The man standing on the mule road between the four-wheel drive I was in and, supposedly, the tree that gave birth to the global multi-billion dollar coffee industry, bore a striking resemblance to actor Jimmy “J.J.” Walker of the 1970s sitcom “Good Times.” So much so that I almost didn’t notice the 2-foot-long machete in his hand. “Dyno-mite,” I sarcastically muttered to myself, as our idling car and the Ethiopian version of Jimmy Walker continued their staring contest. I’d just endured an hour’s drive over bumpy oft-unpaved roads from Jimma, a town of 130,000 in western Ethiopia, whose main renown might be that the countryside surrounding it produces some of the best coffee in the world. I knew we were close when we passed a small billboard showing an illustration of a woman plucking coffee cherry from a tree with the words underneath it: “The birthplace of coffee Arabica, 10km.”
But now I was just short of reaching the caffeine-scented Garden of Eden, stuck in an apparent showdown between us and a machete-wielding man.I had come to Ethiopia for one reason: coffee. Specifically, I wanted to find out what made Ethiopian coffee among the best in the world. AFAR magazine had sent me to write a feature article about it. Needless to say, while I was here I drank enough java to make my head spin around a few times.
But for a quick minute I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it out of Ethiopia alive. The man with the machete began walking toward our vehicle, a sideward glance in tact, and began talking to the driver in Oromiffa, the language of western Ethiopia. And then suddenly he was in the car with us. His machete still resting on his shoulder, he barked out directions to the driver. A few minutes later, there we were, standing around a 10-foot-high tree, rotting coffee cherry dangling from its limbs, like cotton pills on an old sweater. Jimmy “J.J.” Walker, whose real name I would learn was Awol Abagojam, a local coffee farmer, gave a swan-like sweep of his arm and said: “This is it, the first coffee tree.”
“But really right here?” I asked. “This very tree?”
Unless this man is to believed, no one really knows where the first coffee tree is, only that coffee supposedly originated from Ethiopia. Which is now shrouded in myth: one day a ninth-century goatherd named Kaldi noticed his goats were “dancing.” He remembered that the animals had been munching on the fruit of a tree and so he plucked a few himself and delivered it to the monks of a nearby monastery. It didn’t take long for the monks to realize the uplifting power of the fruit. And soon, as the story goes, coffee was born.
I have to admit, it was an underwhelming sight, even if this was the tree that changed what we drink in the morning (and in the afternoon and, when it calls for it, in the evening). I waved goodbye to the friendly farmer with the machete, got back in the car, and headed back to Jimma where I would, naturally, drink more coffee.