A world away from the California where Jackie Robinson grew up or the Brooklyn where he made his name, Jackie’s son David is living in Tanzania, happy to be a coffee farmer, father, teacher and vehicle for social and global change. It’s an unexpected life, but it’s his.
THE VALUE OF STRUGGLE
David Robinson still returns to the U.S. to attend events that honor his father, but otherwise spends most of his time farming coffee in Africa. (AP)
BARA VILLAGE, Tanzania — At one 10 p.m. during his 25 complicated years running a coffee farm down here near the Zambian border, the truck broke down along the road. David Robinson would have to walk. This former New Yorker raised in Connecticut would have to trudge on through one of the world’s most profound antitheses of New York. This third child and second son from the famous American family of Jackie and Rachel Robinson would have to step alone along the unpaved roads, through the shortcut he’d learned, through darkness that might have contained a few hazards. A man from a nation renowned for advancements in comfort would take this hours-long path toward his farmhouse, nary a flicker of electricity along the way (including in the farmhouse).
He didn’t moan. His pulse didn’t quicken. He has lived in Tanzania since 1981, mostly (and still) in the metropolis, Dar es Salaam, 500 miles over on the Indian Ocean, but often around here in his bare farmhouse.
"I wasn’t afraid," he says believably.
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In a 61-year-old man still brimming with curiosity and intent, a rarefied willingness to struggle is apparent on this disagreeable road all by itself. It leaves the last real pavement back near the town of Mbozi. Its potholes pretty much metastasize to craters as you go. The last 2½ miles alone require about 50 minutes of such bouncing, stopping and edging through creeks that the SUV comes to resemble an athlete. “It’s a normal process,” Robinson said. “Everybody gets out. You shovel. You move rocks. You push. You pull.” The road reserves particular scorn for debut drivers, so that Robinson says, “Every driver starts probably 10 miles back, ‘Man! This is a lot further than I thought! The roads! Boy, we agreed to a price, but this is totally different!’”
Sure enough, the driver for this day complains to Robinson in Kiswahili.
Signs of struggle unfamiliar to the comfortable dot the roads to Robinson’s Sweet Unity coffee farm. Small boys must tend to much-bigger cattle. Women carry goods on their heads even as Robinson wishes their families would buck cultural norms and accept donkeys to help out. A modest new building has risen as the schoolhouse-and-cinema, and as the children traipse in on a Saturday afternoon to see a video about Yellowstone National Park through a projector donated by Major League Baseball, many have never seen anywhere else but here. (“It thrills me, it kills me,” Robinson said of the chance — and need — to show these young the world.) It’s remote and disconnected enough that a farmer once asked Robinson if coffee was used to make ethanol. The people of the village make their own bricks. They caulk the bricks with mud, which works.
Robinson knows about the mud, plus a raft of other things you’d have never forecast he’d know back when he alone integrated New Canaan Country Day School as a boy in Connecticut. Back along the Tanzania-Zambia Highway, he can point to a truck and say, “This is copper coming in from Zambia.” He can tell you it’s 60 days to the corn harvest and add, “The sunflower, also.” As the SUV peels off toward the hard roads, he can tell of the elaborate process of getting the first electricity out this way — four years ago. He can tell you the road out of Mbozi with all its shops and markets had a wild-west feel until some pavement came two years ago, and how the road gets menacingly dusty during dry season even as it’s plenty dusty here at the end of rainy season.
He has made this painstaking trek six times a year for the last 25 years. He has done so with his Tanzanian wife and various large groups from among his 12 children (10 surviving). Often dividing into “Team A and Team B,” they have ridden the two taxis to the bus station in Dar, 12-hour bus to Mbeya, the bus to the hotel in Mbeya, and from there some series of two trucks and a bus. They have done the years when you had to rise at 3 a.m. on the farm to walk three hours to the only daily bus. They have slept on floors, stayed the coffee-harvest months (June-July) in small brick houses with no electricity or running water. Forever they grapple with transportation even for the elemental act of moving the coffee from the area farmers to the cooperative. For that truck rental, the measurements must be precise, or the cost will hurt.
