an ethiopian coffee house in the heart of brussels and an african history lesson


As my friends and I made our way from their apartment in Porte de Hal [Hallepoort], a section of Brussels not far from the south train station overlooking a surviving fourteenth century city gate from the second set of defensive walls that enclosed Brussels in the late middle ages, I couldn’t help the fact that I was longing for a good latte, or, depending on the proprietors of the coffee shop we ended up at, a cafe au lait or a koffie met melk.

We walked along Rue Haute, a street full of antique shops selling various and sundry items such as ceramic dogs standing on their hind legs carrying a serving tray wearing a hat. If I didn’t have two of these already, I would have been tempted to buy one.

Knowing that I was going to visit Brussels, by means of a Facebook survey one of my friends thoughtfully surveyed their friends in the city to ask what the best coffee shop in the area was, and the result was Aksum, and Ethiopian coffee house. With one brick wall, various well-placed works of art by celebrated Ethiopian painters Zerihun Seyoum, and a ceiling that was printed with a repeat of what looked to be an early image of jesus from the first century Coptic Church [although it could also have been a depiction of the Queen of Sheba].

The name of the coffee shop, Aksum, is a town in Northern Ethiopia, where the Queen of Sheba lived and ruled over a vast empire which was later to become what is now known as Ethiopia. The imperial family of Ethiopia claims its origin directly from the Queen of Sheba, who was born in the tenth century B.C.E.

It is said that coffee was first discovered and grown in Ethiopia, in a region called Kaffa, which has given its name to the beverage. There the Kingdom of Kaffa [c.1390–1897] flourished within the borders of modern-day Ethiopia.

At Aksum they, obviously, serve Ethiopian coffee, which I had in the form of a latte that did not disappoint, but they also serve Senegalese herbal teas, Malawian Ubuntu Cola and baobab drinks, and Ethiopian beer. Boabab is an African tree that bears fruit that is said to have more vitamin C than oranges and natural calcium as well.

While sipping our coffee, as we usually do, we were comparing travel notes and geography notes having been motivated by the antique globes we could see in the antique shop across the street. The subject of Africa was on our minds given the coffee shop, and for some reason, I brought up Tanganyika. As I looked to my friend and mentioned the name, he quickly grabbed for his iPhone to Google the name, as he had never heard of such a place.

Tanganyika was an independent state for three years in the 1960’s after its independence from Great Britain [and formerly part of German East Africa]. Tanganyika joined with the islands of Zanzibar to form the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, a new state that soon became known as the United Republic of Tanzania. Surely everyone knew this, right?

As we left the coffee shop, on the other side of the street a few doors down, we looked up and laughed as we saw the marquis to a store called “Tanganika Afrika,” an African art shop.