When JJ and I first met three years ago, we spoke of the future of this project, and of our hopes. It was then that JJ shared with me his dream of spreading peace around the world, through this project. JJ asked me, and Thanksgiving, to join him in sowing the seeds of peace.
Truly, it has been an honor to join JJ in this work for peace, in the work of making dreams come true. But how would we do it? I thought long and hard about this challenge, and about how to integrate the goals of a fair trade coffee company with the realities of doing business in a competitive market with the work of building peace in the world. I realized that the strategy was simple: create a network of faith communities in the US who buy the coffee, thereby echoing JJ’s work to bring together the diverse farmers of Peace Kawomera. We would find common ground, affirm our shared values, begin to work together, and from there, begin to learn more about each other, what binds us, and also how we are different, and can respect, even celebrate our difference. And we, this collective, would connect through Thanksgiving Coffee to the farmers of Peace Kawomera, buy their coffee, sustain their families, and support their building of peace.
I first called Rita Semel, Executive Vice Chair of the San Francisco Interfaith Council in late April, 2006. I had to talk fast, because I know how people get skeptical when a businessman calls out of the blue. Somehow, in twenty seconds, I’d got the story I across: a cooperative of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim farmers produces a beautiful coffee. My company is a fair trade company. We’ve supported the co-op from the very beginning. We need to build a market for the coffee so we can go back next year to buy more. We want to spread the story of peace. Will you work with us?
“Let me think about it, this sounds interesting,” said Rita. Little did I know I was speaking with one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. Rita is well into her 80s, and is brimming with enthusiasm and energy. She works tirelessly to bring the various religious communities of San Francisco together. She is a peacemaker. She is an inspiration.
Seven months later Rita introduced the project to the membership of the San Francisco Interfaith Council at their annual prayer breakfast Thanksgiving week. The moment is captured in the documentary (see On the Silver Screen below). Then yesterday, the leadership of over a dozen of San Francisco’s most prominent churches, mosques, and synagogues gathered at a luncheon at the SFIC’s interfaith chapel. Together, they welcomed JJ, and affirmed their support for his work. In the coming weeks they will each launch their own buying clubs, and through that, enlist the support of their membership. Together, thousands of Christians, Muslims, and Jews in San Francisco will work together to support thousands of Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Uganda. We thank Rita, the San Francisco Interfaith Council, and United Religions Initiative for joinining us in this work to make the world more just, more peaceful, and more beautiful place.
JJ shares his story with our friends at United Religions Initiative.
Just a quick note to let you all know that 1) Ben went surfing for the first time since the trip began two weeks ago, and scored some sweet waves. For those of you who dont know, Ben (me) is a serious surf addict; you can expect musings on surfing and the world sometime in the near future on this very blog. 2) JJ didn’t go surfing, though he agrees that it looks like a lot of fun. My 5 mm wetsuit, boots, and gloves still couldn’t convince my dear friend from Uganda to brave the unseasonally warm waters of the north Pacific (47 degrees, plus or minus a few when you’re at the rivermouth). We’ve got two days off before hitting the road again for our west coast stint. More soon…
We’re stuck in Midway, waiting for our flight back to Oakland, land (hopefully) of sunshine, warmth, and NO MORE SNOW! But, before we get to that, what a wonderful day JJ and I just spent with the Jewish Reconstructionist Community of Evanston…
Our dear friend Elaine Waxman met JJ and I at the airport Saturday night, amidst snow flurries and freezing wind. Snuggled into the back of Elaine’s van were two of our favorite supporters; her daughters Kelsey and Katia, already wearing their PJs, and greeting us happily. The Jewish Reconstructionist Community of Evanston is one of our strongest supporters, and have made their participation in the Mirembe Kawomera coffee project an integral part of their community life. It was a joy to spend a short day with our old friends, and to share the news of how the last year has changed life in Uganda, and supported the families of the Peace Kawomera Cooperative. Special thanks to Elaine, Brant, Terry, and everyone who made our visit so wonderful…we look forward to seeing you again next year!
(The intrepid Kelsey talks the talk and walks the walk as part of her Bat Mitzvah project)
(Watch the trailer on YouTube!)
We were both amazed the first time we saw the documentary trailer. There is something about seeing your work captured on film that is surprising; somehow the story seems real in a new way, the complex threads weave together, the dialogue overlaps with the visuals, and condenses a whole world into a powerful distillation.
Itâ€™s thanks to Ellen Friedland and Curt Fissel, a dynamic husband-and-wife production team, that we have the opportunity to experience our story on film. Curt and Ellen, through their non-profit Jem/Glo, have worked on this film for the past year. Still in mi-production, the films should be complete sometime next year and there is hope for national distribution. Stay tuned for updates.
We arrived on Thursday, after a three hour drive from Ithaca, a few hours before the premiere screening at Temple Bâ€™nai Keshet. In addition to being home for Curt and Ellen, Bâ€™nai Keshet has for a long time been a supporter of Peace Kawomera, even passing a resolution to only buy this coffee for all synagogue events and functions. That evening, surrounded by the Bâ€™nai Keshet community and other supporters, we watched the trailer, and then listened as JJ, joined by his friends Noam Katz and Laura Wetzler, and others from the audience, played an impromptu concert of traditional music from Uganda.
Many thanks to Curt and Ellen for their wonderful hospitality, and for their incredible work. We know that the story of Peace Kawomera is a story of peace, a story that our world needs to know. Their film is helping to share this beautiful story, and through that, we hope, peace.
(Above, Noam, JJ, and Laura make beautiful music)
That’s what JJ said as we sat around our room in the Carl L. Becker residence hall here at Cornell University. Country music, again. And I’m wondering how it can be that we fall in love with each other’s musicâ€”me and others with JJ’s, he with oursâ€”and country music no less! We’ve decided that when we return to California, we’ll make some tapes from the country stations in Mendocino (they’re plentiful!).
We’ve just finished up with our last event here at Cornell, a wonderful lecture, followed by a delicious dinner in JJ’s honor. As JJ chats with his family, thanks to his recently purchased long-distance phone card, I sit reflecting back on the past three days…
Arriving to the warm reception of Dean Cindy Hazan…
Graciously ferried from place to place by our friend Marielle Macher, who organized our schedule perfectly…
Curt Bayer and the kind folks at Ten Thousand Villages…
Rabbi Glass, Phyliss and our other new friends at Temple Beth El…
The students who met with us, and especially Jeff, who shadowed us with a bag of instruments that inevitably turned a meeting into a jam session…
The wonderful interfaith reception last night…
Eileen, head chef downstairs, who fed us the most delicious and wholesome food…
JJ and I will leave tomorrow morning to continue our outreach, to continue spreading the word of delicious peace. We will leave knowing that we’ve made new friends, and that the circle of support continues to grow in wonderful ways. Check out the pictures below: JJ outside of Collegtown Bagels before his performance; the Carl L. Becker House crew; and JJ playing fair trade pan pipes from Ecuadar at Ten Thousand Villages.
Thank you to everyone who made these last three days possible!
JJ and I have our first free time in a few days. Kind of a relief. JJ’s discovered Democracy Now, and is commending Amy Goodman for her courageous reporting. Indeed. And though I’m from the country, I greatly prefer her show to the country station that he decided we should fall asleep to last night!
We’re in Ithaca, hosted very graciously by Cornell University, and a coalition of campus-based student groups.The funny thing here is that the posters, which we see everywhere, and which give both JJ and I a huge laugh every time, introduce “Grammy nominee JJ Keki and Ben Corey-Moran”, as if I had anything to do with JJ’s incredible music, or can even hold a melody! Still, JJ has told me that I’m now required to sing with him at all of our performances, because the people will expect it, so we’ll see what we can do.
Big ups to our friends at Ithaca College for a wonderful gathering last night. Julie, Jeff, Dara, Rabbi Glass, and everyone else who came out to meet JJ and share their support with us. Here are a couple of pictures…
Itâ€™s 11:30 on Sunday night, just a little over two days after the convergence began.. Just like that, itâ€™s over. Just over three hundred students from every corner of the US, farmers and cooperative leaders from Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay, Guatemala, El Salvador, Tanzania, Ghana, and of course, Uganda. Joining JJ at this incredible gathering was Willington Wamayeye, the leader of Peace Kawomeraâ€™s export cooperative Gumutindo. All together, the convergence represented a gathering of some of the fair trade movements most inspired leaders, supporters, and dreamers.
I canâ€™t even begin to describe the feeling of coming together at this kind of conference, and of furthering our understandings of fair trade as a model, and as a broader movement. Itâ€™s incredibly energizing to be surrounded by so many people committed to working together to strengthen this movement to transform the economic links connecting our world, and building justice.
Then of course, there are the simple, and funny and beautiful moments of human interaction. Watching JJ walk down the icy sidewalks of Boston (check the picture, yes thatâ€™s Fenway Park in the background), cold and happy, translating from spanish to English as JJ and Willington spoke with fair trade banana farmers from Ecuador, and joining in fascinating conversations with students hungry for a better understanding of fair trade, its strengths and weaknesses, and its future direction.
Tomorrow we leave for Ithaca, for Cornell University, and beyond. JJ will leave behind many new friends, all inspired by his story, and the work of Peace Kawomera for peace and justice. I can only marvel, and reflect with gratitude, at the blossoming that continues to expand the community of support for this incredible project. Iâ€™d be sad to take JJ away from this weekend, except that I know heâ€™s not really leaving. During his keynote speech on Friday night he began with his signature introduction: my name is JJ Keki. JJ Keki, at Yahoo-dot-com.
Thanks to Rabbi Jeff Summit and Richard Sobol for lunch! JJ and I are in Boston for United Students for Fair Trade’s annual convergence. But before it all began, we were lucky enough to sneak away for a quick lunch with two of JJ’s oldest American friends.
Over lunch of pastrami sandwiches (Kosher, yes JJ) we heard the exciting news from Jeff and Richards work: the recordings they made during their visit to the cooperative in August have been well recieved, and it is likely that Smithsonian Folkways will release the album in the coming year. The album features music from the farmers of Peace Kawomera; the songs they sing while they pick coffee, the songs the cooperative has composed to teach its members about fair trade, about quality production, and about the virtues of cooperation and peace. To go along with the music will be Richard’s beautiful photographs of life in the cooperative. We thank Jeff and Richard for the delicious lunch, but more importantly, for their beautiful contribution to this project.
The office is small, set on the left side of a building that houses four small store fronts. It’s Namonyoni town’s mini mall. Inside the office is a large wooden desk which serves as a work space, and then as a table when it’s pulled to the center of the room. Inside the office chalk figures on stucco walls advertise last year’s coffee prices, and politely request: No Smoking Please.
The Cooperative gathers slowly. A meeting begins not at a set time, but when everyone has arrived. At first the board of directors mill about in front, greeting each other, talking and joking. The meeting begins inside, with a formality that articulates a break from the everyday. This is business, and it’s serious: the assembled members have been placed with the responsibility of managing a cooperative of 570 farmers â€” friends, neighbors, children, and family.
They discuss the two-year old cooperative and recent requests from members in the community. Many people want to join, and the cooperative wants to include everyone. But will they be able to manage the growth in business?
Farmers are anticipating a good harvest. Will the cooperative be ready to buy and store all the coffee? Some farmers are worried that they will spend the extra time and effort to produce high quality beans, and then the cooperative won’t be able to pay them.
Many members grow vanilla alongside their coffee. Can the cooperative look into finding a better market for the members’ vanilla beans? Many farmers are worried that they have all their hopes in coffee alone â€” what would happen if the harvest failed or the market collapsed?
Recently a delegation of students from US-based United Students for Fair Trade came to visit the cooperative. Many farmers were happy with this visit, and were honored that the students visited their churches, mosques, and synagogues. They want to encourage such visits; perhaps through these visits the world will learn of their work to unite for peace.
The meeting ends with a lunch of boiled plantains, beans, and greens. Plans are made for upcoming trainings on coffee picking and a workshop to remind farmers of processing standards in preparation for the coming harvest. As lunch ends everyone mills about, slowly dispersing to return to their homes: delegates, organizers, businessmen and women, building something together.
It goes a little something like this:
On the worn grass bordering the dusty dirt road, two friends walk towards each other. One, a man, slows his gait, and with a voice like a deep river extends his greeting: Mirembe Mai (Peace be with you, mother). His friend, older by ten years, bows gently and responds with ease: Mirembe Baba (Peace be with you, father). They shake hands, first palm on palm, then linking thumbs, then palm on palm. They stand and speak.
â€” How is it with you today?
â€” It is good.
â€” Hmmm. They both murmer deep in their throats.
â€” How is your family?
â€” They are well.
â€” Hmmm. Their resonant responses punctuates their conversation with acknowledgement of each word and thought.
They are still holding hands.
They wish each other well, then continue on in opposite directions, only to stop twenty feet later to greet a friend at work in a nearby field, a friend on a bike, or a family of women winnowing millet. They continue on, each giving form to what seems like an elaborate square dance, partners switching, rotating, turning on down the road.
When going somewhere together, they â€” men, women, children â€” hold hands.