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Where the Wild Coffee Grows: The Untold Story of Coffee from the Cloud Forests of Ethiopia to Your Cup

Where the Wild Coffee Grows: The Untold Story of Coffee from the Cloud Forests of Ethiopia to Your Cup

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Where the Wild Coffee Grows: The Untold Story of Coffee from the Cloud Forests of Ethiopia to Your Cup

3/5 (3 évaluations)
481 pages
6 heures
Nov 14, 2017


"Enchanting . . . An absorbing narrative of politics, ecology, and economics."--New York Times Book Review (Editors' Choice)

Coffee is one of the largest and most valuable commodities in the world. This is the story of its origins, its history, and the threat to its future, by the IACP Award–winning author of Darjeeling.

Located between the Great Rift Valley and the Nile, the cloud forests in southwestern Ethiopia are the original home of Arabica, the most prevalent of the two main species of coffee being cultivated today. Virtually unknown to European explorers, the Kafa region was essentially off-limits to foreigners well into the twentieth century, which allowed the world's original coffee culture to develop in virtual isolation in the forests where the Kafa people continue to forage for wild coffee berries.

Deftly blending in the long, fascinating history of our favorite drink, award-winning author Jeff Koehler takes readers from these forest beginnings along the spectacular journey of its spread around the globe. With cafés on virtually every corner of every town in the world, coffee has never been so popular--nor tasted so good.

Yet diseases and climate change are battering production in Latin America, where 85 percent of Arabica grows. As the industry tries to safeguard the species' future, breeders are returning to the original coffee forests, which are under threat and swiftly shrinking. "The forests around Kafa are not important just because they are the origin of a drink that means so much to so many," writes Koehler. "They are important because deep in their shady understory lies a key to saving the faltering coffee industry. They hold not just the past but also the future of coffee."

Nov 14, 2017

À propos de l'auteur

Jeff Koehler is an American writer, photographer, traveler, and cook. His most recent book, Darjeeling: The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World's Greatest Tea, won the 2016 IACP award for literary food writing and the Gourmand Award for Best in the World for a tea book. Other titles include Spain: Recipes and Traditions, named one of 2013's top cookbooks by the New York Times; Morocco: A Culinary Journey with Recipes; and La Paella. His work has appeared in Saveur, Food & Wine, NPR.org, NationalGeographic.com, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Afar, Fine Cooking, Tin House, and Best Food Writing 2010. After graduating from Gonzaga University, he spent four years in Africa and Asia before doing post-graduate work at King's College, London. Since 1996 he has lived in Barcelona. jeff-koehler.com @koehlercooks

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Aperçu du livre

Where the Wild Coffee Grows - Jeff Koehler

For my maternal grandparents, Joe and Ione, who taught me to begin each day with a scalding pot of coffee, and in memory of my paternal ones, Bob and Edith, whose stories of Ethiopia inspired me to go to see the country myself for the first time twenty years ago.

As well, for a dozen friends who remind me that life’s most memorable moments tend to be quiet ones and usually happen over (good) coffee.

