MBALE, UGANDA — November is the season for harvesting coffee in eastern Uganda. The rains are ending, but the rolling hills around Mount Elgon are still bursting with green. When the coffee beans are ripe they turn bright red, contrasting against the leaves.
The harvest comes at a good time for the farmers because there are no major holidays for Muslims, Christians or Jews during this busy period. This is a good thing because in the town of Mbale, members of the three faiths enjoy celebrating their holy days together. Muslims and Christians are regulars at the Passover seder table and Jews regularly join Christmas celebrations or Eid festivals.
The Mbale region hosts a cooperative of 2,000 Jewish, Christian and Muslim coffee farmers who grow coffee called “Mirembe Kawomera,” which translates as “Delicious Peace” in the local language of Luganda.
Relationships between the three religions were cordial but distant before the coffee co-op began. There was some animosity stemming from Idi Amin’s brutal 1971-1979 dictatorship, when he outlawed Judaism and killed a number of bishops. Previously, Jews and Muslims had argued over land ownership issues because some synagogues had been appropriated as mosques and churches during the Amin years, but court cases eventually settled the matter and the land returned to the Jewish community.
Uganda as a whole is approximately 80 percent Christian and 12% Muslim, though Muslims are a majority in the Mbale region. Jews are a tiny minority in Uganda, with only 2,000 members, mostly concentrated around the region of Mbale.
The indigenous Abuyadaya Jewish community in Uganda has its origins in 1919 when a respected leader named Semei Kakangulu immersed himself in the Bible and decided to become Jewish, creating Judaism based on a literal interpretation of the Torah. His movement gathered 8,000 followers and 36 synagogues before Kakangulu’s death in 1928. Outlawed during Idi Amin’s reign, the community shrank to less than 300 people in 1980. But after members underwent conversions with a Beit Din (rabbinic court) in 2002, the community has grown to 2,000 members and six synagogues in Uganda today.
Inspiration for the interfaith coffee co-op came from JJ Keki, one of the senior leaders of the Abuyadaya Jewish community. On September 11, 2001, Keki was in New York on a speaking tour organized by Kulanu, a nonprofit that supports isolated Jewish communities. He had planned to visit the observation deck at the World Trade Center the same day the towers came crashing down.
“This was religious-motivated violence, and I said to myself, this could happen in Uganda, too. We must do something,” Keki said. “In 2004 we started this co-p. The Muslims also said they didn’t want the violence to come here. They said, ‘We’re already brothers. Even though we have differences, we don’t want to fight and kill each other.’”
Ugandans are worried about the influence of extremist Muslim violence. The Somalia-based al-Shabab terrorist group carried out attacks in neighboring Kenya, including the Westgate Mall attack in September 2013, and Ugandans are concerned the terrorism could spill over into their country. This interfaith cooperative is a preemptive strike against fanaticism, by creating close working relationships across religions so children grow up in a more tolerant environment.
The idea for a coffee cooperative arose during a brainstorming session between Keki, his brother Gershom Sizomu, the rabbi of the Abuyadaya community, and Laura Wetzler, the Uganda coordinator for Kulanu. They wanted to find development projects that would bring economic opportunities to the area.
Uganda’s economy is heavily dependent on agriculture, with 82% of the workforce engaged in farming, according to the CIA World Factbook. But most people in the Mbale region are subsistence farmers, focused solely on growing their own food. Many farmers turned away from coffee in the 1990s when the coffee market crashed, leaving farmers destitute.
Individual coffee growers face a tough market, especially those in isolated rural villages who are hampered by problematic transportation. Individually, the farmers have no power to negotiate for a better price if they feel an offer is too low, as they do not have enough product to offer. But a cooperative gives them much more leverage in the market and helps raise the economic level of the entire community, Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Additionally, Fair Trade certification means that farmers are guaranteed a price “floor” of minimum payment, safeguarding them from the volatile coffee market.
Keki and Sizomu returned to Uganda to organize the co-op, while Wetzler, a professional musician by trade, started cold-calling fair trade coffee companies to find a buyer. She had a list of 50 companies, and one by one they turned her down. “We love your interfaith story, but you are too small and too inexperienced,” the companies told her over and over. Finally, Wetzler connected with Paul Katzeff of the Thanksgiving Coffee company. Katzeff, who is also Jewish, jumped on the project, flying to Uganda and assisting with training and organic certification.
Back in Uganda, farmers were thrilled with the idea of a cooperative. “We had coffee, but no market,” explained Elias Hasulube, a Muslim who serves as a manager and senior field officer in charge of quality control. “We thought, ‘maybe from America, they can coordinate to connect us to someone for buying and selling coffee.” The farmers joined an existing grower’s union called “Gumutindo,” which means “good quality” in Luganda.
The cooperative was certified as a Fair Trade coffee producer and exported its first coffee in 2005, within a year of its founding. Membership started with 250 farmers and today numbers over 2,000.
“Since we formed the co-op, there has been a working relationship between the religions,” said Samuel Ngugo, a Protestant who has served as the cooperative’s treasurer since it began. Reflective of the region’s population, the majority of the farmers are Muslim, but the board of the cooperative includes representatives from every religion. The cooperative also holds bimonthly lectures to help members improve their coffee production.
“We were in the middle of the Iraq war [when the co-op started], and there was something very vital working on a project about people working together peacefully,” said Wetzler, who now works with other projects in the Abuyadaya community. “That’s the focus of all of the work, to light a candle in the world of horrors.”
“There wasn’t a problem here, but we didn’t know this aspect of working together,” said Hasulube. “The coffee cooperative has also helped the community grow. It supports primary schools from all three religions.”
“Since we formed the co-op, farmers have the chance to sell coffee at a higher amount, and this means they can pay school fees and build new houses,” added Ngugo.
“This project empowered the farmers tremendously in the marketplace which had never been opened before,” said Wetzler. “That whole area of eastern Uganda sat up and took notice for potential of expanding into organic market, into organic fair trade. It’s a very particular niche. The other thing we saw was within two to three years, people were living in brick houses with metal roofs instead of mud huts with grass roofs. There were a lot of challenges along the way, but little by little we could see a lot of the farmers in this area improving.”
In addition to growing coffee, the initiative has produced a number of interfaith musical groups that adapt local songs to relate to coffee: the economic benefits, gratitude to the organizers, encouragement and even tips for growing the best type of coffee. Rabbi Jeffrey Summit of Tufts University recorded an album of music called Delicious Peace: Coffee, Music & Interfaith Harmony in Uganda celebrating these songs.
Music is so interwoven into daily life in Uganda that songs are the ideal vehicle for passing on knowledge about proper growing techniques and interfaith cooperation. There’s also a movie: Actor Ed O’Neill, who plays Jay Pritchett on the popular sitcom “Modern Family,” narrated a documentary about the Delicious Peace cooperative in 2010.
But the leaders of Delicious Peace are hoping to export more than just coffee beans: they want to export their message to the larger world. “Whoever hears our story says, ‘Why are we fighting?’” said Hasulube. “The more we get customers and they read the story on our packages, the more we’ll get that message across.”
“Our coffee has a wonderful story that we want people to copy, like Israel and Palestine,” said Keki. “Our coffee must teach the world that even if you have differences in religion or culture, you can still be good friends.”
The coffee is available at a number of US specialty shops or online.