Favorite Things | Sacred grounds

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Tewolde GebreMariam, Ethiopian Airlines Group CEO, talks about his love for coffee.

Interview POLA ESGUERRA DEL MONTE

When you are responsible for hundreds of passengers flying in different time zones, when do you take a break? Ethiopian Airlines Group CEO Tewolde GebreMariam takes his in the morning over three ceremonial pours of coffee—abol (the first round), tona (second round) and baraka (third round)—in a ritual that lasts as long as a typical stopover.  

Drinking bunna, as Ethiopians call their centuries-old specialty, is a tradition that Mr. GebreMariam grew up with as a boy in the African country. The ceremony is a social event revolving around a rekbot, a shelf-like box for coffee, that sits on a bed of long scented grasses and flowers. Dressed in traditional Ethiopian garments, the lady of the household washes the green coffee beans then roasts them in a flat pan. A rich, nutty aroma wafts through the air and intermingles with the scent of frankincense and myrrh, which is burned alongside the beans. She mixes the grounds with spices and pours the result into a jebena, an ornate clay pot, from which golden streams of coffee flow out of narrow lips. The bunna is then poured into tiny cups called cini. Years of practice are required to be worthy of doing the pouring, which should be done without interruption and from a height of one foot. After the half-hour preparation, the ritual’s participants partake of several rounds. 

Mr. GebreMariam appreciates this process, enjoying it at least twice a day: in the morning and after lunch. Unlike instant coffee, bunna requires at least two hours. Delayed satisfaction is nothing new to Mr. GebreMariam, who stayed with the same airline company for 30 years before being named its CEO. He began his career in the cargo traffic handling department in 1985, and climbed the ranks by holding managerial positions in different regions of the world: India, South East Asia, Jeddah, the United States and Canada. 

The airline has now taken him to the Philippines, where Ethiopian Airlines recently started thrice-a-week Manila-Africa flights. It’s the ticket to Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee,  which Mr. GebreMariam toasts. “Buna dabo now,” he says. “Coffee is our bread.” 

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Does the coffee help you work? 

When you’re a CEO of an airline company, you sleep like a baby. You know how a baby sleeps? A baby sleeps for two hours, and then wakes up. And then sleeps another two hours, then wakes up. It’s the coffee that keeps me alert. 

 What’s it like being an airline CEO? 

 It’s a very tough job. You worry about all of the flights. All. If you have 80 airplanes in the air at one point in time, it’s impossible to sleep. There are constant calls and urgent things coming so you cannot sleep for a long time.

What do you enjoy your coffee with? 

I enjoy it on its own. We hold the ceremony at home. 

What do you like eating when you travel? 

Ethiopian and Italian food. Italian food is very popular in Ethiopia, and Italy is also famous for coffee. Ethiopian food is quite unique because our staple food is a grain that is grown only in Ethiopia—nowhere else. We call it teff and it is high in fiber and gluten-free. It’s very healthy and has been compared to quinoa and spelt. However, Ethiopia currently has a long-standing ban on exporting the grain in its raw or flour form. Our airline does, however, serve it in its bread form—injera—to our business class passengers.  

 

Why travel to Ethiopia? 

Ethiopia is a place teeming with more than 80 languages. We have cultural dances that vary from region to region. There are plenty of historical and Biblical places in Ethiopia—old churches and monasteries.  The Aksumite kingdom, which gave rise to present-day Ethiopia, was one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient world. Depending on which version you’re reading, Ethiopia is mentioned at least 37 times in the Bible.