YES! Magazine – Java Justice

Winter 2006: Spiritual Uprising

Java Justice
by Dee Axelrod

Muslim, Jewish, and Christian coffee farmers make mirembe kawomera—delicious peace

photo-by-pk.jpg photo by Paul Katzeff

Mirembe Kawomera coffee delivers a double jolt.

First, there’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 Ugandan­ farmers.

This unique cooperative in the Mbale region of Uganda is Mirembe Kawomera—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 families’ basic need­s—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 children’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.

“The most serious problem for us is religious prejudice,” Keki said. “In Uganda, a Jew is referred to as a ‘Christ killer.’ Sometimes we have failed job interviews just because we are Jews.” And Muslim Ugandans, says Keki, believe that the Jews have been abandoned by God.

Keki can also recall how his father, during Idi Amin’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 father’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.

“We brainstormed,” Keki said, “and through participatory discussions we came up with the Mirembe Kawomera Cooperative.”

The diverse religious groups came together, Keki says, by focusing on what united them.

courrtesy-of-mk.jpgcourtesy Mirembe Kawamera

We looked to common things that were reflected in the holy books,” Keki said. “For example, we all acknowledge that we greet with the word of ‘peace’: shalom, salaam, mirembe.”

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. “I wrote away and got the tape. I learned all the songs, and I started telling the Abayu­daya’s stories in my concert work.” 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 Coffee’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 farmers’ 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 Katzeff’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. Thanksgiving’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.

“We hope to make the cooperative a model of championing development in communities,” he said. “We also hope that other cooperatives will emulate the principles of Mirembe and bring about peaceful coexistence. We get along very much
better. You can’t believe the peace and harmony that this community has enjoyed since the cooperative society was formed.”

Dee Axelrod is senior editor at YES!

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