A Thanksgiving Tale

Here’s a real Thanksgiving tale to warm your cockles: Thanksgiving Coffee, a California-based distributor of organic and fair trade coffees, is offering Mirembe Kawomera coffee, produced by a Ugandan cooperative composed of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian coffee growers.

The story of Mirembe Kamowere — which means “delicious peace” — is amazing. In 1999, as world coffee prices plummeted due to a glut of Brazilian and Vietnamese coffees, Jewish Ugandan J.J. Keki went door-to-door through his community encouraging his fellow farmers — mostly Muslim and Christian — to band together in an effort to create a stronger bargaining position. The effort was successful, allowing alliance-members to clear 20 to 40 cents a pound more than for conventionally-traded coffee, meaning Ugandan coffee growers can earn a dependable living somewhat buffered from the vagaries of the world market system.

That there’s a sizable Jewish community in Uganda at all is something of a feat. Semei Kakungulu, a general and charismatic leader of the Baganda who had converted to Protestantism in the 1880s, largely to curry favor with the British colonial powers who he felt could offer him a kingdom of his own, became disenchanted with the colonial powers in the first decade of the 20th century, and in 1913 joined an anti-colonial, Old Testament-heavy Christian sect known as the Malaki. In 1919, a theological dispute with leaders of the sext led him to abandon the New Testament-derived elements of the Malaki Christianity and circumcise himself as a Jew. Having made enemies of both the British colonial powers and the native anti-colonialists, Kakungulu fled to Mt. Elgon, where he formed the Kibina Kya Bayudaya Absesiga Katonda, “the Community of Jews who trust in the Lord”.

After Kakungulu’s death, some of his followers reverted to Christianity, but others embraced Judaism and became the Abayudaya. At times numbering as many as 3,000, today’s Abayudaya community counts about 600 among its members, having survived anti-Semitism from their Christian and Muslim neighbors, as well as official persecution under the Idi Amin regime.

As an Abayudayad Jew, Keki has had to work hard to secure the trust and respect of his neighbors, which he has done largely by focusing on the similarities between these three “people of the book”. In 2002, he won a local council seat, suggesting that he has managed to maintain his credibility with his non-Jewish neighbors. The continuing success of the coffee co-op seems also to owe much to his leadership abilities, as well as the support of companies like Thanksgiving Coffee. In a world where conflict between Jews, Muslims, and Christians is becoming increasingly the norm, Mirembe Kawomera truly is a “delicious peace” — and that’s something we can all be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving!

[via Treehugger]

14 thoughts on “A Thanksgiving Tale

  1. As much as I appreciate the above story about different religious communities in what is today known as Uganda, I cannot help but feel a little dismayed by the tone and the righteous consumerist assumptions behind such “heart-warming” tales… What’s the message here? Fellow young Americans, buy this coffee and feel great about being “fair”? After all, you are helping some far-away people (I suppose for Thanksgiving you’ll be tacitly thankful you’re not in their place), so why shouldn’t you feel like you’re being a fair and just if you toss a few bucks their way?

    When the on-going Iraq war started in 2003, many coffee shops around liberal US universities posted on their windows ads that they carry something called “Peace Coffee.” As the US government was waging war, “Peace Coffee” and other consumerist alternatives once again offered a feel-good outlet for American liberal anger…

    Having read other engaging posts on otherwise Savage Minds, I was really surprised to see the uncritical endorsement of such feel-good consumerist outlets for liberal conscience.

  2. So in my last two posts, I’ve been challenged for a) being too critical of consumerism and b) not being critical enough of consumerism. Which is, to me, a sign that I’m doing something right. We are, after all, deeply embedded in a consumption-based economy which has drastic ramifications for our respective cultures (and, at least until MIT’s One Laptop Per Child program takes off, if you’re using a PC you are part of that “we”). Any critique of consumption has to be shaded by some ambiguity, as few among us — the New Primitivists excepted — are culturally equipped to give up consumerism and start growing our own food or, better yet, hit the foraging trail.

    Now, I’m not a coffee-drinker, so I simply cannot endorse Mirembe Kawomera coffee — for all I know, it could taste like crap! But as someone who is both necessarily bound to consumerism and dedicated to principles of social and economic justice, I do respect efforts to bring to market products that increase, in some way, justice — if I’m going to buy my subsistence, I’d rather know that the people producing it were able to subsist themselves. Too many products — coffee, sugar, coffee, cotton, and so on — are brought to market with the labor of slaves, and too many more with labor so cheap as to provide no living. Co-ops like Mirembe Kawomera strike me as an excellent example of the ways in which people manage to adapt to changing environments, and that is not only of political interest but of anthropological interest.

    Now, we can and should examine the global farming regime that forces people around the world to produce monocropped cash crops for export to the post-production West, in turn forcing them to re-import basic staples that they could jsut as well have grown themselves. And we can and should examine the division of labor that props up the consumption-based societies of the global West and the way consumption is integrated into/with identity in those societies (which was the subtext of my previous post on monogamy). But I think we can do these things while remaining appreciative of the innovation and can-do-it-iveness of people at the far end of the production scheme that, first and foremost, have families to feed.

