October 5, 2016

How An Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony Sparked Conversation About Changes in Shaw

By Avery Kleinman

Artist Tsedaye Makonnen performed an Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony at Zenebech restaurant in Shaw on October 2, 2016

Artist Tsedaye Makonnen performed an Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony at Zenebech restaurant in Shaw on October 2, 2016

Today marks the last day in business for Zenebech, one of the most popular and longstanding Ethiopian restaurants in D.C. The closing is a loss for those who visited the spot for affordable, authentic Ethiopian food. It also speaks to the changes happening in the Shaw neighborhood, where the restaurant’s building has been sold to developers who plan to turn the space into an apartment building and retail complex.

The apartments that are built will likely be out of reach for the residents of Shaw who have lived there since Zenebech first began baking and selling injera (the flat, spongey Ethiopian bread) in 1993. The neighborhood has experienced rapid development and a slew of new, pricey restaurant openings, turning Shaw into a case-study of the citywide phenomenon many Washingtonians lament: gentrification.

You can read more about Zenebech’s closing in an article published in the Washington Post by frequent Kojo Show guest Perry Stein.

On Sunday, Tsedaye Makonnen, an Ethiopian-American performance artist who grew up in Shaw, performed an Ethiopian coffee ceremony in front of Zenebech. She hoped the performance would facilitate a conversation about neighborhood changes between old and new residents. I sat down with her to find out what exactly a coffee ceremony is, and what she believes it can say about gentrification in D.C.

Listen to our conversation:

Read the transcript:

Avery Kleinman: You performed an Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony over the weekend at Zenebech restaurant.

Tsedaye Makonnen: Yep.

Avery: Can you explain what a coffee ceremony is and what your performance looked like?

Tsedaye: Sure. My performance was taking rituals from an Ethiopian coffee ceremony, but a traditional one typically takes place at somebody’s home and it requires roasting raw coffee beans, grinding them on the spot, and then cooking them in an Ethiopian coffee pot called a Jebena. Usually there’s grass laid out underneath where the cups sit, there’s a tray and where the person serving the coffee sits.

These are all rituals taken from Ethiopian culture that date back hundreds, thousands of years ago.

So it’s still practiced today, and there’s usually incense burning and people drink out of small espresso cups, and they sit around sometimes for hours drinking multiple cups of coffee and catching up.

Avery: And how did you learn about this ceremony?

Tsedaye: It was done at my home a lot on weekends when guests were coming over, so I’ve seen it done many, many, many times throughout my life. So I pulled elements of that into the performance, which I would describe more as a non-traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony because it had a lot of things going on that I can explain.

Avery: Sure, in what ways was it unique from a traditional one?

Tsedaye: The children at the Shaw community center that I’ve been working with for the last three years, they made the coffee ceramic cups that we used. They made about 100 in the last month leading up to the performance and I had some of those children involved in the performance. They’ve been working with me doing various forms of art and this summer in particular we’ve been doing placemaking performances in Shaw and this was part of that. On top of their involvement, I also had friends and artists that I gave tasks to, kind of slow gestures that were ritual based, like I had one person carrying the incense around and activating the space where I was serving the coffee and the audience as well. Someone else was sprinkling ground cinnamon, ground cloves, cardamom, all these spices that we use in Ethiopian food and tea and coffee. The children were the ones actually passing out the coffee and as they passed them out they asked the audience specific questions about what brought them to Shaw, if they live in Shaw, where do they live, why they love Shaw, how they feel about the changes happening in that part of D.C., and the whole point was to kind of start a conversation between the audience the neighbors and the children.

Avery: Do you think that was successful?

Tsedaye: It was super successful. I was really happy because we had two. We had one last Sunday in front of the Compass Coffee attached to the Shay, and one yesterday in front of Zenebech restaurant, and both were very different but also really effective and successful in starting that conversation. A lot of people especially yesterday had a lot to say because Zenebech restaurant is closing on October 5 and it’s been there since 1993. They were first the injera distributors in the area and then moved into a restaurant space and now they’re closing, which is a big deal, cause they’ve really been in an anchor in the Ethiopian community and a lot of people in that neighborhood and outside of the neighborhood when they come to D.C. they know to go there, because its authentic and great, are upset that its going.

Avery: It’s one of the longest running restaurants in D.C. and I believe its closing in less than a week, so what was your intent for choosing that location for your performance?

