Nah, so, everyone following so far? this little story, where we met our four friends,…
Gayo adalah Putri
Years before the Dutch came to the archipelago, it is assumed that Gayo, the idyllic village surrounded by a mountain range, was dense with coffee trees. Maybe the Arabs brought coffee seeds with them when they migrated to Aceh to compensate their needs for caffeine. Or the Indians, who had already been growing coffee in their own country, created small patches of coffee farms. Trading cities were the site for exchanging cultures, commodities, and information, and North Sumatra was the Mecca that connected the East and West since the 2nd BC.
There is yet to be acceptable evidence for this origin of coffee in Aceh, but to Gayonese, they have long known to treat their coffee beans like a Putri (Princess).
Gayonese have grown coffee beans for nearly 400 years and coffee remains to be the treasured commodity that sustains their life. Unlike many farmers that have multiple commodities to sell throughout the year, Gayo only has coffee. A big majority of Gayonese are coffee farmers, processors, and sellers. A drop in coffee sales means their domestic lives are greatly impacted. Coffee beans are such a stronghold that they give it an endearing nickname, Siti Kewe (Siti is a popular name for females and Kewe is taken from kahwa, which means coffee). To them, coffee is Putri, a precious child that gives them future, prosperity and longevity.
Win Hasnawi, a local Gayo farmer, roaster, and brewer who has been actively promoting Gayo beans in Jakarta since 2006, elaborated,
“Mothers are the ones who create children. Mothers who bear a lot of children means there is a lot of hopes for the future. And our hope for the coffee tree is to bear a lot of fruits, which will support Gayo’s economy and eventually, the livelihood of the farmers. So when we plant the seeds, we think Putri, a child we give lots of care to. That is our philosophy.”
In this small village that is the heart of Aceh, coffee plants line up so tightly and as a thank you, every step of their farming process is imbued with ceremonial feelings. Gayonese will carefully pick the coffee cherries, “uniformly from left to right,” according to Win, as if it’s a living entity.
Coffee is a fruit. But its small size means we don’t always see it when it’s turning rotten. So mothers always pick them carefully not to damage the fruit. In fact, my grandparents said they would ask permission when picking a coffee cherry, as if it’s a virgin. And when you turn it to pick it – you turn it in one direction—to the right. They do it so carefully.
Coffee, especially Arabica, does demand a great deal of care. So thinking of coffee as a delicate Putri, in a way, does make sense. Ipak Mahaga, another Gayonese farmer who now opens a small boutique coffee shop in Pasar Santa, Jakarta, reminisces how her parents won’t let a single bean drop in vain because it is their “source of life.” Asked where the notion that coffee is a Putri originates from, Win replied, “That’s the same question my grandfather asked his grandfather. We’ve been growing coffee since 1623 and we can live to this date because of coffee.”
Coffee planting is so intricately wrapped with rituals and mantras that it is their spiritual act. From planting to harvesting, a series of mantra is sung to accompany their work. What others consider manual labor, to Gayonese, is a prayer. Here is a mantra when
they plant the seed on the ground:
Siti Kewe kunikahen ko orom kuyu
Wih kin walimu
Tanoh kin saksimu
Lo ken saksi kalammu
I marry you with the wind
Water is your parents
Soil is your witness
Sun is your God’s witness
Ipak Mahaga explains what this poetry means:
“Coffee fruit is the result of pollination, and the main factor that triggers pollination is the wind. That is why, in the mantras or prayers, it is said to ‘marry the wind,’ with coffee as the female.”
Any scientists can argue these practices are true even without being adorned with poetries and mantras. But to Gayonese, these rituals are like songs that latch to the memories so vividly – they are easy to remember, and thus, easy to do and replicate.
Rituals become an everyday language that is transformative to the entire process and make their tireless effort fruitful in the long term.
The fact that Gayo is overflowing with coffee, Win assumes, is likely due to this motherly patience and attention over the years. “It takes 7 years until the first fruits bloom. It’s not exactly a good business plan to wait for 7 years.” Not to mention is the daily work which includes weeding out and maintaining the garden—the kind of works that, when taken incorrectly, coffee fruits will refuse to grow.
It’s not surprising that mothers, then, hold a central role from planting to harvesting. 70% of the people who work there are women, while men do the selling and heavy lifting.
Almost the entire step is done by women. My mother used to help my dad cutting down trees, clearing up the land for a coffee farm. Then she’d help with seeding. Even washing and pulping, they are done by mothers. That’s why nearly 70% of coffee is touched by the gentle hands of mothers. Men do the labor work of carrying the beans from garden to their home, from their home to the shops.”
Growing and caring for coffee plants, especially Arabica, is a meticulous work. And the ceremonies is the language that gives scientific practice a poetic spirit that Gayonese can understand. This has become a long-standing tradition for centuries, and without stories that are passed down from one generation to the next, we might not find Gayo as it is today.
Photos from Win Hasnawi
MICHELLE ANINDYA finds way more time daydreaming, than writing. She loves thinking about anything from astronomy to coffee – yes quite a distance!