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  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:

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!)...