Let’s begin with a confession:
Leaving Dar… God this is hard to write… We… We took the train to Mbeya…
But it’s not that we didn’t want to bike – far from it, we love Tanzania, it’s just that we have to make it to Windhoek by the end of July and three weeks biking to Malawi was going to set us back a ways. And okay sure, if taking a train saved us biking 1600 meters of elevation gain, well, we weren’t going to complain about that either…
Mbeya is a beautiful town, a sort of ‘Little Switzerland’ (The second ‘Little Switzerland we have visited on this trip – what is it with tourist offices and that phrase?) of Tanzania not only because the couch surfers we stayed with there were Swiss: the mountains surrounding the city, the cool dry air, the morning chill, it really was a world away from humid and stifling Dar.
The plan then was to go on to Malawi, and after a few rest days (yes, we are now such experienced cyclists that even after a train ride we can fit in a few rest days), we got on our bikes and started pedaling in that direction, making it about twenty kilometers outside of town before Anna pulled over to the side of the highway for a little water break, and with long-distance trucks flying by on the road and a group of schoolgirls staring at us and shouting ‘How are you?’, announced that we shouldn’t go to Malawi.
‘We should go to Zambia,’ she said.
‘Okay,’ I said.
And so we went back to Mbeya to find a fortuitous e-mail in our inbox from a farm we had contacted in Zambia and a day later we were off once more, pedaling west this time. And that, with a quick detour on an organic farm run by a wonderful group of South African missionaries, is how we came to spend the past month working on a coffee farm in Northern Zambia.
The farm itself is 300 hectares, with only 30 under cultivation; it was given as a gift to Mr. and Mrs. Powell, the British farm owners who we stayed with in Kasama, in return for their work as schoolteachers in the area, making it quite literally infinitely cheaper than anywhere else.
After a few days of shuttling back and forth into Kasama, we were settled into our little hut on the farm (most of the workers live in similar huts on the land) along with Annina, another Wwoofer, and trying to fit into the daily routine.
For us, this meant waking up around 5:45 to start a wood fire to boil water for coffee (can’t work on a coffee farm without drinking coffee – though actually we were probably the only people on the farm who could afford to) and oatmeal and then a three kilometer bike ride through one of the many stretches of forest on the land up to the main farm buildings where work started promptly at 7:00 as Alex, the farm manager, gave out the day’s tasks.
Everyone then set to work, with an optional lunch break from 12 to 2, and then work continuing to 3 or 5 depending on the lunch break, though some workers would stay much later. Biking back down to our hut at night, we would have enough time to gather a little wood and start the fire before it got dark, cooking some of the food we had brought out from Kasama before going to bed around 8, with the Milky Way and the Southern Cross rising above the broad marsh across the way.
It is picking season on the farm now that the rains have ended, and so most activity was geared towards that endless task while we were there. Every morning groups of women of all ages with small children in tow came from surrounding villages to work for the day, heading out to the fields in the morning with empty buckets and sacks and coming back in the evening with loads of sometimes up to 90 kilos balanced on their heads. Children work alongside their parents here, doing what they can to contribute during what is probably the only time all year that the household can earn a little cash.
In the evenings, the coffee is pulped and fermented, with Lawrence, the machine operator, often putting in twelve hour days if there is a good harvest. The next morning, the coffee skins are sent off to be composted and the fermented beans are washed and graded and sent off to dry. The whole pulping / washing / grading area is then cleaned just as the pickers come back from the fields with the new loads balanced securely on their heads.
In the drying gallery, women move through rows of tables, picking out beans which fell into the wrong pile during the grading and checking the moisture levels. After a few days, when Alex declares the beans dry, they are packed up and brought in for hulling, and then shipped to Kasama for roasting, grinding, and packaging – the coffee itself is sold in supermarkets in Lusaka and the Copperbelt under the apt label ‘Kasama Coffee’.
We helped some with all of these little steps except picking, and it’s a good feeling to know that we have now pulped, washed, graded, dried, sorted, carried, and composted the skins of more coffee than we could ever possibly drink in our lives.
More importantly though, working on the farm gave us even more respect for the Zambian people. Six or seven days a week, they are there on the farm, working hard from morning to night with no vacations. They can build tables, corrals, just about anything with often next to no tools, salvaging old pieces of wood and wire, cutting boards with a folding pocket-saw, and even hammering nails with a handle-less hammer.
All of it they do because they have to eat and support relatives, but mostly for their children – to pay the often-exorbitant school fees and to try to offer them a better future. And all of it they do not only with pride and with energy, but with a lightheartedness that lets them laugh all the day long and even take the time to show how to do simple tasks to the bumbling Mzungu who have somehow fallen in their midst.
This is where coffee comes from, and it was a pleasure to get to know the farm workers over the past month, and we will miss them all dearly. Still, the road is calling and it is a long way to Windhoek…