By the same author

Darjeeling: The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea

Spain: Recipes and Traditions

Morocco: A Culinary Journey with Recipes

Rice, Pasta, Couscous: The Heart of the Mediterranean Kitchen

La Paella: Deliciously Authentic Rice Dishes from Spain’s Mediterranean Coast


Notes on Spelling, Names, and Abbreviations

Coffee Is Our Bread

Part One: In the Forest

1. Sown by the Birds

2. Island Ethiopia

3. The Kingdom of Kafa

4. The Last King of Kafa

5. Origins

6. Gift for King and Country

Part Two: Out of the Forest

7. Coffea aethiopica

8. City of Saints

9. Out of Arabia

10. Beyond Waves

11. La Roya

12. Impoverished

Part Three: Back into the Forest

13. Collecting

14. Ex Situ

15. Geisha

16. A Matter of Degrees

17. In Situ

18. Sacrifices





Color Plates

A Note on the Author

Also available from Jeff Koehler

Notes on Spelling, Names, and Abbreviations


The transliteration of words from Amharic, Arabic, and Kafinoonoo are phonetic and generally lack standardized spelling. Differences tend to be minor but numerous—from Kafa (Kaffa, Keffa, Kefa), Mocha (al-Makha, Mokka, Mokha), and Shawa (Shewa, Shoa) to the more than a dozen ways to spell Muhammad. I have kept the spelling of the original when quoting, but elsewhere followed the form that seems to me to be the most widely accepted. For Arabic words, I have left off macrons and subscript dots.


In Ethiopia, a second name is the father’s first name rather than the family name. For Ethiopians, then, I have used both names on first occurrence in a chapter, and the first rather than second name thereafter.


Abyssinia is often used as a synonym for Ethiopia and was popular usage in Europe in the past. Historically, it refers to the ancient kingdom on the central plateau, while Ethiopia more succinctly means the modern empire created by Menelik II at the closing of the nineteenth century. To avoid confusion, I have used Ethiopia throughout, except when quoting.


Coffee Is Our Bread

Asking for an after-lunch coffee at the popular Kofi Laande Hoteelo—aka Coffeeland—in Kafa’s regional capital of Bonga is not as simple as placing an order at Starbucks and stepping over to the pickup counter. And the woman preparing it is certainly far more than what that chain calls a barista. Sitting on a low stool in the corner of the restaurant-bar, she had sorted, cleaned, and then roasted the green coffee beans on a wide, lipless metal disk over a brazier of embers, moving them around with a hooked piece of metal until deep, glossy brown. Once they had cooled, she pounded the fragrant beans with a steel rod in a wooden mortar made from a hollowed log. Curling a piece of woven mat in her palm, she funneled the grounds into the narrow neck of the bulbous terra-cotta coffeepot called a jebena that was simmering on a brazier beside her.

Two dozen handleless demitasse cups with slightly flared lips crowded a low round table in front of her. On the cement floor beneath it, she had fanned out reedy grasses and arranged a handful of yellow and red blossoms. Nature, she said, had to be present, and the greens and flowers had come from the forest, where the spirits live. Wisps of smoke curled up from a smoldering dish of waxen incense, a blend of myrrh and local frankincense that recalled gloomy ancient churches and brought Orthodox sacredness into the preparations, too.

Preparing and drinking coffee is so stylized in Ethiopia that the process is known as a coffee ceremony, a slow ritual with requisite tools and a dozen unvarying steps. This was the shortened version.

It was a Friday, one of the week’s two fasting days, and lunch after a morning deep inside the cloud-shrouded forests of southwestern Ethiopia consisted of dollops of a dozen different legumes and vegetables atop spongy injera flatbread. The rattan blinds of Coffeeland had been rolled up, filling the room with glare and gusts of breeze that heralded another lashing sweep of unseasonable rain.

The isolated highlands of Kafa are a mosaic of deep valleys, dense forests, and hamlets of subsistence farmers. Nearly every home is surrounded by enset trees and a garden of field peas, fava and haricot beans, cabbage, and onions. Those living around the forest gather long pepper, dig for wild cardamom, and hang rudimentary cylindrical hives high in trees for honey to make murky, home-fermented tej. Coffee, though, is the cash crop. Eighty-five percent of Kafa’s people rely directly or indirectly on coffee for their livelihood, including lowlanders. In the highlands, it is close to 100 percent.¹ Locals forage for it in the wild and grow it in their gardens, buy it, sell it, hoard it until prices go up, and, in the meantime, drink numerous cups of it a day. Even toddlers sip the drink. When kids start walking, talking, and touching everything, they simultaneously start taking sips of coffee, as one Kafa resident put it.

Ethiopia scarcely receives more than a sentence or two in the histories of coffee, and Kafa—the place that arguably gave everywhere outside Ethiopia its name for the drink—rarely gets any mention at all. Kafa is home to the world’s original coffee culture, yet remains virtually unknown.

