ONE MORNING LAST YEAR, David Robinson woke up early on Sweet Unity Farms, his 280-acre patch of land deep in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania. At that peaceful hour, Robinson stood outside the mud-brick farmhouse and prepared a cup of instant coffee, a somewhat tragic irony given that he was looking out on row after row of trees bearing some of the best arabica coffee beans in the world—so good, in fact, that at that very moment, half a world away, someone may well have been enjoying a cup of Sweet Unity Farms coffee at one of New York’s finest restaurants.
Robinson had arrived at the farm the previous night, and as he stirred his coffee (the good stuff would be roasted much later, in Brooklyn), he remembered that he had been greeted in the village with the news that a lion had been spotted nearby. “But then I remembered that it was a spirit lion, sent by somebody in the village as a hex on an enemy. So I think, I wasn’t even here. It couldn’t have been sent for me, right? And then I think, What the hell am I doing here, thinking about spirit lions?”
It’s a reasonable confusion for a man who straddles two worlds—routinely traveling between the farm, which has no water and only enough solar electricity to power a few lightbulbs and a radio, and an office in a Midtown Manhattan skyscraper. To get to Sweet Unity Farms, which lies in the agriculturally rich Mbozi District, you first take a 12-hour bus ride from Dar es Salaam, on the coast, to the small town of Mbeya, near the Zambian border. The next morning, you jump on a packed minivan, or dalla-dalla, for a careening hour-and-a-half ride to a dusty intersection called Mlowo. From there, you hire a Land Rover or pickup for the skull-jouncing trip to yet another, even smaller crossroads. Then you walk for three hours—past grass-roofed huts, grazing cattle, and neat plots of peanuts, corn, and coffee.
It’s a long trip from almost anywhere. It’s far from the sleek confines of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe, in downtown Manhattan, where Sweet Unity Farms coffee is sipped by customers almost certainly not preoccupied by lions, spirit or otherwise. It’s far from the leafy, lily-white streets of suburban Connecticut, where Robinson grew up. And it’s far from the Brooklyn blocks where Ebbets Field once stood and where David’s father, Jackie, changed the course of American history more than half a century ago.
The most immediate answer to his question—What the hell is he doing here?—has to do with those rows of spindly green trees. Coffee is one of the world’s most ubiquitous and problematic commodities; among legal natural resources, it has an annual trade value second only to oil. The world drinks some 2.25 billion cups of coffee a day, with the U.S. accounting for a fifth of that. And yet—from Central America to Brazil to Indonesia to Africa—the actual producers of coffee consistently rank among the poorest in the world. “We have always been the donkey in the chain,” Robinson says. “Getting only enough money and food to go back to work, never developing the community.”
The last 10 years of globalization and trade liberalization have only made things worse. For years, coffee prices had been kept stable by international compacts known as the “green-bean agreements.” In the mid-90s these agreements collapsed, allowing prices to plummet from a two-decade average of $1.29 per pound to a low in 2001 of 46 cents. It’s all but impossible to grow good coffee for less than a dollar a pound.
What David Robinson is doing in Africa is attempting to use his unique position to make things better. He’s formed a cooperative of approximately 300 small coffee farms which, rather than selling its raw coffee to multi-national buyers in Tanzania, is marketing it directly in the United States. Against enormous odds, he’s trying to create a model of progressive economic development that both links his two worlds and carries on his father’s legacy. In theory, it’s a model that could change the way the world does business. But, like his father, Robinson is taking on enormously powerful foes. And this could be his make-or-break year.
Even without Jackie Robinson’s well-recounted trials and triumphs, the Robinson-family story is a great American saga—one that parallels, nearly step for step, the progress of African-Americans in the 20th century. Jack Roosevelt Robinson, the son of sharecroppers, was born in Cairo, Georgia, in 1919. When he was still an infant, his mother, Mallie, joined the great migration out of the South, settling her family in the growing middle-class black community of Pasadena, California.
