Wishing “to be a peacemaker,” J.J. Keki realized that his Jewish, Christian, and Muslim neighbors in Uganda had one thing in common: coffee farming.
Joav Jonadav “J.J.” Keki was visiting New York City from Uganda on September 11, 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…and thus his life was saved.
After the close call, Keki realized that a major cause of the destruction of the Twin Towers was religious prejudice. He began to ponder what he could do “to be a peacemaker.” Thinking about his own community in the eastern Ugandan city of Mbale, he realized that his Jewish, Christian, and Muslim neighbors had one thing in common: coffee farming. For Keki, religious diversity was not something to fear, but rather something to embrace. “Let not differences cause war,” he says. “Let our differences cause friendship.”
Uganda is one of the most coffee-dependent nations in the world, with coffee sales accounting for up to 60 percent of export revenues. Approximately half of Ugandan families are coffee farmers, most selling their crop at prices vastly below market rate to local middlemen.
Upon his return to Uganda, where he is a leader of 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 they would call Mirembe Kawomera (Delicious Peace). Local farmers of different faiths would work together farming the coffee beans, and sell their products through a fair trade distributor in the United States.
When Margaret Bunihizi, a Catholic and a leader among the women in Mbale, first heard about Keki’s plan, she figured it was a “Jewish project.” But upon learning of the collective’s interfaith dimension, “Mama”—as Bunihizi is called by the Mbale women—convinced her friends to participate. “It was hard to bring in the Catholics,” she says, “but J.J. said ‘to join hands, as we hadn’t before.’”
Sinina Namudosi, 21, a Muslim woman member of the cooperative, says her family has known Keki since before her birth. Although they considered the Kekis friends, she says, “a Muslim wouldn’t share problems with a Christian or Jew.” That’s changed because of Delicious Peace, she explains. People of different faiths began learning about each other’s worship practices and respecting each other’s differences.
In 2004, with help from Kulanu, an American organization dedicated to assisting lost and dispersed remnants of the Jewish people, Delicious Peace secured fair trade certification. Finding a U.S. distributor was more difficult—they were rejected 50 times (partly because they had no means to provide coffee samples to potential buyers). Finally, the Thanksgiving Coffee Company, a Jewish family-run business in California whose motto is “Not Just A Cup But A Just Cup,” agreed “on faith” to become the cooperative’s sole roaster and U.S. distributor.
Judaism has a particularly interesting history in Uganda. It 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.
But in the 1970s the dictator Idi Amin outlawed Jewish practice, forcing most of the Abayudaya to convert to Islam or Christianity. After Amin’s reign ended in 1979, Keki, 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. J.J. Keki’s brother, Gershom Sizomu, is the first black sub-Saharan rabbi, having been ordained last year at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.
By the end of 2008, the cooperative—comprised of more than 750 Jewish, Christian, and Muslim families—had sold more than 112,500 pounds of coffee to Thanksgiving for distribution; sales in 2009 are expected to increase by an additional 37,500 pounds. The families receive above the fair trade market price, netting $1.61 per pound (and Thanksgiving contributes an additional dollar per pound), amounting to almost four times the $0.50/pound most Ugandan coffee growers earn through a middleman. A recent $32,000 USAID grant to the cooperative facilitated the construction of a central washing station, fermentation tanks, and drying tables, as well as organic training to increase crop productivity and quality control.
Margaret Bunihizi now sends her children to school and has bought her own plot of land. She also lives in harmony with her non-Christian neighbors. “On Saturday,” she says, “I go to synagogue, and on Sunday J.J. comes to my church. In our area of Mbale, there is peace.”
Carolyn Slutsky, a journalist, teaches writing in New York City. This story is based on her article in The Jewish Week in New York.
The story of the group of interfaith Ugandan farmers who banded together to form a coffee cooperative and better their lives has inspired Jews and interfaith groups across America, including Reform congregations and schools, to purchase the farmers’ coffee.
Julie Kremer, a parent at the Rashi School in Boston, says: “Here you have a Jewish coffee farmer who joins his Muslim and [Christian] neighbors to provide all the things they need—health care, school, peace, and the chance to have a better life.”
Rita Semel, 87, of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, calls the Ugandan cooperative “interfaith activity in the best possible fashion,” enabling people of different faiths to work together to make a living for their families.
Roberta Roos, who helps coordinate social action projects at Woodlands Community Temple in White Plains, New York, says that when members of her temple choose projects, they “look for ones that are high up on Maimonides’ ladder because we realize that we cannot provide band-aids forever.... Our congregants like the coffee, like the idea that it is Fair Trade and organic certified, and, most of all, like the idea that we are helping the members of this community support themselves and live good lives.”
To support the Mirembe Kawomera collective by buying the coffee wholesale for use or resale, visit www.mirembekawomera.com/coffee.