Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Time to reflect

It’s been exactly two months since I boarded a plane in London for Entebbe, a good moment to reflect on how I am spending my time here, and how the experience is taking shape so far.  I have transitioned from the phase of getting to know the people and organization I am working with, and the place in general, to living, functioning with some modicum of familiarity.  I feel less like an alien being constantly staring with mouth open at the strangeness - and strange sameness - around me, and more like a participant, albeit a temporary one.  It definitely helps that Tom has come to stay with me until I leave; he has brought a kind of comfortable domesticity that is a kind of relief, a kind of retreat at the end of each day when I return home from work and meetings out at the cooperative.

My work in the cooperative has come out of the needs that have arisen since I have been here.  One characteristic of Peace Kawomera, at least right now as the coffee harvest ends and the vanilla-buying season begins, is that the staff and Board are all overwhelmed, and putting effort into long-term planning and projects is difficult.  This is not helped by the fact that the cooperative as an organization is very young, and its management and staff are gaining experience running an organization that has a different vision than other cooperative organizations in the area, one that requires more resources.  Promoting interfaith relations, peace, and rural development requires much more than just commercializing coffee; and even the task of producing and delivering quality coffee requires a set of very developed skills.  Peace Kawomera is a learning organization in both these respects. 

I have come here to investigate the role of institutional and local culture, social and political networks, and the environment in cooperatives’ access to coffee certifications, governance of certifications, and in the impacts that certifications have on those they are meant to benefit – in this case, smallholder coffee farmers.  Peace Kawomera is my third case study, after CECOCAFEN/UCA San Ramón in Nicaragua, and Cooxupé in Brazil.  My approach to my relationships with all of the cooperatives I work with is to make sure that the work I do benefits the cooperative and its members, as well as my own research.  In this way, I essentially came here available to work with PK on projects that they needed assistance on, because I have the time to do so, because they don’t have the time to do so, because I can actually improve my own skills in project development and writing, and because doing so also inserts me into the structure of the cooperative itself, allowing me to know it infinitely better than if I had simply arrived and performed thirty farm surveys and a set of staff interviews over a packed six-week period. 

I had met and conversed with JJ Keki, PK’s Director a few years ago at the USFT Convergence in Boston, and was impressed by the story and vision of the cooperative.  I knew it would make an interesting and unique case study in my research.  After conversations last year with Ben at Thanksgiving Coffee, and some email exchanges with JJ, it seemed that my experience managing a community agroecotourism project in Nicaragua could be useful to PK.  The initial idea is that I would work with PK to do a diagnostic study on the development of such a project with their members, as well as do farm surveys and interviews for my dissertation research.   Neither has actually been started yet in any real material fashion.   They have not been forgotten, simply put on a more realistic timeline, making room for my participation in other projects. 

My time currently is split between various projects.  First, I am working with Johnbosco, the PK Agronomist, Ben from Thanksgiving, Ben from TransfairUSA, and others to write a proposal for a small grant from the ILO for training and capacity-building.  We have succeeded in narrowing down the focus of the grant from every problem PK has, to strengthening management and administration systems and strengthening farmer groups, member participation and extension services.  I am currently spending my mornings revising the second version of this grant, and we hope to submit it to the ILO early next year.  In the afternoons, I have been working with the six PK Field Facilitators (themselves farmers who are hired and trained essentially to be extension agents using the Farmer Field School method) to do research on what kinds of trees farmers prefer in their coffee gardens and on other parts of their farms, and why.  We essentially are having focus groups with about twelve of the forty farmer groups, which each contain 25 farmers, and discussing that question.  The result is that I am developing a spreadsheet of trees with names in Luganda, Lugisu, Lugwele, and some English, and all of their advantages as cited by the farmers in the focus groups.  When we are done with this stage, we will hopefully apply all of this knowledge to the development of a project that will include the establishment of tree nurseries in each of the farmer groups, to facilitate increased tree planting and reforestation on their farms.  The idea here is to mitigate the long-term impacts of climate change, which here include increased drought as well as irregular and more forceful rains, through reforestation.  Trees are what will protect the coffee, and protect the farmers’ livelihoods.

I am spending my spare time mostly on working with all of the staff and Board members to compile information and text for the future Peace Kawomera website.  We have gotten as far as designing the structure of it, and now are working on information.  It is moving along, but I think it will be an ongoing project for the next few months.  A bigger priority that I am not yet working on, but suspect that I soon will be, is the development of an Internal Control System for PK.  This would involve some fieldwork to do risk assessments (probably by farmer group, but possibly by parish), outlining the roles of staff in certification systems and methods of working, and all policies and protocol for production, monitoring and documentation of practices at farm and cooperative levels, and evaluations protocols, and then a lot of office work to write it up into a sort of guidebook for the cooperative’s coffee chain. 

Given how fast time is passing, I am planning to perform the tourism diagnostic with the PK staff next month, so that I can actually do my own farm surveys and interviews in February and March.  I am really looking forward to working on the tourism diagnostic, as it will allow me to really get into analyzing different villages’ infrastructure, cultural activities, and accessibility, as well as potential markets, marketing plans, etc., the kind of work I really enjoy.  The challenge I am having so far in getting this process started is simply getting a conversation started within the cooperative about which parishes, which villages, should benefit from tourism – where should visitors go?  I am starting to get my own ideas as to this question based on my visits to the different farm groups, but I feel it is super important that we actually systematically address this question, so that we can have answers that are fair and logical.  There is already a bit of tension within the cooperative as to who benefits from tourism visits, because generally speaking the Jewish members benefit more than the Christian or Muslim members from the tourists and delegations that do already come.  So I am trying to get that conversation started about which villages will actually receive visitors, and how the entire cooperative and community will benefit materially from those visits.  I will let you know how that goes.  

