Friday, October 23, 2009

Why do I write about happy stuff?

I got an email today from a high school teacher who is teaching a class on Africa and the Middle East. She said this...

"We have spent the last few days talking about Congo and my students have voiced over and over again how they can't believe this is the first they have heard of it, especially considering the magnitude of the situation."

The class has been reading my blog and has posted questions for me on
their blog .
Check out their very interesting questions, as well as their other entries on the blog, and it will make you happy for the state of education in the US. (At least in this classroom!) I am afraid I won't be able to answer all their questions, but I am picking a few of them to answer here in the next couple days. Please feel free to add a comment and join in the discussion, whether you are a student or not. I think you will find it interesting. Here is the first one...


"You talk about the hardest thing about living in the Congo is being white, and you also talk about how they like Americans and are friendly to you, so I'm wondering why you think that's the hardest thing? "

What I meant was that the hardest part of my experience in Congo was being white. There are certainly many, many things more difficult than my own experience there. In fact, let me start out by stating that I love Congo and have deeply enjoyed living there.

But on to the question at hand. The hardest part (or at least one of the hardest parts) of my experience in Congo was being white. And yet, as I said, people were extremely welcoming and friendly toward me. Yet still, I was always a "white person" and a foreigner, and would be greeted with those names every time I walked out the door. And of course every time we label someone, there are stereotypes that go with those labels. In this case, a white person is often assumed to be rich and willing to give out money. Are these the worst stereotypes to have? Perhaps not, but any label can begin to weigh very heavily. Many of the white people who are in Goma are often working with non-profit organizations that are there to give out aid to refugees, and so you can see how the assumption would begin that white people are rich and are there to give out stuff. But when you are living there for years and you don't have a supply of anything to give out, it gets a little frustrating to wear that label every time you walk down the street. Sometimes you just want people to see you and not your skin, and that is not always easy when you are in the minority.

The second thing that makes being a "white person" or really an American of any color, difficult is that we are rich. No matter how humbly I live, or how poor I am in America, the truth is that I still have many more resources than most Congolese people. So what do I do with that? I found it difficult to be white in Congo because of the way that I was perceived by others, but also because of the way it forced me to perceive myself as part of a larger world, which in all reality is incredibly unjust.

"and also you talked about a lot of the good things going on in the Congo and in your life, and all I have seen and heard is the bad stuff about the Congo and I'm wondering do you see it and just not want to write about it or what?"

Hmm...Do I see the bad stuff and just not write about it? Why do I write so much happy stuff? Interesting question. Once I had the reverse comment. A young Congolese man pointed out that all people ever hear about Congo is negative stuff, and that I should depict Congo in a more positive light. So I guess I try to communicate some of both. It is a rough place with many difficult issues going on. But the people really are incredible on many levels, and the amazing thing about Congo is the way that life always goes on. I remember having visitors come to Congo shortly after the war started escalating last November and they were amazed to find that there were vendors in the streets, dance music blaring from the music shops and children playing soccer. Those images don't often make it in the coverage of "war-zones", but the fact is that the people of Congo have long ago learned to continue their lives in the midst of disaster. This doesn't mean that the disaster doesn't exist, or that it isn't is. But it does mean that what you picture when you read the news articles about "the crisis" isn't the whole picture. I have spent the last three years just living life in Congo and working with some amazing people, and I guess that is what comes out in my blog.

But the war is very real. The refugees are very real. The epidemic of rape is very real. The disorder and insecurity are very real. If you dig around my blog a bit, I think you will find some of those entries as well.

All of that said...yes, there are things I don't (and can't) write about. I am just a regular person, I am not a war correspondent or a historian. I try to write about regular life and regular people, because that is what I know, but also because I think it is an important side to the story. We need war correspondents and advocacy groups to document the scale of the crisis, but we also need to be reminded that it is real people who live in the midst of it.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Starbucks, Walmart and The $4 cup of coffee

Back to the question of "fair trade" coffee.

Here is the scoop.

When you buy that $4 cup of Starbucks fair trade coffee, where is your money going?

Well...the truth is that most of your money does not go into the beans. In fact the coffee beans actually seem to be a minor element in the whole "coffee experience". And after all, that is what we buy these days isn't it? We buy "the experience".

In the average $4 cup of fair trade coffee, about 5 cents covers the beans. And that is after the beans are roasted. So the farmer of those beans (who sells before roasting) is getting only a few cents for every $4 drink. (This info is from a very interesting book entitled Starbucked)

Is this marginally better than the farmer would get for non-fair trade coffee? Yes. Does that explain why you are paying $4? Probably not.

Essentially this is the problem, as many of you pointed out. With fair trade products, many times the producer is getting a few extra cents, while the retailers are charging way more. Fair trade products (along with "green" products) are becoming a great way to inflate your profit margin.

