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From Rwanda with Love…

We talk a lot here about the power that coffee can have on the economies of producing countries. Generally coffee will be the largest export of that producing country and therefore harnesses a lot of opportunity for development if it is purchased in a manner that is responsible and that puts the growers at the heart of the transaction.

Never has this observation been so apparent than during my recent visit to Rwanda as part of the international jury for this year’s Cup of Excellence competition. We have been purchasing Rwandan coffee here at North Star ever since our inception in 2013, in those early days there were still a few roasters who were slightly put off working with this origin due to the dreaded potato defect. Our take on the matter was that the coffee was always too good to give up despite the risk of the odd defective cup. It is often capable of displaying rich, juicy and jammy notes of raspberry, cherry and orange with deep undertones of chocolate which make it one of the more versatile African coffees to work with thanks to the more rounded acidity.

A sad factor that has always accompanied our Rwandan coffee is the knowledge of the horrific and tragic genocide in 1994 which saw nearly 1 million Tutsi people being massacred by the majority Hutu population over just 100 days. The impact an event such as this has on the development of a country is absolutely monumental. Nearly 10 per cent of the population was eliminated with thousands more people being displaced or becoming refugees in neighbouring countries. Crops were abandoned and infrastructure destroyed leaving this landlocked nation in a desperate state once the genocide was brought to an end in July 1994 by the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front). During my visit in August, I took some time to visit the genocide museum in Kigali which is home to a mass grave for around 250,000 people. It serves as a place of peace and reflection for genocide survivors and sees many family members visiting on a daily basis to sit beside their loved ones. The memorial is both peaceful and affecting, I found it to be a very surreal experience making my way along the now developed roads of Kigali amongst people going about their day to day lives thinking about what the city must have been like during those times of turmoil when people were running for their lives.

Over the last twenty years, the Rwandan Government has invested in the coffee sector to try and bring about recovery. The logo for coffee by the governing body NAEB (National Agriculture Export Development Board) is below and highlights the view that coffee is offering a second chance and opportunity to the country following the dark days of 1994.

The specialty industry has been particularly identified as an area of focus for economic and social development since the early 2000’s. Much of the sector has been privatised encouraging foreign investment and allowing smallholder farmers the opportunity to sell their cherry to the highest buyer. 75 per cent of the washed coffee produced in Rwanda is now specialty grade and as a result, the country has long been recognised as a quality coffee producer – Rwanda was the first African participant for the Cup of Excellence programme and its diverse flavour profiles have been explored further through an appellation programme working to deduce which areas produce each specific characteristic. It is now widely regarded as one of the most established coffee producers in Africa with coffee exports being responsible for more than $70 million in revenue for the country. Quality improvements are ongoing with attempts being made to provide greater traceability through zoning programmes working with washing stations to highlight the farmers contributing to them. With the New York ‘C’ market reaching lower and lower prices, direct trade and purchases based on quality are becoming more important than ever. Quantity and yield potential is a barrier to the smallholder farmer in Africa thanks to the impact of climate change along with the lack of land ownership. For a smallholder to access an income from their coffee, it has to be of a superior quality to attract a secondary payment allowing them to cover their costs of production and perhaps generate some profit. The Cup of Excellence programme has returned $2,767,000 to the economy of Rwanda and has resulted in some fantastic relationships with washing stations that may have otherwise been unknown to the consumer market. This year we are delighted to have purchased a lot from the station that took 1st place in the competition this year, Twumba, and look forward to developing a relationship with these growers over the coming years.

The progress this nation has made in the last twenty years is really quite unbelievable and it is clear to me that the revival of the coffee industry had played a huge role in this. I have truly never felt so safe and secure in any capital than I did whilst in Kigali which is a huge testament to the resilient, optimistic and peace loving nature of the people there despite all they have been through. To this day, 26 per cent of the population still suffer with PTSD following the events of 1994 which are almost too terrible to acknowledge, but acknowledge them we must. The tragedy of the Rwandan genocide should never be forgotten, nor should the response of the Rwandan people who have managed to forgive the perpetrators and focus on rebuilding their nation. This blog post is not here to serve as a source for the events of 1994, it is a (possibly badly written) expression of my sincere admiration for the country of Rwanda and its people and hopefully a reminder of the power of the humble coffee bean. The following extract is a poignant read taken from the website ‘World Without Genocide’ – the site also provides some background on the events of 1994 should you be at all unfamiliar with what happened, I would urge you to read it. After all, empathy, tolerance and understanding are the necessary antidote to hatred and xenophobia.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda

*This paper was written by Ina Ziegler, a University of Minnesota Alumnus

On November 2, 2007, I had the honor of visiting the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania. I attended with twenty-seven other university students as part of the International Honors Program, a study-abroad program focusing on issues of globalization. At the tribunal, we received an initial briefing about its purpose. It was created November 8, 1994, by the United Nations, to prosecute those responsible for orchestrating the murder of more than 800,000 Rwandans during that same year. The first trial began in January 1997; since then, twenty-seven judgments have been made, involving thirty-three accused persons. Twenty-eight were convicted, and five acquitted. Twenty-seven accused persons are being tried now, and eighteen indicted remain at large. This brings the total to seventy-eight indictments.

We were able to sit in on the trial of a man named Bikindi. Mr. Bikindi is a musician and performer, and he is accused of creating songs and dances that encourage people to kill Tutsis and commit other acts of violence. It’s a fascinating case and the decision will set a strong precedent for the future; it brings in issues of free speech, artistic license, and responsibility and accountability for artistic creation. It is also a reminder of the enormous power that music, dance, and other art forms have, and how that power can be exploited and used in dangerous and deadly ways.

During the portion of the trial we attended, Mr. Bikindi was being asked by the prosecutor about his ties to the government, and about a particular photograph which showed members of his dance troupe wearing uniforms of the interahamwe, the Hutu militia. A long discussion ensued, in which Mr. Bikindi argued at length about the meaning of the words uniform and costume, and whether the photograph therefore revealed that his dancers were part of the militia or simply acting, providing entertainment.

It was at that point that the reality of the situation overwhelmed me. I was sitting behind a soundproof glass window, looking at ten or twelve judges and court officials surrounding this one man, Mr. Bikindi, seated at the witness stand in the center. I was listening to an inane conversation about costumes versus uniforms, translated carefully and rapidly into my headset. Fifteen minutes later, I left the room and had pastries and coffee in the cafeteria. Is this justice? Is it really? Nearly a million people are dead. Will the conviction or acquittal of this one man, who has the confidence to sit in this place and quibble over semantics, really matter? The justice of this court can only be, at best, symbolic. And it is not that the symbols do not matter; they do, tremendously. Of course it matters that this trial is taking place; of course it matters that the rules of law, which are all we have, are being followed. Of course we have a desperate need for symbolic meaning, and this court offers that to the world, to humanity, in the best way that it can. If it is this or nothing, semantics or silence, I choose semantics. But it is not enough. It can never be enough. The only justice that would be enough is too great for me to fathom. It would indict all of us, every human being on this planet. Every person who has participated in or benefited from colonialism, which in many ways created this whole mess. Every person who killed another. Every person who supplied arms to combatants. Every person who remained silent when the genocide was happening. Every person who remains silent now, when it is still going on. The scale of guilt, of sin, is too great. No human justice can ever be great enough to encompass it. The blood of our brothers and sisters is crying out, to whatever God can hear, from the ground where our apathy, our greed, our silence, has spilled it, not just in Rwanda but in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guatemala, El Salvador, Vietnam, Laos, Bosnia, Germany, Poland, the United States—everywhere. No justice will ever be enough. I am left to wonder what, then, could possibly be great enough. We are here, and we have to survive somehow, with this burden. What can we do? I come to mercy—forgiveness—love. I don’t know if I have the right to use these words; my family has not been killed, or deported, or imprisoned. Would I still use these words if they had? I don’t know. All I know is that for now they are the only words I have. What else is there? I’m open to suggestions.

Perhaps we can think about the words of Mr. Adama Dieng, the registrar of the tribunal. He shared with us a proverb from Senegal, his home: “A human being is a remedy for humanity.” The only remedy we have for the ills of this world is to be human, to feel and to love and to live. It is the only hope I have for the future. I hope that we can strive to reach the power behind the words of mercy, and love, and forgiveness; to find out what it means and to live it. We can strive to hear the voices that are crying out. We can strive to change those things that hurt us, that take away our humanity. What else is there? I see no other way to live.

Check out the video below, celebrating the arrival of our new Rwanda coffee!



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