Seeing athletics as a way to improve his lot, Jackie became a stellar all-around athlete. (Baseball may well have been his fourth-best sport, after football, basketball, and track.) Like millions of other black Americans, he served in the army during World War II, a participation that would prove the spark of much of the civil-rights tumult to come. Though he would become famous for “having the guts not to fight back,” in Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey’s famous phrase, he was court-martialed after an altercation with an officer who had asked him to sit in the back of a public bus. (He was cleared of all charges.) Later, he would travel to Birmingham to give a speech with Martin Luther King Jr. And in between he racked up a Hall of Fame career in the face of vicious verbal assaults, death threats, and almost unimaginable pressure.
Jackie and Rachel Robinson already had two children—Sharon and Jackie junior—when David was born, in 1952. Five years later, Jackie left baseball and accepted the job of vice president at Chock Full o’Nuts. The family moved from the upper-middle-class black suburb of St. Albans—where their neighbors had included Count Basie, Leontyne Price, and Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella—to a big house surrounded by woods in the mostly white community of Stamford, Connecticut.
On the surface, the move provided a suburban idyll for the Robinson children. And of the three children, David, gregarious and easygoing, seemed to have the smoothest adjustment to life in white society. He put on a blazer and khakis to attend posh New Canaan Country School, where for eight years he was the only black student. He had his own horse, a gift from a neighbor, which he would ride through the Robinsons’ extensive wooded property.
“I was actually a little annoyed by him,” says Sharon Robinson, who chronicled her own difficulties adjusting to Stamford in the memoir Stealing Home. “It seemed to me like he had really bought into the whole white, private-school thing. It wasn’t until later that we learned about the struggles he’d gone through.”
David’s class pictures from New Canaan Country School are strikingly reminiscent of his father’s early team photos—one dark face surrounded by pale ones. At first, he fought with kids who hurled racial epithets. That changed when a classmate named Michael Colhoun stood up and defended him, unwittingly re-enacting an episode from Jackie Robinson’s first season in the majors—the time when, in the midst of vicious jeering from the opposite dugout, the Dodgers’ southern-born shortstop Pee Wee Reese sent a silent message to the major leagues by throwing his arm over Jackie’s shoulder.
“Any struggle David had, he internalized it,” says Rachel Robinson, who, at an extraordinarily youthful 83, is still the presiding spirit of the Jackie Robinson Foundation. Despite friendships with Colhoun and others, David’s primary memories of childhood are of being alone in the thick woods behind the family house. In the first grade, David, a precocious writer, composed a poem he called “The Tree”: “It stands there like a soldier not at all at ease / while children play around it in the summer breeze.” Later, he would play a game. He’d leave instructions to release the family dog at a certain time and then hide deep in the woods, waiting for his pet to come searching. He called the game “Runaway Slave.”
“You can assimilate and you can compromise,” says the son of Jackie Robinson, “but integration is not really an honest word.”
There are more than 36 million people in Tanzania, and it often seems as though David Robinson knows every one of them. On the streets of Dar es Salaam, cabbies shout out greetings. Outside his rented home, on a deeply rutted road on the city’s outskirts, there’s always a small group gathered to exchange news or ask advice. His family alone represents a fair-size constituency: Robinson has 10 children, ranging in age from 41 to one year (3 from his first marriage, in the States; a daughter, Meta, born to a Namibian girlfriend in 1985; and 6 with his Tanzanian-born wife, Ruti). Another child, Jack, died of malaria at age six. Plus there is an extensive network of in-laws working on the farm.
At 53, Robinson is tall and powerful. A white, woolly beard creeps from below the collar of his khaki shirt to his cheekbones. His bright eyes are clearly inherited from his father, as are the large hands with a slight crook in the middle finger. Robinson has a habit of running them over his head when deep in thought. He is a serious man (he’s reluctant to smile for photographs, saying, “I don’t want to give the impression that I take the work I’m doing with any amount of frivolity”), but he’ll sometimes flash the dry wit and crooked-toothed grin that his mother and sister remember marking the funniest member of the Robinson clan. He looks every inch the African Elder—a vaunted role he clearly relishes.
Robinson first came to Africa at 14, on a trip with his mother, and was entranced. “It wasn’t any kind of major political analysis,” he says. “But subconsciously there had to be a joy at being on a black continent and seeing that many black people.” Rachel remembers her son learning the ropes at a market in Addis Ababa. “The jewelry stalls were run by young boys and you’re supposed to bargain,” she says. “Every day, he would go out there and get better at it. On the last day, they all came out and congratulated him like a brother.”
