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Travel Journal: Return from Ethiopia

Travel Journal: Return from Ethiopia


It is with a heart filled with joy and hope that we embark on this journey. Just a few days ago, peace agreements were finally signed in the Tigray province (in the northern part of the country). The Ethiopian people can now glimpse a relief from the ethnic tensions that have persisted for years, plunging the country into civil war. The purpose of this trip is to explore the highlands of southern Ethiopia in order to establish partnerships with new spice producers.
To Addis-Abeda from Kaffa
We leave the bustling capital city of Addis Ababa, perched at an altitude of nearly 2500 meters, to take the red dirt tracks that lead us towards the dense forests of the southwest of the country. Our destination: the city of Kaffa. The roads we're taking are impassable without a sufficiently robust vehicle and skilled driving. The routes are rocky and winding away from the main highways. That's why we decide to enlist the help of our friend Challa, who will be our guide and companion for the upcoming adventures.
We are struck by the countryside, which is incredibly populated! Wherever we travel a road, there are pedestrians - of all ages - despite the scorching sun. It's common to come across hundreds of schoolchildren with a book under one arm and a jerrycan under the other, walking one behind the other to reach the nearest school; women carrying cabbages, bundles of firewood, and sometimes even tree trunks together; shepherds herding their flocks; men leading donkeys laden with wood and various objects to transport essentials from one place to another... This constant procession happens under the watchful eyes of baboons lounging at the roadside.
As we journey along the road and engage with the people we meet, we notice the beauty through which both women and men express themselves: in their smiles, but especially in their eyes that widen and sparkle repeatedly. Suddenly, the words we cannot understand in Amharic are narrated through their eyes. After several hours on the road, we arrive in Kaffa. The original birthplace of Arabica coffee, coffee trees grow here spontaneously. The landscapes are mountainous and lush, and the biodiversity is remarkable. Upon our arrival, we meet Mesfin - a man of infinite wisdom and precious botanical knowledge. In Ethiopia, greetings involve a handshake followed by a shoulder-to-shoulder embrace, which can be repeated several times depending on the region and level of closeness – much like our national cheek kiss! We get acquainted over a cup of coffee. We're intrigued by the leaves that accompany it. They are tena adam leaves.
Tena Adam
The leaves are consumed in coffee cups for their medicinal properties and the unique flavor they provide. The berries, on the other hand, are used in the preparation of the famous berbere spice blend. Mesfin tells us about a group of 60 women who have come together to cultivate local aromatic herbs, besobela, koseret, tena adam plants (passion fruit berries), as well as kororima plants (a variety of local cardamom with menthol flavors). This initiative holds great significance in terms of agriculture and is even more remarkable as these women had to courageously convince their husbands of the value of such a project. In the Kaffa region, and generally in the rest of Ethiopia, patriarchal systems are common, often placing women in a secondary role. We are now convinced to collaborate with this women's cooperative, established a few months ago, to support them in this wonderful endeavor and to provide them with access to the international market.
The forests of the Kaffa region are rich with numerous wild plants, including the famous timiz pepper. The timiz plant (piper capense) is a wild long pepper that grows endemically on the highlands of the southwest. Unlike its cousin, piper nigrum, it's not a vine but a shrub with a span of about 1.5 meters. The timiz doesn't rely on another supporting tree for its growth. The peak of its harvest comes after the rainy season, usually in October. Its balsamic and smoky aromas make it a uniquely appreciated pepper, cherished by local communities and discerning cooks around the world!
Did you know?
It takes 10 kg of fresh timiz pepper to obtain 1 kg of dried timiz pepper. It takes 3 kg of fresh kororima to get 1 kg dried. The drying time for both of these spices is about 10 days. As I venture deeper into the forest, I notice above my head a dozen "Colobus guereza" monkeys with striking black and white fur, displaying a rare elegance. They leap from tree to tree with astonishing ease, all moving in the same direction, resembling an imperial procession orchestrated by nature.
To achieve such a goal, every detail matters: The pepper is sun-dried rather than using wood fires to prevent the presence of hydrocarbon particles. Elevated drying beds have been constructed to shield the pepper from potential contamination. Separate storage areas away from dwellings have also been designed. This diligent effort towards quality is rewarded with a higher value for the harvest (above the local market price), enabling the community to fund multiple projects that benefit all.

