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Culture & Religion

Peace Corps Diary: Ethiopia 1962-1964 Part 10

Peace Corps Diary: Ethiopia 1962-1964 Part 10

As I write this I am listening to a 16 minute “bootleg tape,” now a CD, of the concert Martin Benjamin and I performed on March 9, 1963 (49 years ago) in a talla bet (beer house) in the arada (market) of Gondar, Ethiopia.

Women pounding Gesho leaves

Marty was the lead on the guitar and I just did my best to follow along. I doubt either of us would be described today as a couple of aging rockers. The flavor of the concert was Kingston Trio, aka “Gondar Duo.”

At the time talla was made by women and sold in their houses. Walking around the market I would observe the green gesho leaves drying on mats in front of the talla bets. The mats were also covered with a mixture of wheat and barley which was wetted and was allowed to sprout. The pounded gesho leaves and wheat/barley were then placed in large (5 gallon) clay jars filled with water where the mixture was allowed to ferment. The resulting beer had a taste somewhat like the smell of silage. However, having grown-up on a farm I was familiar with the smell and enjoyed the beer. We generally felt secure drinking what had been either boiled or fermented.

The talla bets were very popular with our students. I suspect that the drinking of talla was an important source of calories and vitamins in their diets. In my article “Peace Corps Diary: Ethiopia 1962-1964 Part 2” in which I describe our trip to visit Lalibela I printed census data for Lalibela in which of 900 females living in Lalibela at that time, 298 were employed as talla bet operators. Selling beer was one of the few occupations available for women. Women from small farming settlements who had divorced their husbands moved to a larger market town where they could open a talla bet and offer beer and at times other services to male customers. We were infrequent visitors to the Gondar talla bets. Word was passed to us from Ato Yoseph, the Provincial head of Education, that as teachers we had a status to maintain and thus should only drink scotch in the uptown National Bar which was located near the Piazza. Rarely did we go to the National Bar and when we did we only had a small glass of Mellotti Cognac. We enjoyed the Cinema Bar, a cavernous Italian relic, where we could enjoy little dishes of Italian ice cream.

On three occasions I describe in my diary visits to talla bets:

John Stockton and I visited another talla bet in the market. The woman who operates it must be in her 60’s. Everyone sat on grass mats placed on the four inch high dirt platform which circles the room. The old woman had lived in Asmara which she greatly admires. The only English words she knows are ‘hello’ and ‘sleep’. In the center of the rectangular room was the common charcoal stove made out of a kerosene tin. On it a pot of wat was cooking. Next to the fire was the woman’s cat. She related that Ethiopian cats don’t eat rats so at night she wraps tightly in her blanket to keep the rats away. In a corner of the room sat a young Ethiopian farmer and his two sons who sat very straight and stared with wide eyes. It would be a great picture to sketch as the room was lit by two tiny homemade kerosene lamps which outlined the old woman and her dignified brother who must have been at least as old as she.

After another visit I wrote:

Saturday night we went to three talla bets in the market. In the first we were entertained with dancing to the beat of a dish pan. In the second a mysenko (stringed instrument played with a bow) was being played. In the final bet a Besse & Co. employee bought talla for us. During that visit a student whispered in my ear that the scruffy man leaving the talla bet was a member of the secret police. After he left he was replaced by a young policeman who sat and listed to what was being said.

March 9, 1963 was the night of our big concert. Marty and I walked to one of the talla bets with an entourage of students including Worku. The students had scouted out the place to be certain that our music would not be viewed as intrusive. The ritual of a talla bet was the same wherever we went. The beer was ladled out of large earthen jars into battered metal tea kettles. For 25 cents (10 cents US) we each bought a large metal tea kettle. Before setting the tea kettle on the dirt floor in front of us the server poured a small amount of the talla from the kettle into her hand. She then tasted the beer to prove it was not poisoned.

The server then poured some into our “birillis.” Birillis were round glass drinking vessels with narrow necks. The birilli was the worst possible glass vessel in terms of cleaning, however, for talla its shape was perfect. After filling our birilli from the tea kettle it was placed on the floor in front of us for a few minutes. During that time the straw and chaff from the talla would rise to the top of the narrow neck. Then in a ritualized manner we picked-up our birillis and with a flick of the wrist the chaff and debris would fly onto the floor. Objects that were brought to Ethiopia after the war were often given descriptive names or names that reflected their manufacturer.

For example our students called an ink pen a “scripto,” blue denim pants were “wranglers,” and a vehicle or even a sewing machine was a “mechina.” The birilli I assume was named for the Italian skittles/bowling pin which duplicates its shape.

Marty brought his guitar with him to Ethiopia. The wooden walls of our house were thin so often as I was grading papers or reading I would hear him playing and singing his favorite old Weavers’ song “Two Brothers.”

To record our concert I brought my small Phillips reel to reel recorder in a TWA flight bag which I discretely set to one side in the talla bet. The only light in the room came from a small locally made kerosene lamp. A tinsmith in Gondar had cut out the sides of a small tin can bending them to form a two inch high container out of which protruded a burning wick. It created a smoky “coffee house” ambiance.

Marty led the way as we worked our way through his repertoire of folk songs interspersed with talk from the audience and several impromptu Ethiopian songs. Several years ago when Marty mentioned that he was teaching his grandson to play the guitar I sent him a copy of the concert on a CD. Marty had forgotten all about it.

Please enjoy our 16 minutes of entertainment history.