Coffee & Ceremony

So, its a random evening and I’m eating my dinner. I’m also sprawled out on my couch, flipping TV channels impatiently, talking back at the news, laptop alternating with my plate every few minutes on my thighs, blackberry within grabbing distance, my mind faraway, wondering when I’ll finally get my laundry done.

This routine is fixed regardless of who or what else is present and/or talking. For more and more of us, this is the norm. We eat on the hoof, barely noticing what we are eating or with whom. In the good old days, dinner was a specific time at a specific place. You sat at the table, looked everyone in the eye, paid attention and ate mindfully. Mealtimes were a time to share – your thoughts, your food (much preferred), yourself. Most importantly, it was a time to commune with the rest of the extended family or guests.

Today, there are any number of fancy theories on personal interaction and influence. I believe the simple fundamentals of human relationships these theories are based on, have been ingrained in African culinary traditions since time immemorial. From Senegal in the West to Ethiopia in the East; ritualistic ceremonies around food have enabled stronger bonds amongst kinsmen and between communities, evoked a greater sense of appreciation for Mother earth and provided an avenue for intellectual exercises.

In traditional Ethiopia for example, simply having coffee is a “three rounds or nothing” affair that could last hours. The first round called Abol is leisurely, the greeting or prelude. The second is called Huletegna and the third, Bareka or blessing is a prayer for the prosperity of all. Similarly, Senegalese tradition calls for the serving of tea in three symbolic stages. The first is said to be bitter like life, the second, sweet like love and the third, gentle like the breath of death. Clearly, the Senegalese took their tea as seriously as they took philosophy – do you?

As I observed this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of how priceless the things are that we’ve lost to “civilization”. How eating or drinking consciously can inspire thoughts of thanksgiving and appreciation for the wonders of God’s creation, the small everyday miracles such as the myriad things you can get out of an egg or how iru (fermented locustbeans) can smell so badly but taste so good when cooked. The mental and physical health benefits of eating or drinking slowly and chewing all the way. How much stronger of a relationship we can forge with our fellow man or sister or brother or wife or husband or child if we only sat with them for half an hour over a meal everyday – not just on their birthday/anniversary and other special dates.

If you don’t believe me, believe Jessica Harris – renowned American author, academician and celebrated culinary expert. She says in her Africa Cookbook:“The sharing of meals and the communing with friends and family across bloodlines and generations that takes place at the tables of the continent everyday is perhaps the healthiest aspect of the African diet…”

First things first. I’m moving my dinner from my couch back to my dining table – please join me, I promise I’ll notice you this time.

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6 Responses to Coffee & Ceremony

  1. logpoet says:

    Yet another master piece from the African Culinary story teller

  2. You know, I remember how as a little kid, the most influencing time of conversation came over the dinner table. We didn’t particularly eat at the table, but right there in the living room, there was a transference of the appreciation of a well-cooked meal to a healthy conversation. It not only made the food satisfying, it brought with it the flavour of a well nourishing relationship. I need to grow backwards you know. Thanks Belle!!!

  3. ladaygaga says:

    hmmmm very deep…love it! the next time i do 100 things while eating i will remember your story…….in a culture where we pride ourselves with the ability to multi-task as superb trait, sometimes we don’t even realize we inevitably exchange some of the most valuable aspects of african culture by trying to fit into this “western civilized” society…

  4. yemisi ogbe says:

    I love the idea of mandating three cups of coffee, but for those of us not allowed even one…I also love eating anywhere but on the dining table. I especially like to eat standing up. My favourite is eating and reading at the same time. The interesting thing is that the focal point of my house remains in the kitchen, around meals that I cook. We just might never be able to go back to that time when people sit round tables for dinner. It might have to be enough that food connects us; that mothers (and fathers) cook for their children and/or oversee what they eat and teach them how to nurture their bodies and very importantly express cultural ideas through food. I have to end by saying that on many days, even if I wanted to sit down to a meal, I find that it is a luxury to do so and I just cannot. By the time I have settled three children and made sure everyone’s plates and glasses are refreshed, the meal is over. I ultimately end up eating on the hoof!

  5. Obiocha Ikezogwo says:

    what more can i say, that hasn’t already been shared via commentary on your post?

    you are absolutely right – the more we get entwined in a “western” culture, the further away we stray from our Afrikan-ness, the more we lose out on such simple things as communicating and bonding over a cup of coffee…i still remember that many a secret was shared and sworn to silence over dicing meat or cutting ugwu in the kitchen….and who can forget the politics of the dining table at 34, Aina Street?

    good going chica! :)

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