The time I left a coffee ceremony crying . . .

This is for me to remember, when I’m old and gray, when all the hard parts of parenting have faded out of memory, and I’m tempted to belittle the struggles of young mommies around me with platitudes about time passing quickly.  This is for me to remember when I’m too critical of myself, when I think maybe I could have, should have, would have been a better mommy if . . .   This is to remind myself that sometimes it’s just hard.  And there’s no parenting magic that will make it easy.  And sometimes you just can’t hold it together anymore.

. . .

On our last week in Ziway, the kitchen manager at the Primary School, Hiwot, invited me to come to her house for a coffee ceremony.  Hiwot doesn’t speak much English, so she asked me through our friend Hawi.  I quickly agreed.  What an honor!  And asked Hawi if she would accompany Kally and me so that we would have a translator.  Looking back, I’m not sure why I thought this, but something about the way Hawi told me made me think that Hiwot was only inviting me and Kally, not the kids.

So on the appointed Saturday, Kally and I met up with Hawi at the Right Café (where else?), and walked down Ziway’s main street to a corner where we would meet Hiwot.

When Hiwot arrived, I could tell something was amiss, even though she seemed pleased to see us.  Soon Hawi translated for us.  It seems Hiwot had intended for us to bring the whole family.  I have to admit that my heart dropped a bit at this.  Coffee ceremonies are not extremely kid-friendly, especially for my kids.  I had been looking forward to enjoying one without having little children bumping and jostling me.  But, on the other hand, I hated to think that Hiwot had made preparations for our entire family, only to have two of us show up.  I quickly called Casey.  Yes, he could come with the kids.  It wasn’t too far from our hotel, so he agreed to get a bajaj and meet Hawi at the corner in a few minutes.  I went on to Hiwot’s home to wait for them. IMG_3533

Hiwot and me in the Ziway Primary Kitchen

Hiwot rents a room for her two children and herself in a compound shared with a few other families.  This is very typical for Ethiopia.  The room was beautiful and very neatly arranged, with a full size bed, a small refrigerator, and several extra chairs she had brought in for our meal.  In the center of the group of chairs (with very little leg room!) was a beautiful, glass coffee table.

When she showed me into her room, my anxiety started to build a bit.  I had visions of Josiah jumping off of the bed and landing on the glass table, smashing it to bits.  Or Evelyn tripping over a chair leg and crashing into the table, knocking off everyone’s plates and cups.  I immediately starting plotting how to best manage the kids when they arrived.  One could sit in my lap, one could sit in the floor right beside me.  One could sit with Casey.  I could feed them from my own plate instead of getting them each a plate . . . My mind was a buzz of activity as I tried to think through every possible catastrophe.


Hiwot, preparing for our coffee ceremony

I smiled at Hiwot, and made chit-chat as best I could with our very limited language abilities.  In a few moments, Casey arrived with the kids, and then the eight of us were crowded into Hiwot’s room.  I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by how well the kids did.  Hiwot cooked a full meal for us, not just the typical coffee ceremony fare, and the food was so good.  I remember that the fish goulash was particularly good; Hiwot does manage a kitchen, after all.  The kids ate pretty well without too much complaining, and nothing was spilled.  I kept Josiah in my lap the entire time and didn’t let him wiggle out of my grasp.

After the meal, I sighed with relief when someone suggested we take our coffee outside in the courtyard. We did it!  No broken coffee-table, no smashed dishes.  I was proud of my kids, and myself.

We headed outside and sat in the shade of the trees, while Hiwot and her neighbors worked to prepare the coffee.  They passed around fandisha (popcorn), and, as we waited, several of the other compound residents joined us, including an older gentleman who settled in close to Casey and me and began a conversation.  He was very kind, and I wish that we had been better conversationalists, but the longer we sat there the more active Josiah became.  And while all the Ethiopian children in the group were sitting quietly, Josiah became louder and louder and louder.  The courtyard was small, and there was no good place to escape to.  Casey and I tried everything to get him to settle down.  We put him in time out, we threatened him, we tried to hold him, but things weren’t getting better.

