Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony for Aster

December 11 will mark an unhappy 11 year anniversary.

A milestone that breaks my heart a little more with each passing year. On this day, I hold my dear friend, Aster Yohannes, in my heart a little closer. I pray for her freedom. I pray for her health. I pray for reason to prevail in Eritrea, a country known for a government terrorizing its people.

I met Aster 13 years ago on a Monday night. She longed for a community of women. She found that community through the women’s spirituality circle that I was a long time member of. We bonded from the start, sharing a birthday, a love for many of the same books, careers in marketing, and chocolate.


In 2000 Aster Yohannes arrived in Phoenix with dreams of finally completing her college education. She was on a fast track to do so as quickly as possible, so she could return home to her husband and four young children. Aster was the grateful recipient of a United Nations funded scholarship for college bound individuals from her homeland Eritrea, a small country in the Horn of Africa.

In September of 2001, as she was nearing completion of a degree in marketing, Aster’s husband was arrested in Eritrea for demanding democratic reform. When the Eritrean government refused to allow Aster to bring her children to the US, Aster believed she had run out of options and had no other choice but to return home to care for her family. On December 11, 2003, as her children waited in the Asmara airport to greet their mother, whom they had not seen in nearly four years, Eritrean security took Aster away as she stepped off the plane. She has not been seen since.


Meet my friend Libby. Together we established the organization, Friends of Aster, shortly after Aster’s husband was arrested in an effort to support her during the struggle to reunite with her family. We have worked with Amnesty International, we’ve lobbied Congress, we have supported Eritrean refugees who have arrived in Phoenix dazed and needing support, and we have worked to support Aster’s family members who have arrived in the US, with political asylum status. Libby has been a human rights force of nature, working tirelessly to keep Aster’s story on the minds and hearts of leaders around the globe. Here at home, she has raised money and consciousness.

We have made missteps along the way, and learned more about the unfair world than we would like to to know. We miss our friend every day and we long for the day we will be reunited.

As we head into another year of Aster’s imprisonment, Libby and I needed to honor Aster and hold her in our hearts in a positive way.


We decided to go to Cafe Lalibela in Tempe and attend their Sunday afternoon coffee ceremony.  A coffee ceremony is an excellent example of Ethiopian and Eritrean hospitality.

Coffee beans are roasted in a flat pan over a tiny charcoal stove. The pungent smell of roasting beans mingles with the heady scent of incense. It’s best done outdoors or in a large space.

When the coffee beans have turned black and shining and the aromatic oil is coaxed out of them, they are ground. The ground coffee is slowly stirred into a black clay coffee pot, called a “jebena.” The coffee is served in tiny china cups, and traditionally served to the oldest attendee first.

Imagine the strongest espresso you’ve ever had. That will get your close…and sugar. Lots of sugar.

The origins of coffee are firmly rooted in Ethiopia’s history. Their most popular legend concerns a goat herder from Kaffa, where the plants still grow wild in the forest hills. The story goes… “After discovering his goats to be excited, almost dancing on their hind legs, he noticed a few mangled branches of the coffee plant which was hung with bright red berries. He tried the berries himself and rushed home to his wife who told him that he must tell the monks. The monks tossed the sinful drug into the flames, an action soon to be followed by the smell we are all so familiar with now. They crushed the beans, raked them out of the fire, and distilled the stimulating substance in boiling water. Within minutes the monastery filled with the heavenly aroma of roasting beans, and the other monks gathered to investigate. After sitting up all night, they found a renewed energy to their holy devotions.”

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Our lovely hostess from Cafe Lalibela pours the first round of coffee.

The first coffee ceremony Libby and I ever participated in was conducted by our sweet friend, Aster. On a lovely Saturday afternoon in the Arizona desert home of a now deceased member of our circle, Aster hosted a beautiful ceremony and shared her love for her country, her people, and her love for us, her Arizona family.


At Cafe Lalibela they provide snacks with the coffee ceremony service–roasted garbanzo beans and a cookie made from teff flour. In Eritrea, the tradition is to serve popcorn with coffee.


Coffee is served in three rounds. The final round is known as the blessing round. Participants give a blessing to the house of the host and the woman performing the ceremony.

I send my angels to comfort Aster and my prayers for her freedom. I wear a bracelet that I made in her honor. As I take it off at night, and put it back on each morning, I send her my love. I know that one day we will again sit together on a beautiful outdoor patio and share our hearts over a cup of coffee. And when we get to the third round, the blessing round, we will pause and be grateful for the blessing of true friendship.

Peace to you, my friend.