[#EritreanTradition #CoffeeCeremony] We miss our family and our country, but when we do this, it reminds us of home
By Peter Calder
Eritreans are among the smaller groups in our Census, but they bring rich traditions and customs to our shores
The number caught my eye: 243 people who identify as Eritrean live in New Zealand.
Their origins are in the small country on the Red Sea coast of the Horn of Africa, but they are not our smallest ethnic group. In last year’s Census, fewer than 200 people identified as Kenyans or Ghanaians or Moroccans. Likewise Syrians, Uruguayans, Jordanians and Palestinians. There were six Nicaraguans.
But 243 is a small community. It’s a safe bet that Aklilu Hibtit knows them all. Lean, soft-spoken and quick to smile, the 39-year-old is vice-president of the Eritrean Community of New Zealand Inc. And he was as welcoming as could be imagined when I suggested we meet.
My idea was that we might eat together there is no better way to get to know a culture and he readily agreed. But he rejected the idea that I would bring a dish to share.
“No, don’t take food,” another Eritrean I contacted for advice told me. The implication was that it would suggest the host could not adequately cater for me.
“Coffee?” I suggested, knowing that Eritreans are big coffee drinkers. But she counselled against that, too, and when I arrived at the Glen Eden home, I found out why.
In a corner near the dining table, Aklilu’s sister, Tsehainesh, 42, sat beside a small ceramic charcoal burner, agitating coffee beans in a saucepan. Her hairstyle, traditional and magnificent, had taken three hours, she told me, adding with a smile that she did it only for special occasions. The delicious smell of roasting coffee filled the air.
Coffee-making is a ceremony, among Eritreans, it turns out, with its own formal rules.
The coffee is brewed in a long-necked clay jug, into which a wad of straw is wedged to catch the grounds when it is poured. It is served in tiny porcelain cups of which the guest must drink three, praising the quality each time.
The process takes an hour or more and in the pace resides much of the meaning. As we nibbled on popcorn and chatted, Tsehainesh explained that making coffee which is always the woman’s task because “men don’t know how to do it” was only for visitors who were not in a hurry.
“If someone is in a hurry,” she said, “I make tea.”
“We miss our family and our country,” Aklilu added, “but when we do this, it reminds us of home.”
Later, we feasted on a chicken stew the local name is a wat which sang with a chilli spice called berbere. We tore off chunks of the slightly spongy sourdough yeasted flatbread called injera, and used them in lieu of utensils to pick up mouthfuls of the delicious food, including a dish of braised green beans.
The sister and brother, who arrived in 1995 and 1998 respectively, speak excellent English. They speak Arabic, too, a legacy of time spent in Sudan as refugees from the wars with Ethiopia that consumed 30 of the 39 years between 1961 and 2000 and killed 300,000 on both sides.
Out of respect for their guest, they rarely lapsed into their native language, Tigrinya, though Aklilu’s button-cute, pigtailed daughter Hermella used it to summon her father urgently to the bedroom, to see the tiny baby, Hosanna, who had just woken.
In the corner of the lounge, a big-screen television was playing a programme direct from Eritrea, pulled in by a satellite decoder: school children took part in a quiz and later came a cultural event, with dancing and singing and stringed instruments like lyres.
Aklilu explained that it was important to him that his children and his three nieces Yohanna, Samrawit and Million kept in contact with their culture.
“It’s very easy to lose your culture and identity in a new country,” he said, “and losing your identity is losing yourself.
“We are not saying that we don’t want to integrate, but to completely assimilate is to lose your soul and spirit.
“We are proud New Zealanders but protecting and maintaining our culture is very important to us.”
For that reason, community cohesion is important to expatriate Eritreans, Aklilu explained. They throw everything at independence day celebrations in May, and other multicultural events, and they are quick to offer support at celebrations by expatriate Ethiopians.
War may have been a way of life once, but national boundaries vanish in this distant land.
“We get on well together,” Aklilu said. “We know there is no use fighting about something you cannot change.”