From Oromia to Minnesota, with love and coffee

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Joe Riemann bestowed one simple name, and in return received overflowing blessings and a beautiful name for himself.

The name he received from members of a grateful immigrant community in the Twin Cities is “Jalata,” meaning “One who loves.”

As for the simple and single name that he bestowed, bear with me, this will sound implausible but it is absolutely true.

Riemann distributes Ethiopian coffee to food cooperatives in Minnesota, and he recently changed the label on vacuum-packed bags of the coffee beans he sells from “Organic Ethiopian” to “Organic Oromian.”

Meet Doug in person

A former reporter for The New York Times, and a London and Hong Kong bureau chief of Bloomberg News, Doug McGill now writes from a home base in Rochester, Minnesota. Doug says, “I’m a journalist in Rochester, MN who is trying to practice my craft in a way that helps me and my fellow citizens understand our place in the wider world.” Doug will be the featured guest at this month’s Brown Bag Lunch With a Journalist, at noon Wednesday, July 23 at the East Lake Public Library, 2727 E. Lake St., Minneapolis.

The Twin Cities Media Alliance’s monthly Brown Bag Lunches are your chance for casual conversation with one of the Twin Cities’ most insightful journalists — about journalism, politics, or whatever is on your mind.

If you rush out of the house without a brown bag, Manny’s Tortas at 2700 East Lake can fill one for you.

It was precisely this seemingly trivial packaging switch that unleashed a torrent of gratitude on Riemann personally and his colleagues at the St. Paul office of the fair trade food company Equal Exchange.

The effusive thanks came from members of the Oromo immigrant community of Minnesota. The state is home to about 20,000 immigrants from Ethiopia, forming the largest Ethiopian diaspora in the world. The majority of these are from the Ethiopian state of Oromia. The Oromo are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, numbering about 30 million out of a total population that is something more than twice that number.

The Oromo have immigrated to Minnesota over the past 15 years, fleeing what they say is brutal repression and ethnic cleansing of their group by the present Ethiopian regime – claims that are fully backed up by human rights groups. A Human Rights Watch Report in 2005 reported “pervasive human rights violations” and documented hundreds of cases of torture, arbitrary detention, surveillance, and harassment of Oromo citizens.

The systematic suppression of political influence and cultural expression — Oromo history is not taught in Ethiopian schools, for example — is what makes the appearance of the Oromo name on bags of coffee grown in Oromia so genuinely and deeply moving, Oromo Minnesotans say.

“It touches your heart, it’s so powerful,” said Lense Solomon, an Oromo native and the president of the Oromo Student Union. “The Oromo have been repressed for so long, their labor unrewarded, their history wiped out, that to have the Oromo name on their own coffee, that’s huge.”

“It’s like the difference between being called ‘you,’ and being called by your real name,” she added. “It makes you feel proud to be acknowledged.”

The change has been good for business too, according to Barth Anderson, a spokeman for the Wedge food cooperative in Minneapolis. Sales of the coffee have increased about 30 percent since the label change, he says, and some Oromo have brought their families and children into the store to pose in front of the Organic Oromian” coffee bags on the shelves.

“It’s almost embarrassing how gushing they are in their gratitude,” Anderson said. “They tell me, ‘Thank you for being so brave, to acknowledge what we are going through and to stand with us.’”

Riemann says the idea to change the name began at a showing of the documentary film, “Black Gold,” about Oromia coffee farmers in Ethiopia, that he organized as “a bit of Equal Exchange outreach” to potential Ethiopian customers from the area, especially Oromo.

What started as a simple marketing event ended in a powerful experience for everyone who attended, Riemann said. When the movie flickered off and the lights went back on, the room exploded with passionate talk.

“It was emotional and heartwarming,” Riemann says. “Many people started sharing stories about their lives in Ethiopia. The movie had created a space for them remember and share. They talked about living in Ethiopia and the families they left behind. I was really touched. I didn’t expect that.”

Then one young man spoke up at the meeting.

“He called us out,” Riemann said. “He said, ‘the coffee you sell is from Oromia. They why is it called Ethiopian?’”

Riemann thought about that and discussed the possibility of a name change with a colleague, Scott Patterson. They weighed the obvious downside – losing the brand power of the “Ethiopia” label – against the potential gains.

“It was a way to do something positive,” Riemann said. “To not always be talking about tragedy, but to recognize the land where the coffee is grown.”

Equal Exchange started in 1986 by importing coffee from Nicaragua, just when the U.S. government was trying to topple Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, and the company’s lawyers spent several years fighting legal battles to allow the imports.

So the “Oromia Organic” label was also in the best “bring-it-on” tradition of the company, and its Boston-based execs okayed the change.

To be sure, not every single response has been positive. Along with the bubbling thank you’s, Riemann and Anderson both received darkly-worded emails from Ethiopians who strongly protested the name change.

Sometimes the language was so truculent as to give pause.

“Sometimes we’ve asked ourselves, ‘Hey, do we need to do something about this?’” Anderson said.

It is widely known that some of members of the Ethiopian diaspora retain close ties to the Ethiopian government. They report back on diaspora activities and are expected to promote the official Ethiopian government line in public discussions at meetings and in the media here in Minnesota.

The harsh tone these correspondents take reflects the severity with which political dissent is received and answered in Ethiopia itself.

Yet Riemann insists the label change is separate from politics.

“This is about creating the chance for Oromos in the Twin Cities to tell their story about the farmers and the land where this coffee is coming from. The outpouring of love and friendship has been real positive.”

To contact Douglas McGill: doug@mcgillreport.org

Douglas McGill has reported for the New York Times and Bloomberg News–and now the Daily Planet.

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