Until then, Happy Holidays!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Just some random photos...

Enjoying sugar cane...Johnbosco, the cooperative's agronomist, speaking to farmers at a meeting.Me and a farmer group after a meeting.The view of Mount Elgon from my balcony.Farmers practicing coffee pruning techniques as part of the Farmer Field School.Me doing a workshop on website content development for PK's staff and Board.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Working moments

We arrived to what I had come to realize is the normal setting for meetings of these newly-forming farmer groups - the women in myriad-colored print wraps and headscarves sitting on papyrus mats spread out under the shade of a mango tree, and the men arrayed on rough wooden benches laid out in a curve under the shade not already claimed by the women.  Chairs, empty were placed facing the mats and benches, closing the circle of the meeting.  We were welcomed and ushered to the chairs.  A murmur of voices softly chatting or giggling at the visitors mixed with the rustling of leaves and the clucking of chickens and turkeys milling about around us in the dirt, as people continued to trickle in and find their places.

Finally, Elias, the facilitator, rose and began the necessary and customary preliminaries - Which local language shall we proceed in?  Who will translate for the visitors? What is our agenda?  Who shall lead the prayer before we begin?  After the prayer, the introductions began, going around the circle, at last reaching me, then Ben C-M from Thanksgiving Coffee Company, who had come on his annual trip to the cooperative, and then to Ben Schmerler, visiting from TransfairUSA, the US fairtrade labelling organization, who expressed his happiness at being part of the meeting with these fairtrade coffee farmers by getting up and dancing, instilling the meeting with energy and inspiring the women to clap out a rhythm for him to move to, everyone laughing and smiling at Ben's funky solo dance.  It was like a joyful confirmation of collaboration in its truest reality - people supposedly incomprehensible to each other through language or culture, finding common ground and creating something (a rhythm and a dance, or in this case, a trade relationship) together in spite of it.  The women in the meeting christened Ben S. "Sanyo", or Smiling Man.
During the progress of the meeting, I would be distracted by a movement in the corner of my eye, over my right shoulder.  It was a turkey.  It had wandered over and begun puffing itself up, edging closer to the back of Ben C-M's chair, and then backing off and relaxing its plumage.  Repeating this over and over, the turkey would make threatening gestures to Ben, who sat with his attention rapt on the meeting, complete oblivious to his aggressor, even as the turkey gobbled intimidatingly at his back.  This turkey had a grudge against Ben, maybe because it knew that Ben was an American and in just a couple of weeks millions of its turkey brethren would be slaughtered for the annual Thanksgiving feast.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Tearing Down Thomas Friedman (as it should be)

Hi Everybody, 
I am reposting below (with permission) an email that was sent by Brenda Baletti, a Geographer and PhD candidate at UNC, Chapel Hill, to the listserve of the CLAG (Conference of Latin American Geographers).  She addresses some very important and interesting issues that cross with some of my work and the work of many of my colleagues, responding to Thomas Friedman's op-ed piece in the New York Times on 11 November.  Comments are welcome, of course.

Hi all, 
I realize that I am probably preaching to the converted, but I am mid-fieldwork in exactly the region from where Friedman wrote an op-ed piece yesterday about the possibilities for Amazonian conservation and I feel the need to respond:

In his November 11th op-ed piece, Thomas Friedman argues that while it is too complex and would take too long to change the developed world’s petroleum consumption, a fast and easy solution to our carbon woes is to completely rework economic development in the Brazilian Amazon by investing a large amount of foreign capital into the region. This attitude—that it is too difficult to change our forms of consumption, but we’ll pay them to change theirs—is exactly the brand of paternalist/imperialist logic that has informed development practices in much of the world since World War II and has created many of the problems that Friedman is allegedly seeking to address. 