The long-held, and often still-believed, narrative that Arabica coffee—the most prevalent and superior of the two main species of coffee cultivated today—came from Arabia is wrong. It came from the southwestern cloud forests a few hundred miles from Addis Ababa. Finding coffee’s origin story requires a journey into those forests. Not only did the Arabica coffee plant originate here, but so did coffee drinking. Historians generally credit Arabs or Sufi monks with developing and refining the brewing process, or even inventing it. Yet those living in and around the forests where coffee grew wild undoubtedly were the first to prepare it.

Part of the reason for attributing this to the Arabs is that there was no early written evidence of coffee being drunk in Kafa. The local language had no script until the 1990s (or by the time Starbucks had already opened its first thousand outlets). Stories of coffee’s discovery and how the people here gradually came to brew the drink were told over the generations but not written down. With the area difficult to reach and the long-unwelcoming attitude of rulers in Ethiopia and also in Kafa itself, Western travelers didn’t make it to the area until the mid-nineteenth century. The coffee forests remained virtually unvisited by Westerners until the 1930s.

Kafa’s obscurity is all that much more surprising because it was one of the richest kingdoms in the Horn of Africa. Bonga was the starting point of a trio of important ancient trade routes that connected the interior of Ethiopia with the coast, and along them traveled caravans with slaves, ivory, musk, and dried coffee pods. For five centuries an unbroken line of god-kings ruled Kafa, until it was nearly wiped out as Ethiopia forcibly absorbed the medieval kingdom into an expanding empire. At the end of the nineteenth century Kafa was home to one million people. Within two decades its population had fallen by up to 90 percent.² The story of the lengthy reign, and fall, of the Kingdom of Kafa and its indigenous coffee culture is untold.

The jebena gurgled. The woman lifted the blackened pot off the embers and set it near her feet, tilted forward slightly, to allow the grounds to settle before pouring.

Coffee is one the world’s most traded commodities and is the livelihood of some 125 million people across the globe.

The first outsider to claim that the original source was Kafa—the eighteenth-century Scottish traveler James Bruce—had his travelogue mocked for its far-fetched tales of Ethiopia. Not until the 1960s, nearly two centuries later, did scientists say with any level of certainty that Arabica originated and grew wild in the southwestern highlands. These montane rain forests are the mother source of the world’s most spectacular cultivated coffees, grown from Kenya to Guatemala, Brazil, and Jamaica’s Blue Mountains. (Yet, somewhat perversely, even here the coffee goes by an official name that means from Arabia.)

In 2016, more than twelve billion pounds of Arabica was produced around the globe, enough to brew more than five hundred billion six-ounce cups of coffee. Latin America grows the vast majority of it. Yet that region’s coffee is in trouble. With an extraordinary lack of genetic diversity, cultivated Arabica is unable to withstand or adapt to increasing threats. Diseases and a changing climate are battering production. A fungus known as coffee leaf rust has sent Latin America’s coffee industry into a tailspin and left families hungry, communities desperate, and futures uncertain. In El Salvador, one the many countries dependent on its coffee crop, the 2015–16 harvest was down 80 percent from just four years before. Plummeting coffee yields have led to a surge of unaccompanied minors fleeing Central America for the United States and is impacting one of the most divisive issue in American politics today, illegal immigration.

From instant Sanka to a southern-Italian espresso so short that there is just enough liquid to dissolve a spoonful of sugar, perhaps no other substance holds sway over the human experience like coffee. For the past five centuries it has been a driver of great thoughts, a mother of inspiration, a provider of energy behind many of mankind’s greatest inventions. We wake to it, confab over it, reinvigorate with it, attempt to quit it only to return again. If it is not indispensable to man’s happiness, wrote one mid-twentieth-century coffee expert, it certainly contributes a good deal to it.³ Few would argue the conceit, and many would take it further. For some it is an obsession, for others an identity.

