Tebabu Assefa

Coffee ceremony convener, storyteller, and entrepreneur, owner of Blessed Coffee

Tebabu Assefa is an Ethiopian-born coffee ceremony convener, storyteller, and entrepreneur living in Takoma Park, Maryland. With his wife, Sara Mussie, Assefa organizes and leads Ethiopian coffee ceremonies for social engagement and community-building throughout Maryland and Washington, DC.

Growing up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in the 1960s, Assefa participated in coffee ceremonies as a child. He recalls being asked by his mother to visit their neighbors and let them know that coffee would soon be ready at Assefa’s house. Later in life, Assefa learned more about the coffee ceremony from participating in the ceremony throughout Ethiopia. Coffee would take on new meanings for Assefa when he left Ethiopia and eventually settled in the United States in the 1990s.

Deciding that he wanted to be a storyteller and filmmaker, Assefa enrolled at the University of Minnesota for a degree in communications. His goal was to portray the cultural vitality of the Ethiopian community of greater Washington, DC. But, living in the United States was not an easy transition for Assefa. He struggled with the individualism of North American society, particularly because of his upbringing in Africa. He explains:

By nature [individuals] have social elements. In African contexts, it’s a very profound notion. From South Africa to Ethiopians in South Africa, they call it mbutu. In Ethiopia it’s like who I am is directly related to who we are. I am because we are; because we are, therefore I am. And if that relationship is disrupted, psychologically, spiritually, financially, in any way you think of, there’s no help, because you cannot live by yourself. It’s impossible.

For Assefa, the solution to sharing the story of Ethiopian communities and addressing a lack of mbutu in the United States was coffee. First, coffee is loved by both Americans and Ethiopians. Second, coffee is central to telling the story of Ethiopia’s history, economy, and social life. Third, Assefa understands the coffee ceremony as a chance to slow down and to socialize with others. He says:

In [Ethiopia], people on a daily basis, take time . . . villages, families, friends, will take time out of a day, and sit in a ritual of coffee, traditional coffee culture, where they sit in a circle, they roast, smell, brew, drink, enjoy the coffee . . . they talk about everything about themselves. Dreams are translated, businesses are discussed, social news is [shared] . . . so the relationship between the individual to the family is cultivated or incubated in that same space. So the sense of  I and we are very profound for the community. It’s not an intellectual concept. It’s a dance, it’s a ritual. And people have to do that collective ritual, collective dancing, to really value who they are to one another.

In bringing the coffee ceremony to the United States, Assefa meets his goal of telling the story of Ethiopia and giving those in America an opportunity to experience the benefits of socializing together.

During coffee ceremonies, Assefa narrates the ritual and discusses its significance, while his wife, Sara Mussie, is busy roasting, brewing, and pouring the coffee into small cups for drinkers. The husband and wife also work together through their social enterprise called Blessed Coffee—a “Benefit Corporation” which uses for-profit and non-profit business models to offer quality coffee to American drinkers while providing the maximum economic benefit to Ethiopian coffee cooperatives and farmers. Mussie’s official title is Co-Founder and Chief of Mission, while Assefa works as Co-Founder and Chief Storyteller at Blessed Coffee.

Since he began working with coffee ceremonies, Assefa has led the gathering at several important events. Notably, Assefa hosts a coffee ceremony at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington, DC each year on Passport Day. An estimated 10,000 people take part in the event. (Editor’s note: The photo used in this profile depicts Tebabu Assefa, Sara Mussie, and the Ethiopian Ambassador to the United States, Fitsum Arega, taken on Passport Day at the Ethiopian Embassy). Assefa has also seen strong connections made among participants in the coffee ceremony. Once, two individuals who did not know each other prior to the ceremony, realized they lived in the same apartment building during their conversation. Other times, Assefa sees people from various countries find common experiences, even though they have grown up on different continents. For Assefa, the coffee ceremony is an opportunity to move beyond national identities and toward shared humanity. He says, “Though we have different flags of cultures and religions, at the end of the road, in essence, we’re all one and the same. The flag, or the culture, that we carry of the village . . . shouldn’t really define our essence because, at the end of the day, we’re just celebrating humanity or trying to figure out the meaning of life. We’re just human beings.”

Mr. Assefa’s first name, Tebabu, was given to him by his mother because it means “wisdom.” Yet, as a young man, Assefa was not happy about his name. He says, “I went to my mum and I said, ‘From all the names you could give me, why Wisdom? What happened, what did you think of?’ She looked at me, cracked a smile, and softly said, ‘It’s my hope and prayer, someday you’ll bump into it.’ I thought that was remarkable because all my life has been set in motion in search of wisdom.” Now, as an artist, storyteller, and community builder in Maryland, Mr. Assefa is using coffee and its accompanying ceremony to offer tebabu through caffeinated conversation.