The warm heart of Africa
This week Jeff Moore and I have been travelling in Malawi, in southeastern Africa. Malawians have an amazing spirit filled with laughter, song and community. In our short visit here, we witnessed extremes, chaos and beauty. I can hardly begin to understand all the inter-relationships and dynamics of life here, but I was amazed by what I saw.
We started in Lilongwe, the capital city. There we saw relative prosperity among the upper class with new houses, gated communities and servants. This was a guise that didn’t represent the reality of the almost 16 million, mostly rural people in the tiny country. The economy faces huge challenges, as its currency is devalued, especially with securing imports. As we attempted to leave the city, we had to scramble to find gas for the car, as all the stations were out of fuel. Cars were lined up in anticipation of deliveries and often waited for hours or days. We did not have time to spare so we ended up buying gas at a premium from locals selling on the ‘black market’.
The first leg of our journey led us to Liwonde Park along the Shire River for meetings to research the possibility of our involvement in a community tourism project on the shores of nearby Lake Malawi. This park is incredibly rich in wildlife such as elephants, hippos, rhinos, storks, water buffalo, warthogs, monkeys, crocodiles and impalas, plus the token lion that lurked around our camp while we slept. There were amazing scenes of fauna biodiversity and co-existence, where we would see numerous mammal species all grazing on the same grassland. Still, I couldn’t help but notice that something was missing. I first noticed this as my own longing to shed my shoes and walk barefoot quietly through this pristine land. Yet, I was confined to my seat in the jeep, intended to be an observer and not a participant in this miracle of nature.
Jeff and I visited a nearby village where people live in small mud and brick structures with grass roofs and rely on basic subsistence agriculture and a strong sense of community belonging. It was immediately clear to me that these people were the missing element from the park. They have been removed from the park, taken away from the rich river shores and forced to settle on small plots in an effort to conserve the animals and habitat that were once part of their free and plentiful lifestyle of hunting, fishing, gathering and farming. This really points to the idea that it is not poverty that is the problem in the world, it is greed. Nature has been brutally exploited in Malawi, as it has all over the world to fuel industrial development and GDP, almost exclusively for the benefit of the upper class in society. Indigenous peoples tend to get unfairly shuffled around in this narrow quest, removed from their traditional lands because of their natural resource endowments. Now as environments and animals are threatened with extinction, conservation areas are created where humans have lived in balance with nature, only the people are forced to leave so that the authorities can ‘manage’ the pure lands and promote tourism. The people from the village that try to continue any sort of hunting, fishing or gathering in their traditional lands, now designated as parkland, are considered ‘poachers’ and face the risk of serious consequences.
As we entered the village, about 20 young children immediately ran over to greet us. We sat and learned about some of their traditional customs, we danced and played drums and visited their homes. We also met the resident medicine man. He explained his knowledge of local medicinal plants that he learned from his grandfather and is now passing down to his nephew. As we left his hut, we saw a man that was dressed in tattered clothes hanging from his body, and looking very lost. We were told that he was the victim of a curse from the traditional healer in a neighbouring village. This man approached the healer asking him to use his powers to make him rich. The healer told him that he would have to perform acts that would destroy the dignity of his family. The man attempted them but went mad in the process. From our outside perspective, it seemed as though this was a lesson that the healer bestowed on this man and the community about how greed makes people twisted. This is really a critical lesson for all cultures.
The last leg of our journey took us to the Mzuzu Coffee Planters Co-operative Union. This was Jeff’s third visit here. He originally came in 2009 after Just Us! was hired to consult with the co-op on its entrance into fair trade certification. Soon after, all of the farmers and small co-ops that make up the organization began to work within the fair trade system. Still, in Jeff’s analysis he saw some serious challenges ahead for the farmers. They had been advised to remove many of their traditional variety Geisha coffee plants to plant Catimor. This new hybrid variety was sold to them on the promise of higher yields, but the plants require heavy chemical fertilizer and pesticide inputs, which the farmers could not afford and the plants were suffering. The Catimor variety also produces an inferior tasting cup of coffee, limiting the farmers’ access to specialty coffee markets. Fortunately, about half of the Geisha plants were preserved and the co-op has a new initiative to transition these plots to be certified organic. We cupped some very impressive tasting Geisha in their lab. We are now exploring options to see if we can partner with some of these pioneering organic farmers in Mzuzu and help create a sustainable market for their fair trade organic Geisha coffees.
Next, we are off to Ethiopia to meet with farmers and our long-time trading partner Tadesse Meskela who has been behind the development of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union, representing about 170 community co-ops, exporting fair trade organic coffee direct into consumer countries…