Busonga, Uganda in the eyes of another American:
It is Thursday morning, after a brief time harvesting coffee beans in the garden, a rain storm has come to Busonga. It is a good time to sit back and reflect on the journey that I have been on for nearly a week now.
The flights were long but well worth it as Keri greeted me in Entebbe, Uganda. Sande, Keri’s host-father’s son, helped retrieve me at the airport. This is where the wonderful ‘welcome!’s would start. I would be welcomed again shortly at my first night stay in Kampala at the home of the Edward’s wife’s brother, Cornelius, and his family. After a very short visit and a good night’s sleep, we headed to the village.
Arriving in the village, the ‘welcome’s were almost beyond words. Edward’s wife, Amoti, is a truly special woman, showing so much love and emotion. (Keri is in good and loving hands.) Edward tells me he is truly blessed to have Keri, and then her father, stay with him. A very religious man with strong cultural ties.
Before retiring for the evening, we headed to Edward’s mother’s house. There, we were welcomed by many relatives with song and dance. A wonderful way to end the evening.
Being very tired they let me sleep in. I woke up well rested, grabbed my water and toothbrush, and took a walk. To my surprise, about 75 feet from the house, I was standing on a sheer cliff with hundreds of feet of drop off. The view is stunning, looking down at crater lakes and farms of bananas, cassava, coffee, and many others I am eager to learn about.
Then, it was time to go to Sunday service, the church being on top of the hill with views that a camera doesn’t do justice. The welcome came in song and dance that I will truly never forget. With drums beating and congregation singing, you could feel the love for Keri and myself being in this beautiful and blessed setting. As the service ended there was a magnificent storm of rain, hail, lightning, and thunder. It has been dry here, so the rain was very welcomed.
Edward’s son, Paul, had traveled all night long from Kampala to visit his family and attend the service. Along his side was his soon-to-be wife, Jackie (their marriage intentions announced at Mass). We arrived back to an enormous feast to celebrate.
Everyone here is very gracious and welcoming. The countryside is as beautiful as I have seen anywhere. The soil so dark and rich, providing for a god base for all the farming, some on slopes so very hard to imagine. The work is done all by hand and is exhausting just to watch.
I am in “God’s Country,” being with Keri here is truly an uplifting experience. There have been so many wonderful welcomes so far, and perhaps more to go.
It will be hard leaving here, leaving Keri, leaving the absolutely beautiful setting, the warmth of both climate and new friendships. I have a few more days here and I plan to make the best of it!
Love you all!
P.S. Hope to see you at the airport, Ma.
My dad landed in Kampala, Uganda on Friday night!
As you might imagine, I have SO much to write. But as you also might imagine, I have very little time to write it, since I’ve got an incredibly honorable Mzungu visitor to be hanging out with. I’ll write more another time, but for now, some brief highlights:
1. Dad is a king here. Maawe has prepared feasts for every meal and snack, Tata loves introducing his American guest to anyone and everyone, and Dad’s received a total of three choreographed/singing welcomes in the three days he’s been here!
2. Dad and I had ZERO luck on our fishing excursion today. My host parents were super bummed that our American gadgets didn’t catch us dinner…oops. But the views all around the crater lake were positively amazing, and as soon as I have a better internet connection I’ll make sure to upload some pictures!
3. I’ve offered up Dad as chef for tomorrow’s breakfast. He’ll be cooking french toast over Maawe’s fire! However it turns out, there’s really nothing a good dose of New England maple syrup won’t be able to make delicious. Or the Jiff peanut butter I asked him to bring…Maawe and Tata are huge fans of that.
and on an unrelated-to-Dad’s-visit-note:
4. I’ve officially decided to attend Yale University next year! I will be pursuing my PhD…for the next 6 to 7 years…in African environmental history!
…I doubt Tata approves very much of my leaving my father at the house to come to Kichwamba High School to use my computer, so I need to scurry back for evening tea (which, since Dad is here, is served with MILK yesss!).
More updates to come next time I have the chance!
America through some Ugandans’ eyes…Is this where you live?
