Ripe Cherry Is the Only Solution

“You come… to Cyangugu?” Jambosco Safari asked me with a wide, glinting grin.

“Come with you? I mean, if it’s not an imposition… or an inconvenience… I’d like to go to Cyangugu. But do you mind if I run to the restroom first?” I tossed my paper napkin onto crusts of a cheese and pineapple ‘croque madame’ lunch and looked at Aleco, the international coffee buyer for Stumptown Coffee Roasters. He tilted his head down and raised his eyebrows only slightly.

“You can come,” he said, in a way that managed to be both an answer and a question. I have no idea where Cyangugu is.

They give me the back middle seat of the pick-up truck, between Aleco and Pascal, an agronomist with the SPREAD project. Casper, the driver, speaks only Kinyarwanda and has all of the truck mirrors arranged at angles that can’t possibly be useful. With only a thick wad of Rwandan francs, a camera and some spearmint gum in the backpack clutched on my lap, I ask how long it takes to get to Cyangugu (pronounced Chan-gu-gu). We’re leaving from Butare, the de facto agricultural capital of Rwanda and home of a major coffee cupping (tasting) laboratory. I’ve gotten a ride here from Kigali this morning and just happened upon Aleco, a coffee nomad based in Portland, Oregon, in the lab. The eau du Rwanda, body odor, is wafting around the back seat; wind from the open windows makes it hard to hear my own voice. Jambosco, Bosco for short, turns around from the front and shouts “Three hours. We go over Nyungwe Forest, near to almost Congo.” He flashes the grin again.

“Awesome,” I say, and tell Bosco there is a chocolate syrup named after him in the States. We won’t be back to Butare tonight.

Casper accelerates to 70 miles an hour as he swerves around children and bicycles strewn along the only paved road between Butare, in the Southern Province and the Western Province, where the Cyangugu region is. Considered by those who live in Kigali as the backwater of Rwanda, Cyangugu is sandwiched between Nyungwe National Forest, inhabited only by police and primates, Lake Kivu, and the Congo border (The Democratic Republic of Congo, that is; Congo as plain-named is its neighbor to the west). Cyangugu is also, I learn from Aleco, where Congolese come to purchase food by the truck-load because there is none across the border; where Lake Kivu could erupt in a methane gas-embedded natural bomb; where Ex-Rwandan rebels could attack from their hiding posts in the forest just across the lake; where ash could bury the villages if the major volcano across the border erupts, as it did in 2003. Depending on whom you talk to, any of these random acts of violence could happen today, maybe tomorrow.

Cyangugu is also home to the coffee washing station that produced, according to Aleco, the best coffee he tasted in 2007 in the entire world. “A high-altitude, luscious butter and vanilla, smooth beautiful coffee,” he says softly about Kanzu, named after the washing station where 500 farmers deposit coffee cherry to be floated, washed, depulped, and dried before emerging as green coffee beans, also called parchment, and ready for roasting. Aleco tells me that he’s put all of his eggs in this Kanzu basket this year. He means it’s the only Rwandan coffee he’s really determined to purchase on behalf of Stumptown, the other possibilities for purchase will satisfy him only partially. Today, he wants to visit the Kanzu washing station along with one other.

“I don’t know if we visit both,” Pascal offers gently to Aleco from my other side. “Kanzu is far…”

“No, Pascal, you know what’s far? Portland. Portland is far.”

“Who was buying Kanzu before this year?” I ask, trying to keep my eyes facing forward as we’re jerked around curves and begin the long climb up to 8,000 feet in the forest. I’m motion-sickness prone.

“No one,” he replies. “Well, someone was buying it but it was just getting mixed into the blends” of low-grade commodity coffee and sold anonymously on the global market. “So no one was tasting it,” Aleco says with plenty of disbelief and a hint of smugness.

It’s dusk when we reach the home of Alphonse, the owner of the Kanzu washing station. The village of Cyangugu is a few dirt roads lined with low crooked wood shacks, piles of bananas on windowsills, and hordes of children shrieking and trying to touch our truck when they see Aleco’s white face in the window. They don’t get many muzungu tourists.

After some hand-shaking of introductions and questions as to whether I’m Aleco’s fiancé that last too long, Bosco and I get in the back of Alphonse’s jeep. Aleco’s in the front and immediately asks how the Kanzu cherry harvest is going. Alphonse speaks in Kinyarwanda for a minute or two and then Bosco translates. “He say Kanzu closed. Kanzu is closed. Kanzu closed last week.”
“What do you mean Kanzu closed. Why? Ask him why.”

