On Coffee and Coexistence

That man in the picture above is JJ Keki – Ugandan farmer, musician, fair trade entrepreneur, local politician and interfaith activist (I’m sure I’m missing several more job descriptions…) JRC has gotten to know JJ well over the years through our our relationship to the Peace Kawomera interfaith fair trade coffee cooperative. JJ (a Ugandan Jew) is a co-founder of the coop along with Elias Hasulube (with JJ below) a Muslim farmer. The coop includes the participation of 705 Ugandan Jewish, Muslim and Christian farmers – and is an unprecedented example of interfaith cooperation in support of fair trade and sustainable development.

On Friday morning our group split up once again: the medical providers volunteered at the FDNC clinic and the rest of us spent our day with the folks from Peace Kawomera. We met first at the coop office (located in the Namayonyi Sub-County) with Elias, who serves as their fair trade and organic certification expert, and their financial secretary Kakaire Hatube. Joining us as well was John Bosco Birenge, and agriculturist who was recently hired by the coop to help the farmers with organic farming skills.

The governance of the coop board is guided by impressively democratic standards. The board has seven members, which must include Muslim, Jewish and Christian reps. The farmers themselves directly elect the board and chairpeople, and the bylaws require that there be an equal number of women, youth and elders represented. Their adherence to organic and shade grown agriculture as well as fair trade/sustainable development values is equally as strong. This is clearly a farming community that cares deeply about the principles by which they work and live. (Below: some JRCers outside the coop office)

After meeting with the coop staff, we took a short ride out to JJ’s home, where he gave us a personal tour of his coffee farm. Coffee growing is a difficult and fragile art form: it takes the plant three full years to grow from planting to harvest and any number of factors can compromise the quality of the beans along the way. Last year, in fact, the coop sustained a net financial loss because of heavy rains (as well as the fluctuation of the American dollar). Agriculturist John Bosco was hired by the coop largely for this reason: to help the farmers with important tips on how to improve their quality and yield.

JJ’s farm is set on the slope of a lush, gorgeous Ugandan hillside The farm includes a variety of crops: along the way we saw the coffee plants nestled among guava, papaya, banana, avocado, casava and much more. JJ commented that this is why he believes coffee promotes peace: because it thrives best when it coexists next to other kinds of plants. (The picture below shows a coffee plant coexisting with a banana tree).

I’ve written extensively about Mirembe on this blog – largely because I have just been so inspired by the example they set for us. I truly believe that the folks at this modest coop in Uganda are, in their way, showing the rest of the world how to live. If you are a coffee drinker, I encourage you to support their efforts – Miremebe Kawomera is roasted, distributed and marketed by Thanksgiving Coffee and for every bag they sell, one dollar goes back to the coop. Moreover, the coop’s fair trade social premiums support their community development efforts (which includes the Nankusi Primary School that we will visit on Monday).

We’re going to return to JJ’s farm on Sunday to pick coffee – but in the meantime, we were able to do our part by donating a new laptop to the coop. Up until now, they have kept their financials on a hand-written ledger. In the pic below you can see JRC members Rich Katz and Beth Lange giving Kakaire and John Bosco a tutorial on Excel spreadsheets. We all hope this will provide a much-needed boost to their office support.

In keeping with the spirit of interfaith coexistence, we visited the nearby Nankusi Mosque for Sabbath services after lunch. We were received by the Muslim community with incredible graciousness; we brought them welcome and blessings from the Jewish community and I offered a brief D’var Torah for the occasion. Afterwards, virtually every member of the community came up to us, shook our hands, and wished us “Salaam Aleikum.” (The pic below shows Hannah Gelder with Elaine and Kelsey Waxman outfitted in their hijabs for the occasion).

We’ll be attending the Abayudayah Ugandan Jewish community for Shabbat morning services on Saturday as well as a local Anglican Christian Church this Sunday. (I like to call this the Interfaith Sabbath Hat Trick…)

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