For years growing up, you could bet cool green cans of Mountain Dew could be found in our big white refrigerator. If Y2K or our weekly soccer matches had taken precedent and the Dew was finished, no worries—cases could also be found in the back of dad’s Ford pickup. Dad was a legitimate Mountain Dew freak. Every 7/11 stop we made (a convenience store with the best slurpees in the world) was always associated with two kinds of things: some sort of cheese product for me, and Mountain Dew for Dad. It was just how things were, I suppose.
I remember when those very cases, bottles, and cans disappeared and Dad kicked his Mountain Dew habit. Apparently, pop isn’t the best thing for you, at least in those kinds of quantities. Not to mention, the Pepsi product, Mountain Dew, is loaded with a ridiculous amount of sugar and so that kind really isn’t good for you
Besides those days of that sugary lime-esque soda, pop was mostly absent as I grew up. If we had people over for a Broncos’ game or a typical American summer BBQ, you could certainly find some Coke products covered by ice in our cooler, but on a typical day in the Newell household, pop wasn’t much of a stronghold. Personally, I didn’t really like it that much anyway, so I was never bothered too much when my friends brought a can of soda with their brown bagged lunch. Between glasses of chocolate milk, water, or mom’s lemon iced tea, my thirst was almost always satisfied. So, when I fast forward well over 10 years and find myself in an unhealthy relationship with Coca-Cola, it’s rather difficult to pinpoint the roots. For so long, I hated pop. What happened?
And then, I remember. And I laugh because though I avoided pop for most of my life, I failed to understand the powers of Coca-Cola abroad. Turns out, they use real sugar and all sorts of other secret, magical things. Or so it seems.
My addiction started in Ghana, of all places.
I studied a semester my junior year of college at the University of Ghana-Legon. I use the term ‘studied’ leisurely, because a great chunk of my time was spent relaxing, working with some students who can’t afford to attend public school, traveling, and hanging out with my friends. Some days, we would all just sit in the courtyard area of our student housing and talk for hours—all day, even. While you could easily find juice or water on a hot, sunny afternoon to satisfy the thirst that sat in your mouth, it was almost always guaranteed that the pop would be the beverage of choice kept cold. Maybe the beer too, but it was hardly justifiable at 10:00 am. So, we drank Coke.
A small social thing at first, soon, we’d be structuring our social time in order to DRINK Coke. Sometimes, LITERS of it. Rachel, Paula, Taylor, and I—we were somehow obsessed. Once, in Benin, we cleared out the stock of Coke a local motel had on hand. In one night only.
Rachel and I, both students at Hendrix, came back home and to school that year still glowing from what we called, “the sweet nectarine of life,” and would often reminisce of the joy of drinking our beverage of choice after dusty walks around Ghana. Sadly, cafeteria Coke or Walmart Coke just wasn’t the same—I still haven’t decided if it was the product or the place that made this so. Conway, Arkansas (home of Hendrix College, Toad Suck, and too many churches to name) has a local restaurant that serves Coke bottles imported from Mexico, and every now and then, we’d surprise each other with one of these bottles and instantly, our days would be made. Still, without the ever-present mix of Ghana and Coke, my fixation waned a bit.
Culturally, I had no idea what I was in for when I decided to accept my Peace Corps invitation to teach English in Rwanda. Without a doubt, this culture is highly complex because of its history, relationship with the world, and the religious influences that are infused everywhere. I can confidently say that I’ll never figure it out. Yet, I can proudly boast that I’ve come to understand, accept, and totally embrace one cultural fortress: FANTA. Fanta is everywhere in Rwanda and go ahead and take your pick: citron, fiesta, orange, coke, or sprite.
You know how in America when you visit someone you are welcomed with an often enthusiastic handshake or hug? Oh yeah, the same is true in Rwanda only you’ll also be immediately given a Fanta—or at least as soon as the prayer is over. The sometimes dusty and dirty (probably from it’s long voyage to way out here in the boonies) glass bottle is opened either with a run-of-the-mill bottle opener, the chair’s edge, or your host’s teeth. This is THE sign of hospitality, without question. To demonstrate the cultural importance of Fanta just a bit further, once I did an exercise with my students that put them in small groups. In their groups they had to decide what they would take to a deserted forest. I gave them the option of about 15 things and they could choose 4. Considering the small group choices, we developed an overall class list. The objects chosen were listed as follows (and in this order of importance):
1. A hoe (to cultivate)
2. Tea (with sugar)
Mind you, there were other objects available for the picking, like pots, cooking tools, jerry cans, and the radio (another majorly important cultural object). And still, Fanta was on top of the list.
One time, I drank 7—yes, S-E-V-E-N Fantas—at a wedding. Weddings take the cake (literally) because tradition calls for families to share and exchange a 2-liter bottle of Coke (usually I see this happen and wonder how my friends and I drank Coke like we did back in our Ghana days) at the dowry ceremony. Once this happens and an ungodly amount of speeches are made, the guests are provided with a Fanta of their choice, housed in 4 x 6 red crates.
Often, when running, I’ll hear a bicycle coming. I don’t know it’s coming because of the horn in front of the rider, the sliding of the bike chains, or the squeaky brakes rubbing against the various metals. I know the bicycle is coming because the glass bottles held in the back of the rider are clinking and banging together as they soar over the village dirt roads. Yes, even in the most rural of areas, there is Fanta. Best of all, they currently cost 300 RWF (Rwandan Francs). That’s just about 50 cents. How awesome is that?