“He say because price too high, farmers sell to other washing station.” I don’t understand any of the premise behind this conversation, though Aleco seems to get it.

“Well tell him we’re going to offer him a very good price. If it samples well again this year, we’ll have a very good price for him. He’s never heard a price like this before.”

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Lake Kivu shines opaquely in the distance as we wind our way through cultivated hills, the forested mountains of Congo as a backdrop behind the lake. It’s almost completely black outside now, and the road has transitioned from hard-packed dirt to rugged, rocky trail. Women carry baskets on their heads from trail to footpath leading into groves of trees, and presumably, homes. We’re at least an hour from Alphonse’s house. My GPS unit reads 2°S, 29°E, 5,328 feet. I have no idea where we are, or where we’re going. The dialogue in Kinyarwanda, English and a bit of French is too hard to hear over the grumbling of the jeep, and I concentrate on preventing my head from hitting the ceiling.

Twenty minutes later, the jeep comes to an abrupt stop on a hill. Bosco says, leaning a little too close in, “We walk now.” But where are we?

“We’re at Muasa washing station. Alphonse owns it,” says Aleco as we push our way through an accumulating crowd, most shorter than me. Down a small hill and then up a big one, two men holding large white bags on their heads jog past us.

“Cherry!” yells Bosco. Cherry! everyone echoes. The harvested coffee cherry must make it to the washing station within hours or the quality starts to decline; most farmers lug their harvests a few miles to a washing station once or twice a week during the season. Someone offers me a flashlight, though it hardly illuminates the deep groves in the trail. This is not a strolling path. “Hey Aleco, how do they get the coffee beans out of here?” I ask, imagining a jeep bouncing down the trail with piles of parchment spilling out the sides. Or perhaps wheelbarrows.

“Um… good question,” he responds as we slow to navigate a stream of foul-smelling muddiness. I’m not keeping up with the men ahead, and I’m not sure I want to. There’s a log in front now, longer than me and no wider than eight inches, the only way to the other side of the ravine. I pretend I’m in a video game. It’s the only thing that makes me relax.

Aleco takes the tiny steps built into a hill two at a time, bounding towards the washing station at the top. There is no light at the end to illuminate the infrastructure, or the people, mostly men, who have gathered in anticipation of Aleco’s arrival. The generator has gone out, but cherry sorting of the day’s harvest is still underway.

I’m standing next to Aleco peering into a pool of bright red, cerise. He picks up a handful and lets them slip through his fingers. “This is no good,” he says. “No good.”

“What do you mean,” I ask quietly, as if anyone around us might comprehend English and get offended.

“It’s not fully ripe. There’s green cherry in here, and a lot of the red is under-ripe.”

I step out of the way and pull out my camera as Aleco does a quick inspection of the rest of the mounds of cherry; boys in sweaty tank tops stand by looking anxious. The crowd migrates to the floating tanks, where the lighter-density green cherry drifts to the top of the pools and is jettisoned out of the mix. From there, they float down a gutter into a de-pulping machine, hand-cranked, that squeezes the outer now-soggy shell off of the two beans inside. Those beans float down another gutter, into buckets that are dumped on thatched-roof covered drying racks.

Aleco is smiling now and he points to the thatched roof. “This is state of the art, Kanzu has the same roofs. It encourages air flow for drying, we need air flow. And it protects the beans from sun damage.” Thatched roofing is state of the art? How long do the beans sit out here? Some Kinyarwanda is passed back and forth among the crowd.

“Up to twenty days,” Aleco repeats Bosco. But how to the beans get out of here? There used to be a road, but it was washed out during this year’s rainy season. How are we getting out of here?

Back by the sorting racks Aleco thanks the crowd and tells Alphonse, through Bosco, that he hopes to be back on his next trip. Someone passes us a large gridded notebook, the guestbook. Empty, save for two French-sounding names. Aleco prints his, next to Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Portland, Oregon. “Focus on ripe cherry is the only solution,” he adds in block letters, signs under it, and snaps the book shut. I slip a handful of green coffee beans in my pocket and take the steps down, one at a time.

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One thought on “Ripe Cherry Is the Only Solution

  1. Hello,

    I saw your blog addy on my bloglog and thought I’d check it out. You have a fasinating story and life experience here. I wish you all the best in your adventures and studies, and I look forward to visiting your site again.

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