Religious Tolerance Brewing in Uganda

Four hundred Ugandan farmers, three religions, one goal: good coffee

| December 1, 2005

'To drink is human, to drink coffee is divine!' So says an anonymous maxim. Yet the closer connection between coffee and divinity may be on the other end of the supply line, in a fair-trade coffee cooperative called Mirembe Kawomera, Yes! magazine reports. Founded in Uganda in 2004, the cooperative -- whose name translates as 'delicious peace' -- boasts members from the Islamic, Christian, and Jewish communities. In a country that's seen its fair share of dictatorship and civil strife, and where religious animosity can still run deep, this is no small feat. Just 30 years ago it was dangerous to be caught reading the Torah. But such prejudices may be disappearing in the Mbale region, thanks to the mutual trust and respect fostered by the coffee cooperative model.

Mirembe Kawomera's founderOn Thanksgiving Coffee's website, J.J. Keki, the cooperative's founder, explains on the cooperative's website that he aims to 'make the cooperative a model of championing peace and development in the area.' Recognizing that the farmers were 'fragmented,' Keki pitched a vision of 'peaceful coexistence for development.' As a seat-holder on the area's local council, he already had his neighbors' trust, and he parlayed that trust into support for the cooperative. His work paid off when American vocalist Laura Wetzler began to champion his cause, Yes! reports. Wetzler helped secure fair-trade certification and found a buyer in California, Thanksgiving Coffee.

Now Keki is seeing the fruits of his labor. No longer 'fragmented,' the farmers are working together to build productive capacity. Thanksgiving Coffee recently advanced the co-op money to purchase more processing equipment, increasing their yearly output and creating a more stable economic base. Indeed, such actions are the norm: co-ops are regularly sponsored by their overseas importer. It's a model based on long-term, mutually beneficial action. And it's working, thanks in part to organizations like Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International and Equal Exchange the Fair Trade Federation. These labeling organizations provide information, support, and fair-trade guidelines, ensuring that the movement develops sustainably and responsibly. Ultimately, however, the system rests on consumers becoming educated and buying the right bean. What's in your cup?

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