email a friend iconprinter friendly iconHall of Fame
Page [ 10 ] of 12

We stop in front of an unmarked cinder block coffeehouse, and Mohari fetches a powder blue plastic thermos from under his seat. Ethiopia claims to be the cradle of both humankind and coffee. I thought my local baristas back in Oregon took the transformative power of roasted beans seriously. But an Ethiopian coffee ceremony raises the preparation from art to spirituality.

A young girl spreads freshly cut grass at our feet and sets a basket full of popcorn on our table, coffee’s traditional accompaniment in Ethiopia. The girl’s mother sits in the corner, on a low stool, roasting coffee beans over a charcoal brazier. When the beans are black and shining with aromatic oil, she holds the pan under our noses and wafts the scent toward us with a reed fan. She crushes the beans with a mortar and pestle, mixes them with water, and sets a long-necked black clay jebena on the coals to brew. The coffee is served in espresso cups filled to brimming.

Perhaps it’s the guilt and pleasure I feel at stealing this moment while the others are still at the hospital, but I’ve never had a more satisfying cup of coffee. I drink a second, and a third, feeling Mohari’s strong medicine taking effect, fortifying me to go back. We fill the thermos and borrow a dozen china cups for our colleagues.

By the time we return, more than 2,000 people are crowded into Quiha’s compound. Women tend large earthen stoves, turning out yard after yard of the flat, spongy injera bread that is the staple of every Ethiopian’s diet. Hundreds sprawl on mats in recovery rooms, sleeping, or nibbling roasted barley they brought in burlap sacks. At the center of each recovery room, buckets for the patients who can’t find their way to the concrete squat toilets foul the air.

Every time I step outside, trying to breathe, mothers hold up babies with infected wounds and press them to me, or elderly men unbutton their shirts to show me tumors. I try to explain that I can’t help them, that I’m just a journalist. I try to convince myself that my writing will raise money to make more work like this possible. But in the face of overwhelming need, storytelling feels like a poor excuse for my presence. I close my notebook and roll up my sleeves. Unskilled though I am, I learn how to change IV bottles and present surgical tools so they remain sterile. I carry patients onto the operating table, tape bandages over their eyes when the surgery is complete, and lead them to the recovery room. No one would ever mistake me for a medical professional, but at least it’s something.

Page [ 10 ] of 12
Join the discussion

National Geographic Adventure is pleased to provide this opportunity for you to share your comments about this article. Thanks for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Recent Comments
  • Tabin is a hero. Climbing 7 Summits is impressive, but it doesn't change anyone's life. My hat's off…
  • CNN Hero of the Year 2010!
  • a man with great mission. thank you for what you have done in ethiopia.
  • I am speechless and in awe!!!I am a teacher and will share this fantastic article with the nursing s…
  • This is what America is all about. Dr. Tabin left made me a proud American. Kudos, to his wife and…
Read All »