From the Source: Coffee Plantation Interviews

Hey, hey! After days of rain and rescheduling, we were able interview two daily coffee plantation workers, and one supervisor at Cyimbili last week. The interviews took a couple of hours, and our plan was to go on home visits after the interviews to get a glimpse of the personal lives and families of these three, but the homes are 30 minute hikes in different directions, and the rains started shortly after the interviews. Soon, everyone says. Soon, like, when the rain stops, we’ll move.  It’s been five hours and we have not moved.

*We did finally move three days later. Pictures of these visits are here, and stories from the hike are here.

The interviews were interesting, as all three represented different experiences, families and interests.

Interview 1The first was a widowed grandma who cares for several nephews and grandchildren (nine total, I think) and is the primary earner for her family on $1.50 USD per day, loads higher than any other job in the area. She has been widowed for 15 years, and with her earnings, she pays school fees for several of the kids, maintains the home and food supply, and retains health insurance for the family at the clinic in Cyimbili.  She has many friends in the plantation because of working together every day, and reports before attending the required devotions as a plantation worker, she used to steal firewood and coffee. She says, smiling, the devotions have helped to change her heart and hear God’s words about how to behave.

Interview 2

The second was a married supervisor who has been praying for kids for 15 years. FIFTEEN YEARS! The social and spiritual views on infertility are not good, though we were able to offer each other peace and truth. Instant bond, he and Jeff and I, and I am happy to pray for them, as they report they are happy to pray for us.  With his earnings, he purchased a house, a small plot of land to cultivate cassava, and has been sponsoring an orphan boy’s education for eight years. He also travels to the eldest “moms” in his family who can’t work and provides food. More on the journey to his village and my meeting with his wife here.

Interview 3The third was a 26 year-old single female who lives with her parents and 9 brothers and sisters! She, her two brothers, and her dad all work on the plantation. With her earnings, she has purchased two pigs, has put a portion in the bank, and helps maintain her household with the rest.

ALARM (in partnership with two other organizations- find the backstory here) has totally rehabilitated this plantation and transformed the local economy and community through jobs, pastoral and leadership trainings, and reconciliation efforts within the coffee plantation itself.

Right now, the plantation employs about 148 workers, and 93 are women. (The numbers fluctuate +/- 20 depending on the season.) Each worker is responsible for picking 77lbs of ripe cherries per day, though rainy season is hard, with lots of half-days scattered in due to downpours, and none of the cherries can sit overnight—they must be processed at the washing station the same day to remain fresh! Some employees pick and harvest, others wash and shell, others dry and bag. Each day, workers are divided into groups and given their tasks.

Here are some statistics that will blow your mind, when you consider all of this is done by hand: With almost 40,000 total coffee trees, The plantation averages about 928 pounds of ripe cherries per day and 27,000 pounds per month! The average amount of dried coffee produced each day is about 97 pounds, and per month is about 2,917. That’s a ton of coffee. Literally. In the rainy season, workers have the option of working six days per week for extra income, as the season yields such a huge harvest.

Over half of the women employed are widows and primary earners in their families. The three interviewed and others we visited with list the main benefits as being paid at a higher rate than others in the area, participating in daily devotions and coffee choir, and being together daily. The workers agree that by living and working together every day, and attending the morning devotions together, they “create unity with no segregation. All people are accepted here.”

Because of sand erosion, many individuals have a hard time growing their own food and rely on the coffee plantation as a source of income to be able to purchase food from surrounding village markets and cities. Before the plantation was rehabilitated, many families struggle to eat because they couldn’t maintain their own gardens, and they did not have a source of income.

Currently the plantation grows, harvests, shells, washes and separates their own coffee by various grades for packaging, but does not have the capacity to roast, market or export their coffee. Their production is also stunted by an insufficient water system for washing the cherries, and too few employees during rainy and harvest seasons.  They also hope to continue to renovate the grounds, adding sports equipment and a boat to attract area hikers and other volunteers to spend time at the guesthouse, generating additional revenue. As ALARM is able to generate funds to divert the plantation, they hope to continue its growth and impact in the community.

