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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Tiny changes are sometimes the most significant.
The Ethiopian Commodity Exchange recently renamed one of that country’s most iconic products: Sidamo Coffee, long one of the best-recognized coffee brands in the world, will now be officially traded as Sidama Coffee. The switcharoo has passed with little fanfare, and many American roasters continue to offer their customers Sidamo—though this trend does seem to be changing.
What’s the story here?
Ethiopia’s Sidama zone (also formerly Sidamo) occupies the southwestern corner of that country, spreading out across a landscape of green hills from the great Rift Valley lakes of Abaya and Awasa. Coffee originated not far from here—the details are debated, but the northern Rift Valley and the Horn of Africa are generally recognized as the ancestral, wild homeland of arabica coffee.
Taking a restThe Sidama people have lived here for longer than any tradition can recall, part of the Kushitic cultural patchwork that extends from Sudan south to Tanzania and Uganda. While the Greeks may have referred to this area as Ethiopia (“Land of Burned People”) for millennia, the Sidama region was not a part of the Ethiopian state until 1893, when Ethiopia’s Abyssinian king Menelik II occupied the loosely-governed Kushitic chiefdoms around the Rift Valley. In keeping with the traditions of empires large and small, this conquest led to a long period of social upheaval and a concerted effort by the Ethiopian government to dismantle “local” identities in favor of a broader sense of “Ethiopian-ness.” Enter the name-game: to signify a break with the past and the end of a distinctive Sidama identity, the government named their newly-acquired province Sidamo—a subtle, but direct, negation of the people, their language, and their sense of place.
sorting cherriesWhen Ethiopia finally made its entrance onto the world coffee stage as a distinctive “terroir” in the mid-Twentieth Century, Western coffee importers had little information to go off of, except for what they learned from centralized (often state-owned) coffee exporters and other middle-men. Thus, the name Sidamo entered the Western coffee lexicon. And because the coffee from this region is exceptional—both as a blend component and as a single-origin—Western roasters and consumers came to know and love the name very quickly.
The first rumblings of change began in 2007. In October of that year, Side Goodo, a self-described Sidama intellectual, published an open polemic letter titled “There are no people called ‘Sidamo:’ stop the use of ‘Sidamo’ misnomer.” In that letter, he outlined the general history of the Sidama people and detailed their incorporation into the Ethiopian state, emphasizing the disenfranchisement and offense many Sidama people had come to associate with the “Sidamo” name.
Goodo had not specifically targeted the coffee business in his letter—in fact he didn’t even mention it—but industry ears-to-the-ground quickly took note, and the letter (plus a fewothers like it) began circulating in the coffee blogosphere. A few roasters—mainly those, such as ourselves, dealing directly with farming communities—re-named their offerings to little fanfare (and only modest customer confusion). The only real blip in the transition was egg on the faces of some roasters and cafe owners who had fought to get lazy-tongued employees to pronounce the name “properly” for years, only to discover that the employees were (inadvertantly) right.
While many offering sheets still say “Sidamo,” this story is steadily progressing towards a happy ending. The Ethiopian Coffee Exchange’s move to re-designate coffee from the Sidama region is an important, if quiet, acknowledgment of past wrongs, and it means that Western importers will now be greeted with the proper name on every contract. So with bags of coffee now leaving the country clearly marked “Sidama,” it’s up to those of us on the final end of the coffee business to break with tradition as well. The Sidama people deserve to have their name back.
Sidama kids

The welcome party for a Coop Coffees delegation to the Sidama 
Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union