Photo: Vanessa Vick
JJ Keki insists you can see him on the news the morning of 9/11, a Ugandan man in a kippah, running from the scene of the attack. He was visiting New York City for the first time and had gone to the World Trade Center to meet a friend. He was about to step inside when the first plane hit.
"I was nearly a victim," he says. "After that, I began to wonder what I could do to help end this religious violence. People use small differences to make hatred. I am a Jew, and in Israel Jews and Muslims are killing each other. In Kenya, my fellow Africans are killing each other because of their tribes. I began to wonder what did I have with which to make peace?" JJ smiles. "Coffee. I have coffee."
I drink coffee every day, and I often think I couldn't live without it, though hardly in the same sense as the farmers in Uganda, I learned in March when I traveled there to meet JJ.
His business card simply reads Music Director, the title printed neatly beside a Star of David, a star and crescent, and a cross. But JJ Keki is the 48-year-old chairman of the Mirembe Kawomera Coffee Cooperative in eastern Uganda, an interfaith group of more than 700 coffee growers: Jews, Muslims, and Christians. He's also a spiritual leader, a musician, and the proud father of 25 children, 14 of whom he adopted. Not that he is a wealthy man. He is a coffee farmer—like most people in the hills around the town of Mbale.
Standing by one of his low trees, he smiles his trickster grin, excited that he has had another revelation: The coffee tree needs the way a person needs.
"The tree does not do well to be alone," he says. "It needs shade; it needs to be near other trees—banana, cedar, avocado, mango." He points at each tree as he names it.
He moves to a different coffee tree and plucks some leaves; his long fingers delicately stroke the branch as he does so, firm and gentle at the same time, a stroke then a tug. The extra leaves rob the tree of water and should be removed to keep it healthy.
"You must always be in your garden," JJ continues. "Today one coffee berry could be ready to pick, you see—." He shows me a tree with one bright red berry in a bunch of green. "Tomorrow three more. The berries are not ready at the same time. They need constant attention...just like people."
He pauses a moment, adjusts the kippah on his head. "Just like people," he repeats, smiling. And then adds, in Ugandan fashion, a high-pitched "eh," his voice rising with exclamation, making the monosyllabic sigh sound like both a question and an agreement.