I sit with my friends Ruth and Warren and our kids on low wooden plank benches. The ground beneath our feet is swept dirt between a tiny house made of mud and reeds, and an open outdoor wooden structure which we’re told is a kitchen. There is no running water, gas, or electricity.
I’m lucky enough to be spending Thanksgiving in Africa with my two boys and some close friends. We are in Uganda traveling by Jeep through cities, towns, villages, and National Parks.
We’ve been invited to the home of a lady in a small village on the edge of the Kibale Forest (home to Uganda’s biggest population of chimpanzees). She’s known as the local Coffee Queen. Like the majority of the Ugandan people, the Coffee Queen is a subsistence farmer.
She’s dressed in a skirt and top that are falling apart at the seams. She shows us how she processes her coffee beans after picking them from the surrounding trees once they turn red. She has already sun dried them on a piece of cloth on the ground for three days.
She grinds the dried beans with her mortar and pestle and blows away the husks (which are later spread back over her garden for mulch) before letting our kids take a turn. She tips the beans back into a metal pan and takes them into her kitchen where she has a low fire burning on the ground. She roasts the beans until they turn black.
Our Californian teens seem to be enjoying themselves, as a chicken pecks at the dust around their feet.
The Coffee Queen turns to a nearby banana tree and tears off a leaf.
“What’s she doing now?” I whisper to Ruth. We watch as this proud Ugandan woman tears the leaf in half and folds the pieces, holding one in each hand.
“Oven mitts,” Ruth says.
We watch in wonder as she tips the beans back into her mortar and pestle to be ground into powder. She boils water she has carried from a well, over the fire, and pours coffee into plastic mugs for all of us to share. The rich black brew is delicious and I’m left feeling overwhelmed by the hardship yet beautiful simplicity of this woman’s life.
While we sip our hot drinks, the Coffee Queen tells the two young local men interpreting for us that she would like to give us each a pet name. My son Nick is given the name Apuuli. The guides giggle and tell him it means “tall” but Nick finds out later it means “puppy.” Ruth and Warren’s daughter, Bridget gets Akiiki, meaning strong. Bridget is a champion pole vaulter and her dad shows the Coffee Queen a clip of his daughter clearing a twelve foot high bar on his iphone. Her reaction is priceless. We all laugh together and sip our drinks. We don’t want to leave.
I ask if I can buy a bag of the Coffee Queen’s beans. She points to the window of her mud house. A few bags have been placed on the sill, ready for our visit.
When I get back to my house in Los Angeles I will make another cup of coffee using her beans, an electric coffee grinder, filtered water from the tap, an electric kettle, and a french press. I’ll pour the brew into my double-walled glass mug but it won’t taste any better than the one I’ve just shared.