Brad Laurence Weiss

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar


The Multiple Meanings of Haya Coffee

The Haya farmers of northwestern Tanzania had been growing coffee for centuries before Europeans began colonizing their land a hundred years ago, and coffee remains their single greatest source of income as well as an important element in Haya social life. The Haya don't drink the beverage Westerners call coffee; instead, they cook and chew the beans and use them for family exchanges, ritual offerings, and snacks. In the late 1980s Brad Weiss spent eighteen months studying Haya communities for his doctoral dissertation, a contemporary ethnography published in 1996 as The Making and Unmaking of the Haya Lived World: Consumption, Commoditization, and Everyday Practice (Duke University Press).

"While writing the dissertation, I realized that coffee was a connecting thread for analyzing a whole range of social practices, processes, histories, and places," Weiss said. Eventually that realization led to Sacred Trees, Bitter Harvests: The Transforming Value of Coffee in Northwest Tanzania, the book project Weiss worked on during his SAR residency. "Coffee was and continues to be central to a number of everyday and ceremonious practices that facilitate the construction of Haya sociality," Weiss writes in the book's introduction.

Weiss spent the summer before he came to Santa Fe in Rome, studying archives of the White Fathers, a Catholic order of missionaries who introduced new varieties of coffee into Tanzania in the early 1900s. At around the same time, German colonial officials in the region made coffee planting compulsory in order to promote regional commerce and impose new taxes. "Many of my questions arose out of the research I had done in Rome." Weiss said.

Weiss's book seeks to integrate material forms, including commodities, into the wider sociocultural processes through which Haya men and women construct a lived world. This approach challenges the traditional distinction between gifts and commodities found in much anthropological literature. "I focus on the concrete social practices through which objective forms are engaged in social life and thereby endowed with specific local values and meanings—the ways commodities are constantly transformed by different cultures and given new meanings," Weiss said.

Sacred Trees, Bitter Harvests begins with an investigation of coffee's place in precolonial Haya culture and the introduction of European colonial currencies at the turn of the twentieth century. It then traces the colonial and postcolonial history of agricultural innovation in northwest Tanzania, discusses the rise of coffee marketing as a crucial means of creating class relations, and compares the place of coffee prepared for local consumption with that produced for a global market. "As a gift, as a resource, and as a crop, coffee has different potentials for defining and redefining community experience," Weiss writes. More broadly, the book is also a study of the colonial transformation of this region of Tanzania as seen from local as well as European perspectives: "We need greater recognition of the role of people who have less power but nonetheless help to shape global systems."

Affiliation at time of award:
Assistant Professor of Anthropology, College of William and Mary

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