She’s a Midwesterner living in Africa, with her two young boys and husband, working on what they call the Long Miles Coffee Project. They love coffee, and are convinced that the world’s best comes from Burundi—they want to help bring more of it to the rest of the world, and at the same time help out this incredibly poor country. Kristy is a photographer and documents their journey/adventures, while her husband Ben, aka The Coffee Man, works on their project. They are passionate, convicted people, (Ben’s favorite word is “potential”) and we’re so inspired by them. We hope you are too–when you’re done reading her interview, click through to the video on the coffee project link above–it’s worth it.
Give us a little background on yourself–what was it that brought you and your husband to Durban? Did either of you grow up in traveling families?
Both of us grew up in families planted firmly in the mid-west, but from the moment we got engaged (as young 22 year old whippersnappers), we knew we wanted to adventure out of the USA for a while. We had no idea where, but Africa was at the forefront of my mind. When we were offered a job in Durban, South Africa my heart jumped with a big fat “YES!” We loved South Africa so much that we spent ten years there doing leadership development with students.
How did you come into the coffee world?
When I met my husband I didn’t even drink coffee, and now I can barely live without my morning cappuccino! One day I woke up and realized I had married a man whose passion was living and breathing (and drinking) in the coffee world and I was like, “Alright, let’s see where this goes!” A few years before, he had supported my return to photography with absolute passion. I did my best to be just as open to change as he had been. His love of coffee then led us to making a huge move as a family to Burundi, East Africa.
I think I read on your blog that you were feeling ready for a change, after being in Durban for 10 years. For us here in the U.S., (and most of us don’t even know where Durban is), that seems hard to grasp. What would you compare Durban to?
Durban is a great city, and South Africa is a beautiful country. It’s very westernized with movie theatres and shopping malls, but that’s not why we loved it. We love the people, South Africans are generally an AMAZING bunch. We have friends there who are like family to us. They journeyed through life with us for 10 years. They were the first people I called when I found out I was pregnant. The first people in the hospital after my kids were born. The first people to cry when we made the choice to leave.
How old are your kids, and what are their names?
I have two boys, Myles is 5 and Neo (Pronounced Nay-oh. The fact that I have to tell you that means it probably wasn’t the best name choice, but we love it. It’s HIS. It means “gift” in Tswana.) is 2.
How old were they when you left Durban? Were they old enough to be in some kind of preschool, and if so, would you say there are big differences in early childhood education, parenting attitudes, discipline, approaches to child rearing? And how do those questions apply to where you are now?
Myles was 4 when we moved to Burundi and he had been in pre-school in South Africa. Even at that young age, moving was SO TOUGH for him. The biggest schooling difference we face now doesn’t apply to any of the above, but to language. Myles goes to a French speaking school. It has been a rough first year, but now Myles speaks and understands French, which is amazing to see!
What is your living setup like? Are you in a small town? Can you give us a sense of what a day in your life is like?
We are in the capital city of Bujumbura (which is similar to a small town in many ways!). Day to day living is a tough one! Some weeks we have a film crew here documenting our lives (Season 1 to be released September) and other weeks it’s just us. My life is full of a lot of the same things as moms anywhere…. School runs, play dates, karate class, having friends over for dinner… just thrown in with weekly trips into the coffee hills to visit and photograph the farmers, and lots of work to try to get them fairer prices for their coffee.
Do you think that social media has made your life much easier being there? I notice you are on twitter, and I can only imagine how being able to connect with the world makes it less lonely to be there…but maybe it isn’t lonely at all. (Maybe I’m just imagining how I would feel!)
No, actually. Often social media makes my life harder. The support and love from old friends and new on the blog is AMAZING and THAT is what I love. Social media can open up an entire portal of craziness for me. I see what people are doing in other places or the awesome things they are photographing and I can easily resent our decision or compare myself to others with amazingly styled things to photograph. I don’t need that. I need to just be me. To push myself and to work hard at the project I have NOW. Also, I need to build into my relationships in the real world… mostly with my family who are right in front of me. But hey, I still love Instagram.
Since I have no idea how far you are from an airport, or what travel is like where you are, can you give me a sense of how remote you feel? If you wanted to go back home (and I’m not sure where you consider home–Durban or the Midwest), how long would it take? How often do you return?