To relax, people drink Fanta (or often beer, but that’s an entirely different story). Once a term, our hearty and Coke-loving headmaster takes us to a hole in the wall place (this is not an exaggeration) and we sit out back waiting as goats are bought, killed, and cooked so we can enjoy brochettes and cooked banana as a side to our Fanta. This little experience is called our teacher “motivation.” Hey, works for me.
Most recently, I went to visit one of my favorite students, called Tuyisenge, and spent the night. Tuyisenge spoiled me with delicious hot milk brewed with tea and herbal yummy-ness and with plantains (my favorite Rwandan food). Besides making me feel right at home and taking care of me completely for the night, Tuyisenge’s grandparents also went above and beyond the call of duty when it came to Fanta hospitality. Let’s just say that as I write this, I’m experiencing what I like to call a “Fanta hangover.” Basically, in less than 20 hours, I somehow consumed 9 different fantas. The rounds just kept coming. Her musaza and muchechuru (old man and old woman; to refer to grandparents) took me to a nearby boutique where we watched Rwandan worship videos as they drank banana beer and I was consistently given at least one Fanta for each hand. I think the end count went something like this: I had 3 Cokes, 4 Orange Fantas, and 2 Fanta Citrons. Now, I’m lying in bed, recovering, and quite certain this is what being hungover from Fanta feels like. In the moment, it was grand. Now, however, I may have to take a 1 or 2 day hiatus from the likes of Fanta. But, I’ll be back to my ways shortly. This I am sure.
As I’ve been encountering all this Coke culture in a small African country, Rachel has been exploring graduate school world at MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University) getting her master’s degree in public history. I remember the day, nearly 6 months ago, when I got a phone call from her exclaiming that she had landed the summer internship with the Coca-Cola archives. I was visiting my nearest town to run errands, to check my email, and to grab a cold Coke. I was jumping up and down as I exited the internet café to take her call; I was so happy and proud of her. And hey, not only was it a great opportunity, we couldn’t help but wonder how much access she would be having to Coke products that summer.
Oh. Did that girl ever have quite the access! While she didn’t come away with any secret recipes (as least none that she has let on to having) she told me legendary tales of the Coke vending machines at headquarters in her office in Atlanta where you could basically choose any kind of Coke product that you wanted—even other kinds of drinks that Coke owns, like Odwalla, for example. She worked on projects, visited California, and made trips to different plants. She even went to intern meetings and staff meetings where she’d be in the same room as the CEO. It was pretty cool stuff, as I understand it.
I think Rachel did manage to walk away with a strong sense of how Coke really is everywhere in the world. You don’t really notice at first, I think, but when you take a look around, man, it’s just in every small corner. It’s in every country except for like two. Oh, and there are hundreds of bottle types, apparently. I think Coke is THE most recognized English word—oh wait. It might be second to Jesus. That’s quite a feat.
So, what exactly is it about Coke?
For me, working as a teacher in a small, rural village, I can certainly tell you that most of my neighbors and community members have a strong and passionate love for all things sugar. In my tea, for example, they might try and put 4 or 5 tablespoons of that stuff. Seriously. So, with Coke, sugar is definitely a factor.
But, is it really all about the taste? Because yeah, it’s tasty. But so are a lot of drinks: tea, coffee, juice, and milk.
Fanta is kind of revered as a league of its own.
Maybe there really isn’t one reason in particular, it just is what it is.
It’s a really amazing and intriguing experience to visit a subsistence farmer based family who is barely making ends meet, who might have only a table and a small bench when it comes to furniture, and yet will still spend the 300 RWF for a Coke (or two) to give to me as their guest. Because it’s important to remember, I realize, that for some people, 50 cents does hold a lot of weight when it comes to money. And yet, so powerful is Fanta as a symbol for hospitality that these families hardly think twice.
I think what it comes down to is this:
The culture of Rwanda, while unbelievably complicated, is all about visiting people you love, sharing things with your neighbors, and engaging completely in a communal experience. It’s a giving culture, and it just so happens that a glass bottle full of sugar and god-knows-what happens to represent and manifest that homey-ness. Rwanda—or more precisely, the village—lacks a lot of options for drinking. You can go to the nearest boutique in my village and if you are thirsty you can purchase one of the following: a Fanta, a beer (a pre-packaged bottle or the local banana brew if you so wish), a weird orange juice concoction, or bottled water. Mixed with the tendency of conservatism, especially in the rural areas, beer is sometimes looked down upon by the church. And so, you have Fanta. It’s as if Rwanda is a country where all the elements work in sync that allow a culture of Fanta to grow and thrive. It’s tasty, it’s everywhere, and why not?
I think one of the total pluses of being a 2nd year volunteer here in my village is this: people know I like Coke. And so, here’s the thing: now when I go to visit community members, often the Coke is already sitting on the wooden table, waiting for me to accept it, own it, and drink it in like 14 seconds flat. Good neighbors? I THINK YES.
Coke, I’ve noticed, has advertised Open Happiness as a slogan to conquer the world—ahem—to sell their product. I remember I first read that catch phrase and kind of wanted to roll my eyes. Now? Well, I kind of whole-heartedly agree. It’s the power of Coke culture, I suppose.