Monday, June 30, 2008

11th hour deals

Later that night there were un-chilled Mutzigs, Rwanda’s answer to Amstel, for Aleco, Bosco and I; Fanta orange soda in slim glass bottles for Casper the driver and Alphonse. We waited into the 11 o’clock hour for our platters of goat kebabs (politely called brochettes) and pommes frites, sprinkled with pilipili sauce, made from a searing cousin of the habanero pepper. The best goat brochettes in Rwanda, Aleco had promised me as we bounced around in the jeep on the way back to the village of Cyangugu, stopping three times for policemen with rifles to look us over. I wasn’t really in any position to judge the best goat brochettes in Rwanda; so long as I could chew and swallow a piece in under three minutes, I’d take his word.

Shivering against the chill in the air, I count exactly 16 lights through the barbed wire fence past our concrete dining pavilion. They flicker faintly in the distance, the 16 lights, from the Congo side of Lake Kivu where dense forest obscures rebels and spies. Here on this side, the Rwandan side, there is no forest left to hide in. Nearly all of the land that once provided habitat for thousands of mountain gorillas, save for a few tracts of thin tree groves and the protected national forests, has been tilled under the plow. Or, more likely, felled with a hand hoe and a few machetes. Whatever might be done by machine in this country can be completed more cheaply by a person; few rural households can afford to employ animals to pull a plow. The Virunga National Park housing the Rwandan mountain gorillas protects about 400 individuals or so, which the government charges foreigners $500 per hour of close-up photo-op. Few Rwandese ever make the trek to see gorillas.

While I count lights and tug my thin shirtsleeves over my hands, Aleco and Alphonse make a deal. Alphonse agrees to re-open the Kanzu washing station having closed it in the first place, I now understand, because a nearby competitor offered the farmers $1.80 per kilo for their cherry, more than Alphonse could afford to dole out. There is constant competition among washing stations in this coffee business, where there are rarely any guarantees made to anyone for anything. The average Joe farmer around here owns maybe 100 coffee plants on less than an acre of land and is free to choose among washing stations so long as they can reach it within 12 hours on foot. The Bikes to Rwanda project, sponsored by a handful of small American coffee importers, has supplied hundreds of bicycles to coffee farmers through a loan program so they might have a chance at reaching a washing station in fewer hours. And also have more options of whom to sell to, for a better price.

Around 40% of the 100-plus washing stations in Rwanda are owned by cooperatives, the rest privately owned by men like Alphonse. Cooperatives have gained ubiquity in the coffee business, no less so in Rwanda because they are promoted by the government under the theme of reconciliation. There’s a pervading belief among coffee consuming countries as well that cooperatives promote fairness and equality at the production level. We in the States like to associate cooperatives (when we consider the production end of the coffee chain at all, though Fair Trade has brought much attention to that) with perhaps the same ideals embodied by an organic farming cooperative high in the mountains above Santa Cruz where children are raised barefoot on mulberry puree by multiple sets of parents. In other words, coffee farming cooperative means egalitarian agrarian commune. Au contraire, latte-sipper, au contraire. Coffee cooperatives in most of East Africa, particularly in Kenya and Ethiopia, can be notoriously corrupt entities run by community elders who are appointed for political reasons rather than for their financial know-how. In communities that have never before had to handle hard currency, the tens of thousands of dollars that flows into the hands of the co-op at the end of harvest season is rarely managed well enough to last throughout the year. So when hundreds of farmers turn up at the beginning of the following harvest season expecting immediate cash payments for their cherry, in-the-red co-ops sometimes can’t pay them. But farmers are free to sell elsewhere, and many in Rwanda are now looking to the privately-owned washing stations for financial security (the Ministry of Defense, by the way, has invested in dozens of these private washing stations for reasons I haven’t yet figured out). The co-ops in Rwanda haven’t really been in existence long enough to be beguiled by serious corruption but most of them have yet to turn a profit and are, under the radar, weighed down by poor business management.

I also learn from Aleco that night that most coffee buyers prefer to work with the privately-owned washing stations because deals can be made quick and dirty, like over lager and charred goat kebabs. While the manager of a co-op would need to take the buyer’s offer back to the co-op board for negotiations with a few dozen people, someone like Alphonse can agree to the price right then and there. To an international coffee buyer visiting a producing country for only a few days at a time, consider co-ops a drop of spoiled milk in the cup.

