By Pam Lambert
May 05, 2003 12:00 PM

First you ford the rushing river. Then you jounce down a rut-filled dirt road past what passes for a town this far into the boonies of Tanzania—a few brick houses and a single modest store. Thirty bone-jarring minutes later you’re there. “Welcome to my home,” says David Robinson, 50, youngest child of baseball legend and civil rights pioneer Jackie Robinson, as his Land Cruiser lurches to a stop amid a compound of faded brick buildings with rusted tin roofs. “If you had told me at 12 years old in Connecticut that I would end up growing coffee, or even living in Africa, I would have never believed you.”

Remarkable as it may seem, Robinson is doing just that. While his Hall of Famer father spent his life fighting for equal opportunities for blacks in the U.S., earning a place in history books as the first African-American to play in the majors, David chose a very different path. Since 1989 the son of this social trailblazer has become a literal one in Tanzania. Clearing away the forest with only hand tools, Robinson and his team of workers have managed to cultivate a 120-acre coffee farm. Other farmers have joined his now 700-family-strong Mshikamano cooperative, whose Sweet Unity Farms premium coffee is making its way into the U.S.—and boosting the area’s standard of living. “He came back to mother Africa to help,” says local official Darry Rwegasira. “He opened the way for others to come and see that there are opportunities here.”

The seeds for Robinson’s journey were planted when he was a teen, still living on his parents’ six-acre spread in Stamford, Conn. (where they were the only black family in the neighborhood). At 15, David went on a seminal trip to Africa with his mother, Rachel. Jackie, who had retired from baseball when David was 4, did not make the trek. “My father wasn’t big on Africa,” Robinson says. “He couldn’t look back to Africa, because the American reality was confronting him.”

But for his son it was another story. Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana—David was mesmerized. The trip “was life-altering for David,” says Rachel, 80. “He began to develop the notion that the destructiveness of slavery was that we were all torn apart as a people, that we wouldn’t be whole until we reconnected with our African roots.”

Although Robinson spent several months in Africa at 19 after dropping out of Stanford, family concerns drew him home. Earlier that year his brother Jackie Jr., 24, who had struggled with drugs, fell asleep at the wheel of David’s MG and died in the crash. The blow, Robinson believes, worsened his father’s heart problems and diabetes. In October 1972, Jackie suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 53. “I saw my brother, my father and grandmother dead in a three-year period,” Robinson says. “It made it clear to me that I couldn’t live a frivolous life.”

Robinson married. He also joined with other black activists to start a grassroots housing organization that rehabilitated brownstones for Harlem residents. But his eye remained on Africa. “I would spend three nights a week dreaming of getting back,” he says. “I had an emotional attachment.”

Robinson divorced and then, at age 32, made the move with his 4-year-old daughter Ayo in 1984. It was initially tough for him to decide which country to settle in since, “like 99 percent of African-Americans, we didn’t know where our ancestors had come from.” But because of its economic and political stability, he chose Tanzania.

After trying his hand at a variety of jobs, Robinson began looking at the coffee-growing Mbozi district in southern Tanzania, where it was traditional for a man to be given land in his village. “Because of the slave experience, I had lost my tribe,” Robinson says. “But I was back. I had chosen Tanzania.” After lengthy negotiations, the council elders took Robinson to the edge of the forest and told him that whatever he could clear away, he could have. The area, to say the least, was remote. “When I took my mother here the first time, she told me that she hoped we might run into some bandits. Anyone.” David and about 15 local workers began the difficult task of turning forest into farmland. At that point Robinson knew nothing about coffee cultivation. “Ignorance is one of the greatest facilitators of doing things,” he laughs. “You don’t know what you are really up against.”

Besides his 27,000 coffee plants, Robinson would put down other roots in his new community. Deciding to marry in the Wanyamwezi tribe (“They took heavy losses in the slave trade…and the women were reported to be very beautiful”), he embarked on a traditional bridal search. A friend in the tribe adopted Robinson as a brother, then later brought him to the house of a cattle farmer with three eligible daughters. As is customary, the women did brief cameo appearances in front of Robinson—after which he had to choose or risk insulting the family. “I pulled myself together,” he says, “and went with the tallest.”

Then Robinson had to do his own cameo in front of the chosen daughter, Ruti Mpunda, before leaving the house. To his surprise, her first answer was a no. “She told me later, ‘Would you agree the first time a stranger asked you?’ ” Robinson says. “She had a point.” But Ruti, then 18, quickly changed her answer. “I really liked him, he was very handsome, I wanted him,” she says. “It was a good decision. He is a very good husband.”

During their 13 years together, the pair have had six children, who range in age from 12-year-old twins Rachel and Racheli to Nubia, 13 months. (Son Jackie died at age 3, in 1997, from malaria.) The farm’s solar panels generate enough power for four lights and a radio, but Robinson prefers candle-light. Until recently, the nearest telephone was a l½-hour drive away. “I could have a more physically comfortable life,” he says. “But that would not be emotionally comfortable.”

About the only thing Robinson really misses is family. He tries to visit his mother, sister Sharon, 53, and nephew Jesse, 24, on frequent business trips to the U.S. to promote his coffee. “Both my and my father’s lives have really been about seeking out the road to freedom, equal rights and development,” muses Robinson as he surveys his plot in the sunset. “This,” he says, “is my Ebbets Field.”

Pam Lambert

Bryan Alexander in Tanzania