Tsedaye: It went really well with the agenda of my piece, which was bringing together the different micro-cultures of Shaw, and exposing and also discussing what is happening. My performance was part of a week-long celebration of Shaw called, What’s Going On Shaw? And the idea is all of these things are happening.

There’s rapid development, a lot of people who were originally from that area– natives and the immigrant population– are struggling to stay there.

And how do we include them, how do we become inclusive rather than exclusive, which is where Shaw kind of looks like its going, at least that’s what a lot of the business owners and natives feel. And picking Zenebech was really important for me because one, it’s an Ethiopian restaurant and that’s my culture. I’ve been going there for years, I had an aunt that used to make injera there and a cousin. And it’s this thriving business but yet it also cannot remain there, which is kind of shocking. So I thought it was perfect to be the closing ceremony to end up there.

Avery: And why do you think the coffee ceremony was sort of the right medium to relay this message and perform your art?

Tsedaye: Sure, so the coffee ceremony within Ethiopian culture is usually where people sit around and talk things out. And usually people go through two three cups. So by the time you’re on the second cup, that’s where the real discussion comes out. And so I thought that would be a great way to connect it to this conversation within the Shaw community, because there’s a strong Ethiopian presence there, on top of coffee already being in the American culture, where people go to sit and get work done. Although here it’s a lot more grab and go and quick.

I think that using the Ethiopian coffee was a way to slow everyone down and to get the community and neighbors to actually see each other and talk to each other, whereas usually that doesn’t really happen.

A student offers a coffee cup to an audience member at Tsedaye Makonnen's performance in front of Zenebech.

A student offers a coffee cup to an audience member at Tsedaye Makonnen’s performance in front of Zenebech. SUDI WEST.

Avery: So conversation is really the first step towards maybe the right word isn’t fixing…

Tsedaye: No.

Avery: But maybe coming to a collective solution where everybody can sort of feel like theyre at home together.

Tsedaye: Right, exactly.

Avery: And that sounds like what you were doing with your ceremony. So I know we were talking a little bit about Shaw and its definitely become the new hot spot for restaurants in D.C., you hear about ten new restaurants a week opening up it almost seems like. I’m curious in what ways do you think food, specifically, can tell a story about our city and gentrification.

Tsedaye: For the majority unaffordable housing is popping up everywhere, there’s one bedroom apartments going for 3,000 dollars from what I understand and up, which for the original native Shaw residents, it’s completely unaffordable and it’s pushing a lot of them out of the neighborhood. With the unaffordable housing that’s coming in are a lot of restaurants that are nice and I myself enjoy, however the prices are a lot more than what most people can afford and it does create a boundary.

There is an invisible border between these restaurants and the people who live there, that have been there for a long time.

I personally know of, the community that I was working with, a lot of the children expressed not crossing a certain street, specifically the street where the Shay is, because they knew that there was a vibe that they were getting that they’re not supposed to, that they don’t belong, it’s not for them.

Avery: I think food definitely plays a really big role in creating an identity for a neighborhood.

Tsedaye: Yep.

Avery: So the types of restaurants that are there, maybe to outsiders even more so than the people who live there, because that might be the reason someone who doesn’t live there goes and visits there. It really creates a neighborhood identity.

Tsedaye: Yep, exactly.

Avery: So the loss of Zenebech really speaks to that change.  Somewhere that has been there for a long time is no longer there, and now there are all these new restaurants and what does that say?   What kind of optimism do you have about what will happen next.. you started the conversation going with your coffee ceremony…

Tsedaye: For me what’s exciting is the children in that neighborhood, they understand the power that they have to let their presence be known in that neighborhood now. That they’re the next group to stay. I don’t like the word placemaking, because actually somebody, Jess Solomon, she’s from Baltimore, she was saying it’s better to say placekeeping because it makes it sound like there was no place before when you say placemaking. And I feel like that’s what these kids are finally understanding that it’s their job to keep their place there. They’re where my hope lies, because they’re seeing their family and friends being pushed out and they’re up in arms too, and they’re not going to be silent about it because they very much feel like that neighborhood is their identity.

They have roots there for generations and they know they belong and it’s pretty cool to see how powerful they are in that respect.

Avery: So what projects are you working on next?

Tsedaye: That’s a great idea. Well I know that with the Shaw community center we were talking about working with Donald at MetroPCS at the corner of Florida and 7th avenue.

It’s this corner store that everybody from D.C. knows for the most part because he blasts Go-Go all the time. So you could be down U St or up Florida by Howard and hear Go-Go playing.

