Category Archives: Fair Trade

JRC Says Farewell to Africa

On our final day in Africa, we visited the Nankusi and Namanyonyi primary schools, both of which are supported by the Peace Kawomera’s fair trade social premiums. Both schools are engaged in building projects to create more classrooms and more essential educational resources. In each school we saw overcrowded classes (many cramming in over 100 students) and most classrooms are not even equipped with a chalkboard. Similarly, in both schools these important construction projects are currently stalled out due to lack of funding, materials and workers. At Namanyonyi, we were told that they needed the equivalent of $2,000.00 to finish the project.

We’ve heard these kinds of appeals several times on our trip and they are challenging to the core. On the one hand, in the face of such direct need, it’s all you can do to not take out the money and just donate it on the spot. On the other hand, this would clearly raise more questions than it would solve: why is this school more deserving than the one down the road? What kinds of social tensions would you be exacerbating by privileging one one school over another? How would we ensure that the money would be used in the way we were told? What kind of unhealthy power dynamic are we reinforcing when we throw money around in this way? We’ve discussed these kinds of questions a great deal as a group and in the end we’ve resolved to live with the difficulties and complexities that attend the phenomenon of world poverty, arguably the most intractable issue facing the world today.

One important thing we do take away from these experiences is the resolve to support NGOs on the ground that we know are making a real difference in the lives of real people. We have been transformed by our relationships with organizations like WE-ACTx, the Foundation for the Development of Needy Communities and Peace Kawomera, who are leading the charge to create better futures for the communities they serve.

If we have learned anything on this trip, it is that we much redouble our resolve to support their efforts and to encourage others to do so as well. In a world that is so desperately in need of heroes and role models, these are the ones who truly inspire: people like Dr. Mardge Cohen, Samuel Watalatsu, JJ Keki, and so many, many others who work largely off the PR radar screen, but whose vision and drive are bringing hope and change in the areas of the world that need it most.

We’re coming home now, but our work is really just getting started…

Peace Kawomera in Action

We’ve learned a great deal about how coffee is grown and processed on this trip and one of the most indelible lessons we’ve taken away is how interconnected and interdependent each step is to the next. Unlike the major commercial producers, rural coffee farmers like those of the Peace Kawomera coop must depend upon one another to succeed. In other words (to adapt an oft-repeated axiom) it really does take a community to produce a cup of coffee. As I wrote in my earlier post, we did a bit of harvesting at JJ Keki’s coffee farm this past Sunday. We subsequently learned about the complex journey taken by the coffee berries once there are picked.

The first step – and in some ways the most crucial – is called “pulping.” This refers to the husking of the outer red shell of the coffee berry. For quality purposes, pulping must take place 24 hours or less after the coffee is picked. Like most rural farmers, the members of Peace Kawomera have been pulping their coffee by hand, with a manual turn-crank machine.

The pix below were taken at the farm of a coop member named Mohammed – the harvested berries are poured in the top, the crank is turned, and the inner white beans come out the bottom. The leftover red husks are then taken and mixed with manure to be used as organic fertilizer.

I mentioned in my earlier post that Peace Kawomera has recently been able to obtain a large, motorized machine to serve as the central pulper for the entire coop. Since every individual farmer does not own a own hand pulper, the coop leadership hopes that this acquisition will help the farmers expedite this critical initial process. The new pulper is an impressive and complex piece of machinery and has the capability of pulping 5000 five kilos a day. It runs on diesel fuel and requires water is pumped in from a nearby stream. It coop farmers will begin using the central pulper in August, as the coffee harvest goes into full swing

After pulping, the coffee beans are fermented and dried by the farmers themselves. They are then transported to Gumutindo, the location of a larger coop to which ten other farming coops also belong. This is where the coffee is warehoused and eventually inspected with the defective beans sorted out. The remaining beans are then milled in a huge machine (a process in which the thin inner skin is husked from the beans) before they are sampled for final quality control. The pix below show the various step of this process, from warehousing and milling to sample roasting and tasting.