The lessons stuck. When I visit Robinson, he takes me to Dar es Salaam’s central fish market, where he once operated a fishing boat. We are immediately surrounded by vendors calling him by name, and the pack goes ranging back and forth past stalls caked with scales and fish viscera. When Robinson finds a suitable specimen for a dinner party that night, it’s the starting gun for 20 minutes of negotiation. He calmly holds his ground in fluent Swahili. At one point he turns to the most persistent haggler—a short man wearing a blue ski cap despite the equatorial heat—and gathers him in a sidelong bear hug at once threatening and affectionate. Shortly afterward, the deal is done. Robinson, it’s clear, is a formidable businessman.
The few other African-Americans living in Dar es Salaam think Robinson is a bit nuts for living the way he does on his farm. At dinner, Clark Arrington regales the small group of guests with a description of the epic trip needed to get to Sweet Unity Farms. Arrington, who is from Philadelphia and wears a mustache and black, thick-rimmed glasses, was a founding board member of Equal Exchange, one of the first fair-trade coffee companies in America. The fair-trade movement was started in the 1980s by Dutch liberals aiming to promote equitable and developmental agriculture in the Third World by appealing to Western consciences. As Arrington puts it, “Some cats in Holland thought, Damn, we fucked over some motherfuckers. How can we, as a society, begin to rectify that?”
Arrington currently works as the representative to Tanzania of the U.S. government’s African Development Foundation (A.D.F.) and recently helped secure a $210,000 loan for the farmers’ collective. Still, having been to Robinson’s farm once, he has zero interest in a return visit.
“It’s not just country,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s bush.”
Truth be told, many native Tanzanians think Robinson’s a bit nuts, too. Another dinner guest, a young lawyer working with the Rwandan-genocide tribunal in Arusha, is driven to ever heightening fits of hilarity as Arrington describes the journey. Convincing Africans, many of whom have struggled mightily to get off the farm and to Dar, to return and take up the plow is one of Robinson’s biggest challenges.
Indeed, it’s less than 100 percent encouraging when Robinson assures visitors that there’s been only one lion (the flesh-and-blood kind) spotted near the farm in recent memory, and that there are fewer and fewer cobras every year. But Robinson believes strongly in Pan-Africanism, which posits that the best way to address the problems of both Africans and the African diaspora is to build cultural and especially economic ties between the two groups. And he’s committed to assimilating almost entirely into African culture.
“There’s this bridge into Zimbabwe from Zambia,” he says. “And the bridge is embedded in this rock; the support buttresses are so far in that rock that you don’t see them. That’s the part of the span that I want to function as. The part that’s deeply ingrained and embedded in African society.”
Nowhere is this commitment more striking than in his traditional, arranged marriage to Ruti. In 1990, having been in Tanzania for eight years, Robinson decided it was time to remarry. He found a family to adopt him into the Wanyamwezi tribe and went calling on families with daughters of marrying age. When he came to Ruti’s he was presented from afar with the family’s three girls. Their brothers sat Robinson down and asked which he wanted to marry. “It didn’t seem like an ‘I’ll get back to you later’ situation,” Robinson says. “All I could think of to ask was which was the youngest—because I didn’t want the youngest. And the oldest was the shortest, so I chose the middle one.”
The Robinsons seem by all measures to have built a loving and respectful relationship, and Robinson has declined to take further wives, unusual for a man of his stature. But there’s no denying that it’s a very un-Stamford arrangement.
“I tried to talk him out of it,” says Rachel Robinson, who has since developed a warm relationship with Ruti. “I couldn’t believe he was going to do that. And yet, he’s David. That’s what we say about everything he does: he’s David, and if he says he’s going to do it, he really means it.”
On the endless bus ride from Dar es Salaam to Mbeya, with Nigerian romantic comedies blaring from the video monitor and his long legs folded into the too small seat, Robinson sits stoically. He makes the trip about once a month and will spend the entire harvest season in Mbozi. This time, he’s traveling with a worn canvas-and-leather bag, a pair of beat-up desert boots, and a U.S. Postal Service sack filled with small solar panels. Bringing cheap solar energy to the village is one of the ways in which branding and selling coffee in the U.S. improves the lives of the members of his cooperative—along with setting up a system of farm credits, building a school, establishing a pharmacy, founding a multi-media entertainment-and-education center, and bringing in pure water.