- America is flat. There are no hills, let alone mountains. Oh, and there are no lakes, either.
- There is no poverty, unemployment, or budget cuts. Why would the United States government provide aid to other countries if there were?
- There are also no teenage parents, alcoholics, drug addicts, or prostitutes in America. Oh, and no Muslims, either, but that’s because Americans hate them, and they hate Americans.
- Most Americans have guns.
- There are few black people in America. If a Ugandan went to New York City, he would surely be called a name for the color of his skin, just as I am called “Mzungu” for the color of mine.
- There are no dirt roads anywhere in all of America.
- All Americans are kind, generous, and rich people.
- Americans marry their relatives. After all, all white people look alike!
- Americans must live until they are 130 or 140 years old, since there is no poverty and the health care is so great.
- Barack Obama may as well be Jesus incarnated.
Because this is where I live (Busonga through an American’s eyes):
- The water, which must be boiled before it is drunk, often tastes like smoke.
- Bananas—either sweet bananas or plantains—are included in each and every snack and meal.
- Homosexuality is not natural. Men have certain parts and women have certain parts; those parts are meant to perform a precise function, and no other. Plus, the purpose of marrying is to have kids—why get married and have no family?
- Dogs are not neutered, and loud dog sex EVERYWHERE and ALWAYS (when the dogs are in heat) is nothing to bat an eye at.
- Eating a fish “egg sac” is like eating a thousand fish! Therefore, I am given the sac, which looks sort of like a sausage, every time Maawe cooks fish, since “to be fat is precious!” Tata and Maawe want a precious daughter.
- It is not uncommon for men to have more than one wife, even Christians (like Tata, whose second wife died two years ago, but with whom he has two daughters).
- Avocadoes can grow to be as big as my head.
- When Tata, Maawe, or I pee at night, we do so into buckets that we keep in our rooms. We empty and wash our buckets every morning. If I need to have a “night call” to the latrine (a.k.a. need to take a shit), I’m to wake Tata, so that he can make sure there are no dogs outside before I go.
- To fail to greet people that you pass while walking is to be too proud.
- The nicest houses in Busonga have cement walls and tile floors, metal roofs with ceilings, glass windows, pleasant sitting rooms with stuffed couches and chairs, swept verandas, and low cut lawns in shrub-lined compounds. The low-end homes are made from mud and have thatch roofs. Mud bricks, fired in local kilns, are becoming more common; these bricks are what Tata’s house is built from. “People live in palaces in Kampala.”
- The radio that Tata and Maawe have in their room can be played at any and all hours of the night. 1am? 5am? You bet.
- Yoweri Museveni, the current president, in power now for 28 years, banned teaching politics and political science in schools a few years ago. (Many people prioritize peace and security over progress, so they support the enduring regime. Others—mostly younger people—want Museveni out.)
- Once “contacts” have been exchanged, it is entirely normal and acceptable to call a person several times a day—from 6am to 10pm—just to wish them a good morning, afternoon, evening, or night.
- The hills are not easy (and by that I mean ridiculously difficult) to run up, but children love chasing me down them (more on this another time).
I often write about dreams.
Today, I’ll share with you a nightmare.
I could hear the thumping pop music well before I reached the main entrance of Coolidge Dormitory. As my friend and I trudged up the stairs with duffel bags stuffed with a weekend’s worth of Track gear, we realized with mounting certainty that the hubbub was coming from our suite. No surprise there; we lived with two other teammates who hadn’t traveled to Colby College to compete that weekend—along with about half of the team—and the sheer vitality of the first sunny spring Saturday was reason enough to celebrate. Still, I was exhausted from the long haul back from Maine, so I can’t say I was thrilled there was a team party just a wall away from my bed. But, despite fatigue, I was in high spirits; ACWTF had an excellent weekend on the track, including a couple of NCAA-qualifying performances and a shattered school record in the 4 x 800m relay.
