Survivor’s Tale

My readers, I am here again because the editor feels that I should update you on coffee at least once a month…

I will, I promise. I already have the next topic in mind: how one properly handles coffee after harvesting it.

However, as my March story I am offering something more about myself…

I was born 42 years ago in a little coffee village called Bumbo, in today’s Namisindwa District (Eastern Uganda). I watched my grandfather tend his plantation, so the coffee thing was instilled in me from the earliest age — but it took long to blossom!

I became who I am 11 years later. Julius Wetala, I mean. I was Julius Washingongo before that.

At the end of my primary schooling I suffered from persistent headache and malaria. This stubborn illness eventually made it impossible for me to take final exams. I had to reapply in order to graduate, and when I did I changed my name to Wetala (“survivor”). The name goes back to my dad who was one of the three children who survived in a family of 10 — the rest succumbing to sicknesses — so he became Wetala. (We don’t have family names in Uganda, but once you take your father’s African name you practically make one.)

In 2003 I got a job at a tea factory in Kiamara Tea Estate. As a punishment for coming to work late and insubordination, I was assigned to work night shifts during which I was introduced to tea tasting. That led to coffee tasting and three months in a coffee lab…

My formal education was otherwise accounting. I got employed by the Israelis building the motorway from Kampala to the borders of Rwanda and Congo. I withstood them for three years before getting fed up with my bosses, their uncoordinated working methods and total lack of interest in my ideas on how to improve them.

I became a USAID business manager in Kisoro. The project was meant to help farmers introduce improved coffee, organic farming and good handling of produce. During my walks around the area, touched by the beauty and encouraged by the closeness of two national parks, I came up with a proposal to link coffee with tourism. My superiors again didn’t want to listen. I decided to go it alone.

But it wasn’t easy. Farmers believed in receiving money from NGOs and that bad habit crippled their business acumen. It took me a long time to make them believe that a coffee experience would be a significant tourism product.

In March 2012 I got my first client, a traveller and photographer, Piercarlo Smith. Piercarlo was impressed by what he saw and began supporting my work…

It all went pretty swimmingly before Covid arrived. A year of no income hit me hard, but finally I got lucky. Based on my USAID work, a team of headhunters recommended me to a Swiss organisation in need of somebody to run a shea butter (fat extracted from a shea tree nut) project in northern Uganda. I seem to have had two selling points — performance and honesty — that aren’t very common in my country.

I am sending these lines from Adjumani, a town close to the Sudanese border, yet I haven’t forgotten Kisoro, my coffee tours and love for the dark brew. I promise to share it with you every month.

photo by Jiro Ose

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  1. What a great life story, you’re inspiring me not to give up when things don’t work out from the first shot! Thank you for sharing!