For more info on how you can get involved, check out ALARM and download the June issue of WND magazine.

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Hikes and Home visits: A forehead hug

*Make it to the end of this one, it’s where the goods are.

There came a day in Cyimbili when Jeff and I were so tired of the rain and the porch sitting, we took off in reckless abandon. It had cleared for a split second, I put on warm clothes, and we started hiking. Fifteen minutes in, the sun came out, and it was instantly unbearably hot. We had not put on sunscreen. Daggers! After a quick u-turn, a change of clothes, sunglasses and SPF, we again set out on the open dirt road.  We would hike somewhere. Anywhere. We grabbed rain jackets, too, because we have learned, finally, to take the raincoat everywhere no matter what the skies look like. We are on our way to learning this about the sunscreen, but my peeling neck, arms and ears make me feel a little bit brain-dead.

We hiked a giant hill that afternoon, trailed by 35 kids collected along the way— one or two at a time, a little face peeking around the corner, an excited muzungu!, one more kid added to the single-file procession up the hill, all the way to the top. This little (out of focus) bebe was very last and very angry the older kids kept leaving her behind.

bebe

Other kids

At the very top, we were escorted by a couple of teenagers to a footpath that led to spectacular views of the plantation and Lake Kivu, where the skies immediately opened up on us—thunder, rain, the works.  We ran down the mountain, and felt very proud of ourselves when we got home. We told others we had hiked to the top of the hill. Yes, they said, smiling.

View

Imagine our surprise when, two days later, we set out to visit one of the supervisors we had interviewed the day before. A 30-minute walk, they told us. No biggie. We climbed that hill yesterday!

We began walking in the direction of the giant hill, and as we turned onto the dirt path that led up the hill, I thought to myself: Wow, the supervisor must live on this hill. What a steep walk to work and back every day. If only we had known yesterday, we could have visited him while we were just here…

As we walked past all the houses on the hill heading toward the very top, I thought: Wow, the supervisor lives on the top of this hill? So far! And he walks the hill every day? Yesterday we were so tired and proud to have made it. Silly us.

Then we walked over the top of the hill and down the other side toward a village. I looked back at Jeff and thought: No way! He lives up the hill, over the hill, and in the village on the other side? So far! I can’t believe he walks this every day…

Maybe you’re sensing the pattern. Maybe you also wear sunscreen and always carry your raincoat.

As we walked through the village on the other side and continued down toward the main road, I started really wondering. He walks up the mountain, over the top, through the village on the other side and down to the main road?! I can’t believe this.

But then we continued on the main road, past a little girl wearing a Packers T-shirt and another kid pulling a cut-up pill container on bottle cap wheels, onto a steep dirt footpath, and I was like: Whaaaat? He lives up the mountain, over the top, through the village on the other side, down the main road, and up the next ridge? Omg. Where’s my water?!

Packers

toy

When we walked up the dirt footpath, up the ridge and through the next village, I was sure this would be it. But we kept walking…

Three ridges, three valleys, three villages later, lots of kid-trains and muzungu squeals, over an hour from where we started, we arrived at the supervisor’s home! We were promptly greeted with chairs and Fanta, and in our cartoon lives, they were fanning us with giant leaves, wiping our sweaty faces.

We spent time with the supervisor and his wife along with all the neighbors packed into the tiny, but clean and welcoming house. Over and over, each person shared how excited the village was to welcome us—many muzungu had visited the coffee plantation, but none had ever gone walking to the villages! Especially not one so far!  Many had never seen muzungu before in person, right here, they said! They hugged and prayed and smiled and offered us more Coke, saying they were so encouraged and blessed by our visit. They insisted we take their greetings home to our families, and we shared greetings from all of you to them.

Spv house

In the most simple display of connection and community, we were all just happy to be sitting there together each enjoying the other’s company.

This supervisor and his wife have been married for 15 years without kids, he had described in his interview the day before. They had been to various doctors through the years, but could not find an answer to their infertility. Here in Rwanda, like so many other cultures, infertility is viewed as a curse, and often leads to isolation of the woman by others. We shared with the supervisor the day before how our own experience had been so difficult, how we would commit to praying for each other, and we sent him with hugs for his wife.

When I found myself face-to-face with the wife that day, she greeted me with a more intimate but familiar greeting of three hugs and cheek touches—left side, right side, left side—but then there was also something I had never been included in until that moment: forehead to forehead, eye to eye, and we rested there for a moment. It was more than a hug. It was like the insides of her soul reaching out to the insides of my soul, through our eyes and foreheads. She and I, in that moment, the same.

Wife

Yes, we will pray for those two- these who have put at least two orphans through school and help support several village “moms”- and we believe they will pray for us. We offered each other peace and truth in spite of those blasted ancestors…

Aaaaaaaand then we hiked the hour-and-a-half home at sunset, back through the villages and the valleys and the ridges, collecting another muzungu parade of kids, just like the supervisor does every day to and from work, rain or shine, and I think his quads are probably ripped!

Sunset

For the entire photo album, click here!

But in the meantime, how about some cute twins who were terrified of us?

Twins 1Twins 2Twins 3happy twins

Quick Easter Recap

Hey! Happy belated Easter!

J and I spent Easter week in rural Cyimbili, with no real access to anything except coffee and rain. Just kidding.  We also had some great hikes and home visits, and we made some great friends this week: Eriane, V, Anastasi and Nepo- all our ages, except Anasasi who had a decade on or two on the rest of us :)

With these four we shared every meal, most hikes, and all the hours of downtime watching the rain from the front porch:

ErianeNepo
AnastasiV

Easter week was surprisingly quiet. There were no Holy Week events or services or even a Good Friday something-or-other!  Most were celebrating the month-long break from school, which began on Good Friday. Jeff and I were a little sad about the lack of community commemoration, but found ourselves quiety observing things in our own way.

Then, out of nowhere- BAM! Easter Sunday was an explosion of colors and song and dancing!

The Service was 3.5 hours long, and celebrated the gathering of all the surrounding village churches in one giant service. The morning included a singing processional to the beach for 4 baptisms, 14 choirs from surrounding villages, 3 offerings (money, or for those without money, an offering of words or goods- beans and a chicken were offered on Easter morning!), praise and worship, sermon, announcement, strategic plan update, funds update, communion, and benediction. Whew! Below is a link to the Easter photo album, followed by three short video clips of the Kids Choir, some Easter Dancing and the Praise and Worship time after the offering was collected:

Easter Album click here.

Right after the service ended, the thunder rolled, winds picked up and it poured for 12 straight hours! We had a relaxing day on the couches of the front porch sipping hot coffee and tea and visiting with our friends. Not a bad East! (As Nepo kept calling it: Happy East! Happy East!)  Kirisito yazutse! Christ is risen!

Who Told You That We Are Cursed?

Cyimbili KidWe are blessed,
We are blessed,
Who told you that we are cursed?

These are lyrics in worship song performed by the Cyimbili Coffee Choir during their pre-work (6:30a!) devotions last week as a gift to the visitors (us!).

In this song I have discovered the secret of this little community in Rwanda: they are blessed! Here is a group of people who saw the absolute depths of humanity on this very land two decades ago, and have found a way to love one another. Joy is here. Hope is here. Laughter, and singing and praise are here. God is here.

God was here, God is here, God will be here.

These ten thousand square miles—about the size of Maryland—are full of a thousand green hills, volcanoes and gorillas, bright colors, big smiles, warm hugs, joy-filled music, dancing, and good coffee.

All this on top of mass graves holding almost a million people.

Rwanda is the intersection of depravity and grace.

Take six minutes and listen to this choir.  Especially from the 3:55 point on, and especially if you want to see some dancing!  Although I am heartbroken as I begin to absorb the history of the ground I walk on, I am also overwhelmed by resilience.


