taking a delicious peace to the world from the villages of Uganda


MONTHS ago, in response to an article I had written about books, a side-conversation began on email in which I was introduced to one Richard Sobol, about launching a book he had written on Uganda.

He already has four books about Uganda – ‘One More Elephant‘, ‘Breakfast In The Rainforest‘, ‘Abayudaya‘ and the one in question last year, ‘Delicious Peace‘.

The tone of the conversation seemed to suggest that the books were not already available or even known in Uganda even though they were about this beautiful country and its fantastic people.

I prodded a few people in our tourism sector but there was no interest whatsoever in his recent book even though books as a medium of communication are taken quite seriously in the ‘developed’ world, so much so that editors painstakingly comb through manuscripts to erase marketing-poised mentions of brands and other items that could benefit too much.

Breakfast In The Rainforest‘ (2010), for instance, is available on Amazon Online at US$7.99 (Ushs28,000) and piques the interest of most readers in the mountain gorilla. In fact, a couple of online reviews end with people saying they wanted to visit after reading it – even though it is classified as a children’s book.

By the way, Sobol is a photographer-writer, so his books are very visual.

Breakfast In The Rainforest‘ even carried an afterward by the actor Leonardo Di Caprio, to prove how popular Sobol’s work can be; and his other collaborations have been endorsed by the architect Frank Gehry, Robert F Kennedy Jr., and carried by publications like Time, The New York Times, Paris Match, Audubon, and National Geographic.

So I looked more keenly into his recent book, the one my contact, Author and Librarian Cathy Kreutter, was suggesting be promoted in Uganda.

Delicious Peace‘ led me straight to Namanyonyi, in Mbale, where the book is set, and I wasn’t reading it – I started at a YouTube video documentary about it that featured a 48-year old peace-loving coffee farmer in Mbale called J.J. Keki.

j-j-keki
This is J.J. Keki (Photo from: http://www.jewlicious.com)

He is also a musician, he said, over a video shot of himself singing with his village mates playing some simple instruments behind him. He wore a skull cap that I thought was a katalabusi but got distracted at that point in the video because suddenly I was watching the September 11 plane attack on the World Trade Centre!

 

Then this J.J. Keki, Mbale farmer-musician, told us he was in the United States and right at the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001 when the planes struck! He wanted to tour the place but it was hit and he had to flee the subway while watching the second building fall. Covered in dust, he fled along with thousands of others.

“That is when we learned that there were terrorists and these terrorists were connected with religion. When I flashed back to Uganda I said we should begin something. We have coffee, so maybe we make a co-op of Muslims, Christians, and my religion, I’m Jewish, and then we can teach the world how to work together,” he says.

Enter Peace (Mirembe) Kawomera Grower’s Society – the focus of ‘Delicious Peace’, a film about peace, harmony and coffee.

I was flabbergasted.

The rest of the story is gripping – not like the television dramas we hear about at award ceremonies, but if you respect peace, innovation, hard work and the triumphs that seemingly simple people achieve where complicated, rich, highly educated, urban-dwelling people many times fail to be useful, then you must watch that video, read the book, and read about Mirembe Kawomera.

I found that Mirembe Kawomera has been so successful as a coffee growers cooperative that they became certified as Fair Trade coffee suppliers into the United States – though not without challenges, as you will discover.

Plus, their music is on an album released by the Smithsonian Folkways project (in 2012) at US$16.98 (Ushs60,000).

“Village guitar groups and women’s choirs sing to stress the transformative impact of Fair Trade prices and to encourage their neighbours to join the coffee cooperative. Accompanied with xylophone, drums and other traditional instruments, these farmers sing of the benefits of interfaith cooperation and, through music, teach new cooperative members how to produce great coffee,” says an album description.

And more: “J. J. Keki, the founder of the cooperative, says: ‘Use whatever you have to create peace! If you have music, use your music to create peace. For us, we have coffee. We are using coffee to bring peace to the world.”

And they are doing it in Lugweri, Luganda, Lugisu and some English.

Is he on the list of national medal recipients? I haven’t heard his name yet. Is he on the list for a Nobel Peace Prize, in this world where the whole President of the United States can see no way of bringing people with divergent religious beliefs together? Not that I have been told or can find on the internet. Is he or is the cooperative even on a list of special exporters maintained by the Uganda Exports Promotion Board and Uganda Coffee Development Authority? Ask them – their email addresses and phone numbers are online, and so are the names of most of their officials.

On what list are J.J. Keki and the people of Mirembe Kawomera (Delicious Peace)? My list of good Ugandans doing simple things to make this country look and sound good.

I respect them highly for that, and thank them for giving me another brand of coffee to try and buy rather than any imported brand with a name that means nothing as important to me, personally, or all of us, nationally, as Mirembe Kawomera (Delicious Peace).

 

filling up a #UgBlogWeek quota


I’M the guy sitting in a restaurant that offers reliably free wi-fi, where I stopped over to get some work done as the evening came to a close and the traffic had piled up in a way that was threatening my promise to a client that I would “email it tonight”.