I have to say, I tend to side with "Podge" on this. I'd rather buy local. That way I know my purchase is making a difference to someone...that an individual...not to some mysterious corporation. In the end I have more faith in the small business owner, that local coffee shop owner who is trying to make a go of it (despite overwhelming odds), than in the most philanthropic corporation in the world. This may not help get my money back to the coffee farmer, but at least my money is going back into the community.

Maybe this is wrong. I suppose there are lots of very philanthropic corporations. I suppose I should support them. Certainly there are corporations that should be rewarded and those that should be punished. Take Starbucks for example, in some ways they do deserve to be rewarded. They have been a pioneer in offering health insurance to part-time workers, while the majority of fast food companies go out of their way to avoid this. I still haven't figured out all the secrets of fair trade coffee, but providing health benefits for part-time wokers...this is something I can support. In fact, I could use some myself.

But corporations, even the best of them, rub me wrong. They are just so.....big. And I am so... small. And I am simply not sure that I want to live in a world that is quite so full of corporations.

Of course, in full disclosure, I must admit that I believe all of these things in abstract. Everything always seems much easier in the abstract. Let's take that great symbol of American corporations...Walmart. Walmart has certainly not been a pioneer in offering any kind of benefits to its workers. Nor does it treat its suppliers well. And yet I wandered in there just the other day and I must confess I went through the check-out lane. It's the prices, who can beat the prices?

But every time I go in there it blows my mind. Literally, I went to a Good Will thrift shop first and bought some clothes. I then went to Walmart and discovered that I could have bought similar clothing FOR LESS at Walmart. How is it possible that Walmart can sell new clothing for less than Good Will can sell used clothing? How do you sell t shirts for $4 and jeans for $10? Do I really want to live in a world where this is possible? Having seen first hand the amount of work that the SHONA craftspeople put into our clothing, I have absolutely no faith that the producers of the $4 T shirt are receiving anything close to a just wage. The math just doesn't work.

Yet still, those $4 t-shirts caught my eye. And when I go to Starbucks those $4 coffees catch my eye for a whole different reason.

So we live in a land of extremes. Where we can buy so many things for far less than they should cost, and so many other things for far more than they should cost. But the question remains, does it matter whether we pay $4 or $40? Where does our money go? Who can tell me? As long as the world remains so separated, with the producer and the consumer so very far apart, with lines of corporations and stock holders in between, I have the sinking feeling that very little of what I spend actually returns to the producers, fair trade or not.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Interesting responses, I'd love to hear more

Thanks for the interesting responses to my question. In case you didn't catch it, and are too tired to click over, I asked whether you drink Starbucks coffee, and if so why? Do you care that it is fair trade? Do you buy fair trade products in general?

I thought I would repost the responses here, so you can join in the conversaton too. Here are some thoughts to get you started...

Michelle"I never patronage the establishment. I don't drink coffee."

Judy: I was fortunate to have met Mrs. "Starbucks" in Tanzania. That company is extremely philanthropical. I saw IT in action!

Podge "I like the idea of fair trade products in theory... But to answer the initial question I don't drink Starbucks. I would rather give the three bucks to my local coffee shop who is an owner operator on their own, living and working in my area. If they happen to use Fair trade beans that's an added bonus but I am a firm beliver that your own back yard is as good a place as any to make change. So I will ask my cafe mate if he can use Fair trade beans and if it means an extra 10 cents on my coffee I will happliy pay that, but if it's an extra 50 cents to a dollar, I would have to really consider the cost v's the claimed benifits that fair trade makes, as the reults are not visible to a 1st world consumer in reality are they? The doubter in me always thinks some one is making a buck prior to the farmer getting a fair go, and the whole certification process... and commonly higher product costs are not the work of the coffee farmer in Africa, PNG or S America. Some one is making a profit by "Going Fair" so to speak." (excerpted. Full response is here)

Lynn: I don't know if Starbucks is truly fair trade (and you don't even have to pick on them...are any of the coffee brands that SAY they're fair trade actually fair?)....that's the thing: as a consumer, it's very hard to know where the products come from and how they are made and the conditions they are made in, and how the workers are paid and treated...then there's the environmental impact of manufacturing and transporting the product and the genetic modifications to to foods... Then there's the other complicating factor that you're alluding to in this note...whether the term "fair trade" has been co-opted by marketers and unscrupulous business people so that it really has no meaning any more.

I want to buy products that meet my philosophical goals of good working/pay conditions for workers and gentle on the environment, but it is hard...

It can get overwhelming very quickly.

