“Bune” is Tigrinya for coffee. Tigrinya, is a language spoken in Eritrea. And Eritrea is an East African nation that boarders the Red Sea, Ethiopia, and Sudan.
Whenever I go home to visit my parents in Northern Virginia, I know several things are for certain: I will eat good, I will obnoxiously adore my nephews, and we will have coffee. And when I went home during this past break from University, my expectations were met and my heart rejoiced.
In Eritrea, as well as the greater East African region, coffee making is a deeply ingrained social practice. I choose to interview my parents about this traditional experience to get their insight on both the cultural and gendered nature of the practice.
The YouTube video at the top of this post incorporates photos and background audio I took during my last visit home, as well as a phone interview I conducted with my parents.
In the work “Gender,” scholars Raewyn Connell and Rebecca Pearse assesse gender as it relates to its theoretical foundation, gender as a practice, and gender in relation to power dynamics. They assert, “Gender arrangements are thus, at the same time, sources of pleasure, recognition and identity, and sources of injustice and harm.” (Connell and Pearse, 8) Gender, insofar as it can be discussed as a separation of behaviors, includes the segregation of women to particular tasks. Thus, when women are put to do a particular task, it becomes a historically feminized behavior and as a result men are not expected or recommended to do that task because society creates the narrative that it will “demasculanize” the man. There are several issues with this deduction, 1) the idea that masculine and feminine are natural and inherent behaviors is a fallacy, and 2) the idea that anything deemed feminine is inferiorized.
There is also a feature of gender, and specifically marginalized people within the gender spectrum, wherein people can find joy and happiness in gendered tasks. As the scholars assert, gender dynamics can be “sources of pleasure” too. Although it may be difficult to understand or accept, marginalized people can find joy in historically gendered practices because they now have the agency to make the decision.
As the scholars put it, “We claim a place in the gender order –or respond to the place we have been given—by the way we conduct ourselves in everyday life.” (6) Gender is a practice, meaning individual people do the behavior and contribute to the greater society. That is not to say that a system of oppression can easily be disrupted, because of the nature of power dynamics, it is actively counteracting people who resist its domination.
In relation to the traditional coffee ritual and my interview with my parents, gender, and expected gender behaviors, are actively practiced by individuals and by the greater culture. In my interview with my parents, I was taking into account both my understanding of Eritrean gender roles and how gender is practiced in our house.
When asked about the gendered nature of coffee making my mom declared, “Cooking, coffee making, these things that are done in the house for the most part fall on the women, especially in old tradition. And now, even if a man cooks, the coffee for the most part is done by women, because they do it well and they have practiced and perfected it.” My mom recognizes the reproductive nature of gender roles when she states that “especially in old tradition,” there are expectations for men and women. In an extrapolation of this quote and taking into account my relationship with my parents and family, I can acknowledge that my mom recognizes that in today’s society people will either accept or reject the behaviors society expects of them.
This is best demonstrated in my dad’s statement that if my siblings and I were, “all trained together,” we would “be good like your [oldest brother] who can and does make coffee, and it is well accepted.” He is right, my oldest brother knows how to make coffee and often does make coffee. And this, I recognize is special to our house and may not be present in many Eritrean homes.
As someone who was eager to learn how to make coffee because I saw my siblings and my mom making it, I recognize I had agency in choosing to learn. I also recognize that for many Eritrean girls there is not only an expectation but a demand to learn. As the scholars recognize, “Gender is, above all, a matter of the social relations within which individuals and groups act.” (11) Gender is what we, gendered people make it.
Connell, Raewyn, and Pearse, Rebecca. 2015. Gender In World Perspective. Polity Press: Maldin, MA, 2015.