Episode 3: Conflict, Coffee Farmers, and the Nobel Peace Prize

An American woman and a Congolese woman smile at the Panzi hosputal

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Episode Transcript

Intro:0:05Everyday grocery store items like bananas, chocolate, coffee — these are global commodities. They pass through a lot of people’s hands on their way from the fields to your grocery cart. This is The Stories Behind Out Food Podcast, the podcast where expert guests share insider knowledge about every step along the process. I’m Danielle Robidoux — and I’m Kate Chess — and we’re your hosts.

Danielle R.:0:30Sexual violence as a tactic of war is a huge problem worldwide. We’re here today to talk about the Democratic Republic of Congo. Maybe you heard recently that Dr. Denis Mukwege is the co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the Panzi Hospital and survivors of sexual violence. We’re here today with Beth Ann Caspersen, the coffee quality control manager at Equal Exchange and cofounder of the Congo Coffee Project. She’ll be giving an important background on the political situation in the DRC and steps that you can take as an individual to make a difference.

Beth Ann:1:07Hi everyone. Great to be here.

Danielle R.:1:10Beth Ann, can you give us just like a brief landscape of the history and overview of this problem?

Beth Ann:1:20The problem we’re working to address is the sexual violence in Democratic Republic of Congo, the DRC, which it’s known as, is the second largest country in central Africa and it’s located in an area known as the Great Lakes region. It’s surrounded by nine countries and it occupies this great expanse of land and resources. So there are countries like Rwanda, Central African Republic, Uganda, all around the DRC and there are more than 78 million people. It’s rich in biodiversity. It has these vast natural resources. But there’s this history that’s really important to understand. First you need to understand that the Belgians colonized the DR Congo in the 1880s, and in 1885, King Leopold II declared it his private property and he named it the Congo Free State. This is where colonization begins bringing with it, unfortunately, death and disease. And in the 1900s it became the Belgian Congo. You’ll see a variety of name changes throughout the history.

Beth Ann:2:26And during this period of Belgian rule, the Belgians are just extracting resources and there’s very little development. and it really wasn’t until 1960 that they achieved independence. The first president — this might be getting down into the details, but it’s an important to understand about the presidents as well — was Joseph Kasa-Vubu, however, conflict arose over the administration of the territory which became known as the Congo Crisis, and so he was ousted. The Republic of Congo — and it’s also known now as the Republic of Congo. So here we go through our name changes. Through this, you see another leader rise and take power through a coup and he’s called Mobutu Sese Seko, and he was a military dictator. And this is going on from 1965 to 1997. At this point in 1970, the country again is renamed Zaire. So again, we’re seeing this, this theme, what we know is that there’s conflict warring groups and continual fighting for land and resources.

Beth Ann:3:33And this persists throughout the history of Congo. Mobutu begins to lose power in the 1990s. And then we see in 1994 the Rwandan genocide. This is a war between two ethnic groups and the Rwanda is right again on the border of DRC and it’s the Tutsis and Hutus and this unfortunate event claimed more than 800,000 lives in a very short period of time in 100 days, they say. So there’s a lot of warring happening there. There’s this political strife and then the Congo goes into its first war. It’s called the first Congo War and this is in 1996 where there’s a foreign invasion of Zaire that is led by Rwanda and that replaces President Mobutu with the rebel leader Laurent-Desire Kabila, and he is the first Kabila. There is another Kabila that comes along a little later in our story. Mobutu flees and Kabila becomes president.