Ethiopia is one of the world’s largest producers of coffee. Yet it exports less than half of what it grows. To put that another way, it consumes more than half its own production. No other country comes even close to that. Coffee is not just the national drink but its staple. Buna dabo naw goes a popular expression: Coffee is our bread. Nowhere is that more true than in Kafa.

The woman lifted the jebena and poured out the coffee into a half dozen small cups in a single, smooth motion. As the pot had no filter, a gentle, continuous pour is key to keeping grounds inside the pot.

It had taken her an hour to prepare, making even the most elaborate manual pour-over coffee in a hipster joint in Brooklyn seem as easy as pressing the button on a Nespresso machine. In a couple of slurps it was gone.

The coffee was powerful and as viscous as a well-pulled espresso, with notes of citruses and of red berries from drying the coffee fruits on rudimentary bamboo beds in the sun. The beans had been gathered in the dense forests outside Bonga from scrawny, moss-covered trees, and unlike the bright, clean flavors of most Ethiopian coffees served in high-end specialty cafés in San Francisco, Oslo, and Seoul, wild coffee has an unevenness to it from the mismatched ripeness of the picked fruits—a wini-ness from overripe ones came through—and dusty aromas of the woods that it never shakes. Yet sipping coffee that carries with it such an earthy imprint is thrilling.

At the back of the throat came that familiar tingle, the sensation that energy, clarity, and excitement were close behind.

Another? the woman asked, taking back the empty cup.

Even though it was already the fourth of the day and not yet two o’clock, yes. It wouldn’t be the last coffee of the day. There would be one or two more—and probably another insomnia-plagued night from such unaccustomed levels of caffeine.

From smallholders in Antigua Guatemala to ones on the central highlands below Mount Kenya, from a bearded barista at Intelligentsia in Chicago wearing a flat-brim cap to dockworkers in Palermo before their morning shift or someone picking up a Skinny Cinnamon Dolce Latte in a Starbucks drive-through, each cup of their Arabica is linked to the undergrowth of Ethiopia’s coffee forests.

But the forests around Kafa are not just important because they are the origin of a drink that means so much to so many. They are important because deep in their shady understory lies a key to saving the faltering coffee industry. They hold not just the past but also the future of coffee.


In the Forest


Sown by the Birds

A tartan of paths wove through the weedy expanses at the edge of the hamlet. Banana-like enset trees, with peeling trunks and sword-shaped leaves standing erect as quills, clustered around each of the two dozen squat huts. The wattle-and-daub walls had long settled and cracked, and the conical tukuls sat slightly askew. They had no chimneys, and morning cook smoke rose like steam through the thatched roofs. Among snatches of conversations and the soft domestic clank of pots came the muted jingle of a brass cowbell.

Woldegiorgis Shawo crossed the bottom of his hamlet, cut into the quiet shade, and entered the Mankira Forest. The thin path disappeared as soon as he began winding down the slope. Fit and still strong at seventy-five, he walked with a quick, rolling gait, his shoulders thrown back, his knees coming up high as he stepped though the tangles of thistles and thorns and long grasses that covered the ground.

The damp forest was hushed but not still. Twitching movement above revealed a troop of black-and-white colobus monkeys with potbellies, bored expressions, and long tails that dangled like shaggy white lichen. Lanky branches arched overhead among cords of lianas, while yellow epiphytic orchids cascaded down dull tree trunks veined limpid emerald by leafy climbers. A ray of sunlight pierced the tunnel of foliage, catching the taut grid of a spider’s web and illuminating tiny, star-shaped topaz flowers that tattooed the sodden leaf litter. From the canopy above came the deep whoosh of a silvery-cheeked hornbill taking flight. Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa, it brayed like an agitated goat.

