Jennifer Brinkerhoff Platt is currently an assistant visiting faculty member in Brigham Young University’s Department of Ancient Scripture. A former seminary and institute instructor, she earned a PhD from Arizona State University in lifespan developmental psychology, focusing on women and social issues.
In the past week I attended a stake activity days event, young women’s new beginnings and a relief society birthday celebration. While each was carefully planned, well attended and inspiring I couldn’t help but wonder how effective it might have been had the three events been combined to celebrate a female trajectory of discipleship. A clearly celebrated sisterhood across the lifespan is something I feel is lacking in the Church. LDS females lack delineated rites of passage. Activity days for 8-12 year old girl and young women programs such as personal progress are posed to set females on a path of goal setting but lack rich ritual behavior and frequent association with women of varying ages over a span of years. Further, it seems the three female auxiliaries often function territorially rather than as homogenous, unified sisters. Having said that, I’m intrigued by the possibilities of next week’s intergenerational gathering in the historic General Women’s Meeting of the Church. I’m hopeful that this initiates a pathway for female socialization including increased frequency of gatherings of this type in localized communities.
This leads me to a discussion of my ethnographic research and passion for ritual. One appealing aspect of studying cultural ritual is the implication for applications to social challenges within ones own community. My hope is that this brief description presses possibilities for more intentional interaction of Latter-day Saint females of all ages. Without enacting other’s rituals, what can we learn from their cultural practices?
In my study of buna, the Ethiopian coffee ritual, I’ve observed female solidarity, socialization and empowerment intergenerationaly all within a liminal space. Buna is a coffee ceremony in which women gather sometimes several times a day to prepare and drink three rounds of coffee. The ritual is defined by its stages from preparation to reminiscing; all of which are specifically enacted. Deviation from the prescribed order, tools, and ingredients negates the ritual.
As important as the details of the physical rite are, the power of the ritual lies in the experience. Some Ethiopian women say that this is their time to be free. While I’ll be the first to admit that I believe my participants romanticized their experience in buna circles, their thick descriptions add merit to the appeal of the gathering and its impact on the next generation. Their experiences, whether real or imagined, provide a beautiful framework for female development and socialization throughout the lifespan. My research is extensive. Therefore, for the purpose of this discussion I will focus on one benefit of participation in the ritual: females of all ages frequently and consistently socializing together in valued ritual practice.
The essence of the rite is that females regardless of age have a place in the coffee circle. While drinking coffee depends upon age and experience, being present is always acceptable and often expected. Young girls or teenagers are not invited occasionally but attend regularly. Young girls find their place in the circle from the time they can speak; calling other women to come join the circle. As they mature, they perform various aspects of preparation until they are qualified to host their own circle. The beauty is that regardless of their age, they are always included rather than being sent to an individualized, “age appropriate” group.
Participation in her mother’s circle teaches the girl the proper way to perform the ritual of buna. It is also one of the more significant ways in which the young girls demonstrate their love and respect for their mothers. By performing the more menial tasks of buna preparation, they allow their mothers to participate more in the social elements—conversing and sharing time with her buna sisters. Yet this taking over of preparation has an additional purpose: it fosters a space for the young woman to demonstrate the respect she has for her mother while allowing the young woman to be around the conversing space, hearing what the women talk about.
This exposure to adult female conversations becomes informative to the developing female. One of the primary elements of buna is the open and frank conversations engendered by the ritual time and space, and for many of the participants, it is this element that is the most instructive. Participants in my study often described the conversations they heard between the older women as “fun talking” and expressed that listening to the conversations not only introduced them to the concerns of the community, but it was also a time to learn about the lives of the older women. Specific topics discussed within the context of buna include family relationships and marriage, particularly the importance of marrying a man who shares cultural practices and country heritage; thus “fun talking” indirectly teaches the young woman the proper perspective of her community. This type of storytelling also establishes age-specific, hierarchical roles as the young women learn it is culturally inappropriate for them to speak openly to an adult woman (including her mother) about her personal life, feelings, and experiences such as her relationships. Though she may play a fundamental role in the ritual experience by being the preparer, she is not viewed as an equal in the group, until she has reached the age of marriage. Not surprisingly, it may not be until the young girl gets older that she recognizes the value of buna because she has to do the work of the buna without participating in the social interaction. As one participant in my study put it:
“I didn’t like making (buna) as a child. I like it more now. Before I don’t understand the meaning and the way I was being raised. But when I leave my country. You know. I knew now, I have a good culture and tradition . . . At that time I didn’t realize it is a very good thing. But I miss it a lot when I came here. Now I come here [to the United States] and I want to do it. A lot of memories come. Now I want to do it. It is part of who I am. It is an important part of who I am.”
Perhaps one of the most important events for an Ethiopian woman is when she is able to host her own buna, which means that she not only prepares the coffee, but also participates directly in the “fun talking” and in so doing legitimizes her adult status. Thus, buna can be understood as a type of rite of passage.
My intent has been to illustrate some of the aspects of gathering that contribute to who an Ethiopian woman becomes and how this particular ritual contributes to her development and belonging in the community. My hope is that we see implications for our own social circles; both personally and in our worship communities. Certainly I am not suggesting that we begin coffee circles but I do believe it would be beneficial for women to evaluate ritual practices they value and find ways to include females of all ages. I imagine “buna circles” of Latter-day Saint females gathering on a regular basis with the intent of rearing the next generation. While the learning may be latent, the possibilities for instilling values, fostering confidence and providing a context for demonstrating respect is powerful.
 This descriptive term is fascinating in illustrating children’s interest in adult conversation and the important influence these conversations can have in the informal and intent learning and developmental process of children. See Barbara Rogoff, The Cultural Nature of Human Development (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 300, and Barbara Rogoff, Developing Destinies: A Mayan Midwife and Town (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 107, 252. Elinor Ochs, “Socialization through Language and Interaction: A Theoretical Introduction,” Issues in Applied Linguistics 2 (1991): 143, and other developmental psychologists for further examination of the developmental implications of such conversations.
 This quote is from conversations gathered in the author’s dissertation, Jennifer A. Brinkerhoff, “To Be a Good Ethiopian Woman: Participation in the ‘Buna’ (Coffee) Ceremony and Identity” (PhD diss., Arizona State University, 2011), which was concerned with the daily routines of Ethiopian women living in both a countryside village in Ethiopia and the capital city of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Further data was gathered in the United States among first generation Ethiopian immigrants and refugees. The women were asked to respond to the typicality of the daily routine findings from Ethiopia. Results of the study indicated that the ritual context acts as an important space for women to develop their identity as a “good Ethiopian woman.” Therefore, references made to participants or specific women are pertaining to women who participated in this study.
 A woman’s first experience hosting her own ceremony is typically done when she has a place of her own or married, the latter being the predominant situation. Moving out or living on one’s own is not a typical practice of Ethiopians (male or female) primarily because of economic reasons; there simply are not enough resources to allow for individual movement. Rather, they live together as families and support one another until they marry. This is complicated further when one recognizes that some married women continue to live in the home of their family or husband’s family after they have married. As a result, the newly married woman may either submit to her family’s pattern for participating in the buna ritual or have the opportunity to host her own buna, separate from other female family members living in the home.