I was recently on a trip to the East African countries of Burundi and Rwanda. It has taken me a little while to get my notes from the trip together, and in fact I am still working on it. However, seeing as we’re hosting public cuppings for both the Burundi and Rwanda Cup of Excellence Auctions beginning on Oct.12th, it seemed fitting that I at least assemble some account of my time. Beginning in Burundi, I spent a short week on the periphery of the Cup of Excellence competition, checking in with our coffee sourcer extraordinaire Piero, who was a member of that jury, when I got the chance. Otherwise I was meeting with what of the coffee world of Burundi my short time allowed.
From Burundi, I was off to Rwanda to sit on the Cup of Excellence jury. We’ve posted on CoE jurying in the past. It is always an intense experience, and a great way to learn about an origin and your own predilections in cupping. Rwanda was no different in this respect, and I’ll post on that portion of my trip next week, in anticipation of our cupping on the 19th.
By way of warning, the posts here ramble some, and deal less directly with coffee than with… I’m not sure exactly what. I’ll mention also that the views and opinions expressed herein are no more than views and opinions- are sometimes less- and are mine alone.
Burundi Journals, excerpted
Part One: Maps
Africa. It is perhaps no longer uncommon that we are there, that we have someone there. I work for a coffee importer now, and the business requires travel... the business requires relationship, practical knowledge, and experience- and these require travel. So we go, to Central America, South America, Indonesia, and Africa. Via one of those strange turns of coincidence, such as I generally reserve for others, I find myself scheduled for Africa.
As an importer of a tropical agricultural product in what is often considered the developed world, we travel not only to coffee producing countries, but to consuming ones as well. This does not concern me here, and it is not my purpose to speculate on what happens to my job, to us, when the producers come to demand the pleasures of consumption (Brazil). For now I reflect on my position, and ours as I see it. Traveling, yes, though no longer as Marlows. Whether we are advancing the flags of those great ships, or merely being pulled along the length of their wakes, one thing at least can be said. We follow the course that they set out.
True, by this time it was not a blank space any more. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery--a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness.
The blank space is never blank. It has been populated, has breathed, bled, lived and died on its own terms for a very long time. And here is the crux of another issue altogether: that the modernists of today, those most willful or blind chasers after the glorious dreams of old, are marked primarily by having missed the warnings left laced and layered throughout by their most profound voices. "Comment vous appellez vous?" becomes "Je t'appelle..." and one suspects that Maqroll would have been a better traveling companion yet than Marlow.
Be that as it may, it is to Africa that I go, and I can only follow what traces and what maps have been left to me. While the physical tracks and markers have all changed and moved, while Africa is neither blank space nor dark land anymore, all of the superficial structures of Conrad's narrative having given way to a continent of 57 nations, the African Union, and emerging economies. Still, perhaps there remains something hidden, something mysterious to be found in Africa. I do not fool myself about what it is that I seek and why Africa may be the where in which I may find it. I do not search for ruins, per se, or some lost and wild coffee tree. I do not wish to join in the scramble for these table scraps of exploration and the collecting of exotic experience. I go to Africa knowing full well what my trip is (touristic in nature, educational in investment, work in reality), and what it is not. And yet I wonder if I might not find, covered in dust or over grown beside the road, some artifact of my own psychology, some key to my origins, and some opening of perspective on where I am now, and where I am going.
Part Two: Pangs
Even before I leave. The earliest pangs are mild and well-spaced. Arising in the gaps, in the pauses of planning and of preparing. As a horizon, it looms, casts a strange shadow, into the sun almost, and passes...
On my first flight out I think only of how long will be my flight home...
I've seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! these were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men--men, I tell you. But as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly. How insidious he could be, too, I was only to find out several months later and a thousand miles farther. For a moment I stood appalled, as though by a warning.
Carl Jung, and later Joseph Campbell taught us that the devils and demons of religion and mythology can be approached by the contemporary mind as autonomous shadow aspects of that very mind. Here I am, rapidly crossing over Newfoundland, en route to Amsterdam, reading Heart of Darkness and already I am seated beside this devil of folly, this weak-eyed part of myself. How hard and of what sort is the battle with this particular devil? Or is battle too strong a word? Isn’t this engagement much softer, much longer? Already I was meeting with the shadowy parts of my own psyche, and here, hardly off the ground, was the most important. For should I meet with these other more urgent devils, it would be as urgent that I respond, and in responding should I once succeed in overcoming them, I would as soon be done with it and on to the next. This, whereas the devil of folly I've harbored from the get go- did not find in that plane, but carried on. This I cannot hope to so cleanly be rid of.
Part Three: Carls
I met Carls on the first leg of my trip. He was my contact upon touching down in Bujumbura. Thus, I had little chance to hear of his activities and manners, his personality, beforehand. I had heard some of Buju, which better had I not. My flight landed shortly after midnight. It had been suggested me that Bujumbura, airport not excepted, was no place to be out at that hour.
