I have a weird relationship with coffee. Some days I can’t live without it; other days I feel annoyed with the smell reeking from my hands (I work at a coffee shop when I’m not busy doing cool things like traveling). After spending three days in a homestay in the coffee growing cooperative community of El Sontule, I have a much deeper appreciation for the little bean that wakes the world up and keeps it running.
El Sontule has one of the most interesting community dynamics. First, the entire coffee system is run by a cooperative of women. In the city of Managua, the poor areas have the biggest issues with machismo culture and the devaluation of women. El Sontule definitely isn’t made of money, and is a very rural community, yet this community has the most progressive culture we have seen in Nicaragua. Men and women are equal, with men spreading awareness of breaking down gender stereotypes. Both genders share in doing housework, tending to the community garden and farm, and raising the children. Women run the entire fair trade organic coffee cooperative. The community shares in the work and the benefits. For example, not all families have the means to host a homestay, but those can still receive help like extra food from the other families in the cooperative.
On top of a mountain in El Sontule. We listened to a heart-wrenching story of community members hiding here in the bushes while the Contra searched and invaded neighboring communities during the war.
On top of being a very fair community run by inspiring women, the community school is miles ahead of some United States education programs. In primary school, students learn about sexual and reproductive health, sustainability, environmental concerns, and many other issues that most schools either teach much later in education or ignore completely. The teachers are parents and farmers within the community. They have this radical idea of listening to their community’s needs and responding in a way that will create positive outcomes for generations. Instead of gettting caught up in rote memorization or the tragedy of “this is how we’ve always done it,” this small community has big ideas on how to create a brighter future for their children.
With MaryAnn, our host mother’s 17 month old granddaughter. Also known as the cutest little person ever!
An unfortunate theme we saw through the community was how much they are affected by climate change. This is hardly fair considering the extremely small carbon footprint of the people of El Sontule. These people have no running water or refrigeration, and just received electricity through solar panels purchased by members of the cooperative. Even with the solar panels, electricity is only used for radios, single lightbulbs at night, and the one family phone. And how are these people repaid? They are experiencing the worst drought and coffee rust known to their community, and it will take several years until they have another successful coffee harvest. This gave a lot of us some perspective on the moral issues of climate change. Those who depend on the environment the most and harm it the least are the most dramatically affected by those who use far more than their fair share.
Our host mother teaching us how to separate the coffee bean from the shell.
Not only did we get to build a relationship with theses coffee growers through homestays, but we also got to see the process of coffee cupping. Coffee cupping is how coffee gets its quality grades and is assessed for aroma, fragrance, body, and taste. This is not an easy or quick process. It requires a professional nose and palette, and only happens after years of labor in the field and weeks of milling, drying, and shelling. After learning the entire process, a single cup of coffee seems like so much more.
When people would ask, “how do you take your coffee?”, I would reply, “with milk and sugar.” Now, if someone asks me the same question, I’ll remember the generations of work put in by the beautiful women in the cooperative, the hardships they face with climate change, the efforts they make to improve life for their children, and the long and involved process of turning a seed into a steaming cup o’ joe.