Food & Eating Etiquettes In Kebesa
People eat to live or to enjoy food if they are from the lands of abundance, but not in Kebesa. Eritrean highlanders ate to survive. They would do anything to survive and preserve their being because they valued the sanctity of life. They feared and hated death and they abhorred nihilism.
In the lands of scarcity like Kebesa, people only ate to survive and reproduce. They imitated nature. In Kebesa they followed the footsteps of their beloved Sgem and Ater. They looked scraggy and emaciated but they survived.
To eat, only to survive, required strict discipline and self abnegation. The former was reinforced by the good women who taught and conditioned the children, following the dictum “kol’a biniusu, korbet biruhusu” and the later by the monks who introduced, enforced and monitored strict fasting rules to adults.
The good women and monks lead by example, a signature of True sacrifice from True people. The women nursed children way past infancy to save food for the remaining adults and the monks fast year round so to fast half or three quarter of a year would look manageable to adults.
Nature always loved and preserved natural people. To abate their fast what the people call Tsom, it gave them a hardy albeit little disrespected seed which the people call Intatii.
Flax did not get respect like barley and chick peas did, even though it was valued as much. To say the truth, highlander men and boys disrespected flax as they did the donkey.
No one knew why. For flax to grow, it did not need hard tilling or choice soil. May be it was its ability to grow in any soil without too much ado that prompted the disrespect or it might have been mistakenly taken as weed. For unknown reasons it was also considered poor or lazy people’s yield. No one in the highland boasted for abundance of flax harvest. They would, if it was barley and to some extent chick peas. Besides nutrition they also used flax seed to mend broken bones. But still poor flax did not earn their respect.
The respect to flax came later in life when one got older and had to start the monastery and Church mandated full fasting. It was the duty of Aba Nefsi [family priest] to closely monitor those whom he represented and shepherded.
Flax could not be made bread by itself which as some wise women rightfully speculated could have been the root cause of its disrespect by men and boys. Why a man would spend his meager energy to grow a seed that could not be made bread?
But the women were smart and creative so they came up with idea to make the seed respectable. They slightly roasted the seed to make it palatable (it is only now that scientists discovered that flax seed contains arsenic and roasting the seed neutralizes the poison) and then made paste out of it.
The flax paste oozed oil with sensuous aroma and when mixed with water it became delightful and very nourishing. No beverage could compare with flax drink (may be Abaike) in quenching thirst and soothing empty and dry stomach. Suddenly flax became a must to have item and like Shuro was vaulted to protect it from marauding children, boys and girls alike.
Atsmi Zisebir (bone crushing) stigmas were also added to food related misbehaviors that rivaled that of sex related misbehaviors. No body wanted to be called Hasema; Mefles; Kolasi; Belategna; Hargaf; Susu’e; Bklte Idu Zibeli; Bklite afu zihiek.
And then there were children who never felt full and Kebesa was not spared from such children, who were mostly boys. Every society has its Oliver Twist. But the women were not perturbed by such infantile behavior. Not only were they good trainers but were also adept at throwing feedbacks.
If a child complained of not feeling full, the women would nonchalantly reply “Mai Keiseteka Ay Tesegebkun Aitbel”, meaning “do not say I am not full before drinking water”. And if the child became incessant in his complaining, the women would say “Iba Melalu” meaning “go and eat cow’s dunk”.
In Kebesa food related news were always exiting and most of the time the news were carried and delivered by adventurers, men who ventured away from home to the yonder. Some descended westward to the lowlands and some descended eastward to the lowlands. Those men were our Vasco Dagamas and Ibn Batutas, very curious and venturesome.
Those who returned from the west [Mirabawi Kola] told people in Kebesa what they saw: people swimming in lakes of milk [Tseba]; people who bathed in buttermilk [Birah]; people who creamed their body with butter [Likai]; people who oiled their hair with choice fat [Tsbhi] and people who only ate fresh meat.
No one could believe them, specially the monks and the women. To the people of Kebesa such place was only reserved for the soul and that was only after death.
The adventurers were badgered with relevant and irrelevant; peaceful and violent; straight and twisted questions. The women dug deeper and asked the adventurers “Do those people eat bread?” “Do those people drink water?” To which the adventurers replied “No, they only ate fresh meat”; “No, they only drank milk”.
When the women heard their reply they said “Wei Gud Loms Intay Knsemii Ina. Seb do bizei Injeran, Main Ynebr Iyu?”
But they did not stop there. The women again asked “what type of meat do those people eat?” to which the adventurers replied “beef and when they were bored with it they ate Camel’s meat”. To this reply the women said “Iway, Iway Iza Halengay Gemeldo siga-a ybilai Iyu?”
Eventually those who ventured to the west were taken as Tsululat; Humumat or worse Metalelti. The last verdict was from the monks.
Those who returned home from the east [Mibrakawi Kola] told people in Kebesa what they saw: land covered in water as far as the eye could see and people eating fish day and night.
No one could believe them and were badgered with questions: “Do those people eat bread?” To which the adventurers replied “Why would they eat bread when they are endowed with fish?”
When the women heard their reply they said “Wei Gud. Asa Do Ybila Iyu?”
Eventually those who ventured to the east were taken as Hasewti and Tonkolti. The last verdict was from the monks.
Like everything else in Kebesa, food was respected and treasured. “No food shall be thrown” was the edict. Nature respected such people who wholeheartedly respected nature and its natural gifts and food was at the helm of that list.