But the reality of the middlemen in the coffee business is that few companies have buyers such as Aleco employed at all, whose mission it is to search for the best coffee in the world and then offer high relative prices when they find it. As Aleco said on behalf of Stumptown Coffee Roasters, they aren’t looking for the second best coffee or coffee that would tie for the best. They want the best, and because they purchase it in single lots (usually a single day’s production from a solitary washing station) they can afford to offer over 100% more than the current market price--currently hovering around $1.40 per pound--and include a contractual premium within that which will be paid to the farmer directly. The few coffee companies who are taking this approach to coffee buying have bundled coffee quality, price transparency, and the economic and ecological practices of coffee farmers intrinsically in a purchasing process they are calling Direct Trade. Unlike Fair Trade, there is no third party certification involved but there is money guaranteed to the farmer, beyond what they would typically get for their cherry. Through Fair Trade certification, while there is a stable price floor for cherry, the dollars are only traced to the co-op level, which as I’ve already described, certainly doesn’t indicate anything about financial guarantees for the farmers. Farmers might be taking home 30 cents at most per pound, depending on the region, even if they are certified Fair Trade. Aleco told me he believes that while Direct Trade aims for complete price transparency among all players in the coffee supply chain, from the farmer to the washing station, exporter, importer and roaster, it also asks the consumer to have some faith at the end of the chain. In this case, Stumptown’s customers have to trust that the Direct Trade process is actually doing all of this. Depending on what kind of coffee drinker you are, Direct Trade is either putting a de rigueur farmer’s market face on a food commodity chain that stretches longer than the reach of mobile phone service in some producing countries… or it’s just another gimmick encouraging boutique shoppers to pay $20 per pound for a proclaimed origin coffee that may or may not taste better than Dunkin’ Donuts decaf.

In the morning, we’ll taste. But now, I’m still gnawing at my brochette though everyone else has licked their kebab sticks clean. Attempting to eat around the pieces of liver and intestine, soft fat and gristly fat, I give up and distract myself from the goat by eating as many pommes frites dipped in pilipili as I can before the heat makes it painful to eat anymore. Aleco begins propositioning Alphonse. He offers a price for the Kanzu washing station-sourced green coffee beans, the best, he still thinks. Aleco hasn’t even tasted Kanzu yet this year. But after seeing the potential at the Muasa washing station (same state of the art practices as at Kanzu), and with the memory of luscious butter mouth-feel lingering from last year, he takes a chance and offers Alphonse some money. One price is offered, roughly double that of the commodity market price plus a hefty premium to each farmer, if Kanzu scores between 86 and 90 during cupping; another price, almost 150% above market price plus double the premium to the farmer, if it scores above 90. And this is just the first year, with annual opportunity for quality improvement, and more money. “Tell him this is the first year, we’re starting a relationship,” Aleco says urgently.

Bosco takes five minutes to translate all of this into Kinyarwanda. Alphonse pulls a puffy, pointed black hood over his head and crosses his arms. He looks inflated. Aleco is impatient for another round of Mutzig. Then Bosco comes around with some English: “He ask if it’s 86 to 89 score if you give him same price as 90 score.”

Without hesitation Aleco responds “No. Tell him no one has ever paid him this price before. It’s the first year. We’re starting a relationship, it’s going to make the farmers stronger and they will want to work with him. Tell him that.” He’s obviously practiced this negotiation with first time Direct Trade sellers before. I down half a foamy glass of lager, trying to erase the scorching sensation on my tongue. It’s almost midnight. Aleco wiggles his thumbs back and forth, more Kinyarwanda, and Alphonse leans back in his plastic chair. Then Bosco switches languages.

“Yes, I explain it’s not a big job to him and he agrees to the price for the two. He’s able to work with you. He say he ship the first coffee in August.” Aleco turns and offers his hand to Alphonse for a vigorous hand shake and slap on the back.

“Bosco, tell him we are looking forward to working with him, and that the premium to the farmers will be on the contract. It’s going to make him stronger, the farmers will bring better and more cherry. And this is just the first year.”

