The Word Coffee Comes From Kaffa


By Selam  Zhou Jie Gano

This is one of the first English sentences Kaffa schoolchildren learn. It’s also, pretty obviously, true. It’s the same in almost every language–cafe, 咖啡, coffee, etc. Every Ethiopian knows coffee originated in Kaffa.

The problem is, *you* (yes, you) might not. Though you sip $4 cappuccinos, you have probably never heard of Kaffa. Few people know that coffee even originated in Ethiopia. Like HeLa cells from Henrietta Lacks, like Urban Outfitters and the Navajo tribe, like cacao beans and the Ivory Coast, while coffee has an enormous footprint in the global economy, coffee’s ancestral home has benefited little from this trade. We are small. Only around 1.5 million people speak the Kaffa language. We’re mostly rural and agricultural. We have very little infrastructure. I’ve been visiting my grandmother for the 22 years I have been alive, and all these years, I have had to hike through a forest for 4 hours because there is no road. In college, I performed a project to put a well in Muti because there are no clean water pipelines. And the painful truth I learned while performing that project was that, there could have been so much more. Despite whatever you might think about Africa or Ethiopia, our country is not so poor as that. It is rich from many things–in large part, from coffee. So why are we in this position today?

Despite uneven resource distribution, Kaffa has never asked for much. We have appreciation for our rural ways of life. We know our region is among the most beautiful in Ethiopia. But now, Kaffa is being more targeted and disempowered than it has ever been in the modern era. This is the last straw. Even under the previous administration, we had never had to face an issue like national government officials trying to assert that coffee is not from Kaffa. Oromo leaders of the Ethiopian Coffee & Tea Authority are trying to assert that Jimma, a city in Oromia, is actually coffee’s ancestral home. And they’re doing this right before an international coffee event is taking place in Ethiopia. I’m not worried about Ethiopians–everyone there knows coffee really comes from Kaffa. I’m worried about *you*!!! The appeal of making Jimma the home of coffee lies in tourism and economic investment from foreign people!!! From you who may not realize the etymology of the word describing your favorite drink.

I will never, ever descend into degrading any of my Ethiopian brothers and sisters. I know that these are the actions of a few bad actors. I know that Oromo people are first and foremost my shared blood, as all Ethiopians are, but even more so because I am from Kaffa, which is right next door to Oromia. I know that many people of Oromo heritage will read this and be equally sad and appalled. So, *especially* if you identify as Oromo, I’m asking you to please spread the word–it’s a word you already know! Coffee! The word coffee comes from Kaffa. Tell everyone you know, whether it’s by sharing this post or this hashtag or whatever. Since most of my friends are college students and young professionals, mention this to people you meet up with over fancy $6 single-origin pour-overs (which are probably from Ethiopia). It’ll make you look informed and cool. Make this something every hipster coffee enthusiast knows. Make this something the world agrees on.

If you know me, you know that I almost never get this personal on Facebook, but this is the only way our small region will avoid being ignored, because Ethiopian politics is fought on social media. If this is allowed to continue and become solidified in the minds of the international community, I fear the truth will be buried and difficult to resurface, despite the fact that it is, again, literally in the name “coffee”.

All we have are our unified voices–and the willingness of people like you to listen.