Beth Ann:4:36Unfortunately, his reign is very short because there are tensions between President Kabila and the Rwandan and Tutsi presence in the country and this led to unfortunately the second Congo War and that was from 1998 to 2003. This war involved all of the neighboring countries, so all nine countries and around 20 armed groups. And ultimately it resulted in the deaths of what is estimated to be 5.4 million people. Let me repeat that. Five point 4 million people. So what happens next? President Kabila was assassinated by one of his bodyguards in 2001. And then he was succeeded. Some people say eight days, some people say 10 days later by his son Joseph Kabila. And so this happens and he’s not officially president or becomes elected as president until 2006 of which he is then reelected in 2011. And so you have this series of presidents and rulers and power and this president that is in power right now, Joseph Kabila, he has been in the … they were supposed to have elections in 2016. Here we are in December of 2018, they still have not elections. And there’s definitely political instability surrounding this. Um, yeah. So the DRC is this large country with what I would call small pockets of development. So I’ll give a little bit of the, the difficult sides of the DRC, but also some of the more positive, but first you need to understand there is overall very poor infrastructure. There are no roads in between, in the interior of the country. People are out in the streets protesting. They want a new, a new president. They want a new election cycle. There’s distrust of the government right now, and then you have denial by the government that people are actually protesting and that people actually have been harmed over over many over the last few years in particular. Meanwhile, you have these armed groups — and I’m building up to why sexual violence is actually such an issue — and these armed groups are now being labeled as terrorists by the DRC government and they’re fighting for land, arms and precious resources and there are a couple of precious resources that everyone needs to understand. In particular, they’re tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold, and they are all found in things that you’ll be very familiar with — your laptop and your cell phone. So all of these minerals are used again to make cell phones and laptops, but they, the mines are what the military groups want to control. And so this is for sexual violence comes in, the groups perpetuate violence by, through sexual assault, which is just a horrific practice where they rape women, children and men of all ages. And this violence is really used as a tactic of war.

Beth Ann:7:52It tears apart communities, destroys families and it creates insecurity. And it’s, when I say it’s complex, it’s really a wild understatement, but sexual violence is really just persisting throughout DRC right now. And on top of all of this, you have an ebola crisis, which is really, really difficult. It’s not the first time it’s happened, however, it’s in a more populous area called Beni. And it’s really, really sad to say that military groups have even attacked the health workers there and there’s a lot of insecurity. So it’s difficult to address just sexual violence when there are all these complex layers of what’s happening with poor leadership, little economic development, a huge country with this wonderful mineral wealth and just little economic development. So these levels of sexual violence continue to persist and destroy families and it’s really to gain power over people and resources. Wow.

Kate:8:57Thanks for that. Really thorough background here. And then just add something else to the pot. Another complication. This is a podcast about food, and we’re a coffee company. What does coffee have to do with this? There are coffee farmers in the Congo. We source coffee from the Congo. What does that have to do with women and other people who have survived sexual violence? And is there any overlap between these groups?

Beth Ann:9:22Definitely. And thanks for asking. Sexual violence, is this really a widespread issue throughout Congo? But it’s really in other parts of the world as well. So we need to at least address that.

Kate:9:34Sure. Yeah.

Beth Ann:9:35But it’s rampant in Congo again, using it as this tactic of war. So we work with the small farmer Co-op in eastern Congo. It’s on the shores of Lake Kivu, which also borders Rwanda. And a number of the women had been sexually assaulted. But historically there hasn’t been anywhere to go. So sexual assault has persisted for a long time. Um, and for people who live outside of larger areas like Goma or Bukavu in eastern Congo, there, there hasn’t been many places to go. However, in 1998, Dr. Denis Mukwege a gynecologist, established the Panzi Hospital and the hospital has become very well known for treating survivors of sexual based violence. And over the years Dr. Mukwege has treated thousands of people, thousands. It’s really, like I said, sad to say. Treating these survivors for sexual violence is a holistic process for them where they’re treating people both physically and mentally at the Panzi hospital. Uh, in terms of the overlap between where we buy our coffee, Bukavu is pretty far away from as the town of Minova, which is where SOPACDI is located. Um, and many of the coffee farmers are in the adjoining communities. And so for years we tried to figure out how, how to get the survivors from those communities some help, but it’s really far away. In 2014, maybe it was 2015, I don’t remember exactly. But the World Bank supported a project to build what they call One Stop Centers in different communities and these are really small clinics that are built in smaller towns in order to treat people that are affected by sexual sexually based violence, um, in that same holistic way, right? As, as the larger Panzi hospital. And this is where some of the farmers of SOPACDI live, they actually live in Bulenga. And so having a small clinic there has been a really important development. I’m on a lot of levels, I mean, but really the overlap is with one small farmer co op, I’m talking about that affects or is part of our coffee project. However, there are farmers throughout Congo and people are affected everywhere, all over Congo. So it’s not just farmers, it’s children, teachers and more. Um, and I think that the One Stop Center that’s been constructed in Bulenga has really helped to bring the farmers closer to the hospital, which I’ll talk about and I hope in a few minutes, um, and together with Equal Exchange in the same way. And I’ve been there to visit and I’ve been there and I’ve spent time with Dr. Bwema and the general manager from SOPACDI and so we’re creating these connections. Yeah.