After lunch we attended a gathering of Peace Kawomera farmers who were attending a tutorial on organic farming by agriculturist John Bosco (pix below). The interplay was fascinating and impressive. The level of commitment of the farmers to their work – as well as their desire to learn and succeed – runs quite deep.

For our final meeting of the day, we met with the board of Peace Kawomera (below). If we learned annything with our soujourn with the coop, it was how deeply these farmers are committed to one another and their community. Coffee farming can only succeed with in a powerful subsystem of relationships and social connections. For the members of Peace Kawomera, their devotion to interfaith cooperation and sustainable development is no less powerful. We are bringing home so many profound lessons as a result of our soujourn in Uganda.

One more post to go. I’ll report on a visit to two primary schools supported by the coop and offer some final thoughts.

Harvesting Peace

As promised, we went to the Abayudayah Jewish community on Shabbat morning for services. It was actually a fairly auspicious time to be visiting: last week their new spiritual leader, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, was formally installed in his home community. Rabbi Gershom has been studying for the past several years at the Conservative movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles and his return to Uganda has been a much-anticipated and long-awaited moment. By all reports, his installation was a major event, attended by many leaders from the American Jewish community as well as throngs of Ugandan Jews.

To judge from our experience, Rabbi Sizomu has clearly settled comfortably into his new role. He presided a lovely service together with other members of the commumity (including JJ Keki, who led us in some rousing Ugandan-style Psalms). Also attending the service was Rabbi Jerome Epstein, Executive VP of United Synagogue, who was there to dedicate new Beit Midrash (House of Learning) that the Conservative movement had funded for them. After the service we shared oneg and lunch with the Abayudayah before heading back to Mbale for some Shabbat R&R. (Sorry no pix of this visit – Shabbas after all…)

On Sunday morning we completed our interfaith “hat trick” by attending church services at the Namanyoni Anglican Church (that’s me below with the head of the church – and Peace Kawomera board member – Stephen Kabala). Just as at the Nankusi mosque on Friday, we were received with welcome and graciousness, especially as they did not have much advance notice of our visit. After the service, they greeted us with the now obligatory speeches, and I had the opportunity to lead the congregation in an impromptu Bible Study of the Jewish weekly portion.

We have been so impressed all week at the deep level of interfaith cooperation and support in Uganda. I made a point of telling our new friends, quite from the heart, that they are true teachers; that we in the United States and the West have not yet learned how to live the way they do here.

After lunch we were back with our good friends at the Peace Kawomera coop, for a better look at their operations. The coop is clearly on the verge of reaching a new level of viability. They are currently building an impressive new warehouse/office facility and thanks to a USAID grant, they have recently acquired a new high-powered pulping machine for use by all of the farmers in the coop (below). Up until this point, farmers have been pulping the beans by hand. (More in this in my next post).

We ended our day by helping JJ with the coffee harvest (top pic). We set out over the hillside, scouring the plants for the red beans, which are just now beginning to emerge (the height of the season will occur this September). It really was a thrill, especially for those of us at JRC, who have been selling and drinking Mirembe Kawomera for years.

In my next post I’ll report on the process by which the harvested beans are pulped, dryed, cleaned, and milled before they set out for the US to be roasted and distributed. It truly takes a community working together to produce a cup or fair trade coffee…

PS: Tomorrow we drive back to Kampala to begin our journey home.

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…)

Sustainable Development from Rwanda to Uganda

We’re in Uganda now, after one night in Kampala and a four hour plus bus ride to the town of Mbale. Before I report on Uganda, tho, I want to write about our final visit in Rwanda: a stop at the Millennium Village Project in Bugasera (which is in the same district as the Nyamata genocide site we visited last week). MVP is the product of the United Nations and has been piloted in several locations throughout the developing world with the aim of helping communities reach the UN Millennium Goals.

The MVP in Rwanda presents an extremely impressive model of community development. We visited a district primary school – that’s me and Rich Katz above with some of the students. We visited on the last day of school (the young girl to my right is holding her report card). We also visited an MVP health clinic and a women’s craft cooperative that is helping to build economic capacity for the area. (That’s Rhonda Stein below, learning basket weaving from one of the coop members).

