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  • Writer's pictureRogue Chemist

Kafa: the birthplace of buna

I won't lie: coffee was a large part of my incentive to visit the Kafa region, which is situated in the stunning southwest of Ethiopia.

Until you've drunk freshly roasted and brewed buna from a little procelain teacup (cini) in a cozy shack on the roadside with the locals, you haven't truly experienced the essence of Ethiopian culture. Interestingly, within Africa, Ethiopia is the only coffee-producing country that also has a traditional coffee-drinking culture.

Just me and my buna

The traditional coffee-making process is a more time-consuming ritual than the relatively instant gratification we're used to in the West. Raw coffee beans are first roasted over charcoal (to the point that they become black), ground by mortar and pestle, poured into a clay coffee pot (jebena) with water, and the mixture is boiled. The aroma is deliciously intoxicating. Many Ethiopians add a few heaping spoonfuls of sugar to their cup, but for me, strong black coffee is the way to go.

My guide, Atirse (far left), and his friends (packing my stash of freshly roasted coffee beans)

When prepared as part of a coffee ceremony (jebena buna, which I did not partake in during my time in Ethiopia), popcorn or kolo (roasted barley or chickpeas—delicious as a bus snack too) is usually served on the side, but none ever accompanied my unceremonial buna.

My merry-looking jebena from the market in Bonga (I love the "birthday hat"). All for a mere 35 birr!

Kafa Biosphere Reserve

In 2010, Kafa was designated as a UNESCO biosphere reserve and is protected by the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), an environmental organization based in Germany. Shrouded in Afromontane "cloud" forests, Kafa is a wealth of biodiversity. According to NABU, 250 plant species and 600 animal species (300 of which are bird species) thrive here, and commodities such as wild Arabica coffee, honey, and a variety of spices are produced on a large scale.

Also according to NABU, the coffee that grows here has an estimated value of up to 1.4 billion USD, so to say it's a valuable crop is an understatement. There are over 5,000 wild varieties of the Arabica coffee plant in this region.

Deforestation mainly due to agriculture has dramatically diminished the forest cover to a fraction of its size over the years, but reforestation projects facilitated by NABU are in place to restore some of this loss. The biosphere reserve spans an area of 760,000 hectares (less than half of which is forest cover, to my understanding), and these forests absorb around 600,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year.

As a side note: much to my delight, you can find wild forest coffee from Bonga in Germany at Alnatura, an organic grocery store chain. Although it's not as deeply roasted as the stuff I brought back (which I went through far too quickly), the taste is definitely on par. It's a bit more expensive than other brands, but you're supporting the local farmers in this region by purchasing it.

NABU also sells their brand of coffee at Alnatura and donates part of the proceeds to support the preservation of rainforests in East Africa (I assume they mean Ethiopia). This coffee is also very good and less expensive than the other version.

My second day in Bonga marked a "hallelujah" point in my trip (and the morning sunrise behind my hotel confirmed it).

A glorious sunrise in Bonga

I was determined to find the "Office of Culture and Tourism" that my guidebook promised could help me arrange a guide for hiking around Kafa, so, after breakfast, I set out into the town to find this place. I asked a clerk at the bank (by my logic, bank employees are more likely to speak some English), who told me to "follow the road" for about 10 minutes.

Failing to stumble upon this theoretical office after 10 minutes, I asked a friendly-looking stranger walking in the same direction, who ended up asking a string of other (just as friendly-looking) strangers along the way in order to locate the correct building within a gated government complex. Once I finally found it, it took a few more friendly faces to finally direct me to the right room.

Yes, it was as complicated a mission as it sounds, but ultimately I was directed to an office of people who could help me. They phoned a local tour guide, Atirse, and once he arrived, we thanked the staff and were quickly on our way.

After speaking with Atirse, I realized that my guidebook must have meant the Kafa Development Association as the place to arrange guides, an entirely different building located on the other side of town, beside Bonga's International Coffee Museum—the museum was not open today (Monday) for no apparent reason, surprise, surprise.

Bonga's International Coffee Museum. Where is everyone??

View overlooking Bonga town

An Orthodox church in Bonga during a service (women are not permitted to enter)

Beautiful traditional scarves for sale at the market

We set out on foot towards the edge of town in the direction of the forest. As we walked along the wide dirt path off the main road and eventually onto a forest trail, Atirse pointed out the ridiculously diverse array of fruit and spices growing on plantations along the way, including figs, avocado, pineapple, mango, black pepper, cardamom, hops, and of course, plenty of coffee. From time to time, he pulled off a leaf from a plant or flower for me to smell and examine, and warned me when a thorny bush was approaching so I could swiftly maneuver it.

Cardamom (apparently the most expensive spice in Ethiopia)

Hops drying in the sun

After walking for about 45 minutes, the trail suddenly opened up to a clearing with a magnificent sight in the backdrop: Barta Waterfall. Standing at 70 meters high, this epic waterfall is one of fourteen in Bonga.

After some necessary posing, we walked to the base, where we bumped into a trio of young Ethiopians taking a dip in the cool water. We chatted with them for a little while and relaxed on the rocks, basking in the sunlight and fine spray enveloping us. Sadly, we did not see a rainbow, which would have made the moment even more majestic (although I really can't complain—the moment was perfect without it).

Barta Waterfall

On the way back from the waterfall, we stopped at a beekeeping farm to sample the honey (effing delicious) and learn about its production and the types of trees planted to attract bees. The traditional hives are cylindrical, wooden structures that are easily spotted hanging high in the trees in the forest, while the modern hives are mounted on the ground, like the ones on this farm.

Traditional Ethiopian beehives

After our excursion, we stopped for freshly squeezed juice at a popular little juice joint in town. We sat in colorful plastic chairs and downed tall glasses of pineapple juice blended with creamy avocado (served with a side of lime), sharing stories and laughs, occasionally making fun of the overdramatic Korean soap opera being aired on the small TV screen overhead.

I could immediately sense Atirse's warmth and kindness upon our introduction, but on this outing and in the coming days we spent together exploring Kafa, I would come to know him not only as a knowledgeable and perceptive guide but as a genuine friend and kindred spirit. Honestly, I could not have asked for a better guide for Bonga (and anyone considering a visit to this region should absolutely get in touch with me for his contact details).

One disheveled-looking dude with long hair and holding a long, wooden stick sat conspicuously in the corner of the shop, blatantly giving me the staredown and not drinking juice (but smoking a cigarette—to this point, I had not seen anyone smoking in Ethiopia). The shopkeeper ended up kicking him out for smoking, but he jumped right back inside a few moments later and pretended to fire his stick-gun at me, complete with sound effects. I appreciated the comic relief (and the fact that it wasn't a real gun).

One remarkable thing I noticed was the reduction of farangi's and you’s I received on the street since the beginning of Atirse's companionship. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised by the different treatment—for one, Artise is a man, and secondly, he's a local. I'm sure this combination offers some sort of immunity to harassment.

I also noticed how warmly Atirse greeted everyone—friends and strangers alike—with "selamno" or selamnish" (for a man or woman, respectively) and the traditional handshake I described before, wherein both parties touch opposite shoulders mid-shake. I began doing this as well with each person we met, which gave me a wonderful feeling of familiarity.

We encountered another crazy dude on the street (well, definitely drunk, at least) on the way back to the guesthouse. This guy was overly captivated by my "unicornness" and seemed relatively harmless (as in, no stick-gun in hand), but insisted on following us back to the hotel, despite my guide politely telling him off.

In the end, the hotel security guard had to physically escort him off the premises, but it was a peaceful parting—he longingly looked back over his shoulder, stealing one final gaze at the unicorn.

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