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  • From the Field
    Mirembe Kawomera (Delicious Peace)
    Coffee, Music and Interfaith Harmony in Uganda
    by Jeffrey A. Summit

I find it challenging to record in small villages in Uganda. A case in point: In October, I returned to Namonyonyi, outside the city of Mbale, for my third visit with the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian coffee farmers of the Mirembe Kawomera (Delicious Peace) interfaith fair-trade coffee cooperative. I spent a couple of days with four teenagers in the village—one Jew, one Muslim, and two Christians—whose families are all members of the cooperative. The boys play embaire (a type of xylophone) together, and, machetes flying, they made an eleven-key embaire from a small eucalyptus tree. Right after the instrument was finished, they jumped in to play, accompanied by another teenager on a ngoma (drum). But I no sooner started to record them than we were surrounded by every child in the village, with mothers in tow. Crying babies, kids herding goats, the odd motorbike, all were drawn to the music—and added "authentic" albeit extraneous ambient sound. Sometimes, however, when I wanted to record, I'd ask the farmers if we could move to areas with more privacy and better acoustics; then, we would walk over to the local synagogue, church, or mosque, where it was a bit easier to monitor and control the crowds.

On my previous two field trips to Namonyonyi, together with photojournalist Richard Sobol, I'd recorded and filmed the music of more than 300 coffee farmers. There is no music associated with the coffee harvest in Uganda comparable to the field hollers that were sung while harvesting cotton in the American South or the post-harvest music competitions studied by Frank Gunderson in Tanzania. The farmers' songs are rather performed at community gatherings such as local farmer days, meetings of the cooperative, and wedding receptions of its members, and they focus on a variety of themes. The lyrics convey everything from the importance of peace: (Members, let us gather together/When we keep together we shall have everlasting peace/We need peace, we need unity, let's all join together) to the benefits of fair trade (I was lacking money but when I got hold of the hoe, I got something/And us, we are using it for the education of our children/Fair trade is very profitable. This hoe is profitable/For the children to go to school, you have to plant coffee/To have joy, you have to plant coffee/). Farmers also sing to welcome government officials to their villages, to honor the leadership of the cooperative, and to welcome the field supervisors from the Thanksgiving Coffee Company—the company in Fort Bragg, California, which is the sole distributor of their coffee. But most of their songs are directed toward their neighbors who stopped growing after the coffee market crashed in the 1990s. Farmers encourage their neighbors to join the co-op and, through their songs, teach methods for producing higher quality coffee.

Working with coffee farmers has given a whole new meaning to "fieldwork." On this past trip, I spent most of my time tromping through the muddy coffee fields as the harvest was peaking. I also hung out at the small co–op office as farmers carried in 50–kilo bags of raw coffee beans. While coffee is a major part of so many of our lives, few coffee drinkers understand how labor-intensive it is to produce good quality coffee. Coffee cherries ripen at different times on a tree, making it impossible to mechanize the harvest.

There is only one way for an excellent cup of Mirembe Kawomera coffee to get to my kitchen in Massachusetts, and it starts with a farmer in eastern Uganda walking into the field, looking carefully at a coffee tree, and picking the scattered coffee cherries that have ripened. Time is of the essence: cherries must be picked within a three–to–four–day window of ripeness. After picking, the cherries are sorted, washed, hand–pulped, dried, picked over, and bagged to be taken to the cooperative office. My fieldwork has made me acutely aware of this web of connection between us and coffee farmers in Uganda, Guatemala, Ethiopia, and other parts of the world.

Back to Uganda

I thought I was winding down my work in Uganda after completing the Smithsonian Folkways CD Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda in 2004, but coffee led me back to Namonyonyi. Since the time I had begun my work with the Abayudaya Jews in 2000, J. J. Keki, one of the community's leaders and a key performer and composer on the CD, had founded an interfaith fair-trade coffee cooperative with his Muslim and Christian neighbors. J. J. described how he and many other farmers were writing and playing songs to encourage others to join the cooperative and to share the benefits of fair trade and interfaith cooperation. I thought, "This project has everything I love: music, coffee, and world peace!"

I hoped the peace it was creating was real. I know how challenging interfaith cooperation can be. In my university rabbinic work, I had been co-directing a multi-campus project funded by the Academic Affairs Office of the Department of Homeland Security to promote understanding among Muslims, Jews, and Christians through dialogue and education. I was eager to explore the impact that J. J.'s cooperative, Delicious Peace, was having on the communities. Was their cooperation real or just a clever way to market fair-trade coffee?

One Man's Vision

J. J.'s vision for the cooperative grew out of seeing close up what can happen when religious conflict leads to violence. On his first trip to the United States on a lecture tour in 2001, he stayed in our home in Boston on September 10th; he was on his way to New York to meet a friend who was going to show him the city from the World Trade Center Towers and was literally walking up to the buildings when the planes hit. J. J. thereby became "the Ugandan on the scene of the disaster" and was interviewed by New Vision, the Monitor, and other local papers in Uganda. This 9/11 notoriety, coupled with the GRAMMY nomination for the Abayudaya CD and the belief that J. J.'s new contacts in the U.S. could help local development, got him elected as chairman of Namonyonyi sub-county.

After 9/11, J. J. was more convinced than ever in the importance of interfaith cooperation. As he related, "It was not difficult for me to set up Peace Kawomera in 2004. I had been working with all of these people. They were the ones who elected me to office." Working together with Laura Wetzler, of the non-profit organization Kulanu, they established a relationship with the Thanksgiving Coffee Company. J.J. walked door to door selling his vision of an interfaith cooperative, and to date, more than 1,000 farmers have joined Peace Kawomera.

To what extent is this interfaith cooperation working? Organizationally, the leadership of the co-op is religiously diverse: the chairman, J. J. Keki, is Jewish; the secretary manager, Eliasa Hasulube, is Muslim; the treasurer, Samuel Ngugo, is Christian. The Abayudaya have developed a stated policy of shalom bayit (Hebrew: peace in the house) with their Muslim and Christian neighbors, actively working to develop inter-religious development projects (schools, clean water, power). While these projects have been successful, in my conversations with Christians living on Nabugoye Hill (where the Semei Kakungalu Primary and Secondary School are located), I still found a certain amount of jealousy directed at the Jewish community. The Abayudaya have raised money from Jewish visitors to provide scholarships for Jewish children in the school. But there were no scholarships in place yet for Muslims and Christians. Furthermore, while the bar is generally low for religious conversion in this area, the local Christians complained that it was very hard to convert to Judaism; the Jews required circumcision for all men as well as intensive study and community participation before they would consider someone for conversion.

Still, the cooperative was clearly making a difference in people's behavior and attitudes. Women farmers' groups are primarily organized by location, and because the neighborhoods are not segregated by religion, many of these groups, who work and sing together, have members from the three religious traditions. Women described how they help one another farm when necessary. Men and women who in the past would have never sat down to eat with one another now socialize freely. In the church in Namonyonyi, the chairman publicly observed (in Lugisu), "It's that unity which brought us peace." After Friday prayer, as I stood outside the Nkoma mosque, the chairman of the local Muslim community put his hand on my shoulder and said, "You know, we are all children of the same God. We see little sense in fighting. We have found it is more to our benefit to cooperate together."

About the author

Jeffrey A. Summit is an Associate Professor of Music at Tufts University, where he also serves as rabbi and Neubauer Executive Director of Tufts Hillel. His CD Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings) was nominated for a GRAMMY Award.

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