Our first stop in Uganda was along similar lines. Uganda Crafts in Kampala is a Fair Trade org that creates and sustains jobs for the disadvantaged throughout Uganda, Kenya and the Congo – employing women, the disabled, orphans, and people living with HIV. Before visiting the shop, we sat with Betty and Rose, who help run the project and described its genesis and evolution in depth. On the right is Lauren Parnell, who will be working with Uganda Crafts for the coming year and is our guide (with her husband John) for the rest of our sojourn in Uganda. We met Lauren through her work in Chicago with the Interfaith Youth Core.

We have a full day tomorrow. Stay tuned…

JRC in Africa

Tomorrow I’ll be traveling, along with 25 other JRC members, on our congregation’s second service trip to Africa. I am immensely proud of JRC for organizing this effort, which reflects our deep and growing commitment to global service work in general and to addressing the HIV/AIDS pandemic in particular.

From July 7- 15 we will be in Rwanda hosted by WE-ACTx, an important Kigali-based NGO that seeks to increase women’s and children’s access to HIV testing, care, treatment, education and care at the grassroots level. In particular, WE-ACTx has done inspirational work in helping survivors of genocidal rape and violence, focusing its efforts on empowering HIV-postive women and girls to take charge of their lives and become leaders in the fight against AIDS.

Our trip was inspired in large part through our congregation’s relationship with Dr. Mardge Cohen (above), a woman’s care specialist who worked for many years at the Cook County Hospital in Chicago and is one of the primary founders of WE-ACTx. Mardge is a longtime friend of JRC and was pivotal in helping us make the connection to Rwandan efforts to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic. We have learned a great deal from Mardge over the years and are thrilled that we will now have the opportunity to bear witness to her work. (Here’s a great, extensive Chicago Tribune article about Mardge and her efforts in Rwanda).

In addition to volunteering at the clinic in a variety of capacities, we will observe the work being done in Rwanda to heal from the very deep wounds of the 1994 genocide and learn about the ways in which Rwandan society continues to work to overcome tribal differences to create a viable future for their people.

From July 15-23, we will be in Uganda, visiting old friends we made from JRC’s last service trip in 2005. Our home base will be the town of Mbale and we will be volunteering once again with the Federation for the Development of Needy Communities – an NGO devoted to the sustainable development of communities in and around the rural area of Natandome. We will also visit the Mirembe Kowamera Jewish/Muslim/Christian Fair Trade Coffee Co-op with which JRC has partnered for many years. (We are hoping to be able to participate ourselves in the upcoming coffee harvest). Our itinerary will also include a Shabbat visit to the Abayudayah Ugandan Jewish community, with whom we also had the pleasure of visiting three years ago.

Among the many things that will make this trip so special is the significant participation of JRC’s young people (including my son Jonah). I am especially happy that they will have dedicated time to spend with young Rwandans (focusing, inevitably enough, on computer skills). All in all, it promises to be a memorable and powerful July. I plan to blog about our experiences as they occur so please plan to drop in and visit regularly over the next few weeks…

An Interfaith Conversation on Fair Trade

Check out the Mirembe Kawomera blog for some interfaith musings on the meaning of Fair Trade, moderated by my friend Ben Corey-Moran at Thanksgiving Coffee. I was honored to provide the Jewish point of view, alongside Reverend Will Scott (of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco), Nyla Khan (a teacher at the Islamic Foundation School in West Chicago) and Reverend Anne Myosho Kyle Brown (of the Kumeido Zen Center in California).

Here’s an excerpt from my piece:

I find a great deal of spiritual power in this teaching: that the world becomes ours to enjoy only when we acknowledge that it really doesn’t belong to us. I also believe that this insight has profound implications for a world in which humanity too often claims exclusive proprietorship over its bounty – where increasingly powerful interests are claiming ownership over increasingly diminishing resources.

I sometimes find myself wondering, what would it mean for our global world economy if we truly took this teaching to heart: that none of it was ever really ours to begin with? One thing I do believe is that it would force us to confront the chronic sense of entitlement we have toward the earth’s resources. And I also believe it would give us a much deeper sensitivity to the process by which goods and services reach our door.