Friedman’s argument is based on the assumption that environmental protection can most effectively be realized through market mechanisms. I agree that the current forms of capitalist development will soon destroy what we think of as “the Amazon”, although I would remind Friedman that the Amazon is more than the “lungs of the world.” His “unending sea of broccoli” is a human landscape. The social consequences of multiple forms of “green” development are devastating the region’s inhabitants. We see this socio-environmental destruction daily in the area that Dr. Friedman is currently visiting with the bauxite mines of ALCOA, Electronorte’s plan to construct five hydroelectric dams in the Tapajós River watershed (among hundreds of others in the Brazilian Amazon), the construction of a Cargill’s massive soy exportation facility on the Amazon River in Santarém, and territorial reordering projects that remap the region in the name of conservation and sustainability but in the service of development, which is proving more each day to be a severe contradiction. Increasingly the conservation areas and the territories of the region’s inhabitants are cut to a fraction of their intended size in order to accommodate the demands of loggers, mineral companies, large farmers, and dam builders. And still, barges of timber leave the “protected areas” at alarming rates. Management plans approved by the state and federal governments allow both legal (although often unethical) and illegal extraction, while the very regulating agencies created to monitor the extraction process look the other way.
Current market-based incentives, advocated for by most international NGOS such as Conservation International and the Nature Conservancy, green-wash this kind of development. All of the corporations listed above are packaging their projects as green development projects, but they are not without the same old development consequences. For example, programs such the “soy moratorium”, which create incentives for soy farmers to farm without deforesting, result in dispossession of small farmers and expansion of monoculture agriculture. The dams that are financed as “green energy” by the very climate legislation to which Dr. Friedman is referring will submerge hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest and displace and dispossess tens of thousands of people. This are just a couple of examples of Dr. Friedman’s market-based solutions.
Friedman’s implication that reducing the number of hectares that smallholder agriculturists have under cultivation by giving them access to international markets for artesenal goods borders on the absurd. First, there is no such large or even medium scale production of such goods in the Tapajós; Dr. Friedman visited one of the few communities in the national forest that produces such goods, and the producers in these communities are only a handful of families (rather than being a small industry that supports 8,000 people as he suggested). Second, this market-based solution raises a direct threat to food sovereignty in the region—who would produce the food that these farmers stop growing in order to have time to make rubber purses? Would it be the industrial farmers that are moving into the region replacing diversified agro-ecologies with monocultures?   Should these communities really predicate their livelihoods on the tastes and lifestyle choices of wealthy tourists from North America and Europe?
Friedman argues that 46% of the Amazon is “set aside” for indigenous people and conservation. I’m doing research in two such areas in the region where Friedman is visiting and argue that this characterization is flawed. On the same day that Conservation International and Dr. Friedman were chatting with families in the Tapajós National Forest, 65 km to the west on the other side of the Tapajós River, the indigenous and traditional residents of Gleba Nova Olinda were reacting to the forces of development in a very different manner. People from over 40 communities joined together in theirrabetas (canoes with outboard motors), closed off the Arapiuns River to timber exportation and sequestered two barges full of timber in a dramatic effort to garner attention and support for their struggle to access territorial rights for indigenous communities and to eliminate logging in the region. When state and federal government agencies recognized the violation of these rights but steadfastly refused to act to correct the situations, the people took environmental enforcement into their own hands, burning the two barges of wood. This dramatic act demonstrated that they would rather destroy the wood than to let their patrimony leave the area in the hands of loggers.
Four months earlier and 100 km to the east, the Brazilian government created the Renascer Extractive Reserve, a conservation area, at half of the original size promised to its inhabitants in order to provide access to primary forests for loggers and to mineral deposits for miners. Since the creation of the reserve on June 5th, illegal logging activity has increased exponentially. Up to 5000 cubic meters of wood is leaving the reserve PER DAY. Despite countless denunciations through legal channels by residents and their social mediators, the regulating government agencies do nothing as the timber goes down the river to the open market. At this rate, according to a local logger, the wood in the reserve will be gone within just a few months.
In both of these cases the territories of "traditional" people are being severely limited in order to grant territorial rights to loggers developing “sustainable management plans” to take all viable wood out of these areas. These are only two examples of countless situations where the smallholder residents of the Amazon region are robbed of their rights and their patrimony in the name of a sustainable development model that caters to multiple stakeholder interests.

The severe problems of the post-Kyoto debates, the current global economic crisis, and the general collapse of the free market paradigm all indicate that the market-based governance approach that Friedman and most major international environmental NGOs advocate are nearly always insufficient and incorrect. Further, the social and environmental costs of green-washing these market based approaches to conservation are enormous. If countries and organization of the global north truly want to stop destruction of the forests and peoples of tropical regions, the myriad non-market based approaches to conservation must be recognized, valorized, and implemented in these debates about climate change legislation. Many of the people of these regions have a much better knowledge of how to manage these areas then G-20 bureaucrats. The international community can better serve Amazonian conservation by directly engaging in domestic debates rather than using the generalized discourse of “governance” and market based solutions to problems of global consumption patterns. A more reasonable approach is to put pressure on state and national governments to recognize and respect the rights of people to govern themselves and their region in practice rather than just in rhetoric. A more thoughtful paradigm also begins by recognizing that our modes of consumption and of international governance are directly responsible for much of the destruction with which we are all so concerned.

Santarém, Pará, Brasil
November 12, 2009
Brenda Baletti
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Geography
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Humanizing Fair

Obtaining coffee for your French Press is no simple matter. The international coffee trade business – especially the specialty coffee trade – is a complex and delicate web of dialogue that, if done to the satisfaction of everyone involved, has the potential to really contribute to making the world a better place.  That is what I like to think of as one of the foundational ideas behind fair trade (either with a capital F and T, or lower-case f and t).

I know that many of the readers of this blog buy and drink fairtrade certified coffee, because we have a sense that it more directly benefits disadvantaged coffee farmers by offering them a stable market and higher prices.  As consumers, we read the stories on the package of how fair trade changed someone’s life, and we see the photos of families in far-off countries.  But the hardest thing for us is to go beyond that, to actually stop and ask – is that all?  Is there more behind that story?  To listen to the people who produce the coffee, cocoa, or tea that we drink every morning, to hear that the reasons fair trade is necessary in the first place are complex and require solutions that extend far beyond higher and more stable prices, although those are definitely important.

I don’t want to write the usual fair trade monologue of how you should be aware of where your food come from – I don’t believe that knowing alone goes far enough; and anyway, there is enough information already on the internet or on your supermarket shelf that you can access if you felt inclined to do so.  What I want to write about here is how your efforts to educate yourself about what you consume is part of a complex network of efforts, a grand movement of people, places, and organizations you cannot even imagine; your efforts to change how you consume are instrumental within this movement, and they support a myriad of other pieces of the puzzle of global food trade.  Fair trade, then, as a product certification and as a social movement, is a way to connect all of these often-disparate efforts, facilitate dialogue and communication, and to streamline efforts to goals in common.

In my work in Nicaragua in 2002-2005, and in my work with United Students for Fair Trade in the last three years, I always tried to explore these complex realities and relationships of fairtrade, and also explore how to use them to connect different people, different groups who could collaborate.  What I loved about the fairtrade world is that it never stopped with coffee or with any product.  I witnessed time and time again how coffee, or its fairtrade-certified status, would bring two random people together in a room at a conference, or in shaded coffee field on a mountain, and out of that meeting would come spectacular ideas, and real, constructive collaborations that continued to blossom long after the visit was over.  It always struck me that if we could talk about ourselves as more than coffee farmers, more than coffee drinkers, even as we acknowledged that coffee is what brought us together, we could really help more people to relate to fair trade and its vision of making trade relations more human and more sustainable.

Farmers are not just farmers – they are businessmen, community leaders and organizers, and have countless other roles. Cooperatives become the motors of rural development in places where the government either cannot or will not support development.  In Northern Nicaragua, that meant cooperatives taking on roles coordinating projects such as literacy-by-radio campaigns, economic diversification through agroecotourism development, scholarships for children of cooperative members.  In Uganda, it means a cooperative being instrumental in creating and building interfaith peace and trust in a community where distrust and conflict goes back a long time.  Companies are not only buyers of product – they are bridges, resources, advocates, educators of coffee-drinkers back home.  The point is that once we start thinking about each other as more than participants in the value-chain, we have to move away from questions like “does fairtrade work or not?” and towards a vision of collaboration in which we see it as a critical tool that contributes to the goals that we have in common with farmers or businesses, and makes us imagine more creatively how we can all collaborate…

Okay, enough of my ranting. I will write later this week about Peace Kawomera’s recent visit from Ben Corey-Moran from Thanksgiving Coffee and Ben Schmerler from TransfairUSA – It was an exciting and fun visit!

Also, speaking of collaboration (and great coffee!), please support Peace Kawomera cooperative by purchasing their coffee! (My birthday is coming up, so do it for me!).  Go to the link on the right sidebar of this blog, or go directly to http://store.thanksgivingcoffee.com/product_info?products_id=29

Mwebere! (Thanks! In Luganda)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

In between a motorcycle and a truck...

You might already know via Facebook that I got into an accident on a motorcycle on Monday morning.  I don't remember exactly how it happened or how i got the scrapes and bruises I ended up with, but I do remember that Muhammad the bodaboda driver that picks me up every morning to take me to Peace Kawomera's office outside the city in Namanyonyi, was paused on the highway outside Mbale to make a right-hand turn onto the dirt road that leads to Namanyonyi (we drive on the left here).  I remember seeing a truck speeding up behind us on our right side, feeling it hit me, and next thing I knew I was several feet away lying on the asphalt.  I got up and moved to the side of the road, dazed, and watched Muhammad pick up the motorcycle and move it to the side as well, his right hand dripping blood onto the blacktop.
I noticed a scrape on my arm, and my leg was sore, but nothing seemed broken or seriously injured. People kept coming up to me and saying "Sorry", and a young woman stood by me and commented on what was going on, as Muhammad and others ran back and forth, seemingly negotiating or arguing with each other, though I would not understand what they were saying.  After what I think was a good number of minutes of just standing there dazed, Muhammad waved me over, put me back on the motorcycle and drove me to Namanyonyi, where I worked the rest of the morning until going to a farmer group meeting in the afternoon.  I did end up with two gigantic purple bruises on both sides of my right knee, though I cannot for the life of me figure out what managed to hit me on both sides of my knee at the same time.  But, I am fine, working a normal schedule, and getting very nervous every morning when I have to get on the motorcycle to go to Peace Kawomera.  But, life goes on...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Day in the Life...

Early some mornings the melodious singing chant of the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer wakes me and then lulls me back to sleep.  Most mornings I get out of bed some time later than the muezzin probably would prefer, and make coffee on my single-burner kerosene stove. I take my steaming coffee, complete with powdered milk, out to the balcony to drink, and I wave at the neighbors as they go about their morning washing.

Muhammad the bodaboda driver, the son of Elias, one of the staff facilitators at Peace Kawomera, arrives and waits for me on his motorcycle in the gas station below my apartment at 9:45am.  I hop on, and we ride past the Sleeping Baby Lotion Factory, cross the center of town on Kumi Road, and continue until we turn onto the dirt road that goes towards Mount Elgon and that leads to Namanyonyi, the community where Peace Kawomera’s current office is.  We pass scores of other motorcycles, as it is the most popular form of transport both within the city and between the city and rural areas, as well as numerous people on bicycles, people traveling shorter distances on the roads on foot, and of course a few vehicles.

The landscape is a mosaic of shades of green and brown – small coffee fields spotted with shade trees, houses with their red-brown dirt patios, treeless maize or bean fields, fields of bushy, pointy-leaved cassava plants.  There are also fields with stubs of coffee plants, silent testimony to different periods when desperate farmers cut down their coffee - in the 1970s when Uganda’s economy collapsed under Amin, its coffee completely devalued simply because it could not get to market, and in the 1990s during the global coffee crisis, when prices sunk lower than production costs for most coffee farmers.  This is a landscape of smallholders living hand-to-mouth, producing what they eat on small, piecemeal plots, selling what little is left over, and growing coffee to earn a little cash.
But there is a glimmer of hope for smallholder coffee farmers on Mount Elgon.  Peace Kawomera is organizing farmer groups with the help of a USAID grant.  So far they have organized about thirty or forty groups of twenty-five farmers each, with the help of six farmers who were hired as facilitators, or promoters.  The very act of organizing has the farmers with more hope, more motivation.  They see that the grave problems they face on a daily basis– lack of knowledge about how to fight coffee pests, how to fertilize the fields with little financial resources and no formal training on how to produce organic fertilizers from on-farm waste – are better faced together, learning from the body of knowledge that already exists amongst their neighbors, affirming their own existing skills and expertise as farmers. 

Every day I attend a meeting of a different farmer group, in a different community, and I listen to their concerns, their questions, their discussions. ask at the meetings, can you help with this? How big and how deep do I make the holes for planting seedlings? Where I am going to get seedlings?  Often, a member of the farmer group meeting will offer an answer and begin a discussion about all the possible solutions, and by the end of it, they have realized that they themselves have many of the tools and knowledge to confront the problems that made them feel helpless and dependent on donor organizations before, and At the same time, Peace Kawomera is supporting the formation of these groups to provide training to improve coffee quality, and to get better prices for their product.  But the idea is that the farmers can have the capacity to improve their own lives and demand more. With time and work, it is happening.
At the end of the day, Muhammad arrives on his motorcycle to the community where I happen to be.  I say my goodbyes and my thank yous, and I know I will continue to work with them in the next nine months, and I hop on behind Mohammad and make the journey, often through the daily afternoon rain, back to Mbale city.  

Saturday, October 24, 2009

From Nangoro to Mbale

I made the move into my new apartment in Mbale city on Thursday, spending the entire afternoon running around the center and the market buying the basics—a bed, a paraffin stove, etc.  I was sad to leave the Keki family, but I will of course be visiting them often.  I am now installed in a one-room, fourth-floor apartment above a gas station, just outside the center on the road to Kampala.
Before transplanting myself from Nangoro Village to Mbale, the older Keki children took me on a hike to Bugwemagumbo, a cave formed of large rock slabs jutting out of the top of a hill near Nangoro village.  During Idi Amin’s regime, when the Abayudayah (literally, “the Jews” in the Luganda language) community of Mbale region were prohibited from practicing their faith, and all of their synagogues were forcefully closed, people would go to the Bugwemagumbo cave in secret to recite prayers on the Sabbath.  The walls of the cave are burnt black by smoke and looking closely, one can make out faded drawings of the Star of David and a menorah.  Praying in the cave was an immense risk that the community took, since they would have been killed by Amin’s soldiers had they been caught, but it can be said today that the cave was instrumental in the survival of the Abayudayah and their traditions through the Amin regime.
Peace Kawomera cooperative is an interfaith cooperative of Jews, Muslims, and Christians that currently is experiencing an incredible amount of change.  They are in the midst of constructing a new office and storage facility, whereas up to now they were renting an office space.  They are strengthening their members’ production base through a coffee seedling project, improving coffee quality and quality consistency with the installation of a new centralized coffee depulping and washing station.  Most inspiring to me is their approach to member capacity-building through the formation of small producer groups.  These groups are beginning to go through Farmer Field School-style trainings facilitated by six newly-appointed facilitators, who are themselves farmers.  The cooperative is also launching a Savings and Credit Program, in which members will be able to save and have access to small credit lines.  This is just a small sample of the current and future projects that the young and visionary management and staff of Peace Kawomera have in the works, and I will blog more about them as I learn more.  I have to say that I feel like I have come at the perfect moment to work with Peace Kawomera, and that I am lucky to be able to participate in the realization of these dreams that will result in a self-sustaining cooperative that truly serves, and belongs to, its members.
Peace Kawomera is not only interfaith, it is intertribal.  Its members and staff are mostly Bugisu and Banyole, but also Basoga and Luganda, although Lugandans are a minority in this region.  And I am sure that there are more tribes in this region than I know of right now.  This means, as you can imagine, that there are as many languages being spoken as there are tribes.  It is, as John Bosco, the agronomist at the cooperative, told me, “like a linguistic village – a farmer can use six languages in two sentences, and everyone will understand him”.  Of course, I will not understand him.  The little Kiswahili that I have studied has been of limited use here, only helping me to catch some words now and then when people are speaking around me.  But, I have resolved to find a teacher to give me lessons in Luganda once a week, so that I can at least communicate the basics to people who do not speak English, as Luganda is essentially the lingua franca in this region.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Finally, some photos!

