What I Learned From Walking: South Sudan, Cultural Sensitivity, and the Search for Wild Coffea arabica

By Emma Bladyka, Coffee Science Manager, Specialty Coffee Association of America

Disclaimer: I went to Africa with no idea what to expect. I could not imagine the right way to ready myself for my trip with World Coffee Research (WCR) to South Sudan. In the end, I prepared only in the most silly and superficial ways. I read the one highly publicized research paper about coffee of the region. I got a prescription for anti-malaria drugs. I read about snakes online. I knew it would be a frontier, but I did not understand how to possibly prepare. I thought I was equipped to be overwhelmed.

Why did I not think of researching the political and cultural history of South Sudan for my trip? I suppose I had a variety of reasons. I would be with a small group of WCR backers and scientists. I would not need to make any of the local arrangements. We would be in the forest looking for coffee. I am a botanist, not an anthropologist. I now realize that not doing the research was my downfall. I didn’t know it when I first arrived, but cultural sensitivity was an area where I was lacking. I consider myself an observant person, but in my total-overload Africa haze, I very nearly lost a large opportunity due to my own ignorance.

My strategy for this trip was to allow myself to be culturally flexible. I was aware that I had no context or history with which to inform my experiences. I suppose I thought I would just go with the flow. Before I arrived, I somehow thought this was appropriate. However, on our first day of hiking I realized that I was missing some key information with which to understand my situation. Differences were vast. My own privileged American context was really not enough in war-torn South Sudan. When you travel, you cannot always predict the circumstances you will encounter. Luckily for me, on this coffee hunting expedition I learned a valuable lesson in sensitivity and flexibility, and was able to turn my experience into one of surprising value.

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