“He want to know also if you find buyer for other cherry,” Bosco adds.

“Look, my job is to differentiate the best quality and pay them a good price for it. It’s not my job to find him another coffee buyer. Tell him I can try, but that’s not my job.” Alphonse throws a toothless grin in my direction. I’ve been staring at him.

“They will not sell the good coffees to someone else,” Bosco says. “It’s for you.”

Saturday, June 28, 2008

ripe cherry is the only solution

“You come… to Cyangugu?” Jambosco Safari asked me with a wide, glinting grin.
“Come with you? I mean, if it’s not an imposition… or an inconvenience… I’d like to go to Cyangugu. But do you mind if I run to the restroom first?” I tossed my paper napkin onto crusts of a cheese and pineapple croque madame' lunch and looked at Aleco, the international coffee buyer for Stumptown Coffee Roasters. He tilted his head down and raised his eyebrows only slightly.
“You can come,” he said, in a way that managed to be both an answer and a question. I have no idea where Cyangugu is.

They give me the back middle seat of the pick-up truck, between Aleco and Pascal, an agronomist with the SPREAD project. Casper, the driver, speaks only Kinyarwanda and has all of the truck mirrors arranged at angles that can’t possibly be useful. With only a thick wad of Rwandan francs, a camera and some spearmint gum in the backpack clutched on my lap, I ask how long it takes to get to Cyangugu (pronounced Chan-gu-gu). We’re leaving from Butare, the de facto agricultural capital of Rwanda and home of a major coffee cupping (tasting) laboratory. I’ve gotten a ride here from Kigali this morning and just happened upon Aleco, a coffee nomad based in Portland, Oregon, in the lab. The eau du Rwanda, body odor, is wafting around the back seat; wind from the open windows makes it hard to hear my own voice. Jambosco, Bosco for short, turns around from the front and shouts “Three hours. We go over Nyungwe Forest, near to almost Congo.” He flashes the grin again.
“Awesome,” I say, and tell Bosco there is a chocolate syrup named after him in the States. We won’t be back to Butare tonight.

Casper accelerates to 70 miles an hour as he swerves around children and bicycles strewn along the only paved road between Butare, in the Southern Province and the Western Province, where the Cyangugu region is. Considered by those who live in Kigali as the backwater of Rwanda, Cyangugu is sandwiched between Nyungwe National Forest, inhabited only by police and primates, Lake Kivu, and the Congo border (The Democratic Republic of Congo, that is; Congo as plain-named is its neighbor to the west). Cyangugu is also, I learn from Aleco, where Congolese come to purchase food by the truck-load because there is none across the border; where Lake Kivu could erupt in a methane gas-embedded natural bomb; where Ex-Rwandan rebels could attack from their hiding posts in the forest just across the lake; where ash could bury the villages if the major volcano across the border erupts, as it did in 2003. Depending on whom you talk to, any of these random acts of violence could happen today, maybe tomorrow.

Cyangugu is also home to the coffee washing station that produced, according to Aleco, the best coffee he tasted in 2007 in the entire world. “A high-altitude, luscious butter and vanilla, smooth beautiful coffee,” he says softly about Kanzu, named after the washing station where 500 farmers deposit coffee cherry to be floated, washed, depulped, and dried before emerging as green coffee beans, also called parchment, and ready for roasting. Aleco tells me that he’s put all of his eggs in this Kanzu basket this year. He means it’s the only Rwandan coffee he’s really determined to purchase on behalf of Stumptown, the other possibilities for purchase will satisfy him only partially. Today, he wants to visit the Kanzu washing station along with one other.
“I don’t know if we visit both,” Pascal offers gently to Aleco from my other side. “Kanzu is far…”
“No, Pascal, you know what’s far? Portland. Portland is far.”

“Who was buying Kanzu before this year?” I ask, trying to keep my eyes facing forward as we’re jerked around curves and begin the long climb up to 8,000 feet in the forest. I’m motion-sickness prone.
“No one,” he replies. “Well, someone was buying it but it was just getting mixed into the blends” of low-grade commodity coffee and sold anonymously on the global market. “So no one was tasting it,” Aleco says with plenty of disbelief and a hint of smugness.