So the internet seems to stop working at sunset here in Nangoro, but the payoff is that it is unusually fast this morning, so I can post some photos! (Sorry for the weird layout - I am trying to figure out the formatting in Blogger)

This is Zilpa, one of JJ's daughters, showing me her grandmother's coffee and peanuts on the drying tray outside the house.              

This is Sampson, driving me across Jinja Dam, with the Nile River in the background.

This is one of the grandmothers, sorting beans on the porch.

And this is Mama Miriam and some members of the Keki family in the family home.

Pumping water.

And the Keki family home, and a view of the landscape, bananas and coffee in the foreground.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Life in Nangoro so far

The last few days of adjustment and learning have alternated between moments of intense intake of information and calm moments where I have nothing to do but sit and watch what goes on around me.  This is definitely a time of absorption, which is natural, although it has been a challenge to get used to doing what feels like nothing for extended periods of time. 

I am so happy that Samson brought me directly to Nangoro village the day I arrived, without so much as stopping in Mbale.  I have been able to participate in and observe daily life here on JJ’s farm, and get a good idea of what goes on here.  The farm is incredibly diverse, as I saw on my walk with Zilpa yesterday.  Of course there is coffee, but around, under, and above the coffee there is vanilla, beans, rice, maize, mango trees, papayas, bananas and plantains, guavas, jackfruit, peanuts, tomatoes, eggplant, pumpkins, and greens, and probably much more that I have not yet seen, or that I cannot recognize.  For instance, in her grandmother’s garden, Zilpa showed me a patch of small plants laden with little, round, bright-red cherries that looked like a cross between a round chile pepper and a mini-tomato.  She said that the old people grew them and cooked them with greens, but that they were bitter and she did not like them at all. I bit into one, and yes, it was bitter with a hint of spice, but mostly bitter.  Who knows what it is?

For all of this production, people are constantly working.  The coffee harvest began a week ago Monday, so the older boys go out every morning (except Saturday, when they go to Synagogue in the morning and study the Torah and other texts in the afternoon) to pick coffee, taking advantage of the next few weeks they will be home before they return to school for exams.  The younger children are at the local school, and the older girls stay at home to do the work of the house and to take care of the drying of the current bean harvest.  I spend most of my time so far with Zilpa and Stacy, both fifteen years old, but they too will return on Thursday to boarding school.  Here on the farm it is a constant, steady rhythm of activity.

When I actually went into Mbale on Saturday night with Kakaire and Aziz (two young and hip brothers who work for Peace Kawomera and live in Mbale) to eat out and go to a local club for a beer afterwards.  At the restaurant, we watched the tail end of the Liverpool-Sunderland soccer game (or “Loserpool” as Aziz called the team, since he is most loyally a Manchester fan).   The club we went to after dinner was full of young people drinking ginger beer or various Ugandan beers, and chatting over the music, which varied from American hip-hop to African reggaeton to (wait for it) that song “Africa” that we all loved in the 1980s (who sings that?). Oh, the irony.

I was amused to notice how shocked I was at how liberal the city is, compared to rural areas, not because I expected it to be as conservative as the village, but because I was used to the village. My two days in the village had accustomed me to seeing women with their heads covered and in long skirts, and to the deeply religious nature of the people in the village as well, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish.  I could have laughed at my own internal reaction to seeing women drinking beer in the club we went to. But tradition and religion are not absent in the city by any means – a couple of people in the club chose to sit outside on the patio where it was dark and empty because, they said, “we are Muslims, and if people saw us drinking beer, they would say, ‘You are Muslim and drinking beer – how is this?’, and it is better not to raise such questions”.  

But I liked what I saw of the city: it is busy without being frantic, full of vendors on the sidewalks and people of all shapes and sizes and dress, walking or riding bikes or bodabodas (motorcycle taxis).  Hopefully I will find an apartment there this week, and can explore it further. 

Still having immense trouble uploading fotos, even after making the files smaller, etc...I will keep trying.

Monday, October 19, 2009

One photo

Sinee it took over an hour to upload this photo, and I was unsuccessful after 3 hours of trying to upload others, I have only this one photo for you, which shows five of the children of the Keki family, in whose home I am staying in Nangoro Village.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

First Impressions...

Waking up after my first day and night in Nangoro, I feel a lot less overwhelmed than I did after arriving yesterday.  The rest helped, I am sure.

First impressions.

I was met at the airport by Samson, who has a tourism agency called Shalom Safaris, and who is from the same community where I am now.  We left Entebbe yesterday and passed through the suburbs and center of Kampala in bumper-to-bumper traffic that increased our journey by at least an hour or two.  I fell asleep after that but awoke upon reaching Jinja, and the Nile River. I had seen the Nile from the airplane, and now here it was in front of me, and below me as we crossed the river on the hydroelectric damn and entered the papyrus swamps that result from the runoff from Mt. Elgon in the Eastern Region of Uganda.

The drive continued, the road always flanked by towns and villages, houses, traditional round mud huts with layered stick roofs (much cooler than the modern houses with corrugated iron sheet roofs), shops, children in school uniforms in colors spanning the rainbow, women in bright, elaborately tied dresses and headscarves or in Muslim head-coverings, men in western dress or in flowing long white kanzus.  As we proceeded, a large mountain loomed ahead of us, and began to take on the form of a large mushroom erupting suddenly out of a flat plain – this was Mt. Elgon, 2000 meters tall. Continuing, the mountain became the foreground of a long and high mountain range that extended westward.

