Sown by the Birds
A tartan of paths wove through the weedy expanses at the edge of the hamlet. Banana-like enset trees, with peeling trunks and sword-shaped leaves standing erect as quills, clustered around each of the two dozen squat huts. The wattle-and-daub walls had long settled and cracked, and the conical tukuls sat slightly askew. They had no chimneys, and morning cook smoke rose like steam through the thatched roofs. Among snatches of conversations and the soft domestic clank of pots came the muted jingle of a brass cowbell.
Woldegiorgis Shawo crossed the bottom of his hamlet, cut into the quiet shade, and entered the Mankira Forest. The thin path disappeared as soon as he began winding down the slope. Fit and still strong at seventy-five, he walked with a quick, rolling gate, his shoulders thrown back, his knees coming up high as he stepped though the tangles of thistles and thorns and long grasses that covered the ground.
The damp forest was hushed but not still. Twitching movement above revealed a troop of black-and-white colobus monkeys with potbellies, bored expressions, and long tails that dangled like shaggy white lichen. Lanky branches arched overhead among cord-thick lianas, while cascades of yellow epiphytic orchids and leafy climbers veined dull tree trunks in limpid emerald. A ray of sunlight pierced the tunnel of foliage, catching the taunt grid of a spider's web and illuminating tiny, star-shaped topaz flowers that tattooed the sodden leaf litter. From the canopy above came the deep whoosh of a silvery-cheeked hornbill taking flight. Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa , it brayed like an agitated goat.
After twenty minutes or so, Woldegiorgis stopped. Through a fissure in the branches appeared a young man in an oversize cable-knit sweater and jacket, the sleeves thickly rolled past his elbows. He reached up, doubled over a spry branch, and began stripping off the fruits, spinning the deep red berries between thumb and fingers to separate them from the short stem. It was the end of October, and the gathering of wild coffee was just beginning in Kafa's highland rain forests.
Wreathed in tender ferns, the smooth grayish-brown trunks were slender as forearms and forked and had long, drooping branches. Festoons of silvery-green moss hung from twigs like unkempt beards. The shiny dark-green coffee leaves — oval and ribbed, with fine, tapering ends — were sparse.
A trio of barefoot teenage girls materialized through the quiet lattice of woodsy green. The middle one, perhaps fourteen years old, stepped out last. Broken sunlight streaked her face with its shy smile, downcast eyes, and tight necklace strung with a single red bead that at first appeared to be a ripe coffee fruit. A small woven basket hung from an arm of each holding cherries, as the fruits are called.
Wild coffee trees grow spontaneously under the towering, broad-leafed canopy. They are neither cultivated nor maintained. Nor do the trees have a defined owner. Instead, a complex system of ancestral entitlements govern who is allowed to gather the ripe coffee berries and precisely from where.
With a fluttering wave of his hand, Woldegiorgis indicated the sweep of the generous ten hectares (twenty-five acres) where the hereditary right for him to collect coffee had been passed down for generations. The forest has no boundary markers, but he knew his plot to the bush by the fall of the land and its natural features — the cuff of a certain hillock, a cluster of shrubs gathered in a hollow, a stream that forms part of its border.
The four pickers returned to stripping the fruits off the branches, working steadily and quietly, slipping, on occasion, into song, sung low and to themselves. Many of trees had few berries, and some none at all. The young man scaled a sturdy tree to get a group of higher fruits.
The cherries that brew the best cup are the supple ruby ones. But in the cloud-smothered rain forest wild coffee ripens asynchronously, and the pickers took pale fruits that were only beginning to blush, yellow ones, and even some still green, dropping them all in their baskets. It was an effort to return to this isolated spot, but it was also risky to leave any cherries on the branches. There was no guarantee that the ripe fruit would be there when they returned. While Woldegiorgis had the right to the coffee from these trees, and the remoteness insured few would venture to the spot, access was open.
The main threat, though, Woldegiorgis said, gathering fistfuls of coffee while he spoke, isn't people but the natural world. Heavy rains during the past evenings had knocked down many of the riper cherries. "This," he said, motioning to the crimson coffee fruits scattered around the ground, a result of the fickle weather. "Also animals." As the berries mature, they become more enticing to the baboons and monkeys, certain birds, and rodents that savor their sweet pulp. Woldegiorgis pointed to a branch that had been broken by the heavy weight of a baboon trying to get to the ripe fruit.
But animals are also key to the survival of wild coffee, as they sow the seeds around the forest. The white-cheeked turaco and large silvery-cheeked hornbill, known for its distinctive oversize cream-colored casque and bold, noisy call, carry the seeds the farthest.
"This coffee"— Woldegiorgis had said, his hand around a lithe trunk — "is wof zerash." Sown by the birds.