It’s dusk when we reach the home of Alphonse, the owner of the Kanzu washing station. The village of Cyangugu is a few dirt roads lined with low crooked wood shacks, piles of bananas on windowsills, and hordes of children shrieking and trying to touch our truck when they see Aleco’s white face in the window. They don’t get many muzungu tourists.
After some hand-shaking of introductions and questions as to whether I’m Aleco’s fiancé that last too long, Bosco and I get in the back of Alphonse’s jeep. Aleco’s in the front and immediately asks how the Kanzu cherry harvest is going. Alphonse speaks in Kinyarwanda for a minute or two and then Bosco translates. “He say Kanzu closed. Kanzu is closed. Kanzu closed last week.”
“What do you mean Kanzu closed. Why? Ask him why.”
“He say because price too high, farmers sell to other washing station.” I don’t understand any of the premise behind this conversation, though Aleco seems to get it.
“Well tell him we’re going to offer him a very good price. If it samples well again this year, we’ll have a very good price for him. He’s never heard a price like this before.”

Lake Kivu shines opaquely in the distance as we wind our way through cultivated hills, the forested mountains of Congo as a backdrop behind the lake. It’s almost completely black outside now, and the road has transitioned from hard-packed dirt to rugged, rocky trail. Women carry baskets on their heads from trail to footpath leading into groves of trees, and presumably, homes. We’re at least an hour from Alphonse’s house. My GPS unit reads 2°S, 29°E, 5,328 feet. I have no idea where we are, or where we’re going. The dialogue in Kinyarwanda, English and a bit of French is too hard to hear over the grumbling of the jeep, and I concentrate on preventing my head from hitting the ceiling.

Twenty minutes later, the jeep comes to an abrupt stop on a hill. Bosco says, leaning a little too close in, “We walk now.” But where are we?
“We’re at Muasa washing station. Alphonse owns it,” says Aleco as we push our way through an accumulating crowd, most shorter than me. Down a small hill and then up a big one, two men holding large white bags on their heads jog past us.
“Cherry!” yells Bosco. Cherry! everyone echoes. The harvested coffee cherry must make it to the washing station within hours or the quality starts to decline; most farmers lug their harvests a few miles to a washing station once or twice a week during the season.
Someone offers me a flashlight, though it hardly illuminates the deep groves in the trail. This is not a strolling path. “Hey Aleco, how do they get the coffee beans out of here?” I ask, imagining a jeep bouncing down the trail with piles of parchment spilling out the sides. Or perhaps wheelbarrows.
“Um… good question,” he responds as we slow to navigate a stream of foul-smelling muddiness. I’m not keeping up with the men ahead, and I’m not sure I want to. There’s a log in front now, longer than me and no wider than eight inches, the only way to the other side of the ravine. I pretend I’m in a video game. It’s the only thing that makes me relax.

Aleco takes the tiny steps built into a hill two at a time, bounding towards the washing station at the top. There is no light at the end to illuminate the infrastructure, or the people, mostly men, who have gathered in anticipation of Aleco’s arrival. The generator has gone out, but cherry sorting of the day’s harvest is still underway.
I’m standing next to Aleco peering into a pool of bright red, cerise. He picks up a handful and lets them slip through his fingers. “This is no good,” he says. “No good.”
“What do you mean,” I ask quietly, as if anyone around us might comprehend English and get offended.
“It’s not fully ripe. There’s green cherry in here, and a lot of the red is under-ripe.”

I step out of the way and pull out my camera as Aleco does a quick inspection of the rest of the mounds of cherry; boys in sweaty tank tops stand by looking anxious. The crowd migrates to the floating tanks, where the lighter-density green cherry drifts to the top of the pools and is jettisoned out of the mix. From there, they float down a gutter into a de-pulping machine, hand-cranked, that squeezes the outer now-soggy shell off of the two beans inside. Those beans float down another gutter, into buckets that are dumped on thatched-roof covered drying racks.
Aleco is smiling now and he points to the thatched roof. “This is state of the art, Kanzu has the same roofs. It encourages air flow for drying, we need air flow. And it protects the beans from sun damage.” Thatched roofing is state of the art? How long do the beans sit out here? Some Kinyarwanda is passed back and forth among the crowd.
“Up to twenty days,” Aleco repeats Bosco. But how to the beans get out of here? There used to be a road, but it was washed out during this year’s rainy season. How are we getting out of here?