After some time, we began gradually climbing the foothills of Mt. Elgon, and arrived to Mbale city, a bustling little city whose center square is dominated by a hot-pink clock tower (I promise to get some fotos of this in the future so you know I am not lying.).  We climbed four kilometers more over a potholed and winding road, passing houses, shaded coffee fields, banana trees, beans, and maize, and reached the house of JJ Keki, the director of Peace Kawomera cooperative.
During my first afternoon, I met most of JJ’s twenty-five natural and adopted children (not an exaggeration), whose names I promptly forgot.  I spent the afternoon hanging out with the children and talking with JJ, figuring out how to use the toilet (before JJ showed me the western-style one inside) and generally just getting used to the idea of being here.  I have to say that I was overwhelmed, absolutely overwhelmed, probably from exhaustion from the journey by air and land all the way from London.  I actually fell asleep at 7pm, but was awakened at 830pm by Stacy, one of the daughters, to eat supper.  So I sat down with JJ and ate a plantain mash, beans, rice and greens, quite filling.  Then I laid back down and fell asleep again, not waking until 9am this morning.

By the time I woke today, JJ and the older children had left for Synagogue, as today is Sabbat. I hung out with the kids until Aziz, one of the young professionals that works with the cooperative, showed up.  We chatted for a bit and then he took me to see the cooperative’s new office, which is under construction just down the road from JJ’s place.  Once it is finished, it will be complete with storage and offices, as well as a larger-capacity mechanical coffee depulping machine, which I gathered was installed about five weeks ago.  Aziz also showed me the fermenting tank and drying trays where the current harvest is busily being processed. I showed Aziz some fotos of coffee production in Nicaragua and Brazil, and we were impressed by the similarities and differences in production and processing methods between those two countries and Uganda - all producing the same product!

After Aziz left, I went to hang out with the kids again; this is a major part of my research plan, as you will probably already have noted! One of them, a young girl named Shirin, braided my hair into tight little braids.  I have to say, it looks better on Ugandans than on me.  Otherwise, I am struggling with language, as people here sometimes speak Luganda, sometimes some other tribal language, and some of them speak English.  I am putting my Swahili to work trying to understand and learn some Luganda, so we will see where that goes.  I am also working off of satellite internet here, which is very slow.  The result is that I am having trouble uploading fotos into the blog, so this post is not accompanied by images, unfortunately.  I will keep trying, however, to get some fotos up for you soon, so you have images to accompany the stories.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Journey to Uganda

My stopover in the UK is quickly and enjoyably passing in a series of rainy days in Kerry's house in Kenton, sunny days eating fish and chips at the seaside of Teignmouth with Ian and his family, and lovely nights in noisy pubs with new and old friends. It has been a visit full of conversations about my life and theirs, what we have done and what we have not, what has changed, what we are thinking for the future.  These conversations have me looking forward, towards this coming Thursday when I board my final flight to Uganda, and also backwards, remembering how I got to this moment.

Many of you responded to the email announcing the launching of this blog, and I thank you for your good wishes.  One response came from Paul Katzeff of Thanksgiving Coffee Company, the company in Fort Bragg that buys the coffee produced by Mirembe Kawomera, the cooperative I will be working with in Uganda.  Paul wrote: "How interesting? You show up with Amber and Lidia a decade ago and I get you connected to Nicaragua and now you are doing your Doctorate in Uganda at another Thanksgiving Site. What was the evolution of this adventure?"

Yes, what was the evolution of this adventure?  Why Uganda?  How Uganda? So here starts the real meat of this blog...

First, let me start by saying that Paul from Thanksgiving has entered my life a few times at key points, each time inadvertently pushing me in one way or another, either to do something that might have seemed impossible to me or to think about things in new ways. In 2001, I was a junior at UCLA interested in agriculture and rural development, but having grown up in Los Angeles, I had absolutely no experience with either.  I was, however, getting politicized in what I would say was a more critical way, and involved in the student fair trade campaign at UCLA, which was exclusively focused on bringing more fair trade coffee to the UCLA cafes at that point.  I got an undergraduate research grant to investigate alternative agricultural systems in Central America, but was in a position of having no real research contacts and having to do the research in Central America by the end of the 2001-02 academic year.  That summer I had gotten an internship up in Mendocino County (Northern California) working on an organic permaculture farm, with the idea of getting at least nominal experience in agriculture before I went and studied it.  I was staying with my friend Amber and her family in Fort Bragg, and her mom suggested that Amber, I, and our friend Lida go and talk to Paul at Thanksgiving Coffee Co., because they worked with coffee cooperatives in Nicaragua and perhaps we could go and work with one of the cooperatives there.  Paul agreed to meet with us.  He sat us around a coffee cupping table and told us about Thanksgiving and its relationships with CECOCAFEN cooperative in Matagalpa, Nicaragua.  By the end of the meeting, I was afire with Paul's description of the revolutionary Nicaraguan smallholder cooperatives and all they were doing to transform their world.  Paul could not have known how things would work out almost a decade later, but his openness towards three passionate young university students at that cupping table meeting that summer in Fort Bragg was instrumental in opening up my own vision of life and what I thought was possible.

