Smithsonian Institution
Winter 2010: Featuring Roberto Martinez



The online, multimedia magazine of Smithsonian Folkways

Mirembe Kawomera (Delicious Peace)

Coffee, Music and Interfaith Harmony in Uganda

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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.

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Click images to enlarge

Field Recordings

J. J. Keki and the Kawomera Jazz Band

Lyrics: "Wake up and chase out poverty. It's the right time. Let us arise and farm coffee."

Aissa Mbiko Farmers Group

Lyrics: "We in Mbale, we grow coffee. In Namonyoni, we grow coffee. The doctors grow coffee. The teachers grow coffee. The M.P.'s grow coffee. The counselors grow coffee. The judges grow coffee. All of Mbale grows coffee. Peace Kawomera grows coffee."

Recordings compiled by Jeffrey A. Summit
Delicious Peace: Coffee, Music & Interfaith Harmony in Uganda

recording details