Back by the sorting racks Aleco thanks the crowd and tells Alphonse, through Bosco, that he hopes to be back on his next trip. Someone passes us a large gridded notebook, the guestbook. Empty, save for two French-sounding names. Aleco prints his, next to Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Portland, Oregon. “Focus on ripe cherry is the only solution,” he adds in block letters, signs under it, and snaps the book shut. I slip a handful of green coffee beans in my pocket and take the steps down, one at a time.

Friday, June 27, 2008

children always wave back

One of the first things anyone notices upon arrival in Rwanda is that there are people everywhere in this speck of a country with the highest population density on the continent. Imagine your pedestrian-city street plopped down in the countryside. On foot, on bicycle, carrying baskets on their heads, holding hands, pushing a toy wheel with a stick: every road (no matter the speed limit or distance from a village center) is lined with Rwandese. It's much more fun to be a pedestrian along side them than to be up on four wheels, particularly so because the little people are always happy to see you. Muzungu, they yell, muuuuzungu! It means white person, and while adults often greet your wave with a stare, the children always wave back.

Here, a small selection of recent portraits.

children always wave back: photographs

Sunday, June 22, 2008

the ecology of dollars

In July of 1864, Henry David Thoreau refused to pay his six-cent poll tax, an act of resistance against the war the United States had provoked with Mexico under the conceit of ‘manifest destiny.’ Handcuffed by the Middlesex County police one thick afternoon, he spent all of a night in jail only to be bailed out the next morning by his sister the following morning, who greeted her surely starving brother with steaming hot chocolate. The productivity and pacifism of Thoreau’s act has been pondered by scholars and activists over the years, as Paul Hawken explains in his most recent book Blessed Unrest. In whatever ways Thoreau's refusal to pay made ripples, the basic and simple realization he had that July was this: everything is interconnected. In the same way that his teacher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, had laid out principles of ecology and interconnectedness within the natural world, Thoreau took the meaning of ecology to heart and saw it within the social world as well. His gesture, radical in its intention for the time, pointed out that the financing of an unjust war and exploitation of humans in a land far south of Massachusetts was somehow supported by his tax cents. Thoreau’s doctrine on social interconnectedness lives on in Civil Disobedience, and also in the power of our dollars. Though the power of the dollar, even one dollar, may not be revelatory to us today, we still need the Thoreaus of the world to help us understand exactly where our money is going.

Fifty percent of Rwanda’s $1.2 billion national budget is coming from international aid money this year, donated by NGOs or other governments directly, and that’s just the aid money channeled through Rwanda's government. Large-scale internationally-based projects such as InterHealth, the Elizabeth Glasser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, and the Clinton Foundation are all providing health-based services for hundreds of thousands of Rwandese in need of the basics that we generally take for granted. Organizations such as these spend billions each year creating a current that hopes to raise all boats, so to speak, and I have no doubt that they act as a crucial mechanism for distributing money and services to millions (billions, even) around the world living in poverty. But on a micro level the connections between, say, a donor to a major charitable foundation and the recipient of an aid project become a bit muddled. Most often, proof that the money was well-spent turns up in the form of statistics published in annual reports and proof that the money was donated at all shows up as a charitable tax deduction on the donor’s tax return. But the ease of this transaction comes with other costs. These dollars will never have a face, of the individuals benefiting from donation, nor will they be siphoned into projects that aren't, among other things, sexy.

