Ellen Friedland and Curt Fissel, right, talk with a Ugandan coffee farmer for their documentary on the Mirembe Kawomera interfaith co-op. Photo courtesy Ellen Friedland
March 06, 2008
The Abayudayah Jewish community in Uganda was decimated during the regime of Idi Amin.
“It was illegal to be Jewish, and a lot of people converted,” said Ellen Friedland, president of JEM/GLO, a Montclair-based nonprofit video production company dedicated to the production of educational programs on subjects related to Jewish culture around the world. “It’s only been since the late 1980s that it’s been a good environment to recreate Judaism there.”
Part of the “good environment” is due to the efforts of J.J. Keki, a farmer and Abayudayah leader in the village of Mblae, who convinced his Christian and Muslim neighbors to put aside religious suspicions and differences and work toward a common cause: the production and sale of coffee beans.
The farmers formed Mirembe Kawomera, “Delicious Peace” in the Luganda language. Through his Jewish connections in the United States, Keki was put in touch with the Thanksgiving Coffee Company, a roaster and distributor in Fort Bragg, Calif., that sells coffee to fair-trade companies as well as houses of worship. Bnai Keshet in Montclair, Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell, and the Allwood Reformed Church in Clifton bought Ugandan coffee for resale to their members.
The income generated by the venture — about four times higher than the prices offered by the local Ugandan market — has enabled the local community of third- and fourth-generation coffee farmers to send their children to school, afford health care, start savings accounts, and reinvest in their farms, while simultaneously spreading a message of peace. Friedland, a former NJJN reporter, and her partner and husband Curt Fissel documented this success in Delicious Peace Grows in a Ugandan Coffee Bean, which is scheduled for release later in 2008.
“We’ve been working on this documentary for several years,” Friedland told NJ Jewish News upon her return from a recent trip to Mbale, where she and Fissel shot some final footage.
The two JEM/GLO filmmakers were scheduled to show the trailer from the documentary at a program of music and video on the Ugandan interfaith co-op at Seton Hall University in South Orange in December. The event’s cosponsors — the Sister Rose Thering Endowment and the American Conference on Diversity — “thought this was the perfect thing to talk about peace and try to organize other communities,” Friedland said. Unfortunately the program was snowed out.