So we want to collaborate with him and do something with the kids there, maybe even do a Go-Go block party, because obviously Go-Go is huge to the identity in D.C., a part of D.C.’s identity I should say. And that’s another form of placekeeping, and making sure that he gets to stay there and that we celebrate the fact that he’s been playing Go-Go music for I think over twenty years now at that corner. He was recently telling me that Howard students from the 90s when they come for Homecoming they always visit him, just to see what the latest Go-Go music is.

Avery: Yeah, I’m definitely familiar.

Tsedaye: Right, everyone knows it. So that’s one thing. I definitely have a lot of stuff in store. Another performance that is ongoing for me is a migration series I do with unfired clay boats. At this point I’ve done about three or four versions, the last one I did was at Art All Night in Shaw last Saturday. Where the clay boats represent the connection between gentrification in D.C., the forced migrations with this refugee crisis abroad, specifically with Africans that are migrating through the Mediterranean Sea dying at sea trying to get to Europe, and the Transatlantic slave trade. So, that’s something that I’m developing and will continue to work out to.

Avery: And how can people find you on social media?

Tsedaye: That’s a great question. On Instagram, my handle is @tsedaye, it’s just my first name. My website is Tsedaye.com, and on facebook if you put my first name I pop up right at the top. And I can spell that out for you.

Avery: So it’s T-S-E-D-A-Y-E, is that right?

Tsedaye: Yep, you have a good memory.

Avery: The last thing I wanted to ask you was, if someone who isn’t as familiar with the Shaw neighborhood wants to go and experience more of the old-time place that speaks to the community that’s been there a while, do you have any other spots that you think they should visit?

Tsedaye: I would start with like I said the Metro PCS at Donald’s, dance to the Go-Go for a little bit, go inside and talk to him he’s super friendly. If you walk a few doors down there’s a barbershop owned by Mr. Love, it’s actually the oldest business there in Shaw, it’s been there since 1968. I think it’s been a barbershop all together for 113 years but he’s owned it since 1968.* He also is really sweet. If you go a little further down, there’s Wanda’s on 7th, it’s a hair salon and barbershop, Wanda is another powerhouse. She’s like the mayor of Shaw, she’s been able to ride out the waves, the changes in that neighborhood. She’s super successful and supports the other barbers and hairstylists to do their own thing and get their businesses going. She really gives back to the community. Calabash is there, owned by Sunyatta. It’s a really nice, if you want to go, get zenned out, boost your immune system, she’ll make you something that will set your day right. What else is there… The Compass Coffee that everyone knows, they were super supportive of my performance as well, because that was where the first one happened. What else can I think of… I would say Zenebech, but that’s closing on October 5th unfortunately. There are the Ethiopian restaurants on 9th street, right by 9th and U, that are all really great.

Avery: Just taking a step from Shaw specifically, in a larger sense, all of D.C., and maybe even in the rest of the region, what role do you think Ethiopian food has had in shaping our region’s identity?

Tsedaye: A big one.

Everyone kind of knows, at least Ethiopians know, you can’t get authentic Ethiopian food outside of the D.C. area. Like if you go to New York, Atlanta, L.A.– not to diss those places– but they can’t touch what D.C. has.

And I think it is because we have the largest Ethiopian population outside of Ethiopia, is in D.C. And injera was first starting to be made here and distributed to all the 7-11s, even the gas stations sell injera now. Ethiopians have had a huge impact on the D.C. area. Even 9th street I know there was kind of a back and forth between the natives of D.C. and the Ethiopian community of calling it Little Ethiopia because how many Ethiopian restaurants there are back to back on that street. But when people come to D.C. that’s usually one of the first places they go is to an Ethiopian restaurant.

Avery: Definitely. Well, thank you so much for coming in to talk to me.

Tsedaye: Thank you for having me.

Avery: I look forward to seeing more of your performance art in the future.

Tsedaye: Yes, thank you. I quickly want to say thank you to Shaw Community Center, to Deirdre Ehlen MacWilliams, Kristina Bilonick. They’re the ones who did the What’s Going On Shaw?, and who funded my performances through the D.C. Office of Planning. So big shout outs to them and thank you to everyone else who showed up. I had a lot of artists within the D.C. area who came to support my performances, which was really sweet and huge, and the Shaw community as well.

*Correction: Frank Love has been operating Gregg’s barbershop since 1961, and the shop has been there since 1913, for 103 years.