After twenty minutes or so, Woldegiorgis stopped. Through a fissure in the branches appeared a young man in an oversize cable-knit sweater and jacket, the sleeves thickly rolled past the elbow. He reached up, doubled over a spry branch, and began stripping off the fruits, spinning the deep red berries between thumb and fingers to separate them from the short stem. It was the end of October, and the gathering of wild coffee was just beginning in Kafa’s highland rain forests.

Wreathed in tender ferns, the smooth grayish-brown trunks were slender as forearms and forked and had long, drooping branches. Festoons of silvery-green moss hung from twigs like unkempt beards. The shiny dark-green coffee leaves—oval and ribbed, with fine, tapering ends—were sparse.

A trio of barefoot teenage girls materialized through the quiet lattice of woodsy green. The middle one, perhaps fourteen years old, stepped out last. Broken sunlight streaked her face with its shy smile, downcast eyes, and tight necklace strung with a single red bead that at first appeared to be a ripe coffee fruit. A small woven basket hung from an arm of each holding cherries, as the fruits are called.

Wild coffee trees grow spontaneously under the towering, broad-leafed canopy. They are neither cultivated nor maintained. Nor do the trees have a defined owner. Instead, a complex system of ancestral entitlements govern who is allowed to gather the ripe coffee berries and precisely from where in the forest. With a fluttering wave of his hand, Woldegiorgis indicated the sweep of the generous ten hectares (twenty-five acres) where the hereditary right for him to collect coffee had been passed down for generations. The forest has no boundary markers, but he knew his plot to the bush by the fall of the land and its natural features—the cuff of a certain hillock, a cluster of shrubs gathered in a hollow, a stream that forms part of its border.

The four pickers returned to stripping the fruits off the branches, working steadily and quietly, slipping, on occasion, into song, sung low and to themselves. Many of trees had few berries, and some none at all. The young man scaled a sturdy tree to get a group of higher fruits.

The cherries that brew the best cup are the supple ruby ones. But in the cloud-smothered rain forest wild coffee ripens asynchronously, and the pickers took pale fruits that were only beginning to blush, yellow ones, and even some still green, dropping them all in their baskets. It was an effort to return to this isolated spot, but it was also risky to leave any cherries on the branches. There was no guarantee that the ripe fruit would be there when they returned. While Woldegiorgis had the right to the coffee from these trees, and the remoteness ensured few would venture to the spot, access was open.

The main threat, though, Woldegiorgis said, gathering fistfuls of coffee while he spoke, isn’t people but the natural world. Heavy rains during the past evenings had knocked down many of the riper cherries. This, he said, motioning to the crimson coffee fruits scattered around the ground, a result of the fickle weather. Also animals. As the berries mature, they become more enticing to the baboons and monkeys, certain birds, and rodents that savor their sweet pulp. Woldegiorgis pointed to a branch that had been recently broken by the heavy weight of a baboon trying to get to the ripe fruit.

But animals are also key to the survival of wild coffee, as they sow the seeds around the forest. The white-cheeked turaco and large silvery-cheeked hornbill, known for its distinctive oversize cream-colored casque and bold, noisy call, carry the seeds the farthest.

This coffee—Woldegiorgis said, his hand around a lithe trunk—"is wof zerash." Sown by the birds.

Kafa is officially a zone within Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region, a large state and one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse areas in Africa. Kafa measures some 4,250 square miles, a bit smaller than Connecticut, with an overwhelmingly rural population of 850,000. Its capital, Bonga, by far Kafa’s biggest city and, apart from Jimma, in the neighboring region, the largest for hundreds of miles in any direction, is home to just twenty-seven thousand people.

In Bonga, Mesfin Tekle, the leading authority on the forests of Kafa, said, The legend tells us coffee started in Mankira. Local tradition specifically points to this forest as the birthplace of coffee.¹ Among a grove of trees inside Mankira, Woldegiorgis said, This is the place.