You may recall my earlier posts about Miremebe Kawomera the incredible Ugandan Jewish/Christian/Muslim Fair Trade Coffee cooperative with which JRC has partnered actively over the years. I’m excited to report that we will be visiting our good friends at the MK coop as part of JRC’s congregational service delegation to Rwanda/Uganda this July. Stay tuned for much more on this one!

The Torah of Fair Trade

fair-trade.jpg“When you buy or sell…to your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another.” — Leviticus 25:13

This week’s Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25-27), contains numerous commandments to the Israelites to create a society based on principles of economic equity: the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, the equitable redemption of land, fair interest rates, the “tax scale” for funding the sanctuary, etc.

It is particularly appropriate that this parasha should coincide with World Fair Trade Day (May 12) – the global day in which we celebrate the efforts to create a more equitable world economy. Fair Trade empowers farmers and farm workers to lift themselves out of poverty by investing in their farms and communities, protecting the environment, and developing the business skills necessary to compete in the global marketplace. In the spirit of Shabbat Behar-Bechukotai and World Fair Trade Day, I encourage you to learn more about how you can support the global Fair Trade Movement.

Chazak, Chazak, Ve’nitchazek! Strength, strength, and may we find the means to strengthen one another…

Global Torah

earth1.jpgI’m often struck by how much lip service we pay to the so-called “global village,” yet how increasingly isolated and insular our lives are becoming. So what would it mean – beyond the cliches, beyond the catch phrases? What would it mean to really, truly, live globally?

In my office at our synagogue, I have a framed poster on my wall that says “How to Build Global Community,” then lists a long series of action components – a sort of of “Global Torah.” (The poster was created by the Syracuse Cultural Workers – a great publisher of peace and justice resources). Facing me on the wall just to the left of my desk, it offers me a regular daily challenge to really walk the walk:

– Think of no one as “them.”

– Don’t confuse your comfort with your safety.

– Talk to strangers

– Imagine other cultures through their poetry and novels.

– Listen to music you don’t understand.

– Dance to it.

– Act locally.

– Notice the workings of power and privilege in your culture.

– Question consumption.

– Know how your lettuce and coffee are grown: wake up and smell the exploitation.

– Look for fair trade and union labels.

– Help build economies from the bottom up.

– Acquire few needs.

– Learn a second (or third) language.

– Visit people, places and cultures – not tourist attractions.

– Learn people’s history.

– Re-define progress.

– Know physical and political geography.

– Play games from other cultures.

– Watch films with subtitles.

– Know your heritage.

– Honor everyone’s holidays.

– Look at the moon and imagine someone else, somewhere else, looking at it too.

– Read the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

– Understand the global economy in terms of people, land and water.

– Know where your bank banks.

– Never believe you have a right to anyone else’s resources.

– Refuse to wear corporate logos – defy corporate domination.

– Question military/corporate connections.

– Don’t confuse money with wealth or time with money.

– Have a pen/email pal.

– Honor indigenous cultures.

– Judge governance by how well it meets all people’s needs.

– Eat adventurously

– Enjoy vegetables, grains and beans in your diet.

– Choose curiosity over certainty.

– Know where your water comes from and where your wastes go.

– Pledge allegiance to the earth – question nationalism.

– Think South, Central and North – there are many Americans.

– Assume many others share your dreams.

– Know that no one is silent though many are not heard.

– Work to change this.

On Fair Trade and Rabbinical Authority

cffee.jpgOn October 17, in the blog “A Blog from the Underground” libertarianwannabe discussed my 10/11 post “Mirembe Kawomera.” Here’s what libertarianwannabe had to say:

I happenned to stumble on a blog through wordpress’s list of the fastest growing blogs. It seems interesting and well-written although it comes from a left-wing Reconstruction (redundancy?) viewpoint and four posts in it shows. Take the second post abput some over-priced Fair Trade coffee (that seems to be the popular phrase to use by the rich when they either rip the poor off or decide to massage their conscience by overpaying them)

<<Why is a rabbi going on about Fair Trade Coffee? Because I believe it’s a mitzvah to drink it. After all, Judaism teaches us over and over again to be socially responsible consumers, to act justly toward workers and to alleviate poverty in our world. So what could be more Jewish than drinking Fair Trade Coffee?>>

He essentially fingers the problem facing the Reconstruction and Reform movement, namely what authority does the Rabbi have and in fact what’s the reason to listen to him. So they turn to left-wing activism and such causes and then claim that the Torah makes it a mitzvah to do such a thing. Of course no claim would be made about what a person who drinks free-trade coffee (a product for us invisible handers) is doing. However the website is very interesting and readable.