    For me, the real interest in this story has less to do with “fair trade” practices and more to do with local efforts to bridge what is increasingly portrayed as an unbridgable gap between Jews and Christians on one side and Muslims on another. The “Clash of Civilizations” mentality runs deep in our thinking, and moreso since the advent of the Global War on Isla– er, “Terror”. That these conflicts are not “inbred” but are rather more situational is highlighted by efforts such as Mirembe Kawomera’s that create situations for the abatement of inter-religious/inter-ethnic conflict. This, far more than the availability of a feel-good response to the feel-bad economy of coffee-growing, is something to be thankful for.

  3. To which one might add (after donning flame-retardant garments) that it is possible to learn more about people actually doing something to reduce poverty, encourage community, etc., by checking out Bruce Mau’s Massive Change exhibition or reading Harvard Business Review or Fast Company than in any anthropology journal I know of.

  4. Yes. Although it comes as a surprise to some people, anthropology is actually an academic discipline and not a kind of activism. Why _would_ reading anthropology journals (or writing the articles in them) somehow fundamentally change the world?

  5. “Why would reading anthropology journals (or writing the articles in them) somehow fundamentally change the world?”

    Dunno about your Anthropology, but my Cultural Studies intend to produce knowledge that contributes to solve contemporary social problems by increasing people’s ability towards self-reflection.

  6. “Why would reading anthropology journals (or writing the articles in them) somehow fundamentally change the world?”

    By making people aware of realities other than their own and by fostering an acknowledgemet of the impact one society can have on others. Whether or not people choose to act on these forms of knowledge is a whole other thing.

  7. I doubt Rex would dedicate his life to anthropology if he didn’t believe that it contributed to the “greater good,” but I think he is objecting to the mistaken belief that there must be a one-to-one correspondence between a specific anthrpological argument and specific changes in the world we live in. Put in another way, we can agree that the media have an effect upon society without beliving that TV violence has a direct impact on crime statistics. (It doesn’t – TV in the US has steadily gotten more violent while violent crime rates have decreased.)

    Oneman is the one who has argued most forcefully that anthropology has a moral grounding, and yet even he does not wish to be held accountable to a moral litmus test for every statement he makes – especially when it is so tangential to the main point of his post.

    For the record, I personally agree that the promise of guilt-free consumerism shouldn’t be treated as a panacea, but if you are going to drink coffee you might as well make the most informed choice you can about where your coffee comes from, how its grown, and who profits from your spending. As an educator I can’t see anything wrong with people being more informed and acting on that information.

  8. “.. one-to-one correspondence between a specific anthropological argument and specific changes in the world we live in.”

    We re no magicians, are we?
    Actually it is not the reading (and also not the writing of articles in itself) of Anthro journals, that “somehow fundamentally changes the world”, but anthropologists’ choices of the subjects they focus on and especially how they represent them, pointing to issues of contextualization.

    Nancy said,
    “By making people aware of realities other than their own and by fostering an acknowledgemet of the impact one society can have on others. Whether or not people choose to act on these forms of knowledge is a whole other thing.”

    For this goal actually I agree considering anthro journals not to be the perfect media, simply because they mostly are not read by “the people”.

  9. Moreover, as Stuart Hall realized when he left the CCCS in Birmingham, inner academic articulation differs from non-academic one.
    He had faced the need for a reformulation of the highly theoretizied content that had been developped within the Centre after having begun to engage in adult education, now teaching adult “ordinary people” [in contrast to the intellectual elite that had been the public he articulated himself in and that responded to him at the Centre].

  10. I’d like to ask Rex directly if “the greater good” was significant in his choice to become an anthropologist.

    I recall an Students for Democratic Society (SDS) meeting in Ann Arbor, the summer of 1967, when I was attending the Summer Institute in Linguistics and the anti-Vietnam War movement was in full flare. There were, as I recall, fifty or sixty people in the room. After what seemed an eternity of people rising to denounce “the system” and deplore the atrocities being committed in Vietnam, one brave soul rose to his feet and asked, “How many of us would be in academia because we actually like it, if this war weren’t going on?” Three of us raised our hands.

    Even in my own case (and I was one of the three), I would have to admit that an academic career seemed the path of least resistance to someone who had always done well in school and had no desire whatsoever to be involved in either business or government. Since I was male and opposed to the war, avoiding the draft was another big factor. I don’t recall that “the greater good” figured in my decision, except, perhaps, as the vague notion that contributing to the sum of human knowledge is a good thing to do.

  11. No. I choose to be an anthropologist because people kept telling me I’d be good at it and I didn’t have anything else to do. But I’ll blog more on this shortly.

  12. I choose to be an anthropologist because people kept telling me I’d be good at it and I didn’t have anything else to do.

    Were you one of those ghetto kids in LA or the Chicago projects who they were handing out cameras or tape recorders to and asking them to document their culture? I’m sure anthro beats selling crack. Better for society too. Talk about win-win. Thanksgiving indeed.

  13. I choose to be an anthropologist because people kept telling me I’d be good at it and I didn’t have anything else to do.

    wow… how about that for full disclosure.

    it’s refreshing to see that kind of honesty from people who profess to be committed to critical examination and reflection on various social issues.

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