I pushed open the door to my suite and paused to survey the scene inside. ACTF athletes were scattered around the room in typical party action. Some briefly halted to see who had opened the door. But the two teammates—two senior captains returning from a championship race—who had entered were apparently not worth acknowledging.
My relay-mate and I lugged our bags to the bedrooms and bathroom area. No ‘Hey’s, ‘How was the meet?’s or ‘Nice Job’s. Ghosts in our own suite, among our own teammates.
Five minutes later, simmering in confused rejection, the weekend’s sweetness had turned sour.
I woke up from the nightmare right after I said, “Hey, great party! By the way, the team had an awesome weekend on the track!” to one of my teammates, and she slammed a door in my face.
The nightmare haunts me. It knots up my stomach. I’m thousands of miles from American college tracks, nearly a year past competing, hundreds of workouts from record-setting fitness. And yet some parts of me are still sore.
The worst part of the nightmare? It really happened.
I invite you to interpret my angst around this situation as critically as you like. You’re welcome to think I was fishing for teammates’ gratification and was pissed when I didn’t get it. But I’ll argue that my stress over the situation ran—and still runs—much deeper.
I had so many XC/Track goals for my senior year, but as a captain, I wanted more than anything else for my team to feel like it was striving for something together. I grew up with teammates who lived for sports, who hung out extra hours at rinks and ballparks, who always had Frisbees and running shoes in their backpacks, who went hoarse every weekend cheering at meets and tournaments—I longed for that shared passion, vigor, muscle, heart, whatever you want to call it, that bonds a team.
I didn’t just want to be a runner, a competitor, a champion. I wanted to be a teammate.
It should come as no surprise that over the course of my senior year, I put so much into athletics and my team. I generally believe that the more you put into something, the more you’ll get out of it, and I (usually) enjoyed the miles, the team events I tried to organize, the long days at competitions. But as my senior year rushed on, the fruits of my efforts seemed to be shriveling, withering, rotting away. Though by all other measures, my senior year was going phenomenally, I was inexpressibly frustrated that despite my (and other’s) efforts, the ‘team’ness of ACWTF felt artificial at best. Team members took the sport to varying levels of seriousness, and rarely did the team seem united behind a common goal, even to the point that we were unaware or indifferent of each other’s failures and successes.
Oh, I, along with some others—we tried. Posters were made. Locker rooms decorated. Team dinners declared. Parties hosted. Still, more people could be found working on homework at meets than cheering. Workouts were somber, sometimes dreaded occasions. Track meets seemed to be necessary gateways to a Saturday night party, not a time to compete and support each other. The more I put into the team and sport, the more foolish I felt and the more exhausted I became—my “you get what you give” belief was heartbreakingly and infuriatingly disproven. Honestly, by mid-Spring, I was very disenchanted, if not embittered, and the incentive to keep trying disappeared.
Though pretty extreme, my nightmare/this real instance was nothing extraordinary. Don’t think I never questioned my own actions—what had I done wrong? how had I failed so miserably? (I don’t just mean that night, I mean all year long.) But no matter how anxious I was over the matter, answers never came. My hopes from the beginning of the year had been mangled into a nightmare.
And here I am in Africa, hung up on something that I should be so far moved on from.]
Dreaming of that Saturday night when I felt so pathetically alienated from my teammates, at first my bitterness was reignited. But as I tinkered away in Tata’s gardens the morning after the nightmare, I began to make sense of my anxiety on the matter.
I have long since realized that you cannot force people to care. Not about Track races, not about each other, not about anything at all—given the facts, given the opportunity, it is ultimately an individual’s choice to care.
It’s only recently that I realized that for a really long time, I’ve cared about things in such a way that I’ve pushed myself to the fringe.
I’ve cared too much about running—I’ve run thousands of miles alone, with plenty of family and friends left wondering why I run so many miles, why I won’t take the day off, why I spend so much time at a sport. I’ve been too small. I’ve worked too hard. I’ve run too fast for teammates to want to come with me. At one point, I ran so far I forgot why I was running at all.
