Ethiopia: It’s About Time
Every time again, I am amazed at the things you learn when you travel.
For instance, did you know that Ethiopia has its own calendar? And even its own time?!
Our western calendar and our manner of counting days, months and years is the Gregorian calendar. It dates back to Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, and features 12 irregular months. Some of our months have 30 days, other 31 and then we had to make up the difference by calling a leap year every four years.
Ethiopia, however, did not change to the Gregorian calendar but stayed with the system that was used before: the Julian calendar. The Julian calendar has 12 months of always 30 days, and then one month of 5 or 6 days. Because of this difference, the years add up differently, too. So I am discovering that it is not 2015 here but 2007 or so..
And not only are the days, months and year different, Ethiopians have a different way of keeping time!
They use a 12 hour clock with 2 cycles. One cycle starts at 7 AM, or sunrise. That is the first hour. After 12 hours, or at sunset (they are close to the Equator so a day and a night are pretty much 12 hours) they start counting again. So 7 AM is 1 AM and 12 noon is 6, while 6 PM is 12 in local time…
If you ask for a wake up call, or set a meeting time, you need to emphasize that you mean Western time or you might have to wait a few hours…
Confused yet? Add to this a 13 hour flight and an 8 hour time difference with home, and I’m not sure how old I am anymore.
HOWEVER, I was delighted to be told that I am now 7 years younger here than before I left. I think I shall return to Ethiopia many times until I’m 21 again…
If you want to learn more about Ethiopean time keeping, check out these web sites:
Addis Ababa has 4 million people and is at an elevation of over 2,300 meters.
Surrounded by volcanic summits it is on the edge of the Rift Valley where Lucy, the oldest human bones were found.
They are now in the museum here.
I often wonder who the first person was to discover that something is edible… Like, who was the first soul brave enough to taste blueberries and then wait to see if she would keel over dead? And rice… who figured out to collect those tiny seeds and cook them?
I can see that tropical fruits were easier to figure out. A banana, a coconut I can see how you might figure out to open them and sample the inside. But who was the person to pull the first carrot out of the ground and say ‘Oh, a carrot!’? [BTW did you know that carrots were not orange until some Dutch royal loyal tinkered with it?]
Who first stepped on a walnut and then put the mushy insides in his mouth? And corn – would you figure out how to shuck and cook an ear of corn if you had never, ever seen one?
Tea, also, is understandable. I can image a Chinese family, sitting around a fire with a pot of water ready to boil. Some dry tea leaves flutter down from the bushes on a breeze. Some land in the pot and, look, they color the water and… hhmm… it doesn’t taste bad. Maybe even better than plain water. Let’s try that again.
But coffee? It took a whole series of coincidental accidents to figure that one out! Legend has it that a 9th-century Ethiopian goat-herder by the name of Kaldi, noticed the increased energy of his flock. They didn’t want to sleep and happily jumped around the field. He checked the area and found that they had nibbled on the bright red berries of a certain bush. He chewed on the fruit himself and felt a surge of energy and excitement. This prompted him to bring the berries to a monk in a nearby monastery. But the monk disapproved of the berries and threw them into the fire. A most tantalizing aroma rose from the ashes, causing other monks to rush over and investigate. 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 rest, as they say, is history. I haven’t seen any Starbucks here yet, but a popular coffee chain is called Kaldi, after that original shepherd.
Ethiopia’s coffee ceremony is an important part of their social and cultural life. When I first spotted the ceremonial area where coffee is brewed, I took it to be a religious altar. And I guess, in a way, drinking coffee in Ethiopia is a bit of a religious experience.
The ceremony is usually conducted by a young woman, dressed in the traditional Ethiopian costume of a white dress with coloured woven borders. The long, involved process starts with the ceremonial apparatus being arranged upon a bed of long scented grasses (or plastic artificial grass indoors). The roasting of the coffee beans is done in a flat pan over a tiny charcoal stove. This is how it is done even in the lobby of the small hotel where’s staying… The strong smell mixes with that of incense which is also burned during the ceremony. The lady washes the coffee beans on the heated pan and stirs it, shaking away the husks. When the coffee beans have turned black, they are ground with a pestle and mortar. The ground coffee is stirred into a black clay coffee pot locally known as ‘jebena’.The lady finally serves the coffee in tiny china cups to those who have waited and watched the procedure for the past half-hour. Pouring a thin stream of coffee into each little cup from a height of one foot without an interruption apparently requires years of practice. You then drink the coffee with plenty of sugar but no milk. It is also tradition to eat fresh popcorn with your coffee.
In parts of Ethiopia, the coffee ceremony takes place three times a day – in the morning, at noon and in the evening. It is the main social event in the village and a time to discuss the community, politics and life in general. You must have at least three cups, as the third round is considered to bestow a blessing. And, I must say, its flavor is heavenly and smooth without the acid taste so often found in coffee elsewhere.
I’m told the full ceremony can take three hours, so never complain again if your workers want a 15 minute coffee break!
I highly recommend watching this sort video of the ceremony: