matching hats.  Belts and scarves with the Ethiopian flag colors—red, green, and yellow—were abundant. 

The students concluded their discussion, and a decision had been reached: begin the party now.  To my great surprise, the students had organized an entire program of events—including traditional dancing (which I was obliged to participate in, much to the dismay of anyone who may have been observing, I am quite sure), and the Ethiopian Circus, which is very similar to Cirque Du Solei (I’m sure I butchered the spelling, but don’t feel like googling it), where several students performed acrobatics and contorted their bodies into positions that make my muscles hurt even thinking about.  Throughout the performances, the students kept asking if I was enjoying it—they were so concerned that I would not approve, which is mind-boggling, because I could not have been more elated and impressed by the whole thing; it is an experience that will stay with me for the remainder of my coherent life.  My students wanted my full attention to the ceremony, so one of them hijacked my camera, so that I wouldn’t be distracted (he took plenty of pictures, and was quite proud to be the “photo-grapher”).  Throughout the performances, the girls preparing the coffee would run up to me to show me the roasted coffee, show me how they ground it and prepared it on the stove, and offer me popcorn and cake.  I was also presented with a traditional scarf, and told the Amharic name for it (which sounds a lot like Nutella), as well as a sparkly blue barrette—the kids said they pooled their money together to purchase the supplies for the event.  It took about everything in me not to cry, I was so overwhelmed. (I think if I had cried they wouldn’t have understood, and they were incredibly concerned that I wouldn’t enjoy the party, so I didn’t want to send any mixed messages.)

Following the elaborate show that they put on, they presented me with a cup of coffee, full to the brim, which I delicately balanced on my saucer and carefully sipped (the coffee is much more like espresso than coffee—in other words S T R O N G).  After I finished, the students quickly collected my cup and brought me another.  Repeat.  After my third cup of coffee, I was not offered any more (and rather pleased, as I was already shaky from the first three cups, but, again, did not want to displease my students, who had gone to such remarkable efforts to welcome me). 

Just then, my co-teacher arrived, and everyone rejoiced (yay…hehe Monty Python…).  The students were extraordinarily excited, and did a repeat of all of the performances, then brought the other teacher and I another cup of coffee, and I whispered to him that I had already had sooooooo much, I didn’t want anymore.  He informed me that I was  doomed—apparently it is bad luck to serve coffee in increments other than 3 (in other words, 3, 6, 9, 12, etc. are okay, but any other numbers are unlucky) so unbeknownst to me, my acceptance of the fourth cup of coffee bound me to another two, which were eagerly served by our students.

The whole ceremony literally left me speechless—I honestly cannot get over the enthusiasm, gratitude, and motivation that these kids have, and continue to have, even a month into my classes.  They work so hard on every lesson, participate so fervently in every class, and express appreciation and affection adamantly.  Even now, several weeks after the party the students threw (like I’ve said—I actually have work to do here, which means far less time to write!), my students still astound me—they always insist on carrying my bag for me, cleaning up the classroom before and after we use it, and continue to surprise me with small trinkets and candy.  Particularly following my abysmal experience in Botswana, words cannot express how incredibly grateful and inspired working with these students makes me.

Incidentally, the title is a bit of a misnomer, seeing as since I first began writing this blog, there have actually been several more Days of Six Coffees—though none anywhere near as elaborate and heartfelt as the one put on by my students.  Ethiopian culture is extraordinarily welcoming, so for new visitors, coffee ceremonies abound, and frequently result in the consumption of far, far, far too much coffee (at least for me). 

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