I’ve cared too much about Africa—I wrote my thesis on Sierra Leone. I trekked over to Smith College to take courses on African history. I’m “independently studying” here for a year. I’m going back to school next Fall to pursue a Ph.D in African History. I eat, breath, sleep, work, write, live Africa. And no matter the words and pictures I use to try to share that, I’m afraid they’ll never be enough.
It is not at all that I have not been supported in these cares, because I indeed have. But to be supported and to feel understood are two different beasts.
I’ve written so much—too much—about dreams in the last seven months. Dreams are beautiful. I love hearing Tata boast of his children. I like listening to Frederick’s hopes for Kwame, Maddie, and Franklin. I savor working with farmers toiling for wages or supper and hopefully a bit more for a better house or a new phone or a pretty outfit.
But chasing after dreams alone is exhausting. I saw it in the way Frederick supported his children’s education in Ghana while Beth prioritized her business. He dreamt alone, and it wore him out daily. And now I’m beginning to recognize it in myself.
I am not lonely here. My host family is wonderful and I have many neighbors who I enjoy hanging out with in the evenings. In fact, I savor the time I do have to myself, when I work in the farms and read and write at my own leisure pace.
And yet I think the nightmare I had the other night goes to show that loneliness of a different sort is a great fear of mine. Isolation that endures and aches, despite being surrounded by others, despite enormous efforts to jive and gel. The feeling of trying so hard for something and still being misunderstood, or gravely misunderstanding, or both. The pain of entering my own suite—my Amherst College Home—where there was a crowd of my own teammates…and to feel like a ghost.
I can totally handle speaking a different language from half the population of Busonga, the village where I’m living. I can handle traveling away from my American friends and family for a year. I can handle unfamiliar places and foods and customs and manners.
But I fear—oh, god, do I fear—dreaming alone. Independence can be admirable and advantageous. But collaboration is wondrous, partnership is productive, camaraderie is exciting, companionship is beautiful. To stride with another toward a goal, or to raise a baton with teammates in victory—that is this runner’s dream.
I don’t think I will ever have the opportunity to connect with a group of people through athletics like I have in the past. Those Hockey, Frisbee, Running glory days are gone. I’ll continue to play and train, but to capture the magic of the New England Falcons (my club hockey team from high school) or the Amherst High School Hurricanes ever again is impossible. I will most likely never rise and fall, mourn and dream with others wearing skates or cleats or spikes again.
I have other dreams, though, not athletic ones. I have learned, though, that a dream is the source of great joy and drive, but a dream can spoil, it can fester into a wound that won’t stop aching, all when it becomes the root of alienation. In fact, the difference between a dream and a nightmare may just lie in the cast of characters involved.
Right now, I’m still living a dream, because my cast of characters is excellent. Though my personal dreams don’t necessarily align with or make sense with the people I’m meeting here, they appreciate my short term project goals—to learn and write about coffee farming—and I’m well-supported. Additionally, whether or not people read my Blog, I fantasize that maybe, in a way, by writing, I’m dreaming aloud, we’re dreaming together. For now, that is all I need, and I cherish it. I do hope, though, that as I make my way out of Watson-life this summer, and back into my new American-life, the cast of characters I am surrounded by is one I jive with. That the hope that “all you give is all you get” proves possible. That the soils back in the U.S. serve to inspire dreamers as much as they seem to here.
Because this girl can dream. But she doesn’t want to dream alone anymore.
To any Amherst College athletes or coaches, past or present, if you’re reading this, we were and are probably pretty close, and you already are familiar with my frustrations. By no means do I share these thoughts to scorn or criticize the team, because among my mixed feelings regarding my teammates is much affection and support for them. I am still quite proud to have competed for Amherst College, and I hope in the coming years the team proves more united than it did with me as one of its leaders. To this day, clearly, my failures on this point sadden me. May ACWTF-XC be blessed with many happy and fast times ahead.
Tata’s gardens are not “smart.”
