Tealand: I’m Hooked

Posted on May 30, 2011

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Five minutes of what I take on the broadcasters’ authority to be the top news program in Nairobi—five minutes of this respected program, to which seven men in the lounge of the guest house I am staying in were giving their rapt attention—five minutes of the news is devoted to the price of tea. The newscaster throws up a screen of the top five tea brands in the nation, discusses the fluctuations in the day’s markets and crops, and then lists the price (per some unknown unit [a pouch, I hope]) of all five teas. The teas are then ranked and the lowest priced brand flashes at the top of the screen. (37 shillings, if you were wondering; for comparison, I have something like 6,000 shillings in my wallet right now, which was the going conversion for the odds and ends of American cash I had in my wallet upon arriving.)

I think this nation and I will get along just fine.

Actually, the national obsession with tea is less fanciful than my own. As I understand it, although the bulk of the economy here is based on tourism, the second largest sector—and the largest export commodity—is agriculture. And among agricultural products, tea reigns supreme (although a market in flowers is growing quickly—the tulips I passed in Amsterdam’s Schipol International Airport may have been flown in from Kenya, possibly on a jet piloted by less-than-savory individuals).

Over the next couple of weeks I think I’ll do some poking around into the history of tea here. Kenyan tea is something we don’t think about very much in America—India, China, and to a lesser extent Japan rule the popular brands. But it’s a major product for this nation. And the history of tea in other regions has been … thrilling, actually. Not nearly so stodgy as the monarch and royals who consumed it so ravenously. Tales of men dressed as monks weaving their way out of China with smuggled tea plants to break the nation’s monopoly, of finding indigenous species in Assam.

Nairobi itself is a city built from tea in part. This place has only been around since the later 1800s construction of the Kampala-Mombasa rail line. The town was constructed as an outpost at the halfway point between these two major British hubs. It grew as a transit hub, but it was the British injunction against farming cash crops (tea and coffee) that sent droves of deprived, landless Kenyans to the city for work.

The city never had the industrial infrastructure to keep up with that deluge of life, hence the horrible slums and crime here, the intense corruption in some sectors of the economy, and so on and so forth. It’s a miserable situation born not solely, but in part at least from a deep love of some dry leaves in hot water. And now it’s an essential beverage, and essential crop and export, an essential part of culture here.

Sometimes I think there’s no finer example of the subtle, but substantial, mechanics of colonialism than tea in the British colonies. It’s everywhere. Its history is adventurous, enterprising, bizarre, and absolutely tragic.

There’s substance in the tea scene here—in what it means for Kenyan culture, history, economics, existential crises of identity and direction, and in the actual quality and variety to be found here. So many tea plantations to visit, so much to write and research, such wondrous things to digest. As I said, I think this nation and I will get along just fine.

But I Digress. Here I was, fully intending to make a few confessional notes, some dross about my present condition. I’ll make a few brief notes and you can skip to the saccharine note at the end if you so choose.

–       I’ve spent the past … day I suppose … in the air. I departed from my father’s home in Spokane, Washington at 9:30 am, arrived in Seattle, Washington around 1:15 pm, barely made it to a 9 hour flight to Amsterdam, and then enjoyed a brief moment of internet access before an 8 hour flight to Nairobi. My body does not understand the time difference yet. It just knows it is tired.

–       At the airport, I spent a good deal of time second-guessing my answers to the barrage of questions to obtain a visa. But then I remembered how easy it can be to cross certain borders when you have a bit of cash and an air of belonging.

–       It’s the air of belonging that I need to maintain. I have this theory that you’ll be fine almost anywhere so long as you don’t wear wealth conspicuously and act like you belong (some smiling and mimicry of local customs is in order for this).

–       After leaving the airport, I suddenly realized it would have been a good idea to tell the people meeting me here what I looked like. After a brief fit of mutual panic, I met up with my correspondent Valerie A. After some brief discussion with Valerie it looks like I have freer reign than I thought—I get to do the rhetoric and writing curriculum almost exclusively, forget the test prep crap, and I get to do the curriculum I designed myself. That and I’ve been given the green light to conduct some analysis of the organizational structure, business, and strategic plans of the organization. We’re looking to expand to Nigeria, Malawi, Uganda, and grow the Ghanaian office within the next couple of years. Unfortunately not too many people here have great experience in strategic planning or capital attraction. Truth be told, I don’t have much experience either. But learn by doing, learn by doing.

–       Also, my first class with these kids starts in 9 hours. Shit.

–       Which brings me to my accommodations and the time stamp of this post. As of now, my place is not ready, so I am lodging for a few days at the Nairobi YMCA. I am not the only white person here—there is one other, a leather-faced late-20s post-hippie in too-native clothes. We’re both called mazunga (whitey—as I answer to gora, this is not a huge issue for me). I have a bed, mosquito net, closet, bathroom, and a desk. I have a television that picks up one grainy channel with no sound. My toilet can flush once every three hours and all signs point to running water in the shower. So I am happy and well established here, but I will only be able to access the Internet at the office. Given the amount of time I am going to spend just working, I probably will not be able to answer too many e-mails or do more than post en masse whatever bright ideas I’ve had over the past day (you’ll be glad to know that, as I’ll have less access to news, I’ll be doing less commentary, more observation and musing).

This brings me to the saccharine stuff. When I got to Schipol and accessed my e-mail for the last time in a couple of days, I’d received a shocking number of e-mails, texts, Facebook messages, and so on from my friends. Given the way I tend to come and go in other people’s lives, the way I flit about and vanish, the way I try to craft myself into a bit of an ancillary character at times, I admit I was touched and surprised. I was laughing and smiling in the terminal, and it did attract attention. I want to do justice by the love you’ve all shown me. Even if I can’t make it online as often as I’d like … I just wanted to say, again, that I was touched. Know that I care for you all too and will do my best to repay the undeserved kindness in turn with a more deserved ilk.

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