Slapstick humour is a universal language, I reflected wryly, trudging through eucalyptus-scented, dappled woodland towards the next farm. Minutes before, photographing my interviewee, Sisay DeGu, while covered with a heavy rug to protect me from the swarming bees from Sisay’s hives, the rug slipped off mid-flow and a helpful neighbour lovingly balanced the whole thing on top of my head as I snapped on, crouched low with both hands occupied with my camera, eventually toppling backwards under the weight I was balancing on my head. Sisay, her husband Minichel and their two boys cracked up laughing at the sight. Making an eejit of yourself is always a good icebreaker.
That day I was visiting several farms in the Amhara, 120km from the regional capital, Bahir Dar. There are no roads between many of the more remote smallholdings, so accompanied by a posse of female union representatives who were treating the occasion as a social outing as well as a chance to show off their craft, and Zenaw, my interpreter from Bahir Dar, I was walking from farm to farm to interview and photograph female beekeepers.
The women I had come to interview about their beekeeping were awe-inspiringly dignified and beautiful; skilled subsistence farmers, hard-working and proud of their produce. At Tirasew Messeret’s house, swamped by hospitality, I was a bumbling interloper ignorant of even the most basic etiquette.
“No, no; guests first,” Zenaw corrected me as I tried to be polite and allow the other women to wash their hands first before eating the meal Tirasew was serving. I had mastered the tear-and-scoop technique required by Ethiopian cuisine at restaurants in Addis and knew to eat with my right hand, but the complex etiquette around hygiene was only revealed here at my first meal in someone’s home. Guests, then everyone else, in order of age from oldest to youngest, the women explained as Tirasew stood, pouring a steady stream of water from jug to bowl, so that nobody need wash their hands in water others have used. And of course, you only need to wash your eating hand….
Food, like humour, is a universal language. Tirasew served up Injera, the tef-flour flatbread staple eaten at almost every meal, with Shiro, to her guests. Shiro is a spicy bean stew ubiquitous during the 40-day Ethiopian Orthodox fast that lasts until Christmas (“Do they know it’s Christmas-time at all?” Why yes, Sir Bob, they do; Ethiopia was the first Christian country and over 60% of Ethiopians are devout observers of their faith.) The fast is basically a vegan diet; no animal produce at all.
Sizing up Zenaw, the city slicker in his Adidas, and my obvious uncouth lack of civilisation, Tirasew politely offered us a non-fasting option; fresh yoghurt, served with Berbere, a spicy paste similar to North Africa’s Harissa, and probably named for the Berber traders who introduced it. Zenaw accepted eagerly and I followed suit, a tiny voice in my head murmuring “Raw milk products, Ellie? You’ll pay for this later…”
Injera is an acquired taste. Think of a particularly sharp sourdough with a strange, spongy and sometimes clammy texture (the bread is steamed and served cold) and a gritty feel; Tef is gluten-free and by all accounts has more right to make the superfoods list than dear old black pudding, but for some reason it’s often gritty. But Tirasew’s Injera was amazing; far less sour and more palatable than restaurant offerings. The yoghurt was the best I’ve ever tasted. You could taste the herbs in the cattle’s diet; it was clean, and fresh, and just the right amount of sour. “Wow!” I turned to Zenaw. “This is better than anything I’ve had in a restaurant.” He finished his mouthful and translated. She didn’t smile, but drew herself up and busied herself with serving the others.
The baker in me had to know why this Injera was better; a longer ferment, a different method? The answer, of course, led back to the bees: Old honey, high in yeast content, doesn’t keep and can’t be sold for a good price…and it’s used as a starter for farmhouse Injera. These natural yeasts lend themselves to a slow ferment producing less acids in the Injera dough. The time-honoured intuitive symbiosis of these women with their bees, produce and livestock was breathtaking.
The genuine tone of admiration in my compliment might have endeared me to Tirasew, an austere and dignified widow, whose life revolved around the work of keeping her farm going and providing for her sons, because as we were leaving later she ran out and presented me with an enormous, misshapen citrus fruit. “What’s it called?” I asked through Zenaw. “I don’t know. You cut it, and you eat it,” she responded.
But earlier, while still eating: “Hey Zenaw, I thought you told me you were fasting!” He swallowed his illicit mouthful sheepishly. “I know, I know, but you can never get such good yoghurt in the city…”
Ellie O’Byrne received funding to travel to Ethiopia through the Simon Cumbers Media Fund 2015 Student Scheme. Ellie was funded to explore how Ehtiopia’s female beekeepers are breaking with tradition to better their families. Ellie’s article ‘How one ordinary food item has helped change these women’s lives‘ was published by thejournal.ie in December 2016. To find out about the 2016 Student Scheme click here.