Kafa is officially a "zone" within Ethiopia's Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples' Region, a large state and one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse areas in Africa. Kafa measures some 4,250 square miles, a bit smaller than Connecticut, with an overwhelmingly rural population of 850,000. Its capital, Bonga, by far Kafa's biggest city and, apart from Jimma, in the neighboring region, the largest for hundreds of miles in any direction, is home to just twenty-seven thousand people.
In Bonga, Mesfin Tekle, the leading authority on the forests of Kafa, said, "The legend tells us coffee started in Mankira." Local tradition specifi cally points to this forest as the birthplace of coffee. 1 Among a grove of trees inside Mankira, Woldegiorgis said, "This is the place."
The Mankira Forest is just fifteen miles from Bonga. Some seven hundred people live around it in four hamlets and a larger, eponymous village. For much of the year they are inaccessible and remain difficult to reach the remainder of it. From Bonga, it is an hour's drive in a Land Cruiser until the truck can go no farther on the washed-out road strewn with rocks and gouged with runoff channels, and another hour on foot down to the Gumi River, losing a thousand feet in elevation.
The Gumi ("dark") marks the boundary of Mankira, and during the lengthy April-to-September rainy season, locally called yooyo, the swollen river cuts it off. (The other route, which is generally muddy and boggy, takes three hours to walk, crosses several rivers, and remains a desperate rather than realistic alternative.) In June, the river had been impassable and highly treacherous. Now, during harvest time four months later, and into the short qaawoo (dry season), the water should have been calf deep. But dry season is a relative term at best. Storms were breaking late at night, flashing across distant hills before arriving with thunderous urgency, pummeling the corrugated-metal roofs in Bonga and sending rivulets of water cascading down the unlit dirt roads. The Gumi was rushing through its ravine in near-full spate and laden with soil from the hills. A pair of Abyssinian horses, small grayish mares, carrying jute sacks of dried coffee from Mankira to be milled in Bonga, plunged to their bellies as they crossed. Two teenage boys prodded the animals through the strong current that pushed them downstream toward the rapids as they made their way to the opposite bank.
After they had crossed, a forester and guide named Alemayu Haile stepped into the water and plunged nearly to his waist. Stripping down, looping pants, boots, and backpack around the his neck, Asaye Alemayehu, a forest guide from Bonga, took up one of the tall sticks left on the bank and walked into the swift magenta-orange water, lurching the fifteen yards across the river over jagged, hidden boulders that lined the riverbed.
From the Gumi it was nearly an hour climb to Gola, the first small hamlet, and then another hour to the village of Mankira itself. The path cleaved through dense forest, quickly gaining elevation. Troops of olive baboons mingled along the edge of the track. A scythe-billed hadada ibis fluttered up from a tree, calling, Haa-haa-haaaa-haa, as a couple more laden mules came down the hill. Later, half a dozen people, each bearing a piece of living room furniture bound for sale in Bonga, filed passed. Black butterflies spun upward from rain puddles, and inch-wide columns of feisty red ants crossed the track. Along both side were coffee forests. Scattered among their branches were brilliant, waxy yellowish and red coffee fruits that popped out of the leafy greens like berries on Christmas holly.
Unlike maize, carrots, or bananas, which are nearly unrecognizable beside their domesticated relatives, wild coffee fruits look identical to cultivated ones. About the size of a plump blueberry or cranberry, they are slightly elliptical and have a small nipple scar at the tip. Each fruit holds a pair of hard oval pale beans. Wrapped in a fine silvery membrane and covered with a parchment, they are embedded in sticky, sugar-rich mucilage and enclosed in a thin layer of pulpy flesh (the mesocarp) and smooth outer skin (the exocarp).
The biggest differences between wild and cultivated coffee are in the trees, their height, the slimness of the trunks — and the amount of fruit they bear.
A fertile patch of well-tended, shade-grown Guatemala coffee produces annually about 400 to 450 kilograms of green coffee — clean, unroasted coffee beans — per hectare. Colombia's national average is nearly 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds), although some farms are producing more than three times that amount. In Kafa, the same-size piece of dense forest might yield as little as 15 kilograms, or 33 pounds, of wild coffee. "In the Kombo Forest if they get thirty kilos it is a good yield," said Mesfin. Certain forests that are more open, with more light, might provide a couple hundred kilos of coffee per hectare. Even that, though, is cyclical: a (relatively) bounteous year is followed by a slack one. "It is like the teeth of a saw," said a coffee collector encountered in another part of Mankira's forest. "If this harvest is good, then next year's will decline."
Cultivated coffee exists because it is meant to exist, Mesfin had said in Kombo, south of Bonga. "Plantation coffee trees are bred, planted, and trained to produce. They are expected to do so."
Not so these gangly wild ancestors. A coffee tree is here because it won the space. More than one seed fell in the same place, and many other plants want the nutrients of the humus beneath it, the water, and those flickers of precious sunlight that pierce the overhead canopy. "It exists not just to exist but to survive," Mesfin said. Or because it has survived. This is one reason wild trees produce so little. Heavy bearing weakens a tree, and resources go into fending off diseases, pests, and beating competition — into simply surviving.