Further, Robinson has dealt with all the halting learning across all the years. (“The first shipment of coffee I sent out… we didn’t even grade the coffee!”) The description of the shipping issues alone could give somebody a headache. He has dealt with the politics of the cooperative, from the 47 families at the beginning to the 700 later to the roughly 300 nowadays. He stresses that 450,000 Tanzanian families farm coffee and nobody makes a fortune. He and Sweet Unity have pushed on through the harsh setback in 2000 when 10 men with machetes stole about eight tons of coffee. For a while after that, he’d sleep in the office with the 12-gauge.
Around 4 p.m. on a Saturday, he advises that the village market may or may not have food and that that’s all there’ll be. A woman does have food, and her teenaged son cooks potato omelets in a brick hut while adorable children stare and giggle through the windows at the white extraterrestrial, eating. One baby boy, maybe six months old, wails with clear fear at a first-ever sighting of a white person, prompting a one-liner about whether that baby has some innate sense of history.
By dusk, Robinson and driver and guest reach the farmhouse. He shows a hole-in-the-ground toilet and says, “All the western comforts of home!” On chairs out front as darkness comes hard, he thinks of his Stamford childhood and this neighbor-less present and says, “The comparison that I think about in terms of my father’s life and my own is the lack of social visitors. Not that he and I are unsocial people but I just don’t think we have enough to talk about with people other than the co-op business… He had his social life when he would go every day to New York. People he knew in New York were his social life. Holidays, Thanksgivings, Christmases, and a couple of times in the summer extended family would come. And a huge, huge Thanksgiving dinner. Thirty people. Five or six women who could cook every conceivable type of food on Earth. Pies and cakes and breads.”
By candlelight, he remembers his father as a “straitlaced” man who spoke sparingly and didn’t smoke or drink, but took David on meaningful outings to fishing, to Belmont or Aqueduct, to caddying for his father. Jackie Robinson’s baseball career had ended (1957) by the time David Robinson’s childhood really got going, he says, and then he notes another, and strange, parallel to childhood: the need to kill snakes. Occasionally he sprays the farmhouse in case any snakes have roosted in the rafters in his three-month absence.
His snake-phobic guest promptly sleeps in the SUV under a sky full of stars.
A dog barks serially.
He or she was probably irked at hyenas, Robinson explains later.
His all-night walk from the broken-down truck began. Local knowledge did help. “In 24 years we’ve seen one lion out here,” Robinson said, “so there’s no danger of wildlife. And he was an old male lion, hunting on his own and surely decrepit, and he hit my son’s pig. You know, you could see the claw marks on the side of my son’s pig, but the pig got away. That’s a very bad sign, you know, for a lion.”
He reached Africa first at 15, in 1967, tagging along with his mother, Rachel, who just lately visited again at the hardy age of 91. They saw Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, the game parks, the wide-open space. On her way home she dropped him off for a month with friends in West Africa, in Ghana. Here was a child who had spent his first nine school years integrating a private school, not to mention an ice hockey team. To walk around in a majority lent “an instant eye-opening to the subconscious,” he said, “but I’m not going to say that I was so politically aware or astute that I made that observation as a 15-year-old.” Four years later, after one year at Stanford and at numerous anti-Vietnam War protests, he returned to Africa, alone.
That 10-month odyssey took him over to Namibia, up to Morocco, over to Ethiopia, way up to Scotland, even. He did the things a wandering 19-year-old might. He somehow walked into Khartoum shorn of his shoes, so the locals helped. He hitchhiked to Casablanca. He even volunteered, for room and board, at a company filming the Loch Ness hoping to spot the monster. Tanzania, most of all, beckoned.