All of these initiatives require shockingly small amounts of money (reliable light after the sun goes down, effectively a thousand-year technological leap forward, can be had for the price of a $95 solar kit), but money is a constant problem. Although Robinson has not sought official Fairtrade certification (it’s a way of “draining off” the sympathy of liberal buyers, he says) and prefers the term “direct trade,” the concepts are much the same. Both are essentially exercises in public relations. It’s the “story”—of sustainable agriculture, decent labor practices, and, in Robinson’s case, a unique family heritage—that adds value to the product. (Though Sweet Unity’s sales materials include references to the “tradition of Jackie Robinson,” David refuses to use his father’s image on the coffee’s packaging: “This isn’t going to be ‘Grinning Jack’s Coffee,’” he says.)
Telling the story—to gourmet buyers, “green” investors, and socially conscious businesses—requires a dedicated sales-and-marketing force in the States. When he started Sweet Unity Farms, Robinson had a U.S. partner to handle this end of the business. But the partner went bankrupt, and for the past 10 years, except for one or two associates working on a volunteer basis, the job has been his.
At the same time, just as it wasn’t enough for Jackie Robinson to simply be the first black major-leaguer—he also had to be a fantastic ballplayer—Sweet Unity Farms coffee has to be competitive in both quality and price.
“Everybody’s got a conscience,” Robinson says. “But they also have calculators.”
Constant vigilance and ready cash are important here, too: to make sure the crop is harvested at its peak, to provide credit for fertilizer and machinery, and to hold off the influence of multi-national buyers, who are none too happy about what the success of Sweet Unity Farms would portend. Thanks to trade liberalization, those buyers (and, by extension, the retail coffee powerhouses) are now allowed to come directly into the village, lowballing struggling farmers with the promise of quick payment.
To keep pace, Robinson crisscrosses the globe, pitching C.E.O.’s in gleaming, air-conditioned American offices, and then dashing home to repair hand-cranked pulping machines.
Things aren’t all grim: Robinson has made inroads with Cendant, a travel-and-real-estate giant that controls millions of cups of coffee drunk by Americans each day. On the gourmet side, his coffee is available at Union Square Cafe and at Fairway markets, in New York, and through the Sweet Unity Farms Web site. He has been seeking investors for a sales infrastructure in the States, and the A.D.F. loan would help relieve the pressure in Mbozi. But Robinson is a man all too familiar with how bureaucracies work. And, like farmers all over the world, he knows the coming harvest never waits for checks to clear.
After New Canaan Country School, Robinson left home to attend boarding school at the Northfield and Mount Hermon Schools, in western Massachusetts. There was unrest in the Robinson household. Jackie junior had volunteered to serve in Vietnam and returned home with an addiction to heroin. In 1968 he was arrested for gun and drug possession and ordered into rehab.
Away at school, David found himself among black classmates for the first time. It was the late 60s, and in keeping with the era, he joined the black student union. Similar movements were sweeping the nation, as Martin Luther King Jr.’s integrationist philosophy began to give way to the more militant, identity-based politics of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, making for an interesting dynamic within the Robinson family.
After baseball, Jackie had increased his role in politics, vocally supporting King and the N.A.A.C.P. through his newspaper columns in the (then liberal) New York Post and The New York Amsterdam News. He kept up an exhaustive schedule of fund-raising appearances around the country, and he and Rachel instituted an annual jazz concert on the family’s front lawn to raise money for civil-rights causes. Only by the feverish light of the 60s could the ex-ballplayer have been considered conservative.
And yet Jackie was firmly a Republican. He had supported Nixon in 1960 (a decision he later regretted) and worked for Nelson A. Rockefeller’s gubernatorial and presidential campaigns, even getting a summer job in the New York governor’s office for David—the last time, says the younger Robinson, that he owned a suit.