The Mankira Forest is only fifteen miles from Bonga. Some seven hundred people live around it in four hamlets and a larger, eponymous village. For much of the year they are inaccessible and remain difficult to reach the remainder of it. From Bonga, it is an hour’s drive in a Land Cruiser until the truck can go no farther on a washed-out road strewn with rocks and gouged with runoff channels, and another hour on foot down to the Gumi River, losing a thousand feet in elevation.

The Gumi (dark) marks the boundary of Mankira, and during the lengthy April-to-September rainy season, locally called yooyo, the swollen river cuts it off. (The other route, which is generally muddy and boggy, takes three hours to walk, and crosses several rivers, remains a desperate rather than realistic alternative.) In June, the river had been impassable and highly treacherous. Now, during harvest time four months later, and into the short qaawoo (dry season), the water should have been calf deep. But dry season is a relative term at best. Storms were breaking late at night, flashing across distant hills before arriving with thunderous urgency, pummeling the corrugated-metal roofs in Bonga and sending rivulets of water cascading down the unlit dirt roads. The Gumi was rushing through its ravine in near-full spate and laden with soil from the hills. A pair of Abyssinian horses, small grayish mares, carrying jute sacks of dried coffee from Mankira to be milled in Bonga, plunged to their bellies as they crossed. Two teenage boys prodded the animals through the strong current that pushed them downstream toward the rapids as they made their way to the opposite bank.

After they had crossed, a forester and guide named Alemayu Haile stepped into the water that nearly reached his waist. Stripping down, looping pants, boots, and backpack around his neck, Asaye Alemayehu, a forest guide from Bonga, took up one of the tall sticks left on the bank and walked into the swift magenta-orange water, lurching the fifteen yards across the river over jagged, hidden boulders that lined the riverbed.

From the Gumi it was nearly an hour climb to Gola, the first small hamlet, and then another hour to the village of Mankira itself. The path cleaved through dense forest, quickly gaining elevation. Troops of olive baboons mingled along the edge of the track. A scythe-billed hadada ibis fluttered up from a tree, calling Haa-haa-haaaa-haa, as a couple more laden mules came down the hill. Later, half a dozen people, each bearing a piece of living room furniture bound for sale in Bonga, filed passed. Black butterflies spun upward from rain puddles, and inch-wide columns of feisty red ants crossed the track. Along both side were groves of wild coffee. Scattered among their branches were brilliant, waxy yellowish and red coffee fruits that popped out of the leafy greens like berries on Christmas holly.

Unlike maize, carrots, or bananas, which are nearly unrecognizable beside their domesticated relatives, wild coffee fruits look identical to cultivated ones. About the size of a plump blueberry or cranberry, they are slightly elliptical and have a small nipple scar at the tip. Each fruit holds a pair of hard oval pale seeds—the beans. Wrapped in a fine silvery membrane and covered with a parchment, they are embedded in sticky, sugar-rich mucilage and enclosed in a thin layer of pulpy flesh (the mesocarp) and smooth outer skin (the exocarp).

The biggest differences between wild and cultivated coffee are in the trees, their height, the slimness of the trunks—and the amount of fruit they bear.

A fertile patch of well-tended, shade-grown Guatemalan coffee produces annually about 400 to 450 kilograms of green coffee—clean, unroasted coffee beans—per hectare. Colombia’s national average is nearly 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds), although some farms are producing more than three times that amount. In Kafa, the same-size piece of dense forest might yield as little as 15 kilograms, or 33 pounds, of wild coffee.² In the Kombo Forest if they get thirty kilos it is a good yield, said Mesfin. Certain forests that are more open, with more light, might provide a couple hundred kilos of coffee per hectare. Even that, though, is cyclical: a (relatively) bounteous year is followed by a slack one. It is like the teeth of a saw, said a coffee collector encountered in another part of Mankira’s forest. If this harvest is good, then next year’s will decline.

Cultivated coffee exists because it is meant to exist, Mesfin had said in Kombo, south of Bonga. Plantation coffee trees are bred, planted, and trained to produce. They are expected to do so.