He gushes about the fertile soils and the good fortune of Ugandans, but he tsssssks disapprovingly at the state of his own coffee farms. They are laden with dried out branches and “suckers,” offshoots that absorb the plants’ nutrients without producing berries. Since Tata has not taken the time to bend his trees so that they grow horizontally rather than vertically, berries grow on branches far out of reach without a ladder. The trees’ neglect ultimately diminishes the yield, while also making harvesting a more tedious task.
Tata is chairman of about five different boards in the community and also spends two days a week teaching carpentry at a technical high school in the district. He rarely has days to devote to tasks like pruning, which he can get away without doing with relative inconsequence. Though Tata doesn’t have time to spend in his gardens, I do. When he returns from his various engagements to find me tending to his trees, he gratefully admires the work.
“I wish you could stay this way for a full year!” he exclaimed yesterday. “You’ve made the garden look smart!” The trees appear naked after I have ridded them of all their excess growths, but when the rains come—soon, very soon—new coffee buds will emerge, then flower, then grow into berries, nourished by the sunlight, nutrients, and water that “suckers” have previously drawn away. “If the trees spoke your language,” Tata said, “they would be crying ‘Thank You!’”
And I would respond, “My Pleasure!”
Pruning is strangely addicting. It takes some level of focus, so it is not quite a rote chore, but it is also not particularly demanding. I spend at least a couple hours every day in Tata’s garden with my pruners, relieving the trees of their dead-ends while absorbing a fair dose of Vitamin D myself. I imagine the trees sighing gratefully when they can once again feel the sunlight and breathe the fresh air, no longer suffocated by glut, by inattention.
It makes me a little jealous. These ginger locks could really use a trim.
Still, as I clip away the trees excess, I, too, feel invigorated. The satisfaction of giving new life does the same for me. The time I spend in Tata’s gardens is my time—I work for however long I feel like, at my own pace. I shake out the bushiest trees to make sure no spiders lurk in their branches before plunging my hands into them. I move gingerly to keep the sharp, dead branches from poking my eyes and scraping my forearms. I keep an eye out for chameleons. Sometimes, monkeys perch in Tata’s avocado trees and watch me work. Occasionally, children do, too, but they usually get bored after ten minutes or so.
My hands get dirty but not blistered.
I am productive without becoming exhausted.
And when I walk away out from the thicket of Tata’s coffee trees, I gaze with satisfaction at the pruned portions of the garden. They are smart. They are rejuvenated. And when the rains come, they will thrive.
Most of Tata’s coffee trees may still be bushy, but life with him and Maawe here in Busonga is a “pruned,” invigorating one.
We rise in the morning with the sun, unless it is too “cold” to get out bed, then the morning routines are delayed an extra twenty minutes or so.
I go running (for only about 20 minutes because the hill that Tata lives near the top of is hilariously exhausting to climb back up).
I hurriedly bucket shower with chilly water in the brisk morning air.
We eat a breakfast of bananas and tea or porridge made from maize or millet (grown in Maawe’s gardens), sometimes with boiled eggs (the local ones have bright yellow yolks rich in flavor and a welcome addition to the mostly-carb menu).
We walk and have little need for boda bodas.
I access electricity two times a week at Kichwamba High School, so I use my laptop sparingly.
Maawe boils the water that drips into the water tank from the roof, and that is what we drink.
Firewood comes from around the house in Tata’s gardens, which is what Maawe uses to cook delicious lunches and dinners every day, made of course from ingredients picked local and fresh.
I work–prune, mulch, harvest–on coffee farms. I collect avocados. I sweep the yard. I read and write. I hand wash my clothes. They dry in the sun and fresh air. I talk and listen and ask and answer limitless questions. I clean the dishes. I study my “French for Reading” book. I explore and am shown wondrous new places. I am taught how to cook Ugandan dishes. I try to learn Runyaruguru. I meet and greet and smile and smile and smile.
This is my pruned life, my beautiful here and now. I may desperately need a haircut, but the rest of me is alive and thriving. After I upload this post, I will walk home from Kichwamba High School and have lunch with Maawe. I will prune and read and whatever else the afternoon inevitably and unexpectedly has in store.
Just another day in wonderful Busonga.