In 1949, Jackie had been summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee and become caught up in a public dispute with Paul Robeson over whether blacks should serve in the U.S. military. Now he engaged in a similar debate with Malcolm X. After Robinson upbraided Malcolm in his column, Malcolm wrote an open letter to Robinson that read, in part, “You became a great baseball player after your white boss lifted you to the major leagues. You proved that your white boss had chosen the ‘right’ Negro by … bringing much money through the gates and into the pockets of your white boss.… You never take an interest in anything in the Negro community until the white man himself takes an interest in it.” David Robinson says that nobody ever used the term to his face, but Sharon remembers hearing people describe her father as an “Uncle Tom.”
Though it never soured their regard for their father, Jackie’s children clearly were attracted to the more militant wing of the movement. In her book, Sharon writes that the most furious her father ever got at her was when she placed a poster of Black Panthers founder Huey P. Newton over her bed. It was quickly taken down.
Jackie also had little interest in Africa or in dwelling on the legacy of slavery. “Jack would probably say, ‘All right. We came here as slaves. Get over it. Move on,’” says Rachel. “David’s answer is ‘I can’t get over it.’ He believes that some part of him has been damaged by slavery and that he won’t be whole until he can rejoin that part of himself.”
As he moved through Mount Hermon and on to Stanford University, David became more and more political—influenced in part by the writings of Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s intellectual socialist leader. He describes his year at Stanford as consisting of “playing poker, smoking reefer, and throwing rocks [during demonstrations]. Even I knew that wasn’t positive educational development.”
That summer, Jackie junior was killed in a car accident while driving David’s 1969 MG Midget. With his mother and father devastated, it was David who went to identify the body. “His strength was magnificent,” Jackie wrote in his autobiography, I Never Had It Made. Several months later, David took the insurance money from the car and went back to Africa.
An open-bed truck filled with sacks of grain passes the Dar es Salaam–Mbeya bus as it rolls through a stretch of game preserve, past stout baobab trees and grazing elephants. “That,” says Robinson wistfully, “is the finest ride in all of Africa. You’re up high, looking out and just rolling through the countryside.”
When Robinson returned to Africa he went hitching across the eastern half of the continent. He spent a month in Dar es Salaam, which, at the height of the Pan-African movement, was home to a large number of expatriate African-Americans drawn by Nyerere’s progressive politics. These included Black Panthers Pete O’Neal and Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, fleeing gun charges in the States. On the way to Greece to pick up money Jackie and Rachel had wired, Robinson arrived broke and shoeless in Khartoum (he can’t fathom what may have happened to his shoes). Someone saw him hopping down the hot, dusty streets and took up a collection to get him sandals, robes, and food. “They carried me all the way to Athens,” he says, still amazed.
After nine months, Robinson found himself in a traveler’s hut in Kenya. Someone had left a copy of Newsweek there and Robinson picked it up. On the cover was news of the Attica prison riots. “It was the realization that my brother could have been in Attica—that my brothers were in Attica—that had me thinking I had not resolved my life or work or issues in America. That had me thinking, It’s time to get back home.”
It was 10 years before Robinson returned to Tanzania. Back home, Jackie’s health was deteriorating—the result of advancing diabetes and, perhaps, a lifetime of stress. David worked for his father as a driver, and then as a writer and photographer for a film company. On October 24, 1972, Jackie Robinson died at the age of 53. The funeral in Harlem was packed with 2,500 people, and mourners lined the route of the blocks-long motorcade to Cypress Hills National Cemetery, in Brooklyn.
David got married. He adopted his wife’s two children, and the couple had another daughter of their own. The family moved to 136th Street in Harlem and, with two partners, David co-founded an alternative-housing company, United Harlem Growth, dedicated to reclaiming the neighborhood.
But David had also returned from Africa in a state of turmoil. “There was a definite difference in him. You could see the anger and frustration,” says Sharon Robinson. “He was with a group of men that was really angry, and I was always worried that it would erupt in a negative way.” David’s daughter Susan’s classmates called him G.I. Joe for the army fatigues he always wore. He fought frequently, both with members of the Harlem community and with the police.
After a childhood spent compromising with white culture, Robinson says, “I wasn’t so much in a ‘bend’ mode. And a black male in America really has to be in a bend mode or plan to go to jail or the graveyard.”