Paul got us in touch with Chris Bacon, then working on his PhD at UC Santa Cruz, whose dissertation work centered on the relationship between Fair Trade and the social and environmental development processes amongst the smallholder farmers of CECOCAFEN.  Over the fall quarter, I would drive up to Santa Cruz to meet with Chris so that we could hash out what I would be doing, and what my project would be about.  Chris remains a colleague and friend to this day, but I am confident that he was incredibly annoyed by my endless naive questioning and frequent meetings at coffee houses that took up much of his weekends that Fall. But I think he knows I am ever grateful. :)

Getting on with the story, I went in January 2002 with Amber and Lida for an initial visit of three months.  I worked on getting my Spanish up to a functional level, I lived in a base cooperative community called La Reina, where I performed interviews for my research project, and I worked with one of the agricultural technicians, Chacon, in visiting a number of rural communities and cooperatives affiliated with CECOCAFEN to evaluate their potential for a community-based coffee tourism project. At the end of the three months, I was in love - with the cooperative, the families, the vision and collective project of human development and community empowerment. So I went back to UCLA and finished my last quarter.  One week after graduating, I was on a plane back to Nicaragua.  I stayed there until February 2005, almost three years, working first on a natural medicine project with a women's group in the cooperative, then on a roasting project to get good quality coffee from the cooperative into the local Nicaraguan market.  But thanks to Pedro Haslam, then manager of CECOCAFEN, I was hired as project coordinator for the community based agroecotourism project when it was finally funded by Lutheran World Relief in 2003, and most of my time was spent coordinating trainings and infrastructure development for the project, as well as logistical planning and coordination for the various groups of tourists and solidarity organizations that visited the communities participating in the project.

I left living in Nicaragua in 2005, and started my Master's degree in Geography at the University of Kansas in August of 2005.  Over the next four years I got my MA and began my PhD, but also became involved with the local fair trade group in Lawrence and with United Students for Fair Trade.  I became very passionate about promoting closer relationships between student fair trade groups and producer organizations around the world, and my work with USFT primarily centered on furthering a vision of mutual learning and solidarity between the two constituencies of fair trade.  I got to know producers from Asia, Latin America, and Africa (including Mirembe Kawomera), hearing their stories and their concerns, all of which challenged my views on alternative trade and development and made me constantly question how we as students, activists, businesspeople and consumers approach alternative models of trade, how we listen to people speak about their needs, how we assure equal participation in the building of models to meet those needs, and how our ideologies and politics intersect with our promotion of certain models and not others.
All of these musings in the midst of activism led to my PhD dissertation project.  I am essentially interested in how different coffee cooperatives access alternative coffee markets and certifications, and the role of social relations and networks, local political economy, local environments and ideologies in inhibiting or facilitating access to these markets.  I will write in more detail about my project in another blog post, but basically it is a comparative study of three coffee cooperatives: CECOCAFEN in Matagalpa, Nicaragua; Cooxupe in Sul de Minas, Brazil, and Mirembe Kawomera in Mbale, Uganda. 

As Paul mentioned in his email to me, Mirembe Kawomera, like CECOCAFEN, sells their coffee to Thanksgiving.  The story of the cooperative is best told by the cooperative itself, and I invite you to visit its website at http://www.mirembekawomera.com/cooperative.  You will see, as Paul wrote in his email to me, that "this is all about Economic Development because of the peace that the people created for themselves first. However, it is also Peace through economic development and prosperity.That prosperity is dependent on Thanksgiving Coffees ability to sell all their coffee ."  So I also invite you to go to Thanksgiving Coffee Company's online store and purchase a bag or two of Mirembe Kawomera's coffee, so you can taste its "delicious peace" for yourself and support both peace and economic development through your purchase.  You can find the link to the online store on the sidebar of this blog, or here: http://store.thanksgivingcoffee.com/product_info?products_id=29.

That was my (life)journey to Uganda...Stay tuned for more!

Friday, October 9, 2009

the rain in Devon...

The rain has been falling steadily here in Kenton all day, a steady backdrop to the twice-hourly ringing of the bells of the church next door to Kerry's house.  Kenton is a village of about 2000 people near Exeter, where the university is.  Coming back to Exeter after leaving here in May of 2008 has been eye-opening - seeing familiar faces and places through the lense of time passed allows me to remember the place with more calm than I think I experienced it the first time around. I am less nervous now and not going through the culture shock I think I went through the first time I was in England.  It is good to talk with friends and mentors here that I have not seen in a long time, and to see how people and places have changed and how they have stayed the same.
I will be in Devon until Monday, when I travel to Bournemouth for the night to visit a friend there, and then back to London on Tuesday.  I leave for Uganda on Thursday the 15th...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

On the road again...

Hello friends,
l arrived safely to London after traveling from Atlanta via plane, train, and tube.  It is what I would consider to be a typical London day - cool and misty - and I am sitting in the London Central Hostel, tired and really wanting a shower, but happy to be here.  My room isn't quite ready yet, but they have an espresso machine, which is great because there was something wrong with the water supply on the British Airlines flight I took over, so there was NO COFFEE on the flight! The horror...
So I am here writing you and enjoying a nice cappuccino here in the lobby of the hostel in Central London.
Tomorrow I take the train to Exeter, where I will be meeting up with old friends from my time in Exeter in 2007, so it promises to be awesome!
I will keep you posted (and I promise these posts will get much more interesting - I just wanted to let my mom know I was okay!)...