Aveh Umurerwa, loosely translated as a Center for Handicapped Children, is one small project that remains unaffiliated and unfunded. Located in Bugasera District of the Eastern Province of Rwanda, ten minutes down a newly paved road from a Catholic Church in which over 10,000 women and children were murdered in a single day in April of 1994, this center houses 15 young people who have been cast out of their families and communities because of mental or physical disabilities. It began with the initiative of one woman, Cecile, who brought a few children to live in this two-room hut next to her small pharmacy and enlisted a few community adults to play with the children, help them brush their teeth, and see that they receive at least one meal a day. While all of the children at Aveh Umurerwa benefit tremendously from this much needed dose of love, each is also in need of medical care that the center simply doesn’t have the money or know-how to provide. I visited here last Friday, with Katie and an Orthodox Jewish doctor from Long Island named Rick, who has practiced medicine in Ethiopia for over 20 years. In a matter of minutes, Rick was able to diagnose the syndrome (multiple, in some cases) and prescribe a typical course of treatment. For two four-year olds strapped into strollers, both might have a chance of walking if they practiced an hour or two of physical therapy each day. For another with a spinal deformity, a relatively simple surgery would prevent further degeneration. The children with hearing disabilities could lead semi-normal lives if they were taught alternative communication skills.

But talk of such specialized medical care probably dissolved as soon as we drove away. A few families have given $5 or $6 a month to help pay for their child to live here, but Cecile’s profits from her pharmacy next door hardly make up the remainder of the operating costs. With a few additional dollars a day, each child might eat three meals instead of two. With an extra hundred dollars or so, they might purchase some chickens and a handful of rabbits to breed and sell, a small farm that could in turn generate revenue over the long-term. With $10,000 they would build a new structure with space for each child to have a bed, maybe even raising overall occupancy. Aveh Umurerwa has received donations of toys, clothes, and strollers but what they really need is the cash for daily expenses. And they need a face.

It isn't purely by chance that Katie has helped create a small pool of donors for this project that otherwise would be flying completely under the radar of the international aid community. Aveh Umurerwa isn't sustainable in the way that development organizations like to talk about sustainability: few if any of the children raised here will turn out to be productive members of society, hence any money given to them doesn't really benefit Rwanda as a whole, or even their local community. It just helps keep them nourished, protected and loved, and the significance of those simple yet tedious acts didn't go unnoticed to Katie and and a few colleagues who have seen many other projects where children are neglected or opportunities to help children dealt a similar life hand have been squandered. But donating cash to Aveh Umurerwa isn't convenient (checks have been made out to Katie, who delivers the money in person, and gifts are not tax-deductible), it isn't going towards the most glamorous of charities, and perhaps most frustrating of all, it is only helping 15 children. But despite all of this, they are slowly gaining a face. Because Katie knows exactly where the money is going, trusts that it will continue to be utilized appropriately, and has been able to share the story of the project with friends and family at home in the US a few thousand dollars have already been donated for daily costs. Perhaps a few thousand more will be given later this summer, through a wedding registry set up by Katie's boyfriend Dave's sister and her fiancé.

Projects like Aveh Umurerwa will probably never be taken under the wing of large international NGOs and too rarely will they receive as much funding as they truly need. But giving children, such as the ones I've photographed above, the chance for a slightly better life isn't impossible, even if it doesn't always make sense to do so. It requires on-the-ground knowledge, the benevolence of donors to give without personal benefit, and intention to give dollars a face, to recognize where they're ending up. However small the group of people, the dollar amount, or the locality, mechanisms can be created globally to make this happen.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

bougainvillea grows through barbed wire

My good friends Katie and Dave live on what I thought was the Upper East Side of Kigali. The topography is more like that of San Francisco, though with the German Embassy around the corner, President Kegame’s house a few blocks away, and the upscale Hotel des Mille Collines, formerly known as Hotel Rwanda, up a long hill and around the bend I quickly assumed this is Kigali living at its largest. They say the neighborhood was inhabited by the wealthiest class in Rwanda before the war but many of them have left for larger, newer homes on the outskirts of town; these older houses are now occupied primarily by NGOs and their employees. (Hotel Rwanda, by the way, is based on genocide-related events of 1994 at the Hotel des Mille Collines, but it was actually filmed in South Africa). A few of the surrounding roads remain unpaved but new construction abounds: I walked past more than one hotel project in the works, and a few vacant lots filled with laborers and their shovels. All houses in this neighborhood surround themselves with tin gates, brick walls, and the inevitable gatekeeper, more a relic of the messy past than reflective of a present need for tough security.

