The best memory I have of my time at the Kenya Utalii College Campus was their 4 o’ clock tea. Utalii is the Swahili word for “tourism” and all parallel students at the University of Nairobi pursuing Hospitality and Tourism Degree Courses ended up at the said campus, which equally happens to be one of the best college institutions in the country for such.
But what was it about their tea that was so unique?
First, tea time did not discriminate. Every student was entitled to that tea. Second, it was the much needed energy boost for a hungry, broke student who may have not had lunch that particular day. And third, the tea came in all its different forms. Milky tea with a generous amount of sugar and milk. Milky tea with a generous amount of milk but without sugar. Strong tea with sugar. Strong tea without sugar. Meaning this wasn’t just tea for the sake of tea time; it catered for every student’s particular tastes. The best part was it never ran out. Everyone present got their cup full.
Often, when I happened to be within the campus around tea-serving time, I made sure to make my way to the usual spot, just in time for the chefs clad in their white uniforms to wheel out the steel tea containers. It was during such moments you felt your parents had made the right decision in sending you to an institution that specialized in Hospitality. Probably one of Utalii College’s signatures was this particular act of chefs serving the students tea every 4 o’ clock.
My mother comes from a tea-growing area in Kenya. My father comes from an ethnic community touted for its love of tea. Indeed, no breakfast is ever complete for a Kenyan if there is no tea involved. That mix of milk, sugar for some, water, and tea leaves brought to a boil and then sieved into a flask or cups ready to be downed with whatever choice accompaniment to kick-start the day. And if milk is not an option, tea leaves and water boiled together then sweetened with enough sugar will do.
Tea is such a crucial part of Kenyan culture that fathers are often welcomed home with a flask full of it after a hard day’s work. Visitors are known to feel insulted if they were not served some tea at a host’s home. Funeral wakes involve making lots of tea to cater to all the mourners who turn up every single day to mourn the departed before the funeral. Chama (saving group) meetings are often brought to a close with bonding over tea and mandazis. A patient admitted to the hospital is likely to be brought some tea by a loved one during morning hour visits.
So significant is tea in Kenya that how it’s been prepared is often subject to scrutiny by the drinkers. Too little milk means not much thought was put into the tea that was served or, in some cases, is interpreted as meanness. Too much milk signifies an abundance of resources in the family. Families that keep dairy cows are often guilty of this. And just the right amount of milk and sugar is something that is greatly appreciated.
Interestingly, not having milk in your tea is often associated with hard economic times or a deliberate attempt at putting off the intended drinkers. So deeply ingrained is this assumption that some church choir members from an area around Mt. Elgon recently declined to practice for being given strong tea otherwise known as strungi, instead of the milky tea they had been promised. Taking tea without sugar, referred to as ndufia, will earn you lots of questions. I do not take sugar in my tea and frequently have to clarify that it is by choice and not under any doctor’s instruction. For Kenyans, it’s not only about taking tea but the experience, thought behind it, and the feeling it evokes.
The word chai (tea in Swahili) is thought to have originated in Persia, then was eventually introduced to India by the Mughals. Tea was first brought to Kenya at the beginning of the 20th century by G.W.L. Caine, a British settler, and grown in Limuru, an area on the outskirts of Nairobi. The commercialisation of the crop began in 1924 and, currently, Kenya is ranked as one of the world’s major tea exporters. Our black tea is considered to be of the highest quality. Tea is largely grown in high altitude regions such as those surrounding Mt. Kenya, Nandi and in Kericho town, mainly featured in travel catalogues and adverts, is the green vastness of tea plantations.
Growing up, we often heard our mother talk about picking tea as a young girl. Eyes wide, my sister and I always asked whether they encountered snakes and if there was ever a fear of them. My mother’s response was one that could be the least bothered with whatever creatures lurked beneath the tea bushes. After all, if your family had a tea farm, it was up to the older children to help with picking during the school holidays. That is where school fees for some came from and complaining was out of the question. We were regaled with interesting tales of men squandering the tea bonuses they got from their produce.
With the Indian influence, chai is not only a milk, water and tea leaves affair. You can spice up your tea with tea masala readily available on the shelves in most Kenyan supermarkets and shops. And if you are keen on health matters, rosemary, lemongrass, and ginger are other ingredients that can as well be added into your tea to give it that unique flavour and health benefits you crave. So next time as a foreigner you get to visit a Kenyan home and are asked if you would like to take some tea, by all means indulge in the goodness for an unforgettable experience.
Lorna Likiza is a Kenyan Writer, Co-Founder of Mehara Lit, Contributor at The Watermelanin Mag, French Tutor and considers herself a Literary Enthusiast. Her Non-Fiction and Fiction pieces have appeared on Arts and Africa, Agbowo, and Ile Alo. She is a Golden Baobab Prize 2018 ‘Longlistee’ for Early Chapter Books. She has a passion for Travel and wouldn’t mind travelling the world someday. Twitter: @lornalikiza