A brewing reconciliation


MARABA, Rwanda - Cultivating coffee challenges the body everywhere in the world, but in Maraba, it also challenges the soul.

To care for her 500 coffee bushes, Marcella Mukamazimpaka walks a road that is barely passable by four-wheel-drive vehicles and trudges up a steep slope nearly a mile to reach a small plantation clinging to the side of one of the rolling hills in southern Rwanda.

Mukamazimpaka, 56, cultivated coffee with her husband and three children before the majority Hutu ethnic group killed more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994. Hers was a Tutsi family, and the killers got everyone except her.

A few hundred yards away, Speciose Mukankwiro, 52, tends to coffee plants as well. Her two children still help her out but not her husband. This family is Hutu, and the father is in jail on suspicion of taking part in the genocide.

But Mukamazimpaka and Mukankwiro, both thin, gangly women who scarcely look like they come from different ethnic groups, have joined the same association, the Abahuzamugambi Cooperative, to sell coffee to an upscale market in the United States and Europe.

In a winding, roundabout way, the rich world's growing taste for expensive coffee is offering Rwandan women a chance to focus on a more prosperous future instead of a very bloody past.

"We need work," says Mukankwiro. "And here, it's work together."

Asking how to tell Hutus from Tutsis elicits a knowing, almost cynical laughter from Mukamazimpaka and the other Rwandans gathered around her, but it does not bring a clear response.

The genocide, says Francois Habimana, the cooperative's executive secretary, chiseled ethnic identities into stone, even for people who might look the same. "Everyone knows who's who," he says.

Crucially for the neighborly relations, most of the Tutsis from Maraba who were killed died in other areas of the country after they had fled their homes a step ahead of the militias that did most of the killing. Thus, the women say, unlike in many parts of Rwanda, neighbors did not typically kill neighbors here.

One coping mechanism is simple silence. People in the association say the women do not generally discuss the past; nor do they chew over what it means to be Hutu or Tutsi.

Genevieve Mukarugagi, a 55-year-old Tutsi widow, says that there was conflict in her village between the different groups after the war over how to restart basic, subsistence agriculture but that it has subsided.

The absence of murdered family members, husbands and children who had also worked the hills hit home when the women tackled the arduous work. They had to clear out brush and cut back coffee bushes as they began restoring the plantations in the late 1990s.

The members of the cooperative, 70 percent of whose 1,500 members are women, grow a variety of coffee known as Maraba bourbon. Though little known in the West, the coffee tastes similar to high-quality coffee from Kenya, a much more prominent player in the coffee business than Rwanda.

The cooperative was formed in 1999 to buy fertilizer and tools in bulk and then resell them to members in smaller quantities at affordable prices. The supplies enabled the farmers to restart production that had almost ceased during the genocide and subsequent civil war.

Even then, the cooperative didn't know how to prepare the coffee for upmarket tastes.

A coffee cherry - the red fruit that grows on the bushes and is harvested from March to June - has to be "washed" to expose the two green, unroasted coffee beans that go into making a fine cup of coffee. Without proper washing, the fruit ferments on the bean and gives the coffee a bitter taste.

Two years ago, the U.S. Agency for International Development provided money for a "washing station" - an installation of wells, basins and drying tables that separates the good coffee from the bad.

Timothy Schilling, a professor at Texas A&M; University who oversees the project, says the core of the project is finding a place for the Rwandans' work in the world market and then leaving the reins in their hands early next year. "We needed to turn these partner operations of theirs into business-oriented cooperatives," he says.

Last year, the cooperative hit pay dirt when Community Coffee, a Baton Rouge, La., company, agreed to pay $1.36 per pound for Maraba bourbon coffee, a far higher price than the Rwandans had ever received. This year, Britain's Union Roasters is ready to pay a good price and sell the coffee in the country's upscale supermarkets.

These customers, though far removed from the hilltops of southern Rwanda, have introduced subtle but significant changes into the lives of women such as Mukamazimpaka and Mukankwiro, giving them hope of decent pay even while making their hard work harder.

Early in the year, before the harvest, they hike up the narrow trails to clear the weeds from around the coffee plants and prune off excess branches. They must also mix chalk into the soil to reduce its acidity.

Both women agree that the harvest has gotten more difficult since the formation of the cooperative and the inception of the washing station.

Before the war and genocide, when quantity, not quality, was the goal, Maraba coffee farmers picked their bushes clean of whatever they could find.

Now, to maintain quality, the members of the cooperative must pick only the ripe, red coffee cherries and then sort out the ones that are rotten inside.

Even when they follow this rule, 15 percent of the beans are typically discarded during the washing process.

Mukamazimpaka has to carry the harvest - in a basket on her head, as is typical in Africa - a mile down from her farm to the end of the road, giving her an extra incentive to pick the right fruit on the first try.

"The conditions for the washing station are hard," says Mukamazimpaka. "Before the war, the harvest was much easier."

But both women have also reaped the benefits of the new Maraba coffee business. Mukankwiro bought her two children bicycles, which in East Africa serve both as transportation and as pack mules for hauling goods of all sorts.

Mukamazimpaka bought a cow and a goat with her cut of the profits from last year's harvest. As tiny as that might seem from a Western point of view, they are crucial for improved nutrition and living standards in Rwanda. So, Rwandans say, is reconciliation between Hutus and Tutsis.

Habimana, the executive secretary, comes from a mixed Hutu and Tutsi family and embodies, as much as anyone, a desire to work together.

His background - a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother - helps him work with people on both sides of the ethnic divide.

With 2,500 coffee plants and a motorcycle to get around, Habimana, 40, also has the means and the motivation to learn how to work with European and American markets.

Habimana says having a common goal - selling quality coffee - helps the cooperative at least set aside the past, if not forget it. "It's good, too, that we distribute money from the sales," Habimana says. "That helps."

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