During our stay in the region, we meet with various producers and take the time to educate them about good agricultural practices. We pay special attention to explaining the risks of cross-contamination that are associated with post-harvest stages like drying, sorting, and storage. We decide to rely on the expertise of various local partners, including Mesfin, to provide daily support to the producers and equip them with the necessary tools for post-production steps, ensuring consistent quality with every harvest.

Yellow snow
Mesfin points out the small yellow flower called "meskel." "Where you come from, during the winter, you probably have the ground covered with a layer of white snow. Well, here, it's these brilliantly yellow flowers that cover our valleys from September to December," he tells me. The meskel flower symbolizes joy and renewal for Ethiopians, who have adopted it as a symbol for each new year that begins.
To Kaffa from Mizan Teferi
We hit the road again, heading to the far west of the country, covering kilometers of rugged roads while accompanied by the songs of birds and some ethio-jazz tunes from my friend Challa. The road is long. We make a few stops to bite into sugarcane, whose juice will serve as our sole meal for the rest of the day. Suddenly, we lose control of the vehicle and discover that the right rear wheel can no longer withstand the pace imposed by the rugged road... As if by magic, dozens of locals appear out of nowhere to help us! A few hours later, we are ready to hit the road again, heading towards Bench Sheko, a region not far from South Sudan. Finally, we reach Mizan Teferi. The city will serve as our base point for the upcoming days of exploration in the region.
Meeting the Bench People
The region is rich in ethnic diversity. We are approaching the Bench people, who number only around 200,000 speakers. Nestled in the lush valleys are their earth houses, adorned with passiflora vines in dazzling colors. Here, the farmers support each other and gather in good spirits despite the challenges. We meet Tsegye, who invites us into his home and introduces us to the rest of his family. Tsegye has been harvesting timiz pepper and producing kororima for 15 years. He laments the recent deforestation that has led to a loss of biodiversity and explains his desire to take local action to preserve the forest by raising awareness within his community.
"In the past, the forest covered a much larger area. Our ancestors were able to survive through responsible use of its various resources: different types of honey, medicinal plants, abundant food for both humans and animals... Various species of snakes and monkeys could be observed, illustrating an incredible biodiversity!"
His village, like those around it, relies primarily on forest resources: wood, coffee, honey, timiz pepper, and kororima, among others, serve as sources of income for the inhabitants. Preserving the biodiversity of the surrounding forest and restoring a harmonious balance is therefore a vital concern for the residents. Here, families have organized themselves collectively to harvest kororima (aframomum corrorima) together. They have built a drying and sorting area that they share, pooling the results of their efforts.
The seeds of kororima are enclosed in a pod that grows right on the ground. Once separated from their vermilion-red casing, the seeds release camphor-like aromas. Kororima is like a minty candy, an essential ingredient in many everyday dishes. The day of our visit is a Wednesday. I'm informed that, just like on Fridays, the Orthodox communities in the village observe a fast from all animal products. We are invited to share a vegetarian meal. The traditional dish served is shiro wot, accompanied by the famous teff injera bread. In its preparation, crushed kororima seeds are included. Before leaving, Tsegye insists on showing us the traditional lance and shield, a cultural heritage of the Bench people. He then transforms into a true guardian of the forest for future generations!
Back to Addis-Abeba
We hit the road back to Addis Ababa and conclude my journey with a visit to passion fruit producers on the slopes of the dormant Zuqualla volcano. It takes half a day of hiking to reach the summit of the volcano, where an Orthodox monastery has been built. It's a sacred pilgrimage site for numerous devotees who traverse the winding paths of the volcano. Only a few farmers live alongside the monks in the monastery. We meet our passion fruit (ruta chalpensis) producer, Tesfaye, who invites us to explore his plantation, enriched with several other aromatic herbs such as thyme and holy basil. In a few days, the enticingly fragrant berries will be harvested and meticulously sorted to preserve all their flavors, he indicates. The leaves are primarily used for flavoring coffee. The berries are ground and traditionally used in the berbere spice blend. A peaceful atmosphere reigns here, and in Tesfaye's gaze, we can read the satisfaction of witnessing the dance of bees indulging in the tena adam flowers. It's at the summit of this volcano, with an incredible view, that my journey finally concludes. After a long embrace with Tesfaye, we depart, promising to send him the "Return from Ethiopia" newsletter with his photo inside, as he requested.

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