Brewing Up Peace

The fair-trade coffee cooperative has spent this month traveling to synagogues, mosques and churches across the U.S. The farmers and distributors posed near the United Nations last week. Photos by Curt Fissel

Joav Jonadav “J.J.” Keki was visiting New York City from Uganda in September 2001, and decided to go to the top of the World Trade Center to take in the view. But at the last minute he opted to skip the trip to the towers that Tuesday morning, and thus his life was saved.

After his close call, Keki realized that a major cause of the destruction of the Twin Towers was religious differences, and he began to ponder what he could do “to be a peacemaker.”

“When I discovered I was almost a victim, I [wondered] how do we make this world peaceful?” Keki said recently on another trip to New York. He looked around his community in the eastern Ugandan city of Mbale, and realized the one thing his Jewish, Christian and Muslim neighbors had in common: coffee.

Uganda is one of the most coffee-dependent nations in the world, with coffee responsible for up to 60 percent of export revenues. Approximately half the families in Uganda are coffee farmers, and most sell their crop at prices vastly below market rate to local middlemen.

Upon his return to Uganda, where he is a leader in the Abayudaya (Luganda for “People of Judah”) Jewish community, Keki canvassed his neighbors, asking them to join him in a novel idea: a coffee cooperative that would unite local farmers of different faiths and serve as an example of peace in an African nation that shares borders with Kenya, Rwanda and Sudan, all nations that have been recently rife with civil conflict.

By 2004, Keki had many local farmers and a distributor, Thanksgiving Coffee Co. in Fort Bragg, Calif., on board. Thanksgiving, a fair-trade coffee distributor whose motto is “Not Just a Cup But A Just Cup,” partnered with Mirembe Kawomera, or Delicious Peace Cooperative, and now the 705 member families in the cooperative get some $1.60 per pound of coffee. In addition, Thanksgiving adds an additional dollar per pound, totaling almost four times more than the 50 cents they had previously earned from the Ugandan middleman, according to Keki.

“Economic justice empowers farmers to do things they want to do in their lives,” Ben Corey-Moran of Thanksgiving Coffee Co. said recently at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Greenwich Village, where the farmers and distributors were on tour promoting the collective and talking about its impact. “Peace is within reach in our own communities, and if it’s possible there, it’s possible in the world.”

The group has spent this month traveling to synagogues, mosques and churches across the United States, rallying interfaith groups to band together and take advantage of wholesale discounts on coffee while engaging in a dialogue about peace in their own communities. At each meeting, the farmers discuss their particular faith group, talk about the formation of the collective and sing songs in a combination of English and Luganda.
Margaret Bunihizi, a Catholic who lives near Keki, spoke about her role in the formation of the co-op. Bunihizi, a leader among the women in her community, who often call her “Mama,” heard about Keki’s plan for a new coffee cooperative, but figured it was a Jewish project. When she learned about the collective’s interfaith nature, Bunihizi convinced her friends to participate.

“It was hard to bring the Catholics, but J.J. said it was an interfaith society and we had to join hands, as we hadn’t before talked,” said Bunihizi, a regal-looking woman with three children.

In Mbale, coffee production is largely left to the women and children, who tend the coffee berry plants during the August-through-February season, while the men work in shops in town.

Now that she and her community have joined the collective, Bunihizi has been able to send her children to school, and has bought a plot of land and household items she couldn’t afford before.

Also changed is her relationship to religion: her own and others’.

“On Saturday I go to synagogue, and on Sunday J.J. will come to my church,” said Bunihizi of the new friendship in her community. “In our area of Mbale, there is peace now.”
Sinina Namudosi, a Muslim, is at 21 one of the younger members of the cooperative. Her family had known Keki since before her birth, but though they considered themselves friends, “a Muslim wouldn’t share problems with a Christian or Jew,” before the cooperative began, she said.

Now, people of different faiths are learning about each other’s worship and respecting their disparities.

“I think about our friends in Kenya; they could have peace like we do,” said Namudosi, small and lithe and prone to fits of giggling. “There’s no difference or isolation with our tribes; we don’t want to kill because we see these are people like us.”

Samuel Ngugo, representing the Anglican community, one of the major religions in the area, summed up the collective’s philosophy to the mixed audience at the St. John’s Church in a soft-spoken voice. “Whoever buys or drinks our coffee is helping spread the gospel of peace.”

Though the collective represents all faiths, Judaism has a particularly interesting history in Uganda, one that started in 1919 with Semei Kakungulu, a Ugandan military leader who was originally converted to Christianity by the colonial British but later began to believe in the Torah and question why people were not following its commandments. Kakungulu introduced rituals like kashrut, circumcision and a Saturday Sabbath, and a small but flourishing Jewish community grew.

All that changed in the 1970s under the dictatorship of Idi Amin, who outlawed Jewish practice, forcing most Abayudaya to convert to Islam or Christianity. After Amin’s reign ended in 1979, Keki, who was 19, banded together with a few of the remaining 300 Jews to mobilize a Jewish renewal. Today in Uganda there are some 1,000 Jews, five synagogues and a Jewish school. Keki’s brother will be ordained as a Conservative rabbi this May in Los Angeles and plans to return to Uganda to open a yeshiva for black Africans.

For Ellen Friedland, a documentary producer from Montclair, N.J. whose film company, JEMGLO, is at work on a documentary, “Delicious Peace Grows in a Ugandan Coffee Bean,” the anatomy of peace is the most important part of the story of the interfaith Ugandan farmers.

“I don’t expect it’s going to go over big in Gaza, that everyone will be friends,” said Friedland. “But this bunch of poor farmers are just working together, struggling every single day and [overcoming] it from this project.”

For Keki, religious diversity is not something to fear, but rather something to embrace.
“Let not differences cause war,” he said, his broad smile flashing his crooked teeth. “Let our differences cause friendship.”

For more information on the project or to order the coffee, go to www.mirembekawomera.com.

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