That's why I was so happy to find Shona. Through the supporting materials Dawn shares with the customer, I felt I could buy with confidence, as they say, feeling like my money was going to directly to craftspeople who both really needed it, and deserved it, for the quality of their work.
But you're right in raising the issue Dawn, about how people feel about the term fair trade. It has been degraded by too much use...I still have friends who say, "but how do you KNOW those Congolese women are getting the money?"... (except. Full Comment is here)

hmm, that is quite a question.... for me, its always a balance of things - such as cost, organic, fair trade, local... I could buy local produce sprayed with toxic chemicals to avoid the co2 emissions associated with transportation, or go for the fair trade organic from Peru or wherever - and sometimes you can't get both fair trade and organic. ... Read MoreAnd I am not sure how any of the labeling is controlled, as you say if it says fair trade - what does that mean? Same with "cage free" eggs, I just assume they do less harm, but have no idea what the standards are for cage free.

As for Starbucks - I do drink their coffee - my only reason is that it is the cheapest coffee on campus - 53cents to refill my travel mug - next lowest price is around $1.25, and for me, that's a lot of money

Ha! The cheapest?!?! Are you sure that isn't bootleg starbucks there, Meaghan? :)

I'll chime in myself a bit later, but I wanted to share some of these comments with you all first. And I'd love to here more of your thoughts as well.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

I have a question for you. Will you take a second to answer?

Ok, show of hands...

Do you drink starbucks coffee?


a. it tastes good

b. they let me bring my laptop and sit there for hours

c. it is so well priced (hehehe)

d. it is fair trade coffee

e. There are just so many dang Starbucks locations it is hard to avoid them

No, no, no. This is not a morality test. I may wax sentimental from time to time, but I am looking for the down and dirty here.

Really. I am totally serious. Please ignore for a minute the fact that we advertise SHONA products as fair trade products. I don't want you to think about SHONA. I want to know whether you care that Starbucks serves fair trade coffee. In fact, do you buy fair trade products in general? Why? Why not? What are your immediate associations to the term "fair trade"?

Please take a minute and comment on this question if you have the time. Because, as I mentioned a minute ago, we do sell SHONA products as fair trade. And they truly are. But I'm not always sure I like the company we keep. Sometimes I wonder if the fair trade concept is getting popular or if it is getting hijacked. And as one of our customers once pointed out, she almost didn't visit our website at all, because she assumed fair trade would simply be too expensive for her. So what has fair trade become? Do you "buy it", in every sense of the word?

I'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A New House

I have mentioned a number of times that Mapendo is rebuilding her mother's house. Her house was destroyed during the war, and her mother has been living in a refugee camp for the last year and a half.

Mapendo is the youngest child in her family. She is only 20 years old, and is the only member of her family who is physically handicapped.

Yet she has been rebuilding her mother's house on her own. (ok, so she is not exactly hammering the nails herself, but she is buying everything including the nails and paying the builder)

I wish I could find a better way to explain how impressive this is. In Congo, handicapped people, especially young women, are expected to be a burden on their families. How beautiful is it to see the reverse.

And now, finally, the house is finished. Her mother has left the refugee camp and moved into the new house!

There are still way too many refugees in Goma. In some cases it is simply too unsafe for people to return home. In other cases they simply have nothing to return home to. But, still, today there is one less refugee. And one very happy daughter.

"We can do no great thing. Only small things with great love." Mother Teresa

Monday, October 5, 2009

How often do you laugh?

For me the answer is not enough.
I get too busy and too though I truly am spinning the world.

So I'd like to give a shout out to our new friend Molly, who recently visited our craftspeople in Congo and took some beautiful pictures. She is a talented photographer who likes to travel and offer her skills (for free!) to small organizations like us. She took amazing pictures, and they will appear on our website soon. But in the meantime, I have them here sitting on my computer making me smile.

All I have to do is peek at the pictures, and I can hear the laughter. And it makes me feel small, in the best sense of the word.

People in Congo know how to laugh...I mean belly laugh. They know how to kick back and enjoy a moment. That is not to say that the problems in Congo aren't huge and the suffering isn't very real. But why is it that a culture's ability to laugh often seems to be directly proportional to the number of difficulties it faces? Perhaps that sounds irreverent. But I have a sneaking suspicion that in the midst of it all, the ability to laugh counts for more than one might think.

So in case you didn't have a very laugh-inspiring day today, I'm offering a sneak peek at a few of pictures that make me smile.

And you know what? I spent my first month of learning Swahili trying to find a word for the verb "to smile". People kept telling me "kucheka", but actually Kucheka means to laugh. I began to get very worried about a language that didn't have a word for to smile. But it turns out that kucheka means smile and to laugh, as though they are one and the same. And perhaps they are. I may not have learned the belly laugh yet, but I choose to begin with a smile.