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.