When I first saw this vessel, I must admit I thought of it as nothing special. I admired the dotted patterns and the colourful stand on which it is placed. But other than that, I saw it and thought ‘oh, it must be used for tea or coffee’ due to its subtle resemblance to دلال (delal), traditional pots used for the same purpose, which I encountered growing up in the middle east.
But then, the wedding of two friends took me to Ethiopia, where this pot was purchased in a market by the British archaeologist David Walter Philipson. On witnessing the contexts in which it is used, I realised its significance.
Called ጀበና (jebena) in Amharic, this pot, like middle eastern دلال (delal), is used to brew and serve ቡና (bunna) or coffee. It is made of clay and usually crafted by an elderly woman, using locally sourced materials. She first moulds the clay into shape, then draws designs and patterns into the wet clay, and once dry, she paints it black or brown. Although most jebenawoch have a long neck, handle, and a large circular base, appearance varies with region and ethnic group – something I learnt at the Ethnological Museum in Addis, which had several displays of jebenawoch in glass cases.
Jebenawoch are often black with simple painted patterns. Indeed, most that I saw around me – in cafes, markets, cultural centres, and hotels – were made in this manner. But, according to Morie Kaneko, who has examined variations in pottery making in southwestern Ethiopia, jebenawoch can be more ornately decorated with several bright colours and used as social symbols to represent status. In aristocratic and upper-class Ethiopian society, jebenawoch can also be decorated in gold or silver.
In terms of their social and cultural significance, jebenawoch, as noted above, are used as symbols of status and wealth. In some contexts, they also function as practical yet ornate heirlooms – families usually possess just one and pass it down from generation to generation. But its most important significance, I believe, is the role that it plays in the ጀበና ቡና (jebena bunna) or the Ethiopian coffee ceremony – a multi sensorial experience meant to strengthen the bonds of love and friendship between all those gathered. According to Dahai Daniel, who researched the role of ጀበና ቡና (jebena bunna) in Ethiopians’ efforts to cope with social upheaval during the Der Reime (1974-1991):
‘Arguably, the most important feature of the ceremony is the jebena, the coffee pot. The jebena is made from clay and has a round bottom with a narrow spout and a handle on the side. Its shape and design are reflective of the ethnic identity of the host, whether it has a large bottom or an additional spout to pour out the coffee. While certain elements of the coffee ceremony can be tweaked, modernised, or all together left out, the jebena has remained the centre piece throughout Ethiopia abroad’.
But what is the ጀበና ቡና (jebena bunna), who performs it, and what happens during it?
The ጀበና ቡና (jebena bunna) is typically performed by a woman, the matriarch of the household, who considers it an honour. The first step is to prepare the room by spreading grass on the floor and burning incense to ward off evil spirits.
Then, the guests are served snacks such as popcorn, cooked barley, and አምባሻ (himbasha, a savoury bread made with nigella seeds). While the guests are snacking and chatting, the performer fills a ጀበና (jebena) with water and places it over hot coals. As the water gets hot, she washes a handful of green coffee beans in water, stirring and shaking the husks and debris out of the beans until they are clean. She then roasts the clean beans in a long-handled, wok-like pan held over hot coals or a small fire. During this process too, she stirs the beans constantly, to keep the roast as even as possible and to prevent the beans from burning.
Roasting may be stopped once the beans are a medium brown, or it may continue until they are blackened and shimmering with essential oils. Once roasted, a portion of the coffee beans are passed around to the guests, who are encouraged to smell and appreciate the aroma; it is considered rude to not do so.
Roasted beans are then ground using a muketcha (mortar) and zenezena (pestle). By the time the beans are ground, the water in the ጀበና (jebena) is usually ready. Ground coffee is then transferred to the ጀበና (jebena), which is filled with more water, placed on hot coals again, and its contents are brought to a boil.
ቡና (bunna), the brewed coffee, is then poured from the ጀበና (jebena) into a decanter and cooled. It is then poured back into the ጀበና (jebena) and brought to a boil. This process is repeated one more time. After this, a filter – often made of horsehair – is placed in the spout of the ጀበና (jebena) to separate the grounds when ቡና (bunna) is poured. Holding the ጀበና (jebena) from a foot above the neat rows of delicate sini or china cups, the performer streams the hot ቡና (bunna) with great skill, filling each cup equally without breaking its stream.
ቡና (bunna) is then served by a different family member, most often the youngest child, who first serves the guest of honour, or more conventionally, the oldest guest. A small bowl of sugar is passed around for those wanting some. After the first round, typically, two additional rounds are served. The three servings are referred to as abol, tona, and baraka, the last one meaning ‘to be blessed’. According to legend, these are the names of the three goats who discovered coffee by unknowingly eating coffee cherries and becoming too energetic to sleep at night. It is believed that with each round of coffee, the consumer reaches a state of spiritual transformation, and at the conclusion of the third, receives blessings. Unfortunately for me though, I never managed to get past the second round!
I witnessed and participated in the ጀበና ቡና (jebena bunna) in several different contexts. I was grateful to have been invited by my friend’s family to their house for coffee – an expression and extension of friendship and hospitality. My experience of this ጀበና ቡና (jebena bunna) was very similar to that which I have described above. I also encountered the ጀበና ቡና (jebena bunna) being performed at airports, hip and touristic cafes, and the hotels at which I stayed. In these contexts, it was not performed by a matriarch, but a woman nevertheless, and acted on the same principle: to strengthen the bonds between those consuming ቡና (bunna) together.
At the wedding too, a ጀበና ቡና (jebena bunna) was performed. This time by the bride, with the ceremony marking her official transition from one state of womanhood to another. Friends and family gathered around as she roasted green coffee beans, passed around popcorn, አምባሻ (himbasha), and the fresh roast for everyone to smell and appreciate. Using a ጀበና (jebena) she poured streams of ቡና (bunna) into rows of white sini with great skill. Mize (the groom’s men) then passed these cups around to the wedding guests, starting with the eldest first. As they drank the bride’s first ቡና (bunna), the guests blessed the couple with a long and happy married life.
Beyond Ethiopia, in a context I have yet to experience, the ጀበና ቡና (jebena bunna) is widely performed amongst the Ethiopian diaspora across the world. David Palmer, who has studied its significance in these contexts, observed,
‘…the Buna ceremony in exile acts as a foundation for community relationships and allows members to share their skills and knowledge in support of each other and the wider community… [It is] more than simply a gathering for coffee; in addition to the attachment to the coffee itself and the traditional ritual proceedings surrounding the Buna event, the ceremony… provide[s] insights into the complex and challenging ongoing processes of settlement, adaptation and identity management, experienced by the participants in exile.’
In each of these contexts, the ጀበና ቡና (jebena bunna), embodied through the ጀበና (jebena), testifies the deep-rooted significance of tradition, community, and connection. What might appear as a simple process of brewing and serving coffee unveils a complex ritual and a metaphorical journey that transcends time and space. As the jebena holds the brew, the ceremony holds people together, bridging generations, cultures, and even continents. Its aromatic journey, from roasting beans to pouring cups, becomes a shared experience that enriches relationships and celebrates the essence of Ethiopian heritage.