In the deep forest, Arabica trees are spindly, thin, and unusually tall as they stretch toward light filtering through a canopy of towering warqa (Ficus vasta, a type of wild fig tree), and hundred-foot-tall butoo with yellowish leaves, and red stinkwood. Coffee trees have large leaves that are more supple than leathery in the shade, long gaps between the internodes, and few low branches. The more undisturbed the forest, the denser the canopy, the slower the trees grow, and the fewer cherries they produce — just enough to ensure the survival of the species.
In Kombo, Mesfin pulled off a piece of moss and inhaled deeply. "The smell of the forest is the smell of dust. On the coffee tree there is a moisture which falls on the trunk, on the wood part, and that attracts dust, and in the dust mosses and ferns grow." The moss was fine and a touch brittle. "On that insects also feed and live. Some of the insects are the most important pollinators." He paused. "Listen." Under the wispy silvery-green covering was a slight shifting.
The unkempt coffee trees are just one among four hundred other species of plants growing in the dense understory of the coffee forest, 4 an intricate piece of Kafa's rich floristic diversity.
Woldegiorgis pinched the end of a fresh coffee cherry and shot the beans into his mouth. They have a delicate sweetness, with subtle hints of hibiscus, cherry, and watermelon, even mango. He spat out the seeds, pinched another pair into his mouth, and set off deeper into the forest.
Threading quickly through the dense woodland, skirting potholes dug by shy, nocturnal creatures, he stopped to point out fresh buffalo tracks, and then, farther along, baboon scat filled with pale coffee beans. "Snakes are active and more aggressive in the dry season when they are hunting," Alemayu had warned. Green mamba — the most feared of the local creatures — lurked among the leafy foliage. (The electric-green skin of one spotted earlier was almost too vibrant to be real, and certainly too gorgeous not to be deadly.) A white-cheeked turaco, as stylized as a hand-painted ornament, scurried down a slender branch and then flashed its crimson wings as it darted off with a ripe fruit clamped in its beak. Deeper in the forest a solitary De Brazza's monkey announced itself with a booming call.
Woldegiorgis finally stopped on a thickly treed slope. He wore a soiled army-green polo shirt with a yellow checked collar and cuffs and a grubby baseball hat whose logo had long since peeled away. Throwing an arm around one tree's stout, forked trunk, he said, "Bune inde," the "mother coffee tree." Small tree ferns sprouted from its aging bark, and beardlike tufts clung to its branches. "The oldest in Mankira."
Wild coffee trees can reach one hundred years old, 5 and eventually they just topple over. Bune inde was much older, Woldegiorgis insisted. He remembered it as the same size when his father showed it to him as a boy seven decades before. Its trunk wasn't thick, just five inches or so in diameter.
In eastern Ethiopia, old cultivated Arabica trees growing on the sunny terraced hills around Harar are significantly stockier. This one had put its energy in growing upward through the middle strata. In the Gela coffee forest, they grow even taller, reaching fifty to sixty-five feet as they compete for light.
High, and seemingly out of reach, were a couple dozen still-yellow coffee cherries. "I will collect these myself," Woldegiorgis said somewhat improbably. Only he gathers the fruits from bune inde.
All around, coffee trees and saplings of all ages sprouted up. This was the hidden wealth of Kafa. But pulling away a piece of gauzy moss and inhaling, one smells not profit but survival.
Back with the four others, Woldegiorgis told them to pack up and return to the hamlet for lunch. Those venturing farther into the forest to reach their allotted area carry food with them — boiled beans, some cabbage, and kocho, a staple flatbread made from the fermented starches of enset — and, snug in a wicker basket, a jebena of coffee corked with a corncob. Collectors who go into the deepest reaches of the forests travel with horses and mules and set up makeshift camps to stay for a month or longer, returning in late December or January once the harvest has been collected and the coffee dried.
Woldegiorgis had hired these four to pick for the day. Some laborers receive 10 percent of the cherries they gather. Woldegiorgis prefers to pay cash. The rate was one birr (five cents) per kilogram. Because they had to carry the coffee some distance back from the forest, he paid them an additional birr per kilo. A basket held five kilos, and each could fill it once, maybe twice, in a morning, earning up to a dollar for their work.
The oldest girl, wearing a crudely carved wooden Orthodox cross and two small knotted cloth charm bags around her neck, held open a jute sack for the others to dump their baskets. A second sack had already been filled. She and another girl each balanced one on their heads and followed Woldegiorgis back through the forest, crouching with their loads under lianas and low branches.
The troop of colobus monkeys hadn't moved far and were quietly plucking and chewing leaves. A cloak of spirituality clings to their patient, aloof demeanor, their stillness. "We call them monks," said Alemayu. "They have fasting days." Unlike baboons or mischievous grivet monkeys, people tolerate colobuses as they tend not to bother garden crops.