(Man, these posts must be obnoxious to read. I’ll be sure to write a sob story or something sometime soon to balance out all the rainbows and butterflies.)
They invited a cameraman.
For once, my habit of eating too fast paid off, and I finished before he could snap any pictures of me mid-gobble. I’ve been eating meals African-style—with my hands—for nearly seven months now, but I’m still embarrassingly far from having any grace in the act.
The photographer would not admit defeat, though. He had me pose, pretending to take a bit from my already emptied bowl.
Maawe’s family loved it. Many were laughing terrifically, and the rest had wide, wondrous grins on their faces…Although I can’t say their demeanor was much different from this the entire time Tata, Maawe, and I spent visiting.
I don’t think I will forget the day I met Maawe’s family for the rest of my life.
Although we left the house in Busonga around 10am, we didn’t arrive to Maawe’s mother’s (“Kaka” is the word for grandmother) house until close to 2pm. The middle of the day was spent seeing the district center—Tata was thrilled to show me my “first Ugandan market”—and meeting any and every relative who lived within walking distance (African walking distance is much more generous than American walking distance). I met Tata’s cousins, uncles, brothers, sisters, in-laws…you name it.
By the time we finally climbed the hill to Kaka’s house, I was equal parts exhausted, relieved, and psyched to meet Maawe’s family. I figured it they were anything like Maawe herself, they would have to be wonderful. I was not disappointed.
Tata and I entered the house and were guided to the sitting room’s large couch, which all the other chairs seemed to somehow face. After a couple of introductions, I greeted Kaka, speaking in my very basic Runyaruguru and kneeling on the floor, as one must traditionally greet a respectable figure.
Maawe’s mother, a skinny, greying old lady with a toothy, huge smile and wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, was thrilled with my practiced manners. She enveloped me in a knobby hug and I embraced her thin frame right back.
For the next couple of hours, more and more of Maawe’s relatives and neighbors came into the sitting room. They filled the chairs and laid out straw mats on the cement floor for more people to sit on. Some people I knelt to greet, others knelt to greet me, and all (interestingly mostly women) were ecstatic to have a visitor. Much of the time they simply watched me and took joy in my stumbling, grinning attempts at Runyaruguru.
Meanwhile, women came in and out of the room, taking turns helping to prepare lunch. As if their gracious welcome was not enough, I was presented with two gifts just before we ate. Maawe’s “matron”—the woman who presided over her and Tata’s wedding—gave me handmade table mats made from the leather-like bark of a tree. (This is a celebrated craft and the goods made are considered luxurious.) Maawe—ever thrilled that I was raided Catholic (though never confirmed…)—gave me a rosary. After we posed to have pictures taken of me accepting the gifts, the whole room sang a joyous song giving thanks to Jesus.
“This is all for you,” Tata said, quietly leaning in my direction. “They are so proud and happy for Maawe to have you as our guest.”
After the gifts, the room emptied for a little while, and I could sense the anticipation begin to build. It was well past the normal lunch hour, and my stomach was less impressed by the ongoings than the rest of me was.
The wait was so, so well worth it.
First of all, the meal’s presentation was amazing. A parade of women—neighbors, friends, relatives, probably 10 in all—came into the sitting room carrying plates and baskets full of food: matoke and caro, pumpkin, cabbages, spiced greens, and whopping pots of tilapia soup and groundnut sauce. They lay one of each dish on the table set before Tata and me. It soon became overcrowded with steaming, savory options.
Next, of course, we prayed.
And then we ate. Oh, did we eat.
“I’m eating lie a hyena,” said Tata. Hyenas can eat and eat and eat, and there’s always room for more.
“I’m eating like two!” I replied.
All around the sitting room, people were feasting. Even Kaka joined the party, although traditionally she is never supposed to be seen eating by her son-in-law, Tata. Then again, traditionally Mzungus aren’t around to be accepted as one of the family, so I guess rules can bend.