Carls- the charismatic extractor of green coffee from the land-locked provinces of East African Burundi. Foreign and familiar, a living bridge between the coffee consuming west and its source in the African interior.In Buju, the DRC looms green and impenetrable, as rich in potential as it is in criminality, imposing and tempting both at but a short shout across lake Tanganyika. Carls speaks as we drive toward this wall (every westward road here points toward the Congo) one day of the defeated voice urging him to conquer the Congo, if only by a single washing station. If I spoke previously of distinct devils, here was a small team all working together on this man.True, the roads and towns, rivers and mountains of the DRC are all long named and accounted for. Yet, here remains in a very real sense a last remnant of Marlow's Africa. If not the white space of the earliest maps, or even the black of those later more experienced versions, perhaps a detailed gray such that the maps in all their clarity can only help to show you exactly where you are lost.
As the East African nations line up and continue to produce better and better coffees fetching higher and higher premiums, it is obvious to wonder at the DRC’s potential. It is right there. It has all the biology, all the elevation, all the raw resources that it needs to produce world class coffee. It seems to be lacking only its Kurtz (or more realistically, the internal social stability necessary for luxury agriculture). The person capable of entering into the jungle and returning laden. The draw is not only to be the person to have brought the coffee out, but to be the person who brought it in.
"Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn't touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror -- of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision -- he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath...”
Carls explains that he has seen this green wall, been tempted by it, and has declined. The defeat by Kurtzes of such challenges once engaged is never complete, wholly provisional, and always reversed. This is not to say that the DRC will not one day realize its coffee potential, but only that no single Kurtz can bring it about without offering themselves up to be swallowed whole by the effort. If at first the center gives way, falls back and opens before the conqueror, it is only to close again behind. Such victories get into the blood, deeply, and reveal themselves later to be terminal, consumptive, wasting diseases. So it goes for the Kurtzes of the world.
Each of us has the potential, not only the potential but a certain drive, to become a Kurtz. Should only we find ourselves so situated that our context in the slightest suggests it, the archetype comes forward. It is not such a departure, not such a feat, not such a brilliance to fall into the receding embrace of the temptation of primalcy. A Kurtz is a you or I removed from the structures of our social matrix, or more likely, a you or I having had removed from ourselves the structures of our social matrix. Like a person realizing lucidity in a dream, but failing to distinguish between dream and waking.
The Carlses are different, and rarer. Approaching the wall, living within sight of it, the Carlses live lives that the rest of us do not know- that they themselves perhaps do not know. They are bridges. When we meet, they come to this side of themselves, the furthest from the immense green wall of opportunity, temptation and shadow. Its tinge falls away. Perhaps that is part of the secret, and the difference: that the end of the bridge built in the familiar must be kept free, must remain anchored and nourished by its roots. Grafting can be tricky business.
I know that there are more romantic views on this point. That one must immerse oneself. That one in fact must work at all costs to cut off that binding connection- if one would truly experience a culture, if one would ever be more than merely a tourist, and coming to that juncture, if one would hope to avoid becoming a Kurtz. I know the Rousseauian nobility has its draw. I would say only, following the text left me by JC, that the root cannot help but draw from the soil it finds itself in, and, the plant here, ourselves, may not be so readily able to assimilate and integrate those nutrients.
Carls told me that there were three types of people coming to visit Buju, and Burundi. First, those like myself who were coming for a week, or two. Catching a glimpse, getting a taste, and bringing it home. Second were those staying just a bit longer, two, or three, or four months. These probably on a humanitarian project, an aid project. These, rather than taking, were bringing into Burundi: answers, solutions, perspectives. They bring "What Burundians need is___." What Burundians need. The third category consists of those like Carls, like his friend Seth, who were living in Burundi. Making a living.
Of the three groups, all know that the first is touristic. No question. No confusion. The second may claim to know this and that about Burundi, may claim to live there, but they are tourists as well. These at least may leave having rendering some true benefit. Even if they don’t, they at least have the great opportunity to leave having had the true benefit of Burundi’s time rendered them. The third group, the residents, those who can legitimately claim to live in Burundi- these come to realize that they also are tourists, that in two years or five years or ten, they will leave, and Burundi will continue without them.
A Kurtz is born of naivete. Of an unprotected romanticism seized upon and dominated by the practicalities of an unromantic world.
Carlses are Kurtzes with restraint. For them the adventure does not extend to where it gets the best of them, though adventure it is. In the end, they get the best of it. In the end, Carlses finish their work, not because it is finished, but because they have worked enough and because they are finished.
If each of us has this potential, latent, waiting merely for an arbitrary lapse in the social contract, waiting only for the exploitation of circumstance, what is impressive is the person who comes to find herself here, on the fraying edges of this contract, and yet retains herself and does not slip into the Kurtzian release. Who learns and matures and refines.
Carls showed me around Bujumbura, introduced me to various friends and business contacts, to the workings of the city, and to those of coffee in Burundi. He showed me his home, and worked with me in his lab. We calibrated over a wider variety of Burundian coffee offerings than I knew existed. He also gave me something of the touristic glimpse that I had been hoping for, of the Africa original to myself. I could neither justify nor absorb this latter without the former, of course. But I also could not begin to interpret the former without the perspective imparted by the latter.