Danielle R.:12:34So Beth Ann, can you talk a little bit about what kind of inspired the creation of the Congo coffee project and what has been the evolution of this project through the years?

Beth Ann:12:48It’s a great story actually, because, excuse me, I was in the Equal Exchange cafe in Boston and I was there with two — I’m a Coffee cupper by trade — and I was there with two coffee cuppers from Columbia. And I ran into Jonathan Rosenthal who’s one of the founders of Equal Exchange. And he said, you know, Beth Ann, have you ever do you, have you ever heard of Panzi Foundation? And I said, no, who is that? And he said, you know, they’re a really interesting organization, they’re doing advocacy work and in, in Congo, in Democratic Republic of Congo. And they’re looking for a product to tell their story, a private label product and to raise money for their programs. And it really sort of just happened. And serendipitously at the time I didn’t know anything about DRC. I’ve spent time in east Africa and my coffee work, mostly in Uganda but also in Ethiopia, but I didn’t know a lot about DRC. I didn’t know a lot about the issues around sexual violence or the Panzi hospital. And so I, over time as I started to learn more and more, I was, gosh, we’ve got to do something. How in tarnation will this work? Um, we’ve never done this sort of thing before. And so I was very lucky because I spent a lot of time with Tara Herman who was a representative for Panzi over many months to develop a coffee product. Um, we weren’t even buying coffee from the Congo at the time. So it was like, well, how can we actually make that connection?

Beth Ann:14:21In my mind I was working to make a product, but it was almost going a little backwards because I really wanted to figure out how to impact the lives of the coffee farmers on the ground. So I reached out to one of my friends, Richard Hyde, formerly of Twin Trading in the UK and asked him and talked to him and he said, you know, I know a group that you should contact and we should, we should connect to you. Um, and so over the years we’ve gotten to know the farmers and support them with technical assistance. As I mentioned, I’m a cupper by trade. And so I had spent some time working with their team to find a cupper to help them to build their quality. Um, and over time I would say pretty quickly we introduced a product which inevitably came, the, became the Congo coffee project.

Beth Ann:15:12Um, it was the first organic coffee in the US that was fair trade. Um, and I’m really proud of it. It has a beautiful design — our design team did it, props to them. Um, but I think the whole point of the product was to tell the story, right? What is the story, raise awareness and have impact. So we have impact, um, on the farmers by buying coffee at fair trade prices, um, at higher than fair trade prices, that’s for sure. Um, and then in addition to that, we are supporting the Panzi Foundation, so for every bag that we sell it, a, $1 goes into a fund and at the end of the year we collect all of the money or count all the money I should say, and then we send a check to Panzi and I’m proud to say that we’ve raised more than $80,000 with this project since inception, which was in 2011. So I feel like the evolution is continuing. I don’t think it’s done. I think that we’ve got a lot of work still to do. Absolutely. Always more work to do.

Danielle R.:16:22Can you, can you tell us a personal story that you have with maybe one of the women that kind of highlights the collaboration of Equal Exchange in the Panzi project?

