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.


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!