Across town, however, it might as well be the Hamptons. As Ian, Katie’s gregarious driver, steered me up a hill past ramshackle homes, nearly grazing a steady stream of water-toting pedestrians on the roadside, he gave me the first lesson in real estate: location, location, location. “Up at the top, where the views are very good, that’s where the rich people live now, the very rich.” Indeed, the crowds thinned as we neared the top and the McMansions appeared. This area has only been developed in the last two years, and the majority of the houses (gigantic by most American standards), still had scaffolding around them. It seemed almost implausible that, given the context, these structures were being built for a single family. They house the businessmen, the ex-patriot developers, the government ministers, the diplomats. As part of the government’s broad development plan, Vision 2020, they’ve also built neighborhoods nearby that might be considered more middle-class, smaller than the mansions but huge by Rwandan standards and still largely unoccupied. Another 2,500 of these houses are in the works for the next few years. Accompanying these houses are the stores and schools where they can buy a cell phone, do the grocery shopping, and drop their children at the playground all within one complex. This neighborhood didn’t strike me as luxurious, exactly; it seems the people building them are after size more than anything else. “It’s like a competition,” Ian said, “one man will buy a Hummer and the next will want a limousine and a bigger house.” Keeping up with the Joneses knows no boundaries.

The horrific war of 1994, when over a million people were slaughtered across Rwanda in a matter of months, is rarely spoken of around here. This genocide is referenced in a similar way to which we speak of September 11th: a marker in time from which to look forward, the post-war or post-94 state of things, rather than a recalling of the events themselves. Considerations of ethnicity, a long-attributed cause of tension, hatred and war have been all but eliminated by the current government, headed by President Kegame. The ethnic distinctions of Hutu and Tutsi actually have socio-economic origins: when the Belgians took over Rwanda in a 1923 mandate from the League of Nations, they handed a Tutsi identity card to any household owning more than 10 cattle, and a Hutu card to those who owned fewer. The ensuing creation of race from class is obviously complex, and probably not my job to detail here. But these days its all about reconciliation, of country and culture, and any project that supports this receives fervent approval from the government. Rwanda very much feels like a country in transition; the faded signs for old restaurants and les bureaux de changes are mostly in French, new billboards for cell phones and the first annual East African investment conference, in English. Rwanda had been the recipient of substantial foreign aid, of food and money, following the war but the government has begun turning down aid in favor of economic investment and various loan arrangements. It hasn’t exactly been an easy transition, as Katie remarked shrewdly, “It’s hard to give people something for free one year and expect them to pay for it the next.”

Coffee is emerging in many ways as a source of national pride and unity. Ian told me that President Kegame visited the United States and realized that it’s easier for Americans to find roasted Rwandan coffee than it is for Rwandans. Kegame returned from his trip and promptly arranged for two branches of the Bourbon Coffee Café to open in Kigali, each costing over $1 million (overseas investors composing the bulk of that). The one nearest Katie and Dave’s house would compete with the best of NYC’s coffee shops, a warm and glossy lounge space with serious mahogany furniture and a palatial view of the surrounding hills. Rwandans have set up shop with laptops and friends here this afternoon, though I’m the only one within sight drinking Maraba cooperative coffee from a French Press (a $2 steal!); most of the people around me are sipping blended, whipped cream-topped $6 things, or Coke. Coffee is always an acquired taste, isn’t it, and Rwanda has never been much of a coffee drinking country (they have long preferred tea) in spite of having some of the most prized Bourbon Arabica coffee plants in the world. But perhaps this is their moment to become acquainted with coffee, and develop a café culture to accompany it. Before Bourbon Coffee Café, there existed no obvious place in Kigali to ‘meet for coffee’ or hold court in a privately-owned public space. Parisian coffee consumption probably increased tremendously when it became fashionable for the literati to sit at Café de Flore with un petit café crème and watch their fellow citizens with the eye of un flaneûr. Unlike in Paris, however, this café can proudly dress its servers in American Apparel t-shirts embracing the slogan ‘naturally crop to cup’ while they watch the bourgeoisie settle in.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

our first global president?