Beth Ann:16:38Definitely. I think that there’s, there are many faces that come to mind. There’s this woman, Janet, who works in the nursery school, um, that just really, every time I see her she just has a big smile on her face and she just has a dramatic impact on me in my life, but the woman I think I’d like to highlight is known as Mama Zawadi, um, and Mama Zawadi is the director for the Maison Dorcas aftercare center and she is, um, this is a place where people go, survivors go to the aftercare center to heal and to rest they receive counseling, um, and —

Kate:17:22Is this part of the Panzi hospital?

Beth Ann:17:23This is part of the Panzi hospital. Yes. But she’s just this gentle soul with a giant heart. And I just connected with her immediately. Um, you know, she’s the mother of eight. She also happens to– I know, the mother of eight — but also she’s the sister of Dr. Denis Mukwege, the founder of Panzi and she’s a widow. She lost her husband a few years ago, which hit her pretty hard, but she told me “I need to be here. I need to be here for the woman.” Wow. Uh, the aftercare center itself is about 300 beds. Um, uh, but you can see this when you walk around. It’s a pretty overwhelming experience. Of course, I’m not in, in each of the rooms. Being there, my first time, was really overwhelming and Mama Zawadi was just very supportive and very direct. You know, I think people sort of walk on eggshells when they talk about sexual violence or, oh gosh, you know, how do you explain it? And she’s just direct and said, you know, “this woman was raped, this woman has AIDS. This child that is four years old was raped,” and it was just really overwhelming. But I feel like she was really supportive for me to, um, because she has this calming presence, really calming presence, which you can see as being really important.

Beth Ann:18:54The first time I went, uh, I had this idea because Lee Ann De Reus from, from Panzi Foundation USA had told me a little bit about the hospital and so I decided I was going to bring a big bag, a big suitcase of clothing for, for the kids. Um, and so I collected all of my son’s things that were too small and went and got some things from my nephew and I wasn’t quite sure how it would be received, you know, here, here comes this person that’s never been here with a bag of clothes and I was received with song and dance and it was really another piece of being overwhelmed during that same day. And so every year when I go, I always bring a bag of clothes in that bag of clothes started as a small suitcase and now it’s this giant suitcase that’s called the Wheely Beast. And I shove as much of it in there. The weight is the problem, but it’s always, it makes me feel so happy to pass along small things that, um, that, that while they can get clothesthere, they can get clothes there. But I’m passing along something that is meaningful to me. And she said if everyone in the world could have as big a big a, have a heart as you do, then we wouldn’t have the same level of problems. And that stuck with me. So she is very, very special to me.

Danielle R.:20:23Wow. She sounds so special. Thanks for telling us that story. That’s, that’s really nice. Can, can you talk specifically about maybe one of the women who has benefited from this project in particular with the Congo coffee project?

Beth Ann:20:43It’s hard to sort of pinpoint one woman, you know, survivors are there for us a short period of time and then they move on. So usually I don’t see the same faces which I consider a blessing. Um, but I do see the same staff, like Mama Zawadi. But when we first started the project, all of our funding was going toward the Maison Dorcas aftercare center and so specifically to support vocational training. So I think that’s the place where I’ve seen this impact. The center, you know, again, is this healing place. It’s an important refuge for survivors, but one really important thing that they try to do is give people the skills so that once they leave, um, or some type of a trade so that when they leave they can use it. Um, so that might be sewing, that might be weaving. Um, and this is all happening along with counseling and medical services and so those are, those are important things to, to leave with. Um, it’s a really holistic approach taking into account the physical and the mental, which I think I really appreciate. So I think it was probably my second or third visit, I saw these really gorgeous plastic woven bags and I bought one and I was thinking, how can I, how can I get these to the United States, could I sell them what if we could design them and sell them? What if we, there was an outlet? And so this became the Congo coffee bag, um, and it’s this beautiful woven bag that’s too black and white and they’re, they can be used to shopping bags, as baskets. And so what I love about this program, what is that every bag is there’s a woman earns $10. $5 of that is paid to her outright. $5 is kept, um, as part of a savings account so that when the woman leaves, she has a little pile of money, um, to leave with. So a savings. And I love that. Um, it is just a really — you know that someone was using that as healin. They were learning through weaving and then ultimately they sold it into the market. So for all those people out there that have bought one, now, you know, a little bit more about the story. Yeah. So that’s, that’s something that I feel like has had really good impact.

