See the translation of the Amharic words used in this essay at the bottom of the page. The Magic of Buna:
A Ferengi's Healing Ritual in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan

     by LaDena “Serkalem” Schnapper (Dessie, Awassa 63–66)

WITH ESTRAORDINARY AWARENESS, I place the jebena, my fragile night black clay coffeepot, on the stove. I muse how this simple piece of Ethiopian earth, shaped and fired by some Ethiopian woman’s slender hands, has such profound meaning for me. Heavens, maybe this female potter was directly related to Dinkinesh, the 3.5 million year old little lady whose bones were discovered in Ethiopia. Just think! I am connected to the world’s first woman!

Here I am making buna at home. Home? I have wandered the world the past 40 years and feel more at home in an Ethiopian gojo in Wollo than in the States. But my mother’s health was failing; she was alone. Ravaged by osteoporosis and a soon to be diagnosis of cancer, I felt obligated to care for her. How could I, the eldest daughter, not heed the flashing words of the Fourth Commandment blazing like a neon sign in my mind? So it came to be. I returned to my American birthplace, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the U.P. as it is called. Full circle.

Now I live in Crystal Falls, a wooded rural town of 2,000. The bal ager – there are no Habashas; no megeb baits; no asmari baits. I have my injera and wat sent via UPS by friends in Chicago. I surf the NET for things Ethiopian; the phone brings Amarinya to my ears.

Right! I can’t let go. Never have; never will. Since my Peace Corps days in the ’60s, I have woven my life with Ethiopian threads. In the U.P., I stay connected to Ethiopia by buna. I feel comforted, relaxed, happy when I make buna. I learned the ceremony well; even promoted it for the Center for Ethiopian Arts and Culture while in DC. My Ethiopian friends asked me to come to their homes to share my insight into this rich cultural tradition for the sake of their assimilated children. Imagine, a ferengi making buna!

It is through the coffee ceremony that I find solace, strength, and joy. No, it’s not the caffeine. (Did you know the Ethiopian arabica bean has less caffeine than the robusto bean used in American coffee?). I work as a mental health therapist. Daily I listen to people’s anguish, pain, fear, anger, loneliness and struggles of their suffering souls. After a week of work and caring for a sick mother, I deeply need to regenerate.

It’s the carrying out of the ritual, the enacting of the coffee ceremony, that allows renewal to occur. When performed with reverence and purposefulness, ritual creates a connection to a deeper energy field, be it earthly or spiritual. With intent and focus, I am able to move into this ancient custom practiced by hundreds of generations of Ethiopian women, draw the power I so desire and rejuvenate myself. Surely the Queen of Sheba herself made buna!

Weekends are for buna. Filled with anticipation and awareness, my preparations create a special time/space experience. I invite my mother, gorabaitocc and friends to share this time with me. I dress in one of my many Habasha lebs and feel again like "Serkalem." The name means "Always Happy" (well, how were the kids in Dessie that named me to know that even I would go through some dark nights of my soul).

Traditionally, rituals consist of elements which activate and enliven the senses - taste, touch, smell, sight and sound. The coffee ceremony is no exception. First, I delineate an area; define boundaries; fashion a sacred space for carrying out the ceremony. I place my hand woven brown 36 year old Debre Zina rug on the floor of my living room filled with Ethiopian artwork, mossebs, sefet, shekla, books on Ethiopia and cassettes of Tilahun, Marta, Noi, Hannah, Selamawit, Setegne, Woretaw, Yirga, Baharu, Seyoum, Shambel. I marvel for I know each of these talented artists; I will choose one to join me as I perform the ceremony.

Green is the symbol of renewal. To delight the eye and remind me of my bond to the earth, I strew ketema or goosgwaze on the carpet. No one is aware of my deception. Even Ethiopians think it’s the real thing. I have discovered the flower section of dime stores have abundant artificial supplies of this long green grass, called "bear grass" in the States. A delicate touch of beauty, a deep abiding value for Ethiopians, is added by the red, white, pink, yellow of the live flowers gracing the finely crafted rekebot eagerly supporting the little handleless sini patiently waiting to be filled. The nature theme repeats itself in the basic white cups decorated with six vertical petals and flowers in green, brown or blue. A fine gold rim circling both outside and inside of the cup is the mandatory line to where the coffee is poured. Full. Almost flowing over. A lesson to remember. Indeed, it is my responsibility to fill myself up with the fullness of life.

