Tea Life
(Originally published in Focus on Africa magazine, UK, 1993)

By David Blumenkrantz

In the highlands of central Kenya, in the tea zones of fertile Murang'a district many backs are bending and peasants' laughter occasionally pierces the tranquil environment. Last year Kenya produced a record tea crop of 198 million kilograms. With most of that being exported in the highly competitive world market, the tea industry is high in the running as a leading foreign exchange earner. And with tens of thousands of hectares under tea cultivation, tremendous effort is being spent to keep up with the demands of maintaining roads, creating new factories, and constantly upgrading tea quality.

 It is against this grand backdrop that thousands of men, women and children earn their livelihoods picking tea; some working in their own backyards, while others have migrated from as far away as Uganda and Rwanda. For these tea pickers, statistics and stock markets are less relevant to everyday living than mending a pair of trousers, or saving a little toward a rainy day. Wira in wira, as the Kikuyu saying goes. "Work is work."

The habits of picking, fingering, toying with, and putting leaves into the mouth affect just about everyone in the tea zones. The ground and pathways are littered with scattered leaves, and here and there you find one of the picker's large, hand-woven baskets, discarded after years of use. For the laborers themselves though, it's a matter of limbering up you fingers on a cold morning by plucking a few choice leaves from along the bushes at the edge of muddied fields. Those who have years of experience and lightning quick hands start filling the light empty baskets on their backs with subconscious detachment, setting their minds free for conversation or quiet contemplation. The hands move automatically, as the long-since stained and calloused thumbs and forefingers prune the top leaves and the bud, just above the darker leaves below. Less than 50kg might not be a bad day, the less-experienced, or simply less inspired workers start on another day's race towards gathering 35kg or so-which would translate, depending on whether the rate per kilo is a shilling or 1.30, to a day's earning of around 40 shillings (1 US dollar).

"Yaani, some of them are faster than me," admits Joseph Mugethi, with polythene wrapped around his legs for waterproofing and round pointed cap on his head to ward off the sun and rain. A soft-spoken husband and father to a one-year-old girl, Mugethi exudes gentle youthfulness which masks his more serious thoughts. With smiling eyes that rarely harden, he seems to be looking for something more akin to an even break in life than sympathy.

Mugethi has picked tea for the past two years, the last six months at his current job in Gitura village. Six mornings each week he rises out of the black-painted mabati structure, which houses four families or individuals hired to work on their seven acres, and nourishes himself with cold ugali (maize porridge) and hot chai (tea). Then, gathering his baskets and protective wear, he heads toward the fields. This routine, he says, is broken only when there is no tea to pick. Not yet resigned to imagining himself picking tea indefinitely, he asserts, "I won't stay for long-because I may get something else to do, better than this one."

Unlike the giant plantations in places like Kericho or Tigoni, where there are sometimes legions of pickers to be seen, it is more common on the smaller five-to-ten acres sites to see just a few solitary workers among the tea plants. Mugethi usually finds himself working together with good-humored Steven Njeru, a twenty-year veteran of the fields, and perhaps Mugethi's closest companion in his working world. When possible their wives will join them.

The wives of the married men put in as much time as they can handle, depending on the ages of their children, whose needs must supercede the chance to double the family income. Many families have come from far afield in search of work, some from neighboring countries.

Their children get an early taste of the tea pickers' life. "Esther . . . Esther . . . Esther," Jennifer Ssebazungu cooed lovingly in the direction of her eight month old baby. The sun was becoming fierce, and the head-scarfed Rwandan woman had tired after a long morning of picking tea with the baby tied to her back, so she had placed her in a small clearing between the rows of bushes. Now her work had taken her a little too far from where she had left the child, and she sent a mother's reassurance. "Esther . . . Esther!" The baby, already accustomed in her short life to such experience, only gurgled and opened her eyes wide in the direction of mama's voice. She didn't cry.

Jennifer readjusted her scarf and resumed work alongside her husband Samuel. He worked thoughtfully and intensely, his back bent under the increasingly full basket-the fifth and final basket he would fill today. Soon he would tie up their fifty kilos in the large brown polythene sheet, place it on his head like some gigantic teabag, and make the daily walk toward the collection center.

The Ssebazungu's left Rwanda in 1979, unmarried and looking for work. They passed quickly through Uganda and were happy to find employment in the Kericho tea fields, where they learned the art of picking. In 1984, after being fired in Kericho, they continued their migration and ended up in Murang'a district. They finally married three years ago. Resting outside their reasonable wooden home, Samuel insists that they are not really refugees, but fails to explain the exact arrangement except to say that once a year they must visit immigration officials in Nairobi to renew their working pass.

Ironically, life for Samuel and Jennifer seems to be less of a drudgery when they are in the fields, working side by side. Both possess a sharp sense of humor, and the common feeling of striving together for their family's well being is evident.

Foremost is the isolation. Though friendly, outgoing and well integrated in the local community of tea-pickers, when it comes right down to it they are, after all, far from home. "When someone gets sick, there is no one here to help-no money, no relatives," explains Samuel. They average 1,000 shillings a month, which after food, firewood and other expenses, leaves little to save.

The Ssebazungu's speak hopefully of someday returning to Rwanda. Now that they have learned a skill, Samuel thinks it would be possible to find work in the tea fields of their own country. But since they left twelve years ago, another obstacle has cropped up. "If the war ends . . ."