:23:18And in a lot of ways our funding has evolved as well. So in years past we’ve used that to support vocational training and we’ve decided we want to create a connection between the Bulenga clinic and where the funding goes now. So in 2016 we embarked on a new journey where we decided — now this is after consultation with the clinic, this is not my idea, this is what the clinic wanted — is, um, to build water tanks. Yeah, because the clinic is small. This One Stop Center is, it is a tiny clinic. It doesn’t have the services that it probably needs or the money to support it. So knowing that the farmers are in the same community and they need access to water, the idea was to take the money and use it to build a water tank and they did that and I was able to see that and you can see pictures on our website if you’re interested. So, and we’re working on that. I feel like that’s evolving and how it impacts each woman. The bag project continues and I feel like that will continue to impact women, um, in very specific ways.

Danielle R.:24:32Thanks. Thanks, Beth Ann. I feel like I can, I can really feel from you that you are really passionate about this work. Can you talk a little bit about what this means to you on a personal level

Beth Ann:24:48Without crying? I’ll try.

Danielle R.:24:51It’s okay. It’s part of it.

Beth Ann:24:54I’m a crier.

Danielle R.:24:58Me too. Not a shocker to you.

Kate:24:59You guys can’t see this, but we’re handing out tissues now.

Beth Ann:25:05It means so much to me. You know, I’ve traveled to DRC to work with coffee farmers, visit Panzi hospital, visit the clinic and Bulenga and I don’t think I quite understood the experience it would give me. I’ve traveled throughout the world and in my work and training and working with roasters and cuppers and quality training, but this has had a different level of impact, um, where you see human suffering but hope at the same time and I feel like there’s a, if we have to have hope, we, you always have to have hope and you always have to fight for what is right and this is a very deep and meaningful. This has been professionally a very, very meaningful and I’m personally very meaningful project for me.

Danielle R.:25:56That’s wonderful. And we really appreciate you doing this interview with us. I had done a webinar with Beth Ann and that was kind of how this idea came about and I just wanted to keep getting the word out about this project. I think it’s a really important project that Equal Exchange is involved in, um, how can, how can some of the folks listening beyond this podcast, right? What, what are some action steps that they can take and some good resources that folks can kind of stay connected to this story.

Beth Ann:26:29Well, you should get out your pen and paper. Write that one down. Write these down. Well let’s just start with a blog piece that I just wrote and it’s about our work. And there’s this, I’m not sure how many of you have heard, but in October we received news that Dr Mukwege, the founder of Panzi, is the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, which is


Beth Ann:26:56A round of applause — on so many levels well deserved, well deserved. He’s been up for the Nobel peace prize in years past. So for him to, to receive this as a very high honor, um, and well, well deserved. Um, when I learned the news, um, I wasn’t even expecting it. My husband was on a plane and he sent me a text and said, did you hear the news that he won that? And I couldn’t even believe it. I literally started crying because again, I am a crier, but I started to cry because it was so happy. So happy for him, for the survivors that have suffered for the survivors that have persevered for all the support for everyone out there listening right now for everyone at Equal Exchange and just really for him, for bringing and talking about sexual violence on the international stage for so long and having that acknowledgement I think is enormous and it’s especially important right now given the political situation, you know, that there’s a threat of not having free or fair elections on December 23rd of this month. And I think that that is a threat out there. And so one of my asks for you would be to say let’s get fair and free elections happening. There are no excuses as to why they haven’t happened for two years. The excuses put out by the government are just rubbish. It’s ridiculous and they don’t actually have any traction. And so we really need to put pressure there. I’d encourage you to learn more about DRC. So not just, um, at Equal Exchange, the Congo Coffee project and at Panzi and our work. Um, but there are other fantastic groups out there doing work. Um, there’s the Enough Project, there’s Steer Forward. There are others, um, and those are on our website too.

