"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.
"At the time, we had some differences among the Christians, the Muslims, and the Jews," says Sinina Namudosi, a young Muslim woman, now a board member of the coffee cooperative. "But together we formed Mirembe Kawomera, which in the Luganda language means 'delicious peace.'"
With help from Kulanu, a nonprofit organization that has been working with Uganda's Jewish community since the mid '90s, the coffee growers were able to obtain fair trade certification and find a distributor, the Thanksgiving Coffee Company in Fort Bragg, California. Thanksgiving buys the coffee from the cooperative at a guaranteed minimum price, no matter what the market does, netting the farmers around $2 a pound—a big improvement over the 60 cents they had been getting—and sells it online at deliciouspeace.com. To promote the interfaith dialogue started by Mirembe Kawomera, they offer wholesale prices to buying clubs, which now include more than 90 mosques, synagogues, churches, schools, and community centers throughout the United States. Their motto, says Thanksgiving's project director, Ben Corey-Moran, is "Not just a cup, but a just cup."
I couldn't help but smile, knowing that the rich cup of black coffee I'd nursed in the morning was partly the reason some of them were in that classroom, why they had lunch and mosquito nets, why they were understanding the mosaic of religions around them.
JJ offers to play me one of the songs he wrote to urge people to plant coffee again and grow it organically. "Music is often one of the best ways to communicate in these small villages," notes Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, an ethnomusicologist who helped bring JJ and Sinina to the United States this year to accept the Dr. Jean Mayer Global Citizenship Award from Tufts University. "They sing about the dangers of AIDS; they sing about fair trade, and planting quality coffee, and the impact of getting a good price."
I've traveled the world and seen nothing so good as coffee, JJ sings, strumming on his little guitar. Our only solution is to grow coffee. Brothers and sisters come, grow coffee.
"It is simple to cause peace," JJ explains. "We use what we have to make our enemies into our friends. You don't need PhDs. We have coffee."