To libertarianwannabe:

First of all, thanks for reading and thanks for the compliments. “Interesting” and “Readable” are definitely two things I want my blog to be.

One important point of clarification: the name of the Jewish denomination to which I belong is “Reconstructionism,” not “Reconstruction.” I encourage you and other readers to learn more about my movement – click here for more information. (“Reconstruction,” on the other hand, refers to a period of American history immediately following the Civil War. Click here if you’d like to learn more about that).

Though perhaps I did the cause of Fair Trade a disservice by raising and discussing it in a very short post, I have no interest in getting into an economic shoving match with a libertarian on this subject. I will only say it is difficult for me to understand how anyone can claim poor coffee growers could possibly be “overpaid” or that Fair Trade “rips them off.” I encourage readers to learn more about Fair Trade, what it stands for, and it is such a critically important global movement.

By what authority do I make my claims? Your very use of the word “authority” is an interesting one – and it betrays your traditional bias regarding the sources of religious authority. As a Reconstructionist rabbi, I do not purport to be a religious authority figure. We Reconstructionists believe that in the contemporary world, religious authority more appropriately resides in educated decisions made by individuals and communities. We also believe that most Jews today do not desire their rabbis to be authority figures, but rather Jewish teachers, advocates, resources and leaders. My studies at the Recontructionist Rabbinical College trained me in this regard, and as a rabbi I can only hope these roles provide sufficient cause for folks to “listen to me.”

In a comment to your post, “Rachel” responded:

The guy doesn’t even bother to work in relevant Bible Quotes, he just assumes we don’t need anything other than our leftist ideals.

Fair enough, Rachel. I agree with you, actually. I share your impatience with rabbis who short shrift Jewish tradition and assume that their mere title will give their words the necessary Jewish gravitas.

So let me expand on my claims a bit. Yes, I do passionately believe that it is a mitzvah to buy Fair Trade coffee – but not simply because of my “leftist ideals.” After all, Judaism teaches that:

1. We are obligated to be responsible consumers.

As Maimonidies taught in the Mishneh Torah (Laws of Theft 5:1):

One may not buy from a thief the goods he has stolen and to do so is a great transgression because it strengthens the hands of those who violate the law and causes the theif to continue to steal for if the thief would find no buyer he would not steal, as it is written, “He who shares with a thief is his own enemy.

While purchasing coffee is not literally the same as buying stolen goods, we can and should make the case that consumers have an obligation to educate themselves about the source of the goods they purchase. It is thus reasonable to infer that consumers should not purchase any goods that the seller has obtained unethically or unfairly.

2. We are obligated to insure that workers are treated justly.

In Deuteronomy 24:14-15, we learn,

You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends upon it.

We should underline here the line “urgently depends upon it.” Poor workers depend upon a reasonable wage for their very livelihood. If coffee farmers work hard to produce a product that we want and need, we have an obligation to insure they receive a fair wage that will allow them to live a sustainable life.

3. We are obligated to help the poor.

In Midrash Exodus Rabbah 31:12 we read:

There is nothing in the world more grievous than poverty – the most terrible of sufferings. Our teachers have said: if all the troubles of the world are assembled on one side and poverty is on the other, poverty would outweigh them all.

And how do Jews help allieviate poverty? The primary Jewish method is through the giving of tzedakah. Maimonidies famously taught that the highest level of tzedakah is by entering into business partnerships that help the poor become self-sufficient. When we buy Fair Trade coffee, we are doing just that.

For those who are interested in Fair Trade and grassroots sustainable development from a specifically Jewish point of view, I highly recommend the work of American Jewish World Service (who helped educate me on much of the above).

Thanks again for reading!