The Cyimbili Coffee Plantation is one of the programs initiated and maintained by ALARM (African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries) in partnership with Hope for a Thousand Hills and the Association of Baptist Churches Rwanda (ABR) for the purpose of reconciliation and community transformation. It is an intentional community- school, clinic, church, work- completely unaware of the planned community trend happening in the suburbs :)

On the same ground that held a genocide 19 years ago, people are living and working together peacefully, in a way that demonstrates the capacity of God to move within broken communities, and in a way that proves resiliency and hope are stronger than despair.

Cyimbili Pan

The guesthouse we stayed at during our time at the plantation belonged to an ABR missionary who worked within the community to develop primary and secondary schools, a bible school, medical center, church, and the coffee plantation. This is the same missionary who wrote to his church in the 70’s asking for money to support a secondary school student who had been kicked out of his house for converting to Christianity, as the family believed his presence in the home would anger the ancestral spirits. The missionary received $7 per month for the boy from a 69 y/o widow from Ohio who collected trash along the interstate to recycle, earning $7 each month to send to the boy in Cyimbili. The boy grew up to be the founder of ALARM.

Because of the events of the 1994 genocide, the coffee plantation and missionary house were abandoned and left in ruin in the 90’s. There was no clean water, electricity, sanitation or other basic needs, lots of orphans and widows, and a broken church with traumatized leadership and congregants. This concept of church brokenness and the need for pastoral leadership inspired the beginnings of ALARM, which will be another post for another time.

In 2008, Celestin, the founder of ALARM, felt a tug to come back to Cyimbili. ALARM formed a partnership with Association of Baptist Churches Rwanda and Hope for a Thousand Hills to rehabilitate the once productive coffee plantation, restore the local village economy, reconcile relationships, and renovate the missionary house into a guest house, once again hosting missionaries and different ministry groups.

The first rehabilitation phase was a four-year plan that focused on pruning and planting trees, land terracing, staff training and hiring, construction of washing, drying and packing stations, and other community infrastructures like hydroelectric turbines, sewage, and waste stations for the community. During this time, ALARM also facilitated the gathering of local pastors of all denominations from Cyimbili and neighboring communities for the purpose of encouraging each other, conducting pastoral leadership and reconciliation trainings, and exchanging ideas. Phase one was complete in 2012.

The Cyimbili Plantation has just moved into the second phase, which is production.  Today, the coffee plantation employs about 170 workers, seasonally and full-time, many of them widows and primary breadwinners in their families. The work allows the men & women to pay school fees for their children, purchase health insurance at the community medical center, and provide basic needs like food and clothing.  The plantation has about 40,000 coffee trees, each tree producing about 4.5 pounds of dry premium coffee beans annually. ALARM is currently working with a group in the US to ship, roast and market the beans internationally.

PlantationBerriesEach morning, all hundred-and-something staff meet at 6:30a for devotions before work, and the coffee choir sings and celebrates life, relationship, provision, and joy through worship and dance.  This is how I imagine heaven.

Here’s one last thing I want to mention. Do you know how coffee plant pruning works? A coffee plant is fruitful for about 30 years, and then it stops producing fruit. In order to rehabilitate the coffee plant, the tree is chopped at the base, and over time, new growth shoots out of the stump. Can you think of a more beautiful symbol of growth and restoration of this community than this little coffee plant?

Even now in death you open doors for life to enter…
N. Nordeman

A little bit extra, also known as lagniappe in NOLA:

  • For pictures of the Plantation and our time at Cyimbili, click here.
  • We will be returning Cyimbili to spend time being in the community: living and working with the coffee staff, picking and shelling and cleaning and drying our way through the coffee process. Those interviews and stories will be in the World Next Door magazine, June issue, along with ways you can get involved with Cyimbili Coffee Plantation and ALARM.
  • Also, we’re starting an advice column for World Next Door Magazine. It’ll be part funny, part interesting, part serious. Right now we’re looking for questions from you about anything the WND team knows well:
    -Interacting cross culturally
    -Eating weird stuff
    -Talking with friends about social justice issues
    -Using photography in a non-exploitative way
    -Packing for international trips
    -Getting involved with local organizations
    -Living simply in the suburbs
    -Anything else travel/justice/writing/photography related…
  • What questions do you have for us? We might just answer them in the next issue!