Students explore realities of coffee, tea and chocolate in Africa

October 24, 2011

It was no doubt the first time many of the students in Debbi Johnson-Ross’ "Coffee, Tea and Chocolate" class ever bit into a candy bar and thought about where the cocoa beans originated.

But it is just this kind of "aha" moment that prompted Johnson-Ross, a professor of Political Science and International Studies, to design the Sophomore Interdisciplinary Studies (SIS) class in the first place.

"The message is that the choices we make about consumption in the west have consequences for producers in developing countries that aren’t always clear to us when we’re making those choices," says Johnson-Ross. "There are people who grow cocoa trees but have never tasted a chocolate bar."

Just back from a trip to Cameroon, she handed out Mambo candy bars made in the West African nation by Tiger Brands International. While they savored the milk chocolate, the students watched a slide show of photos Johnson-Ross took on this most recent trip – although she "skyped" with the students while she was in Cameroon so that they could see and talk with people there.

The class brings back childhood memories for sophomore Olusegun Alade who grew up on his grandfather’s cocoa farm in Nigeria. Although his grandfather is gone now and Alade’s family moved to Baltimore four years ago, the Biochemistry major, who plans to go to medical school, still remembers riding through the cocoa forest with his grandfather.

Now he is learning about chocolate production – and later in the semester the class will explore coffee and tea –from a different angle, and it is giving him new perspectives about a product that his professor notes is not native to Africa.

"Cocoa beans grow only in a band around the equator," Johnson-Ross says. "They came from Latin America, and because they aren’t native to Africa, they aren’t part of its culture."

The farmers and farm workers aren’t the ones profiting from the sale of cocoa, Johnson-Ross says. And the roads in Africa – frequently called roads to impoverishment – are built not to carry people but to extract resources.

"Raw materials are taken away and typically not processed locally even though the act of processing increases the value of the commodity," Johnson-Ross says. "By exporting resources, they are also taking away the possibility of that country creating wealth."

The course title, "Coffee, Tea and Chocolate: Oppression and Liberation in the African Diaspora," describes the central roles of these commodities in the development of the global economy, which have often fed human impulses for pleasure and greed resulting in the oppression of peoples in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and North America. And the course itself is an interdisciplinary examination of the political, historical and social forces shaping the relationships between colonizers and the colonized, industry and consumers, managers and workers, and governments and citizens.

The class, Johnson-Ross says, is a work in progress. She’s collaborating with her students to choose the readings and even the projects.

"This is a great class of students," she says. "They are engaged and have been really helpful in selecting materials and guiding our investigation."

A second-year component of the college’s curriculum, the Sophomore Interdisciplinary Studies Program offers courses that examine an issue, topic or question from an interdisciplinary perspective, introducing students to the relationships between disciplines and the ways different disciplines inform and define one another. The McDaniel Plan, the college’s curriculum, frames an education that features rigorous studies in a major, an integrated and contemporary examination of the liberal arts and sciences, and special learning opportunities through electives, study abroad and internships. Specific courses offered during each year of their studies help students refine the intellectual skills they will need for successful futures and include First Year Seminar, Sophomore Interdisciplinary Studies, Junior Writing Experience (in their major) and Senior Capstone research project.