Not so these gangly wild ancestors. A coffee tree is here because it won the space. More than one seed fell in the same place, and many other plants want the nutrients of the humus beneath it, the water, and those flickers of precious sunlight that pierce the overhead canopy. It exists not just to exist but to survive, Mesfin said. Or because it has survived. This is one reason wild trees produce so little. Heavy bearing weakens a tree, and resources go into fending off diseases, pests, and beating competition—into simply surviving.

In the deep forest, Arabica trees are spindly, thin, and unusually tall as they stretch toward light filtering through a canopy of towering warqa (Ficus vasta, a type of wild fig tree), hundred-foot-tall butoo with yellowish leaves, and red stinkwood. Coffee trees have large leaves that are more supple than leathery in the shade, long gaps between the internodes, and few low branches. The more undisturbed the forest, the denser the canopy, the slower the trees grow, and the fewer cherries they produce—just enough to ensure the survival of the species.³

In Kombo, Mesfin pulled off a piece of moss and inhaled deeply. The smell of the forest is the smell of dust. On the coffee tree there is a moisture which falls on the trunk, on the wood part, and that attracts dust, and in the dust mosses and ferns grow. The moss was fine and a touch brittle. On that insects also feed and live. Some of the insects are the most important pollinators. He paused. Listen. Under the wispy silvery-green covering was a slight shifting.

The unkempt coffee trees are just one among four hundred other species of plants growing in the dense understory of the coffee forest,⁴ and an intricate piece of Kafa’s rich floristic diversity.

Woldegiorgis pinched the end of a fresh coffee cherry and shot the beans into his mouth. They have a delicate sweetness, with subtle hints of hibiscus, cherry, and watermelon, even mango. He spat out the seeds, pinched another pair into his mouth, and set off deeper into the forest.

Threading quickly through the dense woodland, skirting potholes dug by shy, nocturnal creatures, he stopped to point out fresh buffalo tracks, and then, farther along, baboon scat filled with pale coffee beans. Snakes are active and more aggressive in the dry season when they are hunting, Alemayu had warned. Green mamba—the most feared of the local creatures—lurked among the leafy foliage. (The electric-green skin of one spotted earlier was almost too vibrant to be real, and certainly too gorgeous not to be deadly.) A white-cheeked turaco, as stylized as a hand-painted ornament, scurried down a slender branch and then flashed its crimson wings as it darted off with a ripe fruit clamped in its orange beak. Deeper in the forest a solitary De Brazza’s monkey announced itself with a booming call.

Woldegiorgis finally stopped on a thickly treed slope. He wore a soiled army-green polo shirt with a yellow checked collar and cuffs and a grubby baseball hat whose logo had long since peeled away. Throwing an arm around one tree’s stout, forked trunk, he said, Bune inde, the mother coffee tree. Small tree ferns sprouted from its aging bark, and beardlike tufts clung to its branches. The oldest in Mankira.

Wild coffee trees can reach one hundred years old,⁵ and eventually they just topple over. Bune inde was much older, Woldegiorgis insisted. He remembered it as the same size when his father showed it to him as a boy seven decades before. Its trunk wasn’t thick, just five inches or so in diameter. In eastern Ethiopia, old cultivated Arabica trees growing on the sunny terraced hills around Harar are significantly stockier. This one had put its energy in growing upward through the middle strata. In the Gela coffee forest, they grow even taller, reaching fifty to sixty-five feet as they compete for light.

High, and seemingly out of reach, were a couple dozen still-yellow coffee cherries. I will collect these myself, Woldegiorgis said somewhat improbably. Only he gathers the fruits from bune inde.

All around, coffee trees and saplings of all ages sprouted up. This was the hidden wealth of Kafa. But pulling away a piece of gauzy moss and inhaling, one smells not profit but survival.

Back with the four others, Woldegiorgis told them to pack up and return to the hamlet for lunch. Those venturing farther into the forest to

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