When arriving in Nairobi after the second red-eye in a row, the last thing you want to hear from a taut ticket agent is that the next flight you have a ticket for doesn't exist. Not delayed, not overbooked, but "doesn't exist." In fact, Flight 3118 on Kenya Airways has never existed in the history of the airline, despite the fact that I am holding a ticket printed with my name and Kenya Air #3118, Nairobi to Kigali, 9:15am. I've just missed the 8am flight to Kigali, #474, and the next flight to Rwanda is at 6pm, on a different airline entirely. If this sounds like the beginning to a long day in a second-rate airport, well, I wish I had a wittier answer but a long day is exactly what it was.

I'll save you from reading the minute-by-minute account of how I spent the next 10 hours at Jomo Kenyatta airport, except to say that the time between 3pm and 4:30pm was allotted to wine shopping at the duty free stores. Three bottles of red Burgundy, one semillion, a South African merlot, and a large bottle of Pimm's later, my new friend and mediocre-wine salesman extraordinaire, Chebii, sent me to my gate with a shopping cart.

Sometime after attempting to get into the British Airways executive platinum lounge and then retreating to the Java coffee shop for a shredded cheddar cheese sandwich, Obama arrived. The morning flights having already departed, and the next flights still half a day away, it seemed I was the only guest in the coffee shop, maybe even the whole airport. CNN kept me awake if only because Al Gore was giving his self-congratulatory endorsement of Barack, and was attracting quite the crowd. A group of five young Kenyans fixing the air conditioning put their tools aside to watch. Three other men from behind the counter emerged with an intent for television reserved only for soccer, catastrophe, and now everyone's favorite presidential candidate as well. All stood transfixed; whispers of "Ba-rack O-ba-ma," a few bobbing heads. At one point I turned and asked mundanely "How do you feel about Obama?" to anyone in general. From atop of his ladder, one slouching guy in a florescent yellow vest looked down at me and grinned broadly. "We are very proud of him," he said. "He is one of us!"

Sunday, June 15, 2008

from cherry to cherry

Cher•ry (n): 1. the fruit of any of various trees belonging to the genus Prunus, of the rose family, consisting of a pulpy, globular drupe enclosing a one-seeded smooth stone; 2. the tree bearing such a fruit; 3. any of various fruits of plants resembling the cherry; 4. bright red, cerise; 5. the state of virginity

The cherry varieties native to the northern, temperate latitudes reveal themselves within a quintessential transition from spring to summer: blossom to fruit. Here in New York, and on the West Coast as well, we come to know them as Bing, Brooks and Rainier, sour and maybe maraschino. Their presence is never long enough, though they arrive with less of a shout than the first of the spring strawberries (how starved we were for fruit then) and the sting of their season's end is soothed by the ripening of the fleshier, more voluptuous peaches and apricots. While the ambitious will don a bib and pit them for pie, I bet the bulk of us would just as rather spit the stones in the grass as the sun sets on the longest days of the year.

I'm leaving behind our summer stone fruit season with a small pout, for another cherry harvest happening now in a locale where the sun shines an even 12 hours each day regardless of the season. Like the farmers in Michigan, Oregon and New York, the pickers of cherry in the tropics hope for heavy tonnage and bright red, cerise fruit. From a different genus altogether, the best of this cherry is destined for your morning mug: Coffea arabica. This cherry is only vaguely defined by the dictionary (and is never referred to in the plural), and its seed not dismissed for the flesh. Indeed, the heart of this cherry, the green coffee bean, is traded like gold.

Cherry picking the coffee plants is winding down now in Rwanda, a verdant, high-altitude East African country no bigger than Vermont. When I arrive on Tuesday, no doubt in need of a cup myself, I have big plans to hit the ground running. While I'll be conducting my Masters thesis research primarily on specialty coffee production, this project is also about so much more. I'll outline the various themes I have in mind on coffee tasting and terroir, localized food production, and soil conservation for you all soon and post regularly on my farm excursions and food expeditions in Africa this summer. In the meantime, check out some of the links or the posted articles for related info if you're interested; much of the background to my work has already been written up in the papers vis-à-vis the current food crisis. While Rwanda probably feels very far away to you now (it does to me too), this project at its most fundamental explores interactions between the local and the global: how the coffee in our cup is rooted in their land, labor and knowledge; how food production and consumption, and the attempt at local food security, in this distant location is ultimately connected to all of us.

Thanks for reading. Check back often, and please leave comments and questions. I'm looking forward to those.