In his defense, he is only four years old, and it was a lot to ask of him, but in our defense there was nothing we could do.  It would have been incredibly rude for us to leave the coffee ceremony before the coffee was even served, and Hiwot had explicitly asked that the children come.  Casey and I were becoming more and more agitated as we tried to manage Josiah, and I was very aware of the scene we were making in front of Hiwot and her neighbors, most of whom we had never met before.


Soon the coffee was served, but this was the tricky part.  The coffee is served in small, china cups, which are usually filled to the brim and very, very hot.  Even on my own, I’m sure to spill some of it into my saucer while I try to stir in my sugar and make conversation (and sometimes even hold a handful of popcorn!).  And with three children dancing around me, it’s almost hopeless.

We were sitting on small stools in an oblong circle, with Evy and Josiah sitting right across from me.  Evy was sitting on a small, metal stool with four tiny legs and a woven seat.  She was close enough to me that she occasionally bumped my knees.  “Evy, please don’t bump me; give me some space so I don’t spill my coffee,” I pleaded with her more than once.  But Josiah was sitting right behind her, kicking her and bumping her and just being a nuisance.

And then it happened . . . And I watched it all in what felt like slow motion, but I was holding a full cup of hot coffee and there was nothing I could do to stop it.  Evy stood up and, in an attempt to escape Josiah, scooted her stool forward a couple inches, inadvertently setting one of the feet of the stool onto my bare little toe, and then proceeded to drop all of her weight onto the stool with a huff!

I yelled, and I don’t know what else happened.  I know I tried to pass my coffee off to Kally and spilled some on my arm.  Casey jumped up and grabbed Evelyn, who was so traumatized that she began crying.  And then everyone was looking at me, the crazy American girl who just screamed in the middle of a coffee ceremony, while I held my throbbing toe and tried to fight back tears.

The pain wasn’t too bad; I think the fear of losing my toe was the worst part.  But I was so embarrassed at the way my kids had acted and so overwhelmed by their behavior, and I was also still grappling with intense emotion from my visit with R and the overwhelming sadness that we would be leaving Ziway in just a few days.  And I couldn’t help but wish that it didn’t always feel like my kids were battling against my best efforts.

Soon the tears started to drop.  I wiped them away quickly, but I could just tell:  this wasn’t going away.  Luckily, I wasn’t breaking into the “ugly cry” but I was definitely crying, and I wasn’t able to hold it back.  Kally started rubbing my back.  I think she saw the look on my face, and since she was dealing with all the same emotions, she knew; she knew this wasn’t about spilled coffee or smashed toes.  It was about parenting three young children in a strange place and a strange culture, and it was about falling in love with a place in a way that left me raw and vulnerable, all the while knowing that I had to leave soon.

Quickly, Hawi and Hiwot ushered me back into Hiwot’s room.  They were hugging and kissing me, and rubbing my toe and offering me water and food while I continued to cry.  This was probably one of the most embarrassing moments of my life.  But I couldn’t quit crying, and I just wanted out of there.  After a few minutes, Hawi realized that I needed to go home, so she made our excuses to everyone, and we slipped out the front gate.  Luckily, we had finished our coffee, and it was almost time to go anyway.

I cried the whole way home, and then sat on my bed between Kally and Hawi and cried some more.  Mothering is so hard, and I think sometimes we need to admit to ourselves that we’ve done all we can do, and “trying harder” just isn’t going to fix things.  And yeah, looking back, I probably should have insisted that the kids not come; it was asking too much of them to sit quietly for that long, but cultural and language barriers complicate things so much and I really did not want to offend Hiwot.

Poor, sweet Hiwot.  She will probably never invite us over again.

As beautiful and amazing as our entire trip was, this was the one part that I wish I could have changed.  A few days later, Casey and I toured a neighboring school that happened to have the same kind of metal stools with woven seats.  Just the sight of them made me want to run away screaming.


  1. Its ok. We have all been there & every mother
    understands no matter what language they speak. You always seem to have it altogether so its alright to be human !


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