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The Dark and Devious History of Tea: The Beverage That Floated Empires

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For millennia, tea has graced the tables of the mighty and the lowly, fuelling wars, building empires, and bonding societies in a relentless quest for that ‘wondrous beverage’ packed with caffeine and theanine.

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The Dark and Devious History of Tea: The Beverage That Floated Empires
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No one knows when we, as the human race, decided that tea is worth drinking, though tea remains fabled as one of the world’s oldest beverages. Its story of origin is scant – there is uncertain allusion to a strong beverage in a Chinese document from 59 B.C, and some architectural evidence pointing to a century earlier, traced to the Han Yangling Mausoleum in Xi’an in western China, which was built for the Jing Emperor Liu Qi, who died in 141 B.C.

But from its murky beginnings, this unassuming leafy bush would come to shape history as we know it. For millennia, tea has graced the tables of the mighty and the lowly, fuelling wars, building empires, and bonding societies in a relentless quest for that ‘wondrous beverage’ packed with caffeine and theanine.

There are four types of tea – black tea, green tea, white tea and oolong tea, originating from two varieties of the plant in the Camellia family: Camellia sinensis, a narrow-leaf variety originating in central China and Japan thriving in the cool, high mountain regions there, while the broad leaf variety, Camellia assamica, thrives best in the moist, tropical climates found in Northeast India and Yunnan provinces of China.

Turkey leads the global tea consumption at 6.96 million pounds with Ireland, United Kingdom and Russia coming in at second, third and fourth place respectively. Morocco is the highest tea consumer in Africa with annual consumption of about 2.5 million pounds followed by Egypt at 2.3 million pounds. As of 2017 China made about $1.45 billion dollars form tea exports while Kenya remains the largest global tea exporter, accounting for 25% of all tea exports worldwide.

Protected by the mountain mists, and given just enough humidity, the plant produces shiny, dark green leaves and small, tender, white blossoms. The final quality of tea depends on a lot of factors – the soil, climate, altitude, and expertise of the tea-pickers.

Morocco is the highest tea consumer in Africa with annual consumption of about 2.5 million pounds followed by Egypt at 2.3 million pounds. As of 2017 China made about $1.45 billion dollars form tea exports while Kenya remains the largest global tea exporter, accounting for 25% of all tea exports worldwide.

Research shows that tea has not always been consumed as a beverage. It was used in burial rituals among Chinese royalty, as a mixture containing the buds, some roasted barley, salt, and or ginger. It would later adopt other uses including as dowry payment for aristocrats, around 640 A.D. A thousand years later in the 1600s the buds would land in the British Isles, sipping its way into daily culinary preferences as it provided relief and a ‘high’ for workers who often had to contend with the drudgery of manual labour. Tea would have remained just another drink in the periphery of the British civilization were it not for its accidental encounter with a powerful ally – sugar. Out of this marriage came global capitalism, royal tea culture, health fads and the darkest of all outcomes – slave plantations.

The tea craze reached British high society through Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese aristocrat who married into the British monarchy, to Charles II. As an early celebrity endorser of tea, her wedding to Charles II helped the fad to take off among the British nobility, making it as native to British royalty as white weddings.

Tea would have remained just another drink in the periphery of the British civilization were it not for its accidental encounter with a powerful ally – sugar. Out of this marriage came global capitalism, royal tea culture, health fads and the darkest of all outcomes – slave plantations.

Catherine of Braganza’s enthusiasm for tea, as well as the expensive nature of the new invention, sugar, made tea a hallmark and fetish for the status-chasing elites.

***

From the 1600s the fortune of tea as a global beverage seemed relentless. Its cultural phenomenon as a mark of status meant lots of people developed new literature on this ‘wondrous beverage’, key among them an English writer named Thomas Tryon, who counted Benjamin Franklin as one of his fans.

Tryon was an advocate for tea in moderation, and not conspicuous consumption as was the case with the aristocrats of the day. Tryon developed self-help books around tea, for which his enthusiasm was tempered by his conflicted relationship with sugar. On one hand, he hated the slavery of the sugar plantations in the West Indies, while still savouring the magical effects of the substance in his tea. Tryon, well aware that the cruelty of slavery drained into the cups of British royalty as an enchanting beverage, expressed a love-hate relationship with sugar and by extension tea.

Some of the same health and cultural claims about tea that people like Tryon were making, including mental clarity, esteem, and momentary high, and the perceived analgesics of sugar – were also being made about coffee. But coffee lost out in prestige because of its origins in the Arabian Peninsula, then a poor periphery of the British Empire and its imperial interests. With little capacity for industrial production, coffee was limited in reach and adoption.

Meanwhile tea, tied to the far more developed Far East commercial treadmills had an easier time rising to meet demand in the West. England engaged in trade with China, through the East India Company, and the Dutch East India Company, exporting spices, silks and other goods like opium in exchange for tea. The multiplicity of good fortunes; a huge demand back home, naval trade, existence of the huge trading firms British East India Company and Dutch East India Company, spurred the first impulses of modern capitalism.

Soon the Chinese rejected opiates owing to their addictive effects and the British realized that if they were going to keep pace with the tea craze back at home and not have to deal with the Chinese, they had to own tea plantations themselves.

Tea was such a lucrative trade, that, by the mid-19th century, the firm, through a Scottish botanist went on to steal tea seedlings and the secrets of tea production from China and used that to establish a tea empire in conquered India.

The British understood that getting their hands on the plant, and learning how to grow it, was not just good business, it was a cultural prestige, commercial coup and a strong geopolitical move.

Historian Sara Rose in her book For All the Tea In China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History describes how Scottish botanist had written about the marvels of tea in his travel journals during a trip to China in 1845. His writings caught the attention of Victorian high society, who then tasked him to make a return visit and sneak out tea seedlings out of China and to learn the mechanics of tea production, which would then be planted in British-controlled India.

Fortune did not know it, but this would mark the beginning of the end of Chinese domination and a rise of imperial Britain, both countries’ fates tied to a bunch of leaves dipped in hot water mixed with spoonfuls of sugar. As Sarah elaborates, (the aