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When I was 14, I traveled to Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania with my mother. At age 19, seeking self-understanding, I returned to Tanzania and spent most of a year exploring East Africa on my own.
The country’s first president, Julius Nyerere, drew me in with his words of human dignity and national development. The warmth and sparkle of the Indian Ocean welcomed me. The mountains of Kilimanjaro and Meru told me stories of my past. With the simplicity of youth, I slept on beaches, in fields and in the outer huts within people’s compounds and felt a sense of appropriateness between these places and me.
After almost a decade back in New York, at 29, I felt the need to declare a place “home” and start my own family, and the place I chose was Tanzania.
In 1947 my father, Jackie Robinson, integrated the American national pastime of baseball. My uncle was one of the first African Americans in a U.S. Postal Service job. Another uncle was the first to be employed at a major liquor distributor. It was a time when cars were made in Detroit and the issues facing the nation and African Americans were domestic. The human struggle for the next two decades was for civil rights and justice for all Americans. These were the topics we discussed at the dinner table at our home in Connecticut, and our goal was to contribute to the solutions.
By 1982, when I moved to Africa, many of the issues facing America and African Americans were global—our country’s impact on the rest of the world could no longer be ignored. My hope in coming to Tanzania was to work with my neighbors to reap more from our fertile land and to link with our American diaspora as consumers of African products. And as a man, I could hope to be a husband and father to a unified African family.
Tanzania, a nation of more than 120 tribes, found a way to blend diversity into a recognition of commonality. The idea of inter-tribal violence in Tanzania is foreign because the culture of human respect led to substantial intermarriage between the tribes. Although not mandated by law, the presidency of Tanzania has shifted equally between Christians and Muslims. On Sunday in Dar es Salaam, the church choir and the Muslim call to worship are jointly heard.
The joke in the 1970s was that neighboring Kenya was a man-eat-man society and that Tanzania was a man-eat-nothing society. If you had looked at the three-quarters-empty Tanzanian shops during that period, you might have thought at least the Tanzanian side of the joke was true. Tanzanians have learned to laugh at certain hardships, and they seem strengthened by being able to laugh together, all 120-plus tribes.
Tanzania’s tolerance even extended to my questionable self. My future father-in-law allowed me to propose to his daughter in 1990. She accepted, and the blending of families and cultures in the Tanzanian tradition has been the foundation of our marriage. Our seven children are the blessing of our life together.
For a time I was a fisherman on the Indian Ocean. In the spirit of unity and cooperation, 50 men from my coastal village came down to the shore to drag, foot by foot, the wooden dhow I had purchased on the island of Mafia (a great fishing and scuba-diving location, by the way) to the high ground for repairs and the fitting of a diesel engine.
For the last 22 years, I have been a coffee farmer. Again my village in the mountainous Mbeya region of Tanzania took me and my family in as its own. There are more than 400,000 small-scale coffee growers in Tanzania like my family. Together we grow more than 80 million pounds of coffee annually. The best of these Arabica coffees my family exports to North America and roasts in America and Canada. We call our coffee brand Sweet Unity Farms.
Nothing has been easy over these 30 years—for Tanzania or my family. Tears have been mixed with the laughter. This, however, is the wonderful legacy of a great African nation, of Jackie Robinson and the billions of people across the globe who struggle every day for their families and the development of humanity.
For more information about David Robinson’s coffee brand, Sweet Unity Farms, go to sweetunityfarmscoffee.com.