So, I’ve been dishonestly backdating some of my previous posts. I just thought it would make sense for you, dear reader. The continuity of these posts which I write and then sometimes never get around to posting needed to be considered.

To catch you up, there’s a weekend that I haven’t talked about yet. That’s the last weekend of October. I was spending a lot of time with these two Swedish journalists who were here to do a story on Jamii Bora. They are two young guys who have done a few stories in some pretty interesting places as a writer/photographer team.

I went with them out to see a Jamii Bora’s branch in the coffee-growing area of Kiambu. We we taken around by the young branch manager, Ms. Alice Gathua. We drove out there in a taxi that took us down these dirt roads that, I think, delineate the different plantations. The taxi ran out of gas on the way back and the driver hitched a ride to go get some more, came back with a jerrycan and proceeded to use a creased shilling note as an impromptu funnel.  We ate bananas while we waited, bought from a local woman sitting at the crossroads under an umbrella.

It was really interesting to finally see coffee plants growing in their natural state. Some of the coffee cherries were red and some were already black and dried, on the same plant. Each type of cherry provides a different grade of coffee. They are all picked by hand.

Of course what really opened my eyes were the conditions that the workers live in. These are the Jamii Bora members, so we got to spend a good bit of time talking to them. They come from all over Kenya to work on these plantations. Many of them have families in distant provinces that they’ve been supporting for years. In fact, one borrower gave his loan to his wife who is using it in their home province in Western Kenya.
The workers live in buildings that the plantation owners provide. The buildings are nicer in some cases than those in the slums, but some were quite dilapidated. They are small, with no running water, sometimes no electricity and they can house a single worker or a whole family. Fortunately, most of the people we talked to had a small garden plot that they could plant for themselves. Living out in the countryside has a small advantage, therefore, over urban life, but it’s still hard.

The coffee plantation system is very complex, but at its base it revolves around the workers. There are seasonal surges when the fields will be crawling with hired hands and then down time when there’s almost nothing to do. We met a few workers from a neighboring plantation that were planting their own vegetables in between the rows of coffee plants. It turned out that the owner of that plantation had run out of money keep his operation going. So, the workers were just making the most of the long wait until a new owner took charge.

The coffee is all mono-cropped. There is no such thing as shade-grown in this region. I’m not sure if it exists in Kenya, though I’d like to hope so. Our branch manager guide, whose family owns a few coffee-growing plots, had never even heard of “fair trade.” Hopefully it is an idea that will grow in popularity. I’ve suggested to Jamii Bora that they start a cooperative for coffee growers and obtain fair trade certification.

Maybe the Jamii Java House is next?

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