Saturday, June 30, 2012

Shalom, Salaam, Peace: Coffee, Unity and Sustainability from Uganda

My wife and I are coffee lovers. Our main sources of coffee have varied over the years. For a long time we purchased 5 lb. bags from Deans Beans, all very good coffees at reasonable fair trade prices. We particularly liked their Ring of Fire and Uprising blends. We then got into their No CO2 supposedly "carbon neutral" coffee.

When we joined our local Food Coop, it became cheaper to buy our fair trade coffee addition we found we could re-use the coffee bags several times, reducing our waste. So that is our main source of coffee these days.

But there is one source that I want to plug that is an amazing coffee, called Mirembe Kawomera (Delicious Peace) from Uganda with an amazing story that has just recently gotten even better by seeking to maximize sustainability. That coffee is grown by a farmers' cooperative of Bantu Jews, Muslims and Christians working together in an otherwise tense and intolerant part of the world. It grew out of a movement initiated by the local Jewish population to build schools, with the help of the American Jewish organization Kulanu, which would be open to not just the Jewish community but also the Muslim and Christian communities. From that initial connection among otherwise mutually suspicious communities, came the inspiration to cooperate (again with help from Kulanu) to market their coffee at fair trade prices. Finally, recognizing the impact of climate change and environmental degradation on their own livelihoods, these communities are now initiating a carefully thought out sustainability project (with the help of the Dutch NGO Progreso) to reduce their environmental impact while improving their economic livelihood.

It all started in the end of British colonialism in what became Uganda. Christian evangelicals were part of the British push to dominate Uganda. Semei Lulaklenzi Kakungulu was one of the products of this evangelical push and he is in many ways not a sympathetic figure, but it was his initiative that led to a native Jewish community in Uganda.

Semei Lulaklenzi Kakungulu was a military strong man and part of the Christian evangelical movement. He fought on behalf of the Buganda King against both Muslims and Catholics in the religious wars at the end of the 19th century. The British supported his efforts because they saw it as part of their goal of unifying the region under British influence. Kakungulu's military efforts allowed British influence to spread without large scale use of British troops.

Kakungulu's goal, however, was to become a local king under a British aegis. But the Brits didn't go for it. So instead Kakungulu focused on evangelical Christianity of a particularly strict kind called "Katonda omu ayinza byona" which means "God is omnipotent" and believed in a very strict interpretation of the Bible. They also tended to be anti-colonialism so it fit with Kakungulu's conflict with the Brits.

But Kakungulu took that strict interpretation beyond what the founders of Katonda omu ayinza byona had intended. Kakungulu felt that true devotion to God meant putting the Old Testament ahead of the New Testament and he began to compile a list of rules and prayers for his followers with in the Katonda omu ayinza byona evangelical movement that looked more like the rules that Orthodox Jews follow than they did Christian doctrine. By 1919 Kakungulu and his followers were outright rejecting the New Testament in favor of "Moses' Commandments". In essence Kakungulu reinvented Judaism from what he read in a Protestant version of the Old Testament. He called his breakaway community the Kibina Kya Bayudaya Absesiga Katonda (the “Community of Jews who trust in the Lord”).

This put him at odds with both the British and the local community. But it also put him in contact with a Jewish traveler referred to as "Joseph." Joseph introduced a more standard, Talmudic version of Jewish practice into the Kibina Kya Bayudaya Absesiga Katonda community.

When Kakungulu died in 1928, the Kibina Kya Bayudaya Absesiga Katonda community split. One branch reverted to Christianity. The other branch maintained their Jewish identity, becoming the community that is today called the Abayudaya. Because of widespread anti-Semitism, particularly during the Idi Amin period, the Abayudaya isolated themselves as much as possible.

During Idi Amin's dictatorship, some 80% of the Abayudaya were killed or forced to convert to Christianity. It was, needless to say, a low point in the development of their community. Roughly 300 survived, keeping their Jewish identity secret. From that small community, the modern Abayudaya community of about 1000 grew.

In a strict sense the Abayudaya are not Jewish. However, with the help of American and Israeli rabbis (mostly Conservative and Hasidic) official conversion of many Abayudaya has begun. The Abayudya welcome official Jewish recognition and are willing to undergo the conversion process. This is in contrast with Ethiopian Jews who consider themselves Jews by birth (DNA evidence is conflicting here...older data suggests they are NOT descended from Israel, but more modern evidence suggests they are) so there has been conflict between Ethiopian Jews and mainstream Israeli Jews with considerable insensitivity shown by mainstream Jews towards Ethiopian Jews.