"That’s when I was able to say this is a place that I can be connected to, that can be a home," he said. "And it took me 10 years to get back. I went back to New York (through the 1970s) and spent 10 years in New York prior to being able to return, but that was always the concept, game plan, dream, returning. I dreamt of Tanzania for three nights out of seven for 10 years."
Tanzania had unity, sweet unity (and, by now, Sweet Unity). From the CIA World Factbook report, one factoid shouts: about 30 percent Christian, about 30 percent Muslim. As Robinson points out, the first president was Christian, the next Muslim, the next Christian, the current, Muslim. “I think Jules Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, who negotiated independence from England (in 1964), I think he’s given the country a soul and a philosophy that has held us strong from 1964 up to today,” Robinson said. “A lot of humanist values, a lot of African identity, concepts of unity, collective economics, things that bode well for an environment of peace and accepting coexistence. You know, we have 120 different tribes in Tanzania, but no tribalism to the degree where there’s violent conflict. There’s a lot of intermarriage, and a lot of integration in residential communities. And that was in part developed by Nyerere’s philosophy of Swahili as the national language that all 120 tribes would carry as well as their own local language.”
A U.S. passport-holder with 33 years of Tanzanian residence, he’s a citizen of the world, but for Tanzania he always uses the pronouns “we” and “our.” “I think every Tanzanian over 20 years old or 15 years old is conscious of the strength in our eternal peace and respect,” he said. “And, you know, when Christians hear Muslim being abusive or Muslims hear Christians being abusive, sure, it hurts their religion, but there’s as much concern about encouraging the national unity. So it’s a great thing. We’ll see. And unity has been a theme in my life, a conscious theme since I was living in Harlem, at about 22, 23.”
So of course, it’s his business philosophy. He can get teary reading a coffee company’s manifesto about fair trade. He aims to meld the world’s biggest coffee consumer — the United States — with a big grower — Tanzania — to make Americans more aware of Africans, Africans more aware of Americans and everybody more aware of the farmers without whom no sublime cup would materialize. He can go on about the global relationships with the Canadian roasters in Toronto, Cuban roasters from New York. “It works both ways,” he said. “The consumer gets an enhanced global education and sensibility and the farmer gets more dollars in the pocket. In our totally tiny, totally street-operation way, we’re not a nonprofit. We’re not a church. We’re not highly educated. We’re not a whole lot of things.”
They are a melding of Robinson’s American-ness and African-ness, a way to “touch more people” than he could in New York. “In Harlem,” he said, “we took two years studying the housing market and trying to figure out how to help individuals get in the game, you know, minority groups get in the game, and that’s what we’re doing here as well. How do farmers get out of this mess of continued poverty? You’ve got to do something. You just can’t keep doing this. And, I mean, particularly because I’m born in New York, I can see potentials and options. You know, it’s tough when you’re born here, and most of these people in this village haven’t been to Mbeya town (two hours away), and so it’s tough to try to come up with options.
"But for myself, that’s what we figure is our job, and that’s one of the supposed benefits out of the tragedy (of slavery) is that we’re born in the West, and we have this exposure, we have this potential vision, and let’s put it to use, so we can come here and people are farming in a $100 billion industry and we can say, ‘Listen, we can do better here.’ And the mission was, that if we’re going to work with coffee farmers, then we need to be coffee farmers. And if we’re going to be part of the community, then we’ve got to live here, and struggle, and learn from that struggle."
In a country with villages deeply organized, Robinson had to attain an original letter of recommendation from a council in order to purchase land. It began: “Our blood has returned.” When he has arrived on the truck covered in dust, he has taken care to remember it inconsequential next to the struggles of previous generations. He keeps the churn of the generations consistently in mind, and one of his daughters helps Sweet Unity with the marketing from New York.
