The Coffee Ritual

A North African in the middle of a ceremonial coffee ritual. Smoke can be seen wafting from the hot coals in the bowl as she holds them. Cups, a mortar and pestle, and all the tools needed to make coffee can be see on the ground.

I am on a dry, cracked dirt path. The raised, bumpy part I walk on is only wide enough to go single file, so I carefully watch the flip-flops in front of me as they flap, flap, flap on the feet of my friend. I copy her every step as she picks the most level places and steps over the deep rivets left over from the rainy season. Is it more treacherous when it’s wet and slippery, or when it has dried into contorted hills and valleys? I wonder. It’s a toss up. But I love this path. 

We emerge onto a main road, and I see my friend’s house on the other side. Little faces peep through the rips in the tarp that serves as a fence around their compound, and little voices squeal as the entourage of neighborhood children bounce out to meet us. “Maryam jah! Maryam jah!” (“Miriam has come!”), they chant.

“Jok mag!” (“People of the house!”), I call as we approach the doorway to their compound which has four mud-walled houses inside. A woman pops her head out of one of the houses. “Yeh!” she responds. Everyone chuckles. There wasn’t really a need to announce my presence, since the kids did it for us, but I’m practicing every chance I get!

The sun is beating down, so we duck inside a house. For a minute I can’t see as my eyes adjust to the darkness inside. A woman my age, nursing her baby, is sitting on a bed made of rope strung across a wooden frame. I sit on the other bed, across from hers. I reach into my purse and take out the little plastic bags of green coffee beans and white sugar that I bought at a roadside stand for this occasion. I hand them to my friend and she smiles big, shouting to her 12-year-old daughter, who is in another house, to bring the fire.

As the coffee-making supplies are gathered, other women wrapped in their colorful tobes (cloths tied around the body and head) trickle into the small house and shake hands before squeezing onto the beds that are doubling as benches. The old grandma enters with a joyful flourish and greets me with a beaming smile. Her quavering voice lilts into a song, and her feet shuffle as she performs a little pantomime. The ladies howl with laughter. I have no idea what she’s singing about, but the laughter is contagious.

I decide to put some new cultural knowledge to the test, “I’m making the coffee!” I pronounce, and laughter erupts again as I take my seat on the tiny stool next to the fire.

The small metal basket full of hot coals has arrived, and my friend is pouring the coffee beans into a shallow pan fashioned out of an old tin barrel to roast them over the fire. I decide to put some new cultural knowledge to the test, “I’m making the coffee!” I pronounce, and laughter erupts again as I take my seat on the tiny stool next to the fire. I tuck in the loose ends of my tobe so they don’t get too close to the fire, and I start stirring the beans with a small metal spoon. I turn my face away from the heat but my stirring hand just has to deal with it. I blow on the coffee beans like I’ve seen them do, and the skins float away. I look closely in case any tiny rocks are hiding among the beans.

Doog, doog, doog. I hold the wooden bowl between my feet and pound the beans with a metal rod salvaged from an old car. The women giggle. I look up and my friend says, “You pound so fast!” She takes the rod and shows me the rhythm, and when I try, it feels much easier. We pour the coffee grounds and hot water into a pot with a spout that is made from a tin jerrycan. It bubbles, and I start to lift it off the fire but quickly pull my hand away as the metal burns my fingers. “Aiyy!” the women say sympathetically, and my friend takes over, pouring the coffee through a strainer into tiny cups filled halfway with sugar. I wonder if my fingers will ever be as tough as theirs.

I savor this moment as I savor my drink.

We sip the strong, sweet coffee and make another brew. Everyone is chatting happily. I savor this moment as I savor my drink, feeling what a privilege it is to be right where I am.

Miriam Lake
Miriam Lake is an ethnoarts specialist, the mother to three young children, and the wife of a Bible translation specialist. She loves dancing, sharing cups of hot tea, and learning about the artistry of minority people groups. She and her family make their home in Africa.
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