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.
â€œToday I want to share a secret with youâ€ I announced to the farmers gathered. We were seated on wooden benches in the cooperativeâ€™s small office, around the desk which had been placed in the center of the room to serve as a table. â€œFor generations you have grown coffee, but have you ever tasted it? Do you know the quality of your own product?â€
As JJ Keki translated from English to Luganda, I thought of the farmers Iâ€™ve worked with in the Dominican Republic, in Mexico, in Nicaragua, and Rwanda. I thought of the pride they take in their beautiful farms, and the lessons that they continue to teach me.
â€œYou see, the market has always been controlled by buyers, who donâ€™t know anything about producing great coffee, but theyâ€™ve kept the secret of tasting it to themselves. Today I want to share that secret with you. Because I want you to know how good your coffee is, so that you know what itâ€™s worth, so that you never have to accept an unfair price from a buyer again.â€ When JJ finished translating, the room was filled with the energy only a teacher knowsâ€”the wonderful sense of closeness to learning and knowledge. A sense of discovering a piece of the future.
Mr. Sam, the Coopâ€™s Secretary brought in a half-dozen coffee mugs in different shapes and sizes, 20 soupspoons, and a teakettle of hot water. Out of my bag I pulled 6 sealed plastic bags that our Head Roaster, Steve Angley, had prepared for me three weeks earlier in California. Inside each bag were ground samples of some of the worldâ€™s best coffees: Nicaraguan, Sumatran, Ethiopian, Guatemalan, Rwandan, and yes, Ugandan. I labeled each mug with a slip of paper, leaving a blank slip of paper in front of the Ugandan mug.
It was a bit like calling a contra dance from then on: I measured coffee into each mug, and then choreographed group sniffing, sipping, and evaluation. After each of us had slurped at least 20 spoonfuls, I led our discussion of quality. I talked about acidity, and pointed out the sensation of acidity on the palette, especially with the lively Nicaraguan coffee. I talked about character, and origin-specific flavor, pointing out the uniqueness of the Ethiopian and Sumatran coffees. I talked about processing and the importance of careful picking, best exemplified by the roundness of the Rwandan coffeeâ€™s flavor. Then, overtaken by the drama of the moment, I declared that there was one coffee that had yet to be defined, â€œDid anyone know which it was?â€ Mr. Dan, dressed dapper as always in a grey suit jacket, answered my question with a wry smile â€œYes, of course, itâ€™s ours, and itâ€™s the best.â€
I smiled as I thought of the communion he was making in that moment with every coffee farmer Iâ€™ve ever worked with, people all over the world, who are connected by their strength and pride. â€œMr. Dan, I said, you are a coffeeman. Youâ€™ve just proven it: you know deep in your heart that your coffee carries the sweetness of the energy you put into it, the depth of its flavor reflecting your work and life. And you can taste it.â€ The others applauded Mr. Dan, and he took a small bow before returning to his seat.
â€œThe flavor of your coffee,â€ I continued on â€œis noticeably sweet. It stands out here on the table among the other coffees of the world. But why is this so? How do you feed your coffee trees, how do you pick their cherries? How do you deplulp and wash the beans, and how do you dry them? The way you do each of those will impact the flavor, and your goal must be to learn to taste this impact, to find the best way, the way that will produce even more sweetness, and even more character.â€
Tasting is the link that puts the tools of the specialty coffee trade in the farmerâ€™s hands. The ability to experiment and evaluate, and experiment again, while defining the process and improving quality, is what makes our coffee development methodology at Thanksgiving Coffee Company so powerful. It is a model thatâ€™s human-centered, and recognizes the universal human desire for excellence. It is farmers with the power in their own hands, and cooperatives building that power for their members.
Our meeting came to a close with a presentation by JJ on the co-ops plans for a cupping (tasting) laboratory to be built at their new headquarters. â€œThere, each of you will be able to come and taste your coffee with our technical staff, and they will help you evaluate the quality that you produce, identify any problems, and ensure that our consumers are getting the best delicious peace coffee in the world.â€
These are the moments when I see incredible potential in our work, where we take a few steps closer towards a world where coffee buyer, roaster, and grower relate to each other with deep respect, appreciation, and gratitude. May you savor the sweetness of each cup of Mirembe Kawomera â€œDelicious Peaceâ€ Coffee for many years to come!
This is where it all begins, this is the foundation that everything else is built upon. The light is bright as you gaze into the deep green of the forest. The farm begins where the home ends, usually the two are connected by a small strip of red earth so hard packed that it nearly shines with the intensity of the noonday sun. The first step into the farm is cushioned by the soft crunch of leaves mulching underfoot: the banana’s giant fan-shaped leaf, the mango’s thick, leathery leaf, and the acacias feathery needles. The sunlight is bright in spots, and dark with the shade of a forest canopy in others. This is the mottled light of a shade grown coffee farm. The air temperature drops 10 degrees immediately, and the smell is rich and full: I can’t help but think that it smells sweet and wholesome like chicken soup.
I visited so many farms in the two weeks that I spent with Peace Kawomera. Dozens of farms, each one proudly displayed by the man or woman who stewards these ecological gems, each one showed signs of hope and strength. What do hope and strength look like?
Hope looks like two year-old coffee trees just about to blossom for the first time, in preparation for their first fruiting in a year. Each of these little trees is carefully surrounded by a miniature moat to capture all of the occasional rainfall. Dug by hand, these little moats almost look like cradles. This is undoubtedly the work of farmers who have hope, and who see coffee as the source of that hope.
Strength looks like the pile of chicken manure that’s collected by the children from the front yard every morning, and carefully allowed to age so that it becomes the perfect organic nutrient for coffee trees. Strength is the deep green color of the coffee tree’s leaves, the heavy load of ripening cherries, and the thick layer of humus underfoot. This is the strength of nature, stewarded by organic agriculture, and protected by these amazing farmers.
Then of course there’s pride, which is the glue that holds it all together. Pride is the farmers smile, the way she holds her shoulders, and the way he walks through his trees. The view from of the farm is of a future of hope and strength, and that’s something to be proud of.
Winter 2006: Spiritual Uprising
by Dee Axelrod
Muslim, Jewish, and Christian coffee farmers make mirembe kawomeraâ€”delicious peace
photo by Paul Katzeff
Mirembe Kawomera coffee delivers a double jolt.
First, thereâ€™s the caffeine, but right behind that tang comes the jolt of learning that the arabica beans were sold by an alliance of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish UgandanÂ farmers.
This unique cooperative in the Mbale region of Uganda is Mirembe Kawomeraâ€”Delicious Peace. Their coffee comes to market fairly traded, distributed by Thanksgiving Coffee, a Fort Bragg, California, company specializing in organic and fair trade produce.
By banding together and by establishing a fair trade relationship, the farmers now realize enough profits from sales to meet their familiesâ€™ basic needÂsâ€”a sharp contrast to the hardship of trying to sell as individuals to large corporate buyers in a glutted world market. Better circumstances have, in turn, sweetened relations between the unique Mbale Jewish community and their more numerous Muslim and Christian neighbors.
The notion of forming a coffee cooperative was first conceived by Jewish community leader J.J. Keki as an economic survival tactic. In 1999, a worldwide coffee crisis developed as overproduction in new Brazilian and Vietnamese markets sent prices plummeting. The Mbale farmers were among the many growers who were hurt. Coffee farmers were forced to curtail childrenâ€™s education so that the youngsters could go to work, or to sell off land their families had cultivated for generations.
In 2004, Keki went door-to-door, encouraging farmers of all faiths to band together. The alliance would be a first; interfaith relations had been strained since the establishment of the Ugandan Jewish community in 1919, when charismatic general Semei Kakungulu and followers converted to Judaism, rather than embrace the Christianity proffered by the British.
â€œThe most serious problem for us is religious prejudice,â€ Keki said. â€œIn Uganda, a Jew is referred to as a â€˜Christ killer.â€™ Sometimes we have failed job interviews just because we are Jews.â€ And Muslim Ugandans, says Keki, believe that the Jews have been abandoned by God.
Keki can also recall how his father, during Idi Aminâ€™s rule in the 1970s, narrowly missed punishment when he was caught studying the forbidden Torah. Fortunately, Keki says, the authorities were willing to accept a bribe of five goats in exchange for his fatherâ€™s life.
But the history of prejudice would have to become less important than present concerns if the Mbale farmers were to survive in 2004. Keki, who had been supported by Muslims and Christians, as well as Jews, in a successful 2002 bid for a Namanyonyi Sub-County council seat, was widely considered a credible leader. Now, 400 farmers of all three faiths joined to form the coffee cooperative.
â€œWe brainstormed,â€ Keki said, â€œand through participatory discussions we came up with the Mirembe Kawomera Cooperative.â€
The diverse religious groups came together, Keki says, by focusing on what united them.
courtesy Mirembe Kawamera
We looked to common things that were reflected in the holy books,â€ Keki said. â€œFor example, we all acknowledge that we greet with the word of â€˜peaceâ€™: shalom, salaam, mirembe.â€
The next step was finding a market. Mirembe Kawomera got a break when American vocalist Laura Wetzler intervened. Wetzler learned about the Ugandan jews in the mid-1990s when she heard their Hebrew-African music on public radio.
Wetzler said. â€œI wrote away and got the tape. I learned all the songs, and I started telling the AbayuÂdayaâ€™s stories in my concert work.â€ As coordinator of Kulanu, a Jewish nonprofit organizing community-development projects, Wexler had a mandate to help Mirembe Kawomera find a coffee market. She made 40 phone calls before Thanksgiving Coffeeâ€™s CEO, Paul Katzeff, agreed to buy the beans.
Next, Wetzler found a cooperative near Mbale that had already obtained the expensive Fair Trade certification the coffee would need to be sold through Thanksgiving. The Mirembe Kawomera Cooperative would buy farmersâ€™ produce, which would then be processed through the nearby co-op and shipped to California.
Katzeff guarantees the farmers 20 to 40 cents per pound higher return than conventionally traded coffee. That makes their produce dependably lucrative for the farmers. There are other fair trade benefits, as well. Mirembe Kawomera can count on Katzeffâ€™s commitment to an ongoing trade relationship, rather than having to cope with the insecurity of looking for a market each season. And Thanksgiving, like other fair trade buyers, contributes regularly to community development projects in Mbale. Thanksgivingâ€™s contribution of one dollar for every package sold recently helped open and support a school there. The fair trade co-op has been so successful, Keki wants to see it duplicated.
â€œWe hope to make the cooperative a model of championing development in communities,â€ he said. â€œWe also hope that other cooperatives will emulate the principles of Mirembe and bring about peaceful coexistence. We get along very much
better. You canâ€™t believe the peace and harmony that this community has enjoyed since the cooperative society was formed.â€
Dee Axelrod is senior editor at YES!