What do cervical cancer and a coffee ceremony have in common?

For our technical support to the Ethiopian Female Cancer Initiative* I am visiting Ethiopia for a month. Feriha, one of the project coordinators, accompanies me along the five health centers in Addis Ababa where the nurses who we have trained in August are currently providing cervical cancer screening to the women from their Woreda (= district). One afternoon Feriha suggests me to visit one of the coffee ceremony groups they have been collaborating with to educate and mobilize the women for cervical cancer screening.

Mary Joy 3

Since eight years a group of around thirty women come together monthly in the houses of the members of this women’s group. They share a coffee ceremony, drink coffee and eat popcorn, bread or barley to go with the coffee. Every month each member contributes 2,50 Ethiopian Birr (= 0,11 Euro): 0,50 Birr for the coffee and 2,00 Birr for the communal savings of the women’s group.

To prepare the coffee takes around one hour and during this time, plus the additional time to enjoy the coffee, the members discuss any issue that is taking place in their Woreda. In case necessary, they use their common saved money to solve these issues. For example, by paying for the school uniforms for the children of a poor family or for the health care if someone is sick. Feriha and her organization (Mary Joy Development Association) have supported this women’s group and many groups similar to it for a long time.

And today they talk about cervical cancer. The discussion starts with a lot of giggling when I notice that half of the group had come for screening at one of the health centers that morning, while the other half of the group hadn’t. They tell me that they were planning to come for screening altogether, but that some of the women had rather waited until the women that did go for screening could tell them what it was like: Was it scary? Was it painful? Was it uncomfortable? Fortunately the women that I met at the health center in the morning are able to comfort them about the procedure, that there are no injections involved and that they will be treated respectfully.

I asked Feriha, who is translating for me, what the women already knew about cervical cancer and how they call cervical cancer in their mother tongue. In Amharic, the mother tongue of these women, there is no word for cancer, let alone cervical cancer in specific. They would describe cancer as nekersa (“disease” translated to English) and explain what the cervix is by saying it’s the opening to the shilbet (“room for fetus”). And so they had never heard about cervical cancer. But discussing it today, the women say they think that they have known women with cervical cancer. They tell stories about neighbors or family members who went for treatment at the Black Lion hospital or died of an unknown disease.

What seems to be “just a cup of coffee” to me, is apparently a very solid and very important structure in the Ethiopian communities to come together, share knowledge and face problems. And the place to start in the fight against cervical cancer in Ethiopia.

Dr. Margit Vegter

*A project coordinated by Cordaid Ethiopia and supported by the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation and Cordaid’s Global Leaders Council