The green coffee bean, the teray buna, is a striking metaphor of me. Yes. As I begin to wash the beans several times, I release the stress, problems, worries of the week. Just letting go of that exterior buildup. Those layers; the masks. Coming back to bare substance.

Roasting is next. I shake the mankeskesha over the fire listening for the second crackling of each bean opening its provocative essence. I wait. Awareness. Attention. Patience. The right timing. Just like life, I think. I must be willing to take the heat, withstand the trials, and in the end, I too will be transformed.

As the tantalizing aroma fills the room, I extend an invitation to my mother and each guest to use their hands to gently coax the smoke towards themselves. To take in, to absorb. An act of communion with this invisible yet palpable presence.

With my whole body I move into the primeval rhythm of pulverizing the roasted beans with the mukecha and zenzena; then sacrifice the fine brown powder to the boiling water of the jebena. The symbolism does not escape me. To be transformed, I too may need to make sacrifices! For a delightful subtle flavor, I may add a pinch of cinnamon, cloves or cardamom to the pot.

Here is where I feel the most vulnerable. I tend to be so impatient; not paying attention to the task at hand. Hundreds of times my coffee has boiled over spattering stove and kitchen walls with endless designs. Timing is critical. I take the jebena from the heat resting it carefully on the colorfully woven matot; the grounds begin to settle. To increase the sacred sense of the moment, I place itan on the girgira cradling a live hot coal.

Permeating the space, this holy fragrance of frankincense or myrrh transports me into a deeper realm of being. In some areas of Ethiopia, it is believed that the smoke will carry out any bad spirits in the home. I improvise on this concept. Egziabiher youling. I ask that all tension and concern be released and leave the bodies and minds of my mother, guests and myself. I ask that we be blessed with tena, fikur, hapte and selam. In my mind’s eye I evoke the deep valleys and rugged mountains of Wollo; the incredible warmth and joy I experienced with Habashas; the simplicity of Ethiopian daily life intertwined with rich cultural customs. I allow the longing to come back, feel it in my heart, somehow release into a gratitude for the wonder of Ethiopia and end the "blessings" renewed.

A faded sefet from my trip to Harar 35 years ago holds yebuna kourse . If no child is present, I ask the youngest to assist by passing it first to the oldest, revealing the Ethiopian value of deep respect for the elderly. Of course my mother, who is now 85, gets the first serving. Her self-esteem rises.

Gracefully pouring a thin golden stream of coffee into each little cup from a height of one foot without interruption requires years of practice. If I place the cups properly when pouring commences, even they will ring overjoyed in being filled with this heady elixir. As my guests realize, finger dexterity is required to hold the steaming hot sini, I explain the Ethiopian proverb, Buna na fikur be tekus naw. " and Coffee and love taste best when hot."

I feel peaceful and happy after Abol, the first round of coffee. An hour or two later, after two more rounds of Tona and Baraka, I find myself mellow, at ease, divinely serene. The beauty of the ritual speaks to me, teaches me. I surrender to its gentle flow, its evocative sensuousness, its powerful force. I notice it is the only time my mother does not speak of her pain. Calmness and tranquillity come upon her. My guests ask when they can come again.

I am now refreshed, revitalized. I have connected myself to the vibrant spiritual energy of Ethiopia. After all, the Ark of the Covenant is in Axum, isn’t it? Buna’s magical power has brought healing. Transformation of the spirit has occurred. I am renewed.

LaDena’s love of Ethiopia began in the ’60s as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Dessie and Awassa. She has written Teenage Refugees from Ethiopia Speak Out [Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 1997] and is now writing a book on the coffee ceremony. She invites your stories, memories, facts on buna. Email:ladena@direcway.com. "The Magic of Buna" was first published in a Chicago Ethiopian publication, Mahabir, in September of 1999.
buna  coffee
bal ager   
megeb bait   
asmari bait   
night club
habasha lebs   
white Ethiopian dress
ketema, goosgawze   
green bear grass
coffee-cup stand
teray buna   
green coffee bean
coffee roaster
coffeepot holder
egziabiher youling   
god be with me
incense stand
yebuna kourse   
popcorn or bread
abol, tona, baraka   
three rounds of coffee
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