"I wouldn’t be here except for my father," he said by the coffee trees one Sunday morning, "and my father wouldn’t have been there except for his mother coming off the plantation. His mother literally came off the plantation and went to California. You know, he wouldn’t have been the UCLA five-letter, four-letter athlete, without his mother taking that step off the plantation. His mother wouldn’t have been there if for five generations her folk hadn’t persevered in slavery to say, ‘We’re going to get out of this one day.’"Far from the creature comforts he grew up with, David prefers to avoid the excesses of the modern world. (Chuck Culpepper)
* * *
Through the wee hours, all through that night of the bum truck, his walk continued, but blissfully. “I took a shortcut and I was hoping I wasn’t getting myself lost, and I’m used to walking to I don’t know, what is that, eight-hour walk, I’ve done eight-hour walks before,” he said. “You know, sometimes walking by yourself, you’re just glad to be by yourself and you just trot along. You always know that if you put one foot in front of the other you’re going to get somewhere. Thank the Lord, the moon came out, it was one of those nights when the moon came up after midnight, but it was of great comfort and assistance.”
He doesn’t follow sports. Hand him a newspaper and he’ll peel out the business section. Business clearly fascinates and beguiles him as he claims to lack the proper brain for it. He’s certainly not a huckster, not with his philosophy of unity, but he’s also not a socialist and not a flake. He’s a tireless reader, at present a book about Berlin in 1945, daily about the farmers in Scotland or the economics of a new camera company. Like many a head of state or economics professor, he’s forever reading, thinking, scouring the world for the best economic balance.
In the schoolhouse one afternoon, he spoke about excess. If he still lived in New York, he would eat Häagen-Dazs butter pecan far too frequently and, he said, “That’s not a sustainable lifestyle.” At his house in Dar es Salaam, he must go outside to draw the water for the bath.
He is happy with that standard.
"And," he said, "I am happy that I am happy with that standard of bringing the water to the house. In this country and globally, that’s really great access to water. For some of us, it’s important to keep ourselves at that level. It’s how we keep our equilibrium."
In his calm, deep, soothing voice, he warned of the “excesses that you can get used to. There’s just no limits to the excesses so you really have to be careful.” It struck him unforgettably that in one of the recent-years financial scandals, a wayward businessman had spent $3,000 on a shower curtain.
"Shoot, I have a donkey, two donkeys, and I’m not sure if one has died or not," he said. "We try to keep two donkeys to carry the water up to the farm and from a kilometer away. And the water from the river is a lot less clear than the water coming out of the pipe at home. So I have a very specific life example to be happy about the water coming out at home because it’s not coming from two donkeys in the river. And believe me, everything has surpassed me here. I can’t drive my Land Rover anymore because only Rajabu (the farm manager) knows how to get it into first and second gear, maneuver it, and the damned donkeys…
"It’s embarrassing having to chase your own donkeys through the village. I won’t do it."
It’s far-times-far from New Canaan Country Day School, and he has heard some diagnose that he came all this way to get out from under his father’s enduring fame, which last year took him to Beverly Hills for the movie premier of 42. He knows that can be an issue for some but thinks his father’s basic humility — the golf, horses, fishing — soothed it for him. Back at elementary school, his father’s fame helped socially, even if it couldn’t get him invited to the ice rink or fox hunts. “It all raised questions of identity early,” he said, “and even if it didn’t find answers, it raised questions. And I think that was a great experience because I think the earlier you begin to question identity, the better off you are in getting on that journey to something that we all need to answer.”
And so one recent Friday morning, in the airport taking the two-hour propeller jet from Dar es Salaam to Mbeya, the youngest of the three Robinson children had come all the way to say: “My father had an opportunity with a phone call from a Branch Rickey. I had an opportunity with an early trip to Africa. Let’s take that and again, look for a social-change vehicle.”
* * *
The walk from the stuck truck went all through the night. And he said, “I made it to our farm as the sun was coming up.” And: “At the end of a long trip this is what we do, who we are.” And: “It was a bit exhilarating to reach in the morning with the sunrise.”
In that sunrise, he had pinpointed again the value of a struggle. He had relished his long walk just as he had chosen to do so, and just as two remarkable parents had raised a remarkable man himself.