A Boyhood in Africa

Africa in the early 1960s as experienced by a young ex-patriot

A Few Words About Tea

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Tea

One of the first things I had to get used in Kenya was tea. I knew what tea was of course but I’d never actually tasted any. Back stateside it was quite common for adults to drink coffee year round and iced tea in the summer but children seldom drank either.

It was a different story in British East Africa

With regards to tea drinking, they strictly adhered to schedules laid down early in the industrial revolution which dictated that tea was to be consumed several times daily. And it wasn’t just for the adults, for children, even those enrolled in primary school, were expected to do their part to uphold these rituals.

Nairobi Primary School

School started promptly at 0800 and ended at 1330. One or the other of my parents would drop me off in the morning and pick me up again in the afternoon. Although there were no formalities in the morning, boys were expected to tip their hats to the school mistress assigned to monitor pick up and girls were expected to curtsey. If you failed to execute these formalities, those assigned would get very cross.

During the day we had several breaks including one in which we were obliged to make our way to a small outdoor canteen where tea and Marmite sandwiches were served. If we had sandwiches of our own, that was when we could eat them. The Marmite sandwiches were laid out on single slices of white bread cut from unusually large loafs, perhaps six inches square. On these was spread butter and then Marmite. If you’ve never tasted Marmite, it’s an especially salty spread derived from a yeast extract. I can just hear the collective “Yum!” Marmite and its Australian cousin “Vegemite” can take some getting used to. I never did get used to either.

And then there was the tea. If memory serves, the tea they served was a locally grown variety scooped from large metal-lined boxes that were just over a foot and a half in height. It was dark but not black. The other kids were usually given to load theirs up with lots of sugar and then pour in some of the local raw milk. I don’t remember seeing any lemons. I never acquired a taste for the stuff, at least not in those tender years.

Suffice it to note, tea was everywhere.

There was once curious thing: they had no idea what iced tea was.

On one of our family excursions to this or that game park we experienced some unusually hot weather. At the end of the day we arrived exhausted at a bush hotel. As was usually the case, this hotel consisted of an archipelago of round huts surrounding a building fashioned in the form of a miniature expat club. In addition to the lobby and the dining room there was a large covered veranda.

Once we settled in, we adjourned to that veranda to contemplate dinner. We were the only guests so we were waited on by all the waiters then on duty. The first order of business was refreshments. Father asked for ice tea. The wait staff didn’t speak English well enough to quite get that order right. Within a few minutes out came a regulation boiling hot pot of tea, a tea strainer, tea cups and some sugar. “No!” father retorted “I asked for ice tea!” This was followed by blank stars that betrayed a general cluelessness.

Undeterred, dad then ordered up a bowl of ice and some tall glasses. They understood that. After a few minutes the wait staff reappeared with the requested items. Then my father performed a heretofore unseen feat of pure magic! He put some ice in each of the glasses and then added tea through the strainer provided!

You should have seen the collective look of astonishment that appeared on each and every one of their faces! It was if Dr. Christiaan Barnard had been suddenly conjured up and then spontaneously performed his first heart transplant! The native chatter didn’t subside for at least fifteen minutes. They’d seen ice tea for the first time.

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Written by GW Abert

March 27, 2015 at 16:08

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