After the meal, when I was nearly about to burst, the photographer rallied the crowd outside to work his magic. We posed here and there, with those people and under that tree. Then, after a short walk to visit one last neighbor’s (very nice) house, and after being given some pumpkins and a bag of beans for the road, we said our final Webere Mungonga’s and we hit the road.
It was a magical day.
I didn’t prune a single coffee tree nor did I harvest a mere berry, but this story, just as much as any other I will share about my host family, speaks to the experiences of a coffee farmer. Everone I met grows the crop, but clearly they are so much more than “local producers.”
Kaka’s hands are wrinkled and dry when you grasp them in a welcoming greeting. Tats’ sister—whose garden I mulched—has worked as a secretary for the district council for the last 15 years. Maawe’s sister-in-law makes a phenomenal beet-fruit-cocktail juice. Each and every person thanked me for my studies and told me how welcome I am here in Uganda. (They told me a few other things, too—like not to be conceived by any young men before I earn my degree…) I have done nothing for these people except impose myself upon their community, and yet they are thrilled.
This is my life here. Work, yes. Prune, harvest, mulch, yes. But also meet, greet, feast, thank, dream, love, “feel free,” as Tata puts it. Feel at home.
I’ll end with the few words Tata translated for me to Maawe’s family before we left Kaka’s house:
“It has been a long time—over six months—since I have been with my own family in America. Sometimes it can be hard to travel so far from the people I love. But here, because of Maawe and Tata, and all of your kindness…here, I feel at home.”
When Tata translated this last part, everyone exclaimed with joy, oohs, and aaahs.
“Thank you so much—webere munonga—for welcoming me here.”
Every morning, millions of Americans nurse a cup of coffee before (or as) they hop in their cars to scurry off to work. The caffeine jolt and their vehicle’s rubber tires arguably serve equal roles in getting someone through an 8 (often more) hour day. A joe-less morning and a flat both have the potential to cause you, I dare say, quite the headache. How often do these millions think about how those two commodities—coffee and rubber—come from trees? Or that someone, somewhere is responsible for its production?
I’m going to take a wild guess and say…never.
Even I have a hard time fathoming that both these goods—so entirely different—come from trees. Other than that fact, and that they grow in Africa, and that their global consumption does indeed affect the lives, futures, dreams of individuals around the world…they’re much more different than they are alike.
When I was working on rubber farms in Ghana, I woke up before dawn, was handed a breakfast of bread and eggs, hopped in Frederick’s truck, and toiled on a wealthy farm owner’s plantation until the heat of the day drove us to do other, shadier tasks, like delivering rubber to the factory. I worked alongside laborers who mostly could not afford to invest in a rubber farm themselves, but instead worked for daily wages. Throughout the year, the work stays pretty much steady, despite seasonal changes; rubber can be tapped every month except April, and the industry in Ghana is growing such that there is a reasonably constant demand for labor.
Coffee farmer in Uganda operates on a very different system.
What type of coffee grows in Uganda? For starters, two types of coffee are grown in Uganda—Robusta and Arabica. Robusta grows in the low altitude forested areas (up to 1,200 metres above sea level); Arabica grows in the highland forested areas (1,500-2,300 meters above sea level). Tata and the other farmers in this area grow both.
[Recall: In Ghana, rubber grew only in the rainier Western Region. Young people looking for work flocked to this area because of the demand for labor due to the rubber plantations. Location matters.]
Who grows coffee in Uganda? No matter the type, most of the coffee growing in Uganda is done on a small scale. I’ve been told (not exactly sure of the accuracy of this) that there are about 500,000 smallholder farmers countrywide, 90% of whose average farm size ranges from 1-7 acres (on land they themselves own). Tata has 5 acres. Many coffee farmers are members of producer organizations that apparently offer farmers planting materials, pre-processing gears, and sometimes offer extension services, but the coffee farmers who I’ve met don’t seem to benefit from this assistance. Tata says that despite the efforts of agriculturalists, NGOs, and government authorities to introduce new methods in order to increase yields, farmers in this area have generally gone about coffee farming in the same way for many decades now. More on the history of coffee growth in this area another time—for now, I’ll stick to the present.