To get to the US takes about 30-40 hours by plane and costs anywhere from $7,000-$10,000 for our family of 4. Not exactly accessible, but we manage to get to the US every year or two. South Africa is a much shorter flight, only 6 hours, but still not an inexpensive journey.
Tell me about food in Burundi: what are your food sources? What is typical for your family? What is breakfast, lunch, dinner like? What do you miss the most from the U.S.?
CEREAL! Man I miss a good bowl of Life cereal! We have a house helper, as is the custom in this part of Africa, and he helps do the shopping in the big central market and our food prep. As white people, we would not get fair prices in the market, so we leave that to him. Generally, vegetables are very inexpensive, but any “extras” you might want are either not available or will cost you dearly. For example, today I paid $7 for about 2 cups of un-popped popcorn… but I was just really craving popcorn, so I gave in!
We bring over a lot of nuts, dried fruit, chocolate chips, and even dried cheese because the cheese here is in general very dismal. All this just means some creative cooking. We’re still able to eat pretty well, depending on what’s available. This week on our menu board is… tuna and bean salad, chicken kebabs with marinade, tomato compote and mozzarella on a fresh baguette. We do ok I also grow fresh herbs and that helps to add variety to just about any meal. The major shift for me has been planning everything ahead so that shopping and food prep are manageable. That’s been tough for me as I’m usually a “fly by the seat of my pants” kind of girl. My old philosophies just don’t work here because meat needs at least a two day marinade to be palatable, it might take two days to hunt down canned olives, EVERYTHING is from scratch or in its original form (roots, dirt and all) so prep takes lots of time and planning.
How do you celebrate your kids’ birthdays?
In our family, we celebrate the birthday month and then the birthday week and then the birthday. There is plenty of cake eating and loud singing and homemade decorations. We make a big deal of birthdays in our house!
What websites inspire you and for which parts of your life?
Truth be told? Even though I am a blogger, I love Instagram more than ANYTHING for keeping up with people’s journeys. I think that’s just it, with Instagram you can SEE people’s journeys and interact with them. As a result, I’ve become a big Instagram fan, you can find me under Kristy Carlson.
As an entrepreneur, I find the hardest part of my job is following through on all the great ideas I have. I love these sites to keep me moving forward in a positive direction: Making Things Happen, The 99%
Favorite books for your kids, for yourself?
That’s a toughey, because we love books, especially adventure books. As expats living in another part of the world for an undefined period, books are our greatest luxury. They weigh a lot and take up tons of suitcase space… but we just don’t care!!! The kid’s books were among some of the only things I air-freighted from South Africa to Burundi when we moved.
We LOVE the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’engle, practically anything Enid Blyton has written, and we can’t wait until the kids are old enough to read Lord of The Rings with us. But while they grow up a bit, my five year old can’t get enough of the made-up stories his dad tells him at bedtime.
Any personal/parenting “a-ha” tips?
Let go. It’s hard to realize, but these little people are going to grow up into big huge human beings. If I want them to grow up to be men who are full of truth and confidence, then I have to parent them as if they DESERVE to be trusted. If I don’t believe in their competence, who will? For me, this means letting go of little things along the way. I’m not sure if this makes sense, I guess what I’m saying is… I fight being over-protective and I fight being over-reactive EVERY DAY.
You feel your best when?
I am photographing a great moment in time or hugging one of my kids or laughing with my husband…. That’s too many.
Chocolate, dark and over 85% cacao if possible (and single origin if possible), but actually… I don’t feel that guilty about it!
Another one, and I usually feel guilty about this one, A MOMENT ALONE! Gosh, I love a good moment by myself to just THINK.
Proudest moment in parenting?
I feel like I should say “the day they were born” but actually, I had a pretty amazing moment last week when I heard BOTH of my kids speaking in French… and speaking comfortably. It was amazing.
Best parenting advice you ever got?
When we first moved to Burundi we had a tough adjustment as a family. Our oldest was throwing rocks through windows in frustration and I was at the end of my wits. We downloaded the Scream Free Parenting audio book and gave it a listen. I was blown away by the premise, which is pretty much, “So your kids are behaving badly? What if the problem really is YOU? Calm down, grow up, focus on getting YOU right.” That is a total paraphrase and not their words, but wow… it changed the way I look at parenting.
All images except opener and closer taken by Kristy Carlson. Opener image taken by Sunel Haasbroek, Cooked In Africa Films and was taken during the filming of the Long Miles Coffee Project TV show. Closing image taken by Gina Ziedler.