Along the dusty road of Little Mogadishu, a blend of strong smells permeates the air, a combination of stale urine, dust and exotic spices. In the midst of that odour, there is also an aromatic smell – of coffee beans.
“This is not just any coffee, it is the original Ethiopian coffee,” Abdi Shemsu says appreciatively as he sips.
“Go inside and try it for yourself,” says the local man as he points at a little shop behind him.
The shop is dimly lit, with dark and earthy tones and smells of coffee and incense. On the wall there is a huge picture of Emperor Haile Selassie and next to it the old Ethiopian flag with its bright green, yellow and red colours.
Smells of garlic, chilli pepper, ginger, cinnamon and other herbs and spices fill the air.
The coffee shops of Little Mogadishu
Little Mogadishu, named after Somalia’s capital city, is a place in the buzzing area of Mayfair in Johannesburg. Being home to many foreign nationals makes it a multicultural place where immigrants try to recreate their home lives in South Africa.
According to anthropologist Dr Pauline Zimba from the University of South Africa: “As much as immigrants who are displaced or have fled their countries try to integrate in the society, they also stay true to their culture.”
While the place is a predominantly Somali-populated area, Ethiopians also have a little community that is cultural. Despite the differences in religion, where Somalis generally are staunch Muslims and Ethiopians are mostly Christians, the two nations often socialise together, mostly over a freshly roasted, strong cup of coffee.
Wearing Islamic clothes, a long robe-like top called a jubba, a man walks into the shop and sits next to a group of four men. They are chatting in Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language, and in Somali. They are watching the news on Addis TV when another man changes to a music channel and the man in the jubba starts to sing along.
The group seems happy to see him, as one of them calls a waiter and orders coffee for the man. His name is Fazir Mohammed and he says he comes to the coffee shop almost every day.
“I love this place, I come here every day to come and relax with my neighbours.”
Like other Somali men, Mohammed comes to the coffee shop in between his daily activities, which include selling clothes at his shop and going to the mosque.
“I like coming here not only for the coffee, but also for the news,” he says.
“We always talk about what happens in our hometowns over coffee, this is how our bond stays strong.”
Booming coffee trade
Coffee trading is very popular in Little Mogadishu. The consumers of the coffee are not only Ethiopians but Somalis and even South Africans.
According to Amir Sheikh, chairperson of the Somali Community Board in the area, Somalis are business-minded people who work all day with little play. “We do not have time for fun when we open the shop at 5am and close at 10pm,” Sheikh says.
“If we are not praying to Allah then we are having coffee at Ethiopian coffee shops.”
In several coffee shops in Little Mogadishu, there are Somalis and Ethiopians watching soccer and talking politics.
“They are our brothers, we are in this together,” Sheikh says.
A man known only as Bernard has been working as a coffee maker in the shop for the past six years. “Everyone here calls me Bernard.”
He insists on being called Bernard. “Sister, I cannot give you my full name, my papers have expired. It is too risky,” he says.
He explains that his visa expired in December and, with the current immigration laws in South Africa, he has been having trouble renewing it
“I do not understand it, I mean we are all Africans, why can’t we help each other?” he asks, while looking down.
After leaving his wife and children in Harar, a city in Ethiopia that is famous for producing most of the coffee in that country, Bernard came to South Africa and worked in a restaurant.
“My father used to be a chef, from a young age I learned how to cook.”
While working in the restaurant in Mayfair, he would send money home every month so that his wife could support the children. Bernard also managed to save enough money to buy the restaurant in Little Mogadishu from his boss after the boss went back to Ethiopia.
For most of the immigrants, their situation in Mayfair is just temporary. They still hope to go back to their motherlands in future.
“It’s not easy being away from your family, but a man prides himself in being able to provide for his family,” he says.
“One day, when God has decided, I will return home to reunite with my family.’’
Coffee brings Ethiopians together
While coffee is enjoyed by many people worldwide, the Ethiopians have a cultural attachment to coffee. For many Ethiopians, coffee is a way of bringing people together and their coffee ceremony symbolises this.
The ceremony starts off with the coffee maker washing the green coffee beans before roasting them. The beans are then put in a brazier to roast. Once they are roasted, they are ground until they are fine. The fine coffee powder is then poured into a boiling pot that looks like Aladdin’s genie bottle, with cold water, boiled and then served.
Traditionally, women serve the coffee. However, this is not always possible in Mayfair because the majority of coffee shop owners are men.
“Back at home, the tradition of the coffee ceremony is serious, it is a daily ritual for most families,” Bernard says.
“The ceremony is a sign of respect to the elders who found coffee,” he says.
In Ethiopia, it is also a norm for women to meet in each other’s homes in the morning to socialise over coffee.
Complemented by popcorn or dabo kolo, a bread made of roasted barley, Ethiopian coffee is taken with sugar and no milk three times a day. The first round, taken in the morning is called abol, the second one taken at noon is called tona, and the last one in the evening is called baraka.
“Baraka, the last round, is a round not to be missed, baraka grants us blessings,” says Bernard.