But to me the Abayudaya are more Jewish than I am. Here are Abayudaya versions of Shema Israel and L'cha Dodi

That is the background. The origin of the Abayudaya and the overall negative view of them within the wider Muslim and Christian culture of Uganda meant that the Abayudaya were always faced with prejudice. In the 21st century they came in contact with the American Jewish group Kulanu, which has helped integrate them into the wider Jewish world but also came up with a wonderful idea.

They started helping the Abayudaya build schools. In Uganda, as in much of Africa, schools are often very far from the local villages and they are not free. Kulanu and the Abayudaya started building schools in the villages where the Abayudaya live and covering the costs of children attending, even providing some meals. But Kulanu and the Abayudaya went one step further. They invited their Muslim and Christian neighbors to send their kids to the schools as well. This introduced a cooperation between the Abayudaya and their neighbors that helps everyone in the community. Even more fundamentally, the sharing of these schools helped establish trust among the Jews, Muslims and Christians in in the area.

Which brings us to my wife's favorite beverage in the whole

Coffee accounts for about 90% of Uganda's revenues from international trade. Worldwide, coffee is second only to oil as being the most traded commodity. But the prices very enormously from year to year and the path from grower to your cup is extremely circuitous, bringing in many middlemen who take their own profit. In general, of what you pay for your coffee, almost none of it makes it to the grower. With Fair Trade coffee, the amount that makes it from your wallet to the grower is still small, but it is often 3-5 times more than on the regular market, and that makes a huge difference for the growers. It makes the difference between near slavery and making it (even if barely by our standards). It makes the difference between sending their kids to school or not. It makes the difference between saving money versus accruing debt.

Fair Trade is often flawed, and not always as fair as we would like, but it DOES make a difference.

The Abayudaya and their Muslim and Christian neighbors also grow coffee. And were getting almost nothing for their efforts. Until the current leader of the Abayudaya community decided to do something, and the first thing he did was go to his Muslim and Christian neighbors. From the Thanksgiving Coffee website:

I brought the idea to my fellow friends, Muslims and Christians, and I said we should make a co-op selling our coffee but as well as spreading peace in the world.

They were all so happy so we called it Mirembe, which means peace, Kawomera, which means that even our coffee must be of quality.

Then we made that cooperative.

— JJ Keki, founder & director, Peace Kawomera

It was a great idea. And it would have failed except for two things. One was the efforts of Kulanu. And the other was the whim of one man, the CEO of Thankgsgiving Coffee.

Kulanu had been working with the Abayudaya for some time, including in their reaching out to their Muslim and Christian neighbors when it came to developing local schools. So it was only natural that they work together on this coffee project. But neither the Abayudaya nor Kulanu had much experience in this. Which is why the whim of the Thanksgiving Coffee CEO was so critical. Again, from the Thanksgiving Coffee website:

I was at my desk, it was late afternoon. The phone rang... “Hello, my name is Laura Wetzler” came the voice from the other end...

It turned out that Laura Wetzler was, and still is, the Ugandan Coordinator for an all volunteer Jewish NGO called Kulanu in Washington DC. She called to ask me if I would buy five sacks of coffee from a cooperative she was working with. I rolled my eyes and thought, “Another starry-eyed idealist who went to a poor country to build a school, discovered coffee in the midst of poverty and decided that it was the answer to all the community’s woes.”

Over the past 20 years I have fielded many such calls. Although my heart goes out to these volunteers, I explain to them that coffee is not bought under such novice circumstances. “There is a well-established infrastructure of exporters, brokers, importers,” I explained, “And of course, there are the issues of quality and price.”

I asked Ms. Wetzler if she had called any other roasters and she told me she had called over 50 but had sold nothing. “Everybody wants a sample to taste but I have none,” she told me. “I was just there but didn’t know I needed samples to offer.” I began to settle in to the conversation and asked her to tell me about the work of Kulanu. Being Jewish myself I thought it unusual for her to be working with Jews in Uganda. “Jews in Uganda? Tell me more!”

Laura told me about this community of black Bantu Jews that she has been working with since 2002. She helped them organize a coffee cooperative, become Fair Trade Certified™, and now, with their first crop sitting unsold in a Uganda warehouse, she was calling US coffee roasters trying to sell the coffee. She had a list, it was in alphabetical order, and when she got down to the letter T she called Thanksgiving Coffee and I picked up the phone. By the time she got to me she had been rejected 50 times.

