me, JJ, Joe, Jason, Rachel, July 2006

me, JJ, Joe, Jason, Rachel, July 2006

I have a problem saying goodbyes. My problem is that, pretty much no matter who or what the circumstance, when I say goodbye to someone, I usually end up crying. Sometimes it is more of a tears-rimming-the-eyes kind of cry, and other times it is a full-out bawl. Regardless, it happens a lot, too much, and I’ve been preparing for a lot of tears this month, as I say goodbye to my friends, my first apartment with Jon, and to my Uganda.

I began my farewell tour last weekend in the place where I first said hello to this country. Mbale, on the eastern border with Kenya, was my first taste of Uganda on my United Students for Fair Trade trip in 2006. During the trip, we visited coffee farmers in Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda and wrestled with the concept and specifics of “fair trade”. We came to Mbale to learn about Mirembe Kawomera, the newly formed interfaith fair trade coffee cooperative that is just as inspiring in real life as it is on paper.

During the trip, we’d been making short visits to coffee farmers and learning a lot about the process of farming coffee and of the ins and outs of fair trade. In Mbale, however, we got to dig in a little deeper and actually live with a coffee farmer to better understand everyday life. My host father, (well, the host father for 14 of us!) was JJ Keki, the founder of the coffee cooperative. JJ, a very active member of the Abayudaya (Ugandan Jewish community) welcomed us into his home and allowed us all to feel like part of the family. We shared a Shabbat celebration with him, helped his children carry water up the hill (this was only slightly successful), and got to know the neighbors. When I left Mbale that July, I could have never imagined that I’d be back so soon, or that my relationship with the Keki family would grow as deep as it has.

In the years between the trip and my return to Uganda, JJ made several tours around the US. It was during one of these coffee tours last March, while driving JJ to the place he was staying in Chicago, that he claimed me as a part of the family. “You became my daughter that day that you carried the water up the hill for your bath,” he told me. “When I saw you coming up the hill, with the jerrycan on your head, I said to myself, ‘that one is my daughter now.'” I teared up a bit, caught off guard by the comment, and surprised that he remembered something that I’d almost forgotten.

When I returned to Uganda last July, JJ and the farmers of Peace Kawomera were my first stop. Since then, Jon and I have visited a number of times. Every time we visit, I remember my first time at JJ’s house, my introduction to Uganda. I think of how much more I know now than I knew then. I think of how much there is still left to learn.

On this, my last visit to Mbale, I tried to act like it was a routine visit and not my last. We enjoyed a lunch with Elias, one of the coffee cooperative’s administrators and farmers. We visited the bean fields that JJ’s son Maccabee was busy planting. We greeted JJ’s mother, Devorah, who has given us Bagisu names (Nafuuna for me and Wambede for Jon). I chased turkeys and teased the goats. It was like a routine trip… until we had to say goodbye.

JJ, luckily for my tears, had left a day before we did, bound for a meeting in Kampala. So our goodbye was small and to a few members of the family including JJ’s amazing wife Miriam. I tried to make it quick so I could avoid being seen crying.

And so, my first home in Uganda was also the site of the first of my long string of goodbyes.

JJ Keki, July 2008

JJ Keki, July 2008

Advertisements