He explains that, according to Ethiopian mythology, the last cup of the day should be taken in the evening to receive blessings from the ancestors.
Bernard asks: “Are you in a hurry? Because the coffee ceremony is not like your instant espressos, it takes time, but once you taste it, you will appreciate the time.”
The guests are entertained while the coffee maker undertakes the ritual, roasting and brewing the beans. Once the beans have been roasted, Bernard stands up from his stool and walks around the room, spreading the aroma of the freshly roasted coffee beans.
There is a divine smell, a mixture of sweet aromas, of chocolate and spicy red wine. “Smell the original African coffee, thanks to Kaldi we can all enjoy coffee,” he says smiling.
The origins of coffee retold
According to Ethiopian folklore, coffee was discovered by a goat herder named Kaldi. He was herding his goats on a highland when the goats started behaving abnormally. They were allegedly dancing on their hind legs while bleating loudly with excitement.
He discovered that the cause of their behaviour was the coffee beans. After trying them himself and getting energised, he took them to the monastery. Upon arrival, the monks were infuriated by his actions; they believed the beans were evil.
They tossed them into a fire, and then the aroma of the beans filled the monastery, making the monks think twice about their disdain.
In Ethiopian culture, during the coffee ceremony, the host spreads the aroma across the room to entice the guests and keep them in anticipation of the coffee.
Bernard explains that the smell of coffee serves as a reminder of home because “back at home, everywhere you go, you can smell coffee”.
“Coffee is sold everywhere, in restaurants, at homes, on the streets. Ethiopians love coffee, after all, it was discovered in our country.”
He then lights the incense and explains that “when people smell the incense, it is a sign that coffee is almost ready, it is an invitation to them to join us”.
Bernard moved to Mayfair because of the lack of opportunities in Ethiopia. “I am here because it is easier to survive in South Africa, but survival does not mean leaving one’s roots.
“Mayfair serves as a great business opportunity for many of us.”
He says that when he came to South Africa, he already knew other Ethiopians who moved to Mayfair long before him.
“Having my fellow brothers here makes things easier because we help each other with businesses and still maintain our culture.”
For only R5, customers can afford to treat themselves to strong, but not bitter, smooth Ethiopian coffee. Full-bodied and dark, with red wine and chocolate notes, the coffee’s acidity brings the coffee to life.
A few kilometres away, is a coffee shop called Father on De Beer Street in an urban space loved by hipsters. The interior of the Braamfontein shop has simple, yellow wood that brings out the light in the shop. There’s a couple in there, a bearded, white young man with a tattooed arm and a woman with multiple piercings on her face. There are sounds of Alt-J, a British alternative indie band.
On the counter, there are soft and moist-looking big chocolate muffins, next to them, croissants with mozzarella and ham.
While in urban areas coffee serves as a drink to fuel people’s energy, in the Ethiopian culture it goes beyond that. Coffee serves as a vehicle that lets people pause, relax and socialise.
According to Bernard, Ethiopians do not just drink coffee to be awake and energised: “We have the ceremony, to sit back and relax and enjoy the aroma while also talking about football.”
In Braamfontein, some coffee shops sell Ethiopian coffee, however, the coffee does not have the same cultural aspect to it.
According to Ori Cohen, co-manager of Doubleshot, a coffee outlet and wholesaler in Braamfontein: “The Ethiopian coffee ceremony does not really get the best out of the bean.
“Ethiopian coffees are extremely variable in flavour, processing style and quality, the Ethiopian way is not necessarily the best way,” he said.
‘There is no Ethiopia without coffee’
In Mayfair, Bernard makes an average R125 daily from coffee. “It’s not because the place is always packed, but because the same people drink about four cups each.
“On a good day, I make about R275,” he says.
Bernard says he has tourists now and then coming into his shop for the coffee and the food. “At the end of the day, it is not just about money, but our culture.”
Habesha Binya, an expert in coffee who teaches people how to make Ethiopian coffee in the CBD, believes that when she teaches people how to make coffee, “I don’t simply want them to make great coffee, but I want them to feel connected to its roots and the culture of bringing people together.
“Whenever there is a coffee ceremony, we are reminded that what we do is more than just ‘coffee’ but rather preserving and celebrating our culture.
“There is something about the smell of good Ethiopian coffee that makes one feel like they are back in Ethiopia at home.”
After she stirs the cup to make sure the sugar is mixed well she hands me the cup, smiles and says, “Buna dabo naw” which literally means “Coffee is our bread”.
According to Bernard: “There is no Ethiopia without coffee, we drink it, we produce it and we sell it. It is our pride.”
FEATURED IMAGE: GENIE IN THE BOTTLE: Jebena is used to boil coffee. Photo: Boipelo Boikhutso
- Wits Vuvuzela, Imperfect end for Parkview coffee shop, May 2023
- Wits Vuvuzela, PHOTO ESSAY: Coffee Shop where sign-language is appreciated, June 2021
- Wits Vuvuzela, A coffee shop that’s stirring things up, August 2013