Above all, the decade in Harlem was a lesson in lost opportunities. “We could have acquired 80 percent of Harlem at the rate of $500 a brownstone,” he says. “But we weren’t psychologically prepared. We were hard-core, but we were too hard-core.” With Africa constantly on his mind, he swore not to let the continent’s vast resources slip away as easily. In 1982, amid divorce proceedings, Robinson made plans to go to Tanzania again, this time for good.
It’s hard to ignore the apparent irony that the son of one of America’s greatest icons of integration has found it more fulfilling to live as a black man outside of the United States, but Robinson takes exception to that analysis.
“Yes, there’s a degree of intolerance in American society that creates some natural factors for wanting to say good-bye,” he says. “We’ve been abused.
“But Jackie Robinson’s objective was not to integrate America. Jackie Robinson’s objective was to create black progress and pride. My grandmother got on a train, leaving Cairo, Georgia, in 1924, and I think it took her longer to get to California than it takes me to get to Tanzania. And it was the same journey—looking for progress.
“There was a time when the resources available to us were moving up from the South. My father saw an opportunity in baseball and went for it. Coffee is a medium like baseball was a medium. This is completely linear progress.”
‘A coffee-plantation is a thing that gets hold of you and does not let you go,” wrote Isak Dinesen, in Out of Africa. The living quarters at Sweet Unity Farms—four low mud structures arranged around a packed-dirt courtyard—overlook rolling green hills lined with trees. In a corner of the compound lies the tidy grave of David and Ruti’s son Jack. You can almost see relief wash over Robinson as he breathes deeply and we climb the final hill to his home.
Dinesen also wrote, “Coffee growing is a long job.” Robinson first arrived in Mbozi in 1989, after years spent in Dar es Salaam selling everything from fish to refrigerators to Ethiopian jewelry. He requested land from the village council in exchange for his help in bringing in a better price for the local coffee. Just to see the 280 forested acres they offered, he had to climb the highest nearby tree. “I think the village odds on our sticking out the first year were like 1,000 to 1,” he says.
Robinson and his eldest son, Howard, spent two years clearing the area by hand and ox, then four years waiting for the first plantings to sprout. The first beans appeared in 1994. The next year, men with machetes and trucks pulled up to the local warehouse and stole half of the crop. Now Robinson and his partners spend the harvest season patrolling with shotguns and pistols.
Under the farmhouse’s lone lightbulb, we sit down for a spare meal of ugali (stiff corn porridge) and stewed peanut greens. Though he’s just arrived, Robinson’s thoughts are already a hemisphere away. At our stop in Mlowo, he had pointed to a pair of gleaming, brand-new Land Rovers in the midst of all the broken-down and cobbled-together local vehicles. “The big boys are in town,” he said, referring to the multi-nationals. He’s looking ahead to a series of meetings in New York with venture capitalists who specialize in matching entrepreneurs with socially conscious investors. To make it through the harvest and serve his current customers, Robinson figures he’ll need a half-million dollars, and fast.
“We’re talking about human development, quality products, progressive trade, fairer distribution,” he says, and then trails off. “This is it for me. I know I’ve said I’m at the end of my rope before and then always found more rope, but the mix is so good here that if I blow it I have to go to God and ask what sins I’ve committed. I mean, do I have bad breath?”
Three weeks later, back in Manhattan, Robinson sits over sushi in a Midtown restaurant and says the outlook is guardedly sunny. The first installment of the A.D.F. loan has reached Tanzania and is being put to use buying fertilizer. On the negative side, the meetings about raising money in the States have produced little result.
But, once again, Robinson has found another bit of rope. On April 13 of this year, 58 seasons after Jackie made his first appearance in Dodgers blue, the Robinson family name returns to Major League Baseball—this time on the beverage menu at Dodger Stadium, one of five ballparks that will serve Sweet Unity Farms coffee this season
Last year, Rachel Robinson called her son on his birthday. “Happy 53rd,” she said. “Mom, I’m 54,” David replied. “No,” said Rachel. “You’re 53.” And so David Robinson was granted an extra year.
Robinson told me this story while walking through rows of trees, their thin branches beginning to sag under the weight of bright-red berries destined to end their lives as a bridge to the other side of the world. “I always thought it was funny that my father’s team’s motto was ‘Wait till next year,’” Robinson said. “And that’s always been the reality of my life. Well, I’m 53 again. Maybe next year is finally here.”