Ministry of Margaret Nelson
Uganda, Africa

Coffee, Anyone?

Ever thought about what goes into that morning cup of coffee, or latte you stop for on your way to work? The months of December and January are the primary coffee-picking season in Uganda. This year I decided to join the coffee-pickers. Paul says in I Corinthians 9: 22b-23, after describing his version of when in Rome, do as the Romans, that “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means, I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” One missionary-training organization makes it clear we need to understand what’s most important to the people we go to serve. In other words, if a missionary is going to work with a cattle tribe, he needs to know some things about cattle. Take some veterinary courses maybe. Raise a cow!

I was raised with a saying, “Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in his shoes.” In other words, we need to take time to consider someone else’s perspective before we pass judgment on him. The same goes for cross-cultural ministry. Too often we Americans think we’re the only ones with the answers to the world’s problems. So to apply this little proverb to us, think of how you’d feel if someone from, say, China, got off the plane and introduced himself to the neighborhood (or church, or other group). He’s never been to America before, and maybe has never even met an American. But he lets you know right off the bat that he has the answers to what he perceives as your problems. You might be polite to him, but you laugh behind his back. You may even resent him. Maybe your “problem” isn’t even a problem to you. And it’s obvious he doesn’t know what he’s talking about!

I work with an agricultural tribe in central Uganda. God prepared me for it, because I have a love of the soil which probably goes back to some Swedish ancestors and Iowa farms. I married into a farming family, and learned not only how to garden, but how to preserve food, make jams and jellies. I grew up living rurally, so I dislike cities with their noise and congestion. And I farm most of 2 acres here in the village where I live.

In Uganda, white people are considered independently wealthy, so why would they want to farm? So it’s a real shocker to people when they learn that I grow a small plot of coffee; it’s a major cash crop, so why would a “rich white person” need or want to grow coffee? They don’t need any money! (They haven’t walked a mile in my shoes either!) I also grow most of my food. Many ask me why I don’t live in town like the other white people?

Such a lifestyle has not only given me more open doors to share spiritual and medical truths with my neighbors, but it’s also given me deeper insights on the Word of God, which was written in a pre-industrial, mostly agricultural era. It has also given me the heart language to communicate with farmers. Once when I was dealing with police about my stolen pickup, I was frustrated by the usual police attitude of siding with the opposition in order to worm a bribe out of whomever appears to be the richer (me, of course). Guilt and innocence are not the issue. God spoke to my heart in the night and said, “Speak to them of sowing and reaping.” Huh? Ok… You give me the opening and I’ll do it… The opening came and when I talked of my village life, my garden (already I had their attention!), and ultimately how people are like the fruits we grow ~ producing in character, not out of character… the police chief did a complete turnaround! He came over to my side of the matter, and (long story short) I did get my truck back.

Picking coffee has caused me to contemplate John 15. Coffee grows on bushes, not vines, but the principle is the same ~ it cannot be produced if the branches are not connected to the trunk of the bush. These bushes grow wildly in all directions. Off the main branches grow long skinny branches that hang side by side, on which grow the coffee beans. First the delicate white blossoms appear in clusters, with the sweet smell of orange blossoms. Eventually the hard green beans appear, also in clusters, starting at the top of the thin branches. As they develop, subsequent bloomings will appear further down the branches, so even as there is ripening beans at the upper end, new beans begin forming at the lower ends, and over the course of a year, the process will begin again from the top down. The bushes are never entirely without beans, but the major production is in December, with a minor one in June. As they ripen, the beans turn a bright red, then burgundy, and if not picked in time, black, drying on the branches.

Because of the thinness of the bean-bearing branches, and the way they hang, care must be taken not to break them in the picking process. The branches can be so heavy with beans that they touch the ground. Others grow high up on the top of the bushes, necessitating pulling the tree down to the picker to reach them. The beans are stripped off the branches with a downward, milking motion, dropping the beans into a basin or onto a tarpaulin on the ground. This avoids damaging the branches and the clusters, which will bloom again at the next rain.

Pruning is done every spring, not so much to increase production, but to make the beans accessible. The bushes will grow so wild and tangled without pruning that it becomes impossible to get into the center to pick the beans. The pruned or broken and dead branches are later used for cooking fires.

Upon picking, the beans are laid out in the sun to dry. December through February is our hot, dry season, so the beans quickly dry in the tropical sun, turning from red and green to hard and black. After about a week, when the beans rattle inside their shells, they are ready to market, or to roast. Ugandans prefer to drink tea, so they bag up their coffee beans and haul them to the local coffee mills where the beans will be shelled and shipped to the coffee-drinking nations, paying the farmers pennies of the dollars you will pay later.

How does coffee get to your cup? Without the services of the mill to mechanically remove the shells, when I make my coffee, I must use a mortar and pestle to pound the shells off. This process must be done 3 times to get all the shells off, then the beans are poured back and forth between 2 baskets when there is an afternoon breeze. This causes the husks (chaff) to be blown away, leaving clean beans ready for roasting.

The beans are then dry-roasted over a hot fire. This is when you smell the delicious aroma that coffee drinkers love so much. The beans are stirred over the fire until reaching their desired color, for lighter or darker roast. Then after being cooled, they can be stored in a dry place indefinitely.

I’m a decaf drinker myself, as I prefer to sleep at night. So I learned how to decaffeinate my coffee. Chemically, caffeine follows water, so the longer your coffee grounds are exposed to the water you brew them in, the stronger your coffee will be. So to decaffeinate the fresh beans, I soak them in water for 3 days before drying them. The caffeine moves out of the beans into that water (which I suspect I could find a market for!), then I follow the rest of the sequence, drying the beans in the sun, then roasting them.

Because I don’t have electricity, I could use the mortar and pestle to grind the beans (not fun!). But I found a hand grinder, which I think was meant to be ornamental since I quickly wore it out! I have an electric grinder which I can either plug into generator power, or to my car battery via an inverter. Then, voila! I brew my cup of coffee in a small French press and sit back and relax and enjoy! I think maybe it’s like fishing, in that the fish cooked next to the lake it was caught from always tastes best.

It is to God’s glory that we bear much fruit (John 15:8). He has appointed us to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last (vs. 16). Like coffee, we are grown and matured by our proximity to Jesus, picked, dried, roasted, ground and boiled. Then our ultimate purpose becomes known. We are freed to love, to live in joy, giving off a wonderful aroma to the world around us, which then desires to drink of what we have to offer them.

Margaret Nelson