Beth Ann:28:53So buy the coffee. It is a plug, but I think it’s an important plug because you’re supporting our work and coffee does help to build the economy. So we’re talking about this poor infrastructure and these warring factions in this really complex political landscape. I think that this is something you can do is to buy a bag of coffee or buy a bag and give it to someone else. Um, and then the last thing — and there might be more things I think of when I get off of this podcast — is to support our Create Change campaign. We just launched it to raise additional money for the Bulenga clinic. Uh, our idea is that we have built these small tank water tanks, but we need to do so much more and it’s expensive, but we really want to put solar panels on clinic. We want to have renewable energy options and we want to have consistent, clean water that’s available throughout the community and to really be a model of what a great clinic can be. So I think that those are a few of the things you could do up. So if you forgot all of that and didn’t, write it down,

Kate:30:02we’ve got links that we’ll put right in the episode of this podcast. If you go to the podcast homepage, you’ll be able to find a place where you can take action on all of these suggested steps. I wanted to ask about Dr. Mukwege. It’s so exciting. The prizegiving is in December. So, and not only, I’m sure it’s gratifying for him to have his work recognized, but this brings the issue to a wider international audience. Have you met Dr. Mukwege, Beth Ann? Can you talk about your interactions with him?

Beth Ann:30:34It’s amazing. Every time I’m in DRC he’s not, and then he comes to the states and I’m not. I travel a lot for work. Um, so we’ve had very little time to connect and I think I, I’m sort of an ambassador and a champion on not just his behalf but on the behalf of Panzi Foundation USA, Mama Zawadi. So I have not had a lot of interaction with him. Um, but he’s very proud of the Congo coffee project. I know that. Um, and uh, that, so my connection, my physical connections have not been, have not been so many, but I, again, I feel like this is so powerful what he’s received in the Nobel peace prize alone and putting this work on the international stage when he received word, he was in surgery because he’s still an active surgeon. He’s not just a, he does go out and do a lot of speaking all over the world to talk about sexual violence and the issues in DRC. So he is not afraid to talk about the other issues. So this is another level of excitement and, and honor that I think that will definitely, I, I hope will bear more fruit where people are listening. Um, so my, my interactions are limited, but I think we should all feel very proud of the work that he does.

Kate:31:58Yeah. And thanks for telling his story. I have seen a picture of the two of you together. So I know it’s not a Batman/Bruce Wayne situation.

Beth Ann:32:07I went to, uh, the women for women international dinner in New York City a few years ago because we had not been able to connect and was able to meet him for not very long. It’s really hard to get him by himself. He’s a, he’s a very busy guy, so, and will be even more busy now.

Kate:32:26That’s good news. Yeah. Yeah.

Danielle R.:32:28Thanks Beth Ann. I would just say that, you know, what really had got to my heartstrings was, you know, after this webinar that we did with Beth Ann, just the scale of this problem, the systemic nature of it and just the stories of the women and the brutality that is experienced. I think that, you know, I would really encourage listeners out there to go learn more about this story and the human stories behind it because there is no way that you can not be moved by it. So thank. Thank you so much Beth Ann, for all the work that you do, it’s, it’s really, really important work in, um, we really appreciate you telling the story.

Beth Ann:33:08Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here and tell the story, so tell your friends.

Danielle R.:33:15Definitely tell all your friends about the podcast.

Kate:33:17Subscribe, share the episode. Thanks very much. Thank you.

Outro:33:25Thanks for listening to the stories behind our food. A podcast by Equal Exchange ake a worker owned cooperative. Love this episode. Please subscribe, rate and leave a review. Be sure to visit Equal Exchange.co op to join the conversation, purchase products and learn more about small scale farmers in the global supply chain. This episode was produced by Equal Exchange with hosts Kate Chess and Danielle Robidoux. Sound engineering provided by Gary Goodman. Join us next time for another edition of the stories behind our food.

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