To assist its creatures, nature gave the highlanders the Sun with abundance of light and Air full of breeze, to irradiate and dry food that went wrong. They dried moldy bread and made it Korosho. No one wanted to eat Korosho but in bad times what else would one eat? Survival supersedes wants. They dried the left over meat and vaulted it so no one but the most fit- the good man- could enjoy it.
As there are eating etiquette in using cutleries (of course in lands of abundance) there are also etiquette when you use your fingers (of course in lands of scarcity) though the crucial aspect of the rules when using fingers were meant to enforce fairness; minimize waste and enhance closeness.
Eating in Kebesa was communal. There was no gender segregation. Men and women; boys and girls could eat together. But there was age segregation. Five and fifteen years were the delimitating ages. Those between five and fifteen could eat together. Those fifteen and older could also eat together.
The food was served in Sefii-straw made tray- in villages; in Shehani– metal tray- in towns and cities, both the size of the Injera and was placed in the middle of those ready to eat. There was no minimum but seven was the maximum number of people who could eat together. They sat in circle. No other geometric shape was allowed. If two, they faced each other. If they caught one eating alone they said “Kem Lemani Nbeynu Zibelii” meaning “he eats alone like a beggar.”
The souse with its ingredients was spread uniformly and fairly both in volume, density and content over the Injera. So if it was meat souse no one shall get more meat than the others and the same with vegetable souse. But if the souse happened to be made from chicken, the criterion for distributing the chicken meat was age and career. Unless very old, teachers and priests had precedence over all other ages.
The first etiquette was “never to use the left hand for eating”. Other than food and writing in school, lefties were left to be lefty in whatever they did. This etiquette was derived from faith and ergonomics.
The second etiquette was “not to use all fingers when grabbing the food that goes to ones mouth”. Only the thumb, the index and middle fingers were to be used. This etiquette was based on equity and justice: to protect the people with small hands such as children from adults; girls from boys and women from men.
The third etiquette was “not to drop food particles even the size of dust”. Scarcity and respect for food might have played roles. But abiding by this etiquette also prevents one from holding more than ones fingers or mouth could accommodate
The fourth etiquette was “not to talk while eating”. This etiquette was based on aesthetic and hygienic values.
The fifth etiquette was “Not to simultaneously chew with both sides of the mouth”. This etiquette had fairness and ethical values and was mainly instituted to slow fast eaters.
The sixth etiquette was “not to trespass territory”. The pie shaped territory in front of the eaters was to be rightfully respected and fiercely protected. This etiquette had ethical, fairness and respect values.
The seventh etiquette was “Not to eat faster than the slowest eater”. A community was as strong as its weakest member. This etiquette was based on survival values.
The eighth etiquette was “Not to swallow food without proper chewing”. This etiquette is based on health issues. The people believed that unprocessed food creates problem to the stomach.
The ninth etiquette was “not to lick fingers while eating”. This etiquette was purely based on hygienic values.
The good women were responsible for training and conditioning the children on the etiquettes of proper eating. Training started at age three which was accompanied by positive and negative reinforcements and ended at eight. After eight if the child continued breaking the etiquettes only negative reinforcement would be applied up to and including whacking to the head or collar bone by Mokhos (a spatula). Girls learned quicker because the expectations were high and reinforcements severe.
Making Injera was the good woman’s job. Like wine making, making Injera was an art. Meticulous attentions and monitoring was applied when training girls. By age nine a good girl was able to make Injera.
A good Injera was one with big eyes (open bubbles); light; not sweet and not sour, all signs of good fermentation. If one or more of these good elements were missing, insults up to and including songs followed. Rumors were spread by good women but songs were written by bad men. If the fermentation cycle was not completed, which depends on the type of grain or mixture of grains, temperature, humidity and what the people called “The elbow” (meaning a good hand produces good Injera while bad hand produces bad Injera) the injera would taste sweet. In such case the good women would comment “she was in a rush- Hiwikti” or “she is forgetful, Zinibti”. If the taste turns out to be sour, the comments will be Afincha Zeibila “she can’t smell”; “she is negligent, Zewarit”.
The people used short chairs they call Duka when eating. Sitting on floor was prohibited unless there were no enough ducas around. In that case the allocation of ducas was based on age. The older ones get ducas first. Duca was a simple bench chair with two legs, seven inches high. It sits very close to the ground but that was the only way to sit and eat in circle while abiding by the strict etiquette.
If the bread was Kitcha the good women would break it into proper and equal sizes and would place the pieces in front of the eaters. Injera did not need to be broken.
The custom dictated children eat first. The same went with drinking water. “Kidmi kola aytste; kidmi abi aytkid” was the dictum. Children ate and drank first before adults. It was only during walking that, children and as such women followed adult men.
The custom was meant to protect the weak and to preserve the life of the growing. Walking trails were narrow. People could not walk side by side. One had to lead, the other to follow. In that ragged and jagged land no one knew what laid ahead. So by leading the walk the adult man was jeopardizing his life on behalf of the ones following him. Night walk posed the most hazards not only from animals and reptiles but also gorges and precipices. Many lives were lost in precipices and many bodies were broken by falling through cliffs.
Washing hands was mandatory but only before eating. After, was optional dictated by availability of water and because water was scarce and valuable it was reserved to quench thirst for the people of the village and strangers. In the absence of water one could wipe ones hands with grass or leaves if available.
People live in their surrounding and use what their surrounding provides. If they Truthfully, Rightfully, Rationally, Collectively, Respectfully and Wisely use what their surrounding provides they live and flourish. Anything less is paving the road to Division, Oblivion and Nihilism.
“How can I remain Silent when my heart keeps talking?”