The Jewish Bantus of Uganda caught my attention, but it was when she described the other two-thirds of the cooperative that my heart really began to pound. “There are Muslims and Christians in this coffee cooperative,” she continued. “They are all working together. It’s one community. The co-op president is Jewish, the vice-president is Christian, and the treasurer is Muslim. There are hundreds of families all together; they have one container to sell and soon this year’s crop will be coming. The people are desperate!” she exclaimed...

“I’ll buy it all,” I said. “All or nothing. I want the entire story. I don’t want any other coffee company to have a single bag. I want to bring this story to the world.”

So the coffee project took off. The coffee is certified fair trade and is shade grown next to other plants that provide the local community with food or income. However success particularly with other crops grown alongside the coffee started having an environmental toll. Soil erosion, global warming, and environmental degradation started taking its toll on the area. The Abayudaya decided to face the problem head on (unlike, I should add, most of the world). They decided to find a way to a.) make their own practices more sustainable, b.) reduce their impact on climate change, and c.) protect their livelihoods from climate change. They took three years to put together a proposal that just this May got funded by a Dutch NGO.

From the Thanksgiving Coffee website again:

Given the above, the farmers are searching for strategies they can employ to adapt to these changes without sacrificing their livelihoods. This is happening at the time when farmers are anxious to reap a lot out of their coffee due to its regaining reputation on the international scene, increasing market price and increasing differential and quality premium through the specialty coffee market and the good price from US-based Thanksgiving Coffee Company, a buyer since 2004.

The above-mentioned activities of environmental degradation are mainly driven by economic need arising from high rates of unemployment locally. Therefore, this project seeks a two-pronged strategy to increase the value and production of shade grown coffee, and interventions to fortify the ecosystem against the impacts of shifting weather by planting valuable grasses in swale formation, increasing the intercropping of strategically important shade trees in coffee plantations, and reforestation of hill tops and ridges to create a conducive micro climate for coffee. This fortified ecosystem will be better able to protect coffee from severe rains because of increased canopy cover, and will be able to reduce erosion by controlling runoff. Additionally, through the selection of appropriate shade trees, the project will increase the production of high-mulching organic matter which will improve soil quality, a critical step towards improved coffee quality and production, as well creating habitat for the biological control agents here referred to as natural enemies of the pests.

Agro forestry provides additional sources of income especially from sales of fruits from the planted trees, sale of harvested grasses from swales, sale of firewood and of seedlings from the nurseries to other communities.

This will also reduce the gap of unemployment and improve on food security for the area’s farmers by increasing the diversity of foods immediately available to farming families. Protecting and restoring the environment will reduce the impacts of climate change, enhance biodiversity, and improve on ecological systems which are all aimed at improving coffee production and food security.

The project will be built around a package of incentives designed to facilitate and inspire quick uptake in action by individual farmers. The methodology will be driven by the established network and practice of the Farmer Field Schools. Led by the project manager, a team will create local seedling nurseries and begin the process of educating individual farmers through the FFS groups. After an 6 month period, the leading farmer in each FFS group (determined by objective pre-established criteria around tree planting, swale construction, soil and water conservation) will be given a female goat. These goats produce manure which is high in nitrogen which can be incorporated back into the fields for improved soil fertility. After an additional 6 months the next leading farmer in each FFS Group will be rewarded a goat based upon the established criteria. These goats will be expected to reproduce so as time goes on, the kids will be given out to other members who come second, i.e. responsibility will be upon farmers to know that if such a farmer`s goat kids, the offspring will be expected to be designated by the project to the next recipient farmer. This process of review and award will be conducted 4 times (6, 12, 18, and 24 months. It is estimated that the project will need to purchase 252 female goats (63 FFS Groupsx4 cycles) to get the inventive program off the ground and to a point of self-sustainability.

The project is ambitious and complex. Which is probably exactly what they need to handle a complex web of problems. They came up with the solutions themselves and I am sure if/when problems come up in the implementation they will adapt the plan to deal with those problems.

So you start with British colonialism starting a wave of rather unappealing military strongmen and evangelical Christian movements. You move through a highly unlikely re-invention of Judaism among Bantus in Uganda and the even more unlikely survival of those Jews through the Idi Amin brutality. Then you have cooperation between those unlikely Jews and their Muslim and Christian neighbors first for public education, then for fair trade coffee, then for environmental sustainability.

All in one cup of coffee called Mirembe Kawomera which you can buy right now. I should note that I have seen this very coffee listed as "best coffee I have ever had" on several websites. I would not go quite that far, since I think the best coffee I ever had was a New Guinea coffee in a fancy coffee house in Santa Cruz, California. But Mirembe Kawomera coffee is up there!

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