[Recall: About half the rubber in Ghana was grown by the lone rubber company, GREL, and the other half was grown by smallholder farmers, who had plantations of 5-50 acres (often on rented land). Farmers interested in planting a rubber farm could apply for (and receive) financial and technical support from the government. GREL is often trying to develop and import new technologies, but usually small holder farmers cannot afford to also use these methods.]
Who works on coffee farms? Due to the small-scale nature of coffee farming, most people can’t afford to hire laborers to plant, maintain, and harvest the coffee trees. A farm owner may hire a few laborers to help pick the berries at harvest time, which is the busiest time of year for a coffee farmer (around here, that’s March-June and September-December). These workers make 3,000 USH ($1.20) for their efforts (~3-4 hours of work, I’m told, though it is not measured by time). Mostly, though, farm owners are who attend to their own farms.
[Recall: in Ghana, some farm owners barely ever step foot on their farm. Nearly every farmer hired workers to help develop their farms, and virtually all farmers hired a tapper to harvest the rubber.]
Who do coffee farmers sell their harvests to? Nowadays, to whom and in what form coffee farmers sell their coffee is in their control—if they are happy with the price, they can sell; if not, they can try to find another buyer. When Tata harvests his coffee, he dries it (in the sun) and sells it to an intermediary local trader (for 3,000-7,000/kg), who transports it to factories in Kasese. Other farmers in the area might mechanically remove the shells of the dried coffee prior to selling it, since doing so draws a slightly higher price. Still others might transport their coffee to the factories by themselves. (This was not always the case, but, like I said, I’m sticking to the present for now.)
[Recall: In Ghana, farmers sell directly to the GREL factory, which is currently the only one in Ghana. Every farmer gets the same price, which changes according to the global market and is announced monthly.]
How do coffee farmers spend their profits? In this area, coffee farmers are not just farmers of coffee. They are also subsistence farmers. While men are responsible for growing the cash crops—for Tata, that means both coffee and avocadoes—women are responsible for the crops that feed the family: bananas, cassava, potatoes, pumpkins, millet, maize, eggplants, onions, tomatoes, cabbage, greens. Many women’s days—including Maawe’s—are typically spent growing, harvesting, cooking, and cleaning up after meals. Coffee profits are used to pay for stuff that doesn’t grow in gardens—houses, school fees, medical fees, clothes, fish, meat, eggs, sugar, tea etc. (Very few coffee farmers in this area drink coffee. It is costly, and so tea or porridge, made from millet or maize, are the beverages of choice.)
[Recall: In Ghana, some of Frederick’s income was given to Beth as “chop money” for groceries, and the only food Frederick grew on his farms were the occasional plantain tree and a few pineapple plants.]
…and THAT was a data dump. I was initially planning to write about my work on coffee farms so far—which is totally different from my time on farms in Ghana—but I’m afraid the electricity has just gone out here at Kichwamba High School, and I won’t be able to share with you this time around the hours I’ve enjoyed pruning Tata’s neglected gardens. It’s satisfying and relaxing work…much more so than mulching, which isn’t particularly hard, but is a pretty itchy.
Clearly, I’m really starting to reap the benefits of the comparative design of my Watson project. One might describe rubber, Nile Perch, and coffee as agricultural goods produced in tropical areas and consumed around the world. And yet life, people, cultures, markets, farms, the nature of the work, foods, languages…coffee-growing Uganda, fishing Tanzania, and rubber-growing Ghana are all dramatically different…and in light of my experiences in all places, I’m able to appreciate and understand their distinct values even more.
Hopefully, this post provides the background for the stories—farmers’ and my own—that I will share with you. This is a macro-post, but what’s far more interesting are the micro-stories. Orestus’ tale of defying community’s expectations and succeeding nonetheless. Wilfred’s dream of getting his Master’s in mechanical engineering.
And there are more, there are more…
…for other days, when electricity is back. In the meantime, I hear there’s no surviving this New England winter without a piping mug of coffee and some damn good snow tires. Sip on and drive safely!