That “I’ll email tonight” is the supplier equivalent of offering to pay the bill at the end of the evening when one is dining at an expensive restaurant in a very platonic arrangement.

It is impolite to let the first offer stand if you’re a client.

Every time I say those words to a client I suffer mental anguish as I think about the one hundred and one things that can make that promise turn into the reason why I get dropped as a supplier.

Those one hundred and one things could be anything – one hundred and one badly driven vehicles causing a traffic jam right from the gates of the client’s premises to the next point I can set up my laptop and type out the email, or fifty five of those vehicles plus 45 boda bodas and one traffic police person who can’t keep traffic flow fair.

(I did the maths there properly, I think.)

If you live in Kampala then you know that traffic police person – the one who has obviously never driven a vehicle in their lives and therefore cannot begin to click how infuriating it is to sit there and see three hundred cars in the other line being allowed to go, then only four in your line before it is stopped for another three hundred in the other one.

That one hundred and one things could be a combination in any order of low battery life on your gadgets, electricity outages, internet being off or slow, someone visiting for tea, the children insisting on 88 different distractions…

That’s why I’m the guy in the free wi-fi restaurant – I’d rather kill that time sitting in a place where I can send all those emails, download a couple of things (polite) and then upload something like this without pulling out hair.

When I have a driver (including the special hire guy) and my batteries are sufficiently charged up then I skip the wi-fi allure of the restaurant and power up in the back seat so I am out of the restaurant faster. Clients are blown away by such speed and efficiency, though I know it sometimes sets a bad precedent and creates unrealistic expectations in them.

Plus, one needs time and coffee with a snack in order to fashion a proper email to a client.

Hence my being the guy sitting in a restaurant that offers free wi-fi, who has finally sent the client the email I promised I would send just before I stepped out of their building to find traffic lined up end-to-end, and my laptop and phone batteries both dead on account of having had them on during the lengthy meeting with same said client.

I’m also the guy looking at this bill and trying to compute whether this money would have been better spent in an internet cafe over the same couple of hours. But then there, I wouldn’t have had these drinks and that snack, in these comfy chairs, with the nice background music…

…and I’d probably be filling up my #UgBlogWeek quota of the day with something significantly different. Something better thought out. Something you would be reading now and nodding your head at instead of going SMDH.

If you had a look at my bill you’d sympathise and be thankful instead of complaining that this is a rip-off.

And if you’re that client and you’re reading this then next time feel free to jump in next time I promise to email you “tonight” and insist that I send you the damn email on Monday instead?

Fridays are NOT made for this nonsense.

management toilets vs toilet management


I RECENTLY began attending meetings at an organisation that shall remain unnamed where, as expected during such official meetings, a sensible amount of tea and coffee is served and consumed.

That automatically necessitates trips to the ‘washrooms’ at one point or another, and on my first such trip I was distressed to find the door to relief firmly locked. I danced gingerly at the end of the corridor as I investigated the whereabouts of the key or the person in charge of granting access, until I was directed to toilets on the lower level of the building.

These were ordinary toilets, it turned out, as opposed to the locked ones protected for ‘Management’.

With time, I was given such clearance that whenever I stepped out of the room the person with the key (sitting in an ante-room with the door wide open in order to respond to such events in a timely fashion) sprung into action and provided access.

At our next meeting, the Toilet Key Controller had realised it made sense to simply leave the door unlocked for the duration of the meeting. At one point in the day, however, apparently because a couple of ordinary staff had gained access to the special ‘Management’ toilet, the Key Controller took to locking the door at intervals – coinciding with one or two of my trips.

Eventually, I got fed up of the anxiety I felt every time I made my way down that corridor. I long ago decided that toilet access was too low down in the order of priorities in my life to cause me such angst.

And luckily I got to the toilet to find the Key Controller had left the set of keys behind. Within seconds I had hidden them in a difficult place, and it was while I was doing so that I realised how ridiculous the situation was.

This special toilet was not remarkable at all. One of the two toilets didn’t even haveToilet a toilet seat, there was a layer of dust over everything, cobwebs here and there, and piles of broken plastic things that started out in life as buckets, brushes and other items I could not recognise.

The water in the bowl was generally clean to the eye, as was the one running out of the taps. There were hard bits of things that seemed to be stones masquerading as soap. Or maybe they were just stones that cynical toilet cleaners had placed there as a prank.

I laughed a little at the thought that oppressed staff were generally playing an elaborate prank on ‘Management’ by not cleaning the windows, gathering bits of rubbish into the corner, and then locking the toilets to mock them. They just hadn’t labelled the toilet door: ‘VIP’.

Any office in which such an arrangement exists is unquestionably poorly managed, by people with a low-self esteem who seek to mimic their counterparts in companies where the senior staff have en suite toilet cubicles. It is a sad environment in which that low self-esteem in ‘Management’ trickles down.

For instance, what was the motivation of the Toilet Key Controller? What do they tell their spouse in the evenings when asked “How was your day?”

“Man, today someone hid the toilet key! I looked for it everywhere but I couldn’t find it anywhere…”

I couldn’t imagine their career aspirations; was there someone below them in charge of the toilets for general staff?

Locking a toilet is one thing; deploying an entire human being to manage its being locked is another; doing both yet the toilet is dirty and has neither seats nor hand washing soap points to a serious lack of priorities on the part of the toilet owner.

I must confess to having left many toilet doors unlocked after being given a key, because I am an anarchist that way. Some people believe that everybody should have access to drinking water, as water is life; if that is the case, then they should have access to facilities naturally at the other end of that equation.

A pal of mine, Rukaka Mugizi, took up a toilet habit that some people found irritating but I quite liked. While he was resident in Kampala after spending a few years ago studying medicine in Cuba, he began photographing toilets in various places round the city.

It started with the toilets of a popular local that a number of us frequented, in Bukoto. Rukaka could not understand how yuppies and middle class people could spend time and money drinking beer and eating chicken at a place with toilets this bad.

One night he took photographs of the loos, and then emailed them round the next day in the belief that in broad daylight his mates would appreciate better the ironical error of their night-time ways.

It didn’t work. It couldn’t – many at that time worked in places where ‘Management’ kept dirty, semi-functional toilets securely under lock and key, and I cannot say what domestic toilets looked like. So, for a while, everywhere he went he took photos of toilets and emailed them to the group.

Sadly, he eventually stopped; but the group didn’t stop drinking and eating chicken at the dirty-toilet, water-less kafunda because of this. Neither did they tell their ‘Managers’ to focus on more important issues in the office than access to the toilet.

collapsing coffee shops to build the economy


IN my bid to support local business I frequently drop in on small but neat-looking coffee shops in my towns here in Uganda, and sometimes I am pleasantly surprised.

I’m not talking about the world-class cafes like Java’s, where if it were not for the occasional blip you could actually be drinking your latte in a much more developed country.

We have these little coffee shops in unlikely spots of the city that will startle you on a random day with some extremely tasty spiced African tea cooked properly with the tea leaves brewed right into the correct amount of milk mixed with hot water.

Some of them serve up a delightful meal forged by a chef who either has a personal passion for what he or she does, or is moonlighting away from a regular job at a five-star hotel.

Most, on the other hand, are a non-stop source of entertainment because they are owned and managed by people who have done more mathematics than catering; cafe owners and restauranteurs who have worked out ways of extracting business benefits out of food without bothering with the food part of the business.

Fortunately, many of these collapse after a short while, creating space that I keep hoping will be filled up by people who actually care about the important elements of food – hygiene, freshness, taste, service.

I’m not being callous – more good cafe’s and restaurants mean a much improved economy: offices run smoother with employees well fuelled by good beverages and food; tourists roll in to enjoy freshly grown, picked, roasted, brewed coffee with hot, flaky pastries and tasty organic food; and farmers find themselves digging night shifts to meet the demand.

And in months such as this one ahead, the atmosphere of vacationism that is going to descend on most employed Kampala dwellers should translate into supernormal profits for serious cafes and restaurants.

Only serious ones.

Unlike the one I stopped over at on Wednesday morning in the mall in Ntinda near my next meeting. It was the only one open and its neatness made me assume it was brimming with the promise of good coffee and hot, flaky pastries.

The fellow I found wiping surfaces clean flashed me a nice, welcoming smile that made me ignore the empty food warmer display unit for a few seconds, and he even motioned me to a seat.

“Do you have any pastries?” I asked, after failing to detect any aroma of food being cooked up, and pointing to the empty food warmer.

“Yes,” he replied, “we are just cleaning up and then we will bring them out.”

Ten minutes later, I looked up from my laptop to realise that the cleaning was still in progress, the food warmer empty and my breakfast non-existent.

I startled him when I called out, so quickly had he forgotten the one  single customer in the room, and he summoned a colleague to stock the food warmer as I walked over to inspect the offerings.

“Are these fresh? Were they made today?” I asked incredulously, eyeing the pastries sternly.

“Yes!” the two fellows replied in unison.

Then I noticed that the food warmer had a digital temperature gauge and it was reading 16 degrees.

“That should be much warmer!” I remarked.

“No!” one chap replied, “It is supposed to be at cold.”

I made a passionate presentation about the preferred warmth of pastries and other breakfast foods which he listened to right to the end and then replied, “But if we make it warmer then they will not last for more than one day.”

After giving it a few seconds for the irony of his statement to arrive, I tried to explain the concept of “fresh” pastries, and how the place would have a more inviting aroma if the pastries were baked that morning right there. I met with a walled blank look that said, “Place your order or just go away.”

I lost; both the discussion and my money, as I essayed a pastry and failed to enjoy it cold. Later, I struck up a conversation with another of the staff there who had overheard my pastry-warmth tete-a-tete and he confessed that the owner-manager insisted on holding pastries for days on end.

Plus, she didn’t believe in actually making the pastries in-house even though they had the equipment, and she only showed up to draw money from the till or host friends and relatives.

I will be watching keenly for when it collapses under a pile of cold pastries, so I get a restauranteur to invest in it, give us a neat-looking cafe, fresh pastries, hot coffee and an improved economy.