Peter Martell hunts for the home of coffee in South Sudan
I can wait for a long time for a good cup of coffee, but this was the longest. When it came, it was one of the best.
The cup was dark, the scent strong and brew bitter, and it tasted delicious. In hindsight, I wish I had not gulped it down so greedily. For it was, I would later find out, a very special cup of coffee indeed – perhaps the rarest I ever will drink.
I was on a reporting trip in the far east of South Sudan, not far from the border of Ethiopia. Now I was stuck waiting in the lonely thatch hut and mud street town of Pochalla, hoping for the promised airplane to get a flight out.
I was still waiting and staring at the fierce blue sky on the third day.
The route by road to South Sudan’s capital Juba was a long one. It could take weeks to cross the wilds of the Boma plateau even in the dry season, but with the rains, almost impossible.
It is one of the continent’s greatest wildernesses, the largest area of intact savannah ecosystem left in East Africa. Antelope, elephant, buffalo and giraffe roam its vast forests. Ernest Hemingway even once wrote of it as a legendary land for big game. It was beautiful to fly over, but an epic trek to travel via land.
In short, I was stuck.
Muddy, hot and sick of the sugary tea at the tin-roof shack stall, I asked forlornly if anyone might have coffee. The small stash of coffee grounds with which I travelled had long run out.
Initial requests were dismissed. Yet as the passing trade at the tea shop came and went, one man said he could find some coffee.
An hour later he unwrapped a scrap of cloth. The handful of brown beans were shrivelled tight and dry, but rubbed together between my palms they gave off a heady scent. It was powerful, deep and earthy with the promise of caffeine.
We roasted the beans in a pan over a charcoal brazier, then ground them up. In a second round, an elderly lady added spices, including a dash of ginger. Both cups tasted delicious.
“From Ethiopia?” I asked, pointing to the beans, and waving to the east. “No,” said the coffee-man, pointing in the other direction, west towards the great lands of Boma. “From here.”
Ethiopia speaks proudly of its history as the birthplace of coffee, saying its region of Kaffa gave its name to the beans. Coffea arabica, the first of many coffee species to be domesticated, grows wild in Ethiopia’s southwestern highlands.
They tell of the legend of Kaldi, a shepherd who tried the beans after noticing how frisky his goats became after they munched the berries.
Coffee certainly spread from Ethiopia. Travellers, who found the beans useful to chew to keep them going on the road, took them to Yemen, where the seeds flourished in the terraced hillsides.
In time, Yemenis exported the beans from the ancient port of Mokha – that has given its name to the mocha coffee of today. From there, in the 17th century, smugglers sneaked live plants out to start their own farms, and coffee spread around the world.
The origin is always East Africa – but just not Ethiopia alone. For coffee grows wild too across the border in South Sudan, as the Boma plateau is effectively an extension of the same highlands of Ethiopia. The wild genetic variations there are irreplaceable treasures critical for the future of coffee worldwide.
Leafing through old British records of colonial-era exploration, I read of coffee found in the wilds of South Sudan.
“Standing out dark among the ripening maize were scattered bushes of Coffea arabica, either singly or in groups,” botanist A.S. Thomas wrote in 1941, when he pushed through the thick forests of Boma. “We were told that none of these bushes had been planted and that they were all relics of the original undergrowth of the forest.”
He described the plants he found as “locally frequent, growing as a small tree with the crown above the shrubby undergrowth; most specimens had a single upright stem crowned with a mass of primary branches.”
Coffee experts I spoke to say that at the very least, South Sudan should share that honour as the origin of the beautiful brew. Some botanists go further to say it could be the birthplace of coffee entirely.
“The proximity of Boma to the parental species – arabica coffee is a natural hybrid – namely Coffea canephora and Coffea eugenioides, perhaps makes this area a better candidate for the origin of arabica, compared to Ethiopia,” said coffee specialist Dr. Aaron Davis, from Britain’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London, who has travelled across both countries searching for plants. “But no one knows for sure.”
Eventually, when the airplane came and we headed west towards Juba, I stared down wondering if coffee plants were growing in the wilderness below.
That trip was a decade ago, when South Sudan was still part of a united Sudan, Africa’s biggest country. In July 2011, the South split from the North. After decades of war, it was a time of celebration.
There was talk of farming coffee, to offer South Sudan a chance of a different future, a means of living away from war. Hollywood actor George Clooney pushed the company Nespresso to restore old coffee plantations and produce crops of beans to help support the people.
“South Sudan is the cradle of coffee,” the promotional leaflet boasted. “It is now one of the only places in the world where coffee still grows in the wild, thriving in a distinct, dry climate.”
A few months ago, I tasted coffee from one of those special Nespresso pods. Without a proper machine, I squeezed the metal pod direct into a pan to heat. Purists will shudder at the process, but the taste was as strong and rich as I had remembered.
I sipped it more slowly this time. I’m not sure I could denote the “bold silky texture and intense aromas of dried cereals and subtle woody notes” that Nespresso boasted of.
I could taste something else, though, for it took my memory back to that cup of coffee I had while waiting for a flight from Pochalla many years before, beans from the land where the plant perhaps grew for the first ever time.
Today, South Sudan is gripped by brutal conflict; a five-year war against itself. The still raging civil war has resulted in tens – potentially hundreds – of thousands of deaths, and forced over two million to flee as refugees.
Two-thirds of the people need aid. Despite condemnation at the outbreak of a man-made famine in 2017, things have got worse. Many expect famine again this year. The world’s youngest nation is now ranked lowest in the list of failed states.
Production has now stopped on the Nespresso-backed farms, with the land now fought over by some of the now more than 40 rebel factions.
Still, sipping that coffee, it reminded me, for the briefest of moments, of a time of hope in South Sudan.
Peter Martell’s book, First Raise a Flag: How South Sudan won the longest war but lost the peace, described as “a beautifully written first-hand account of how bitter and deadly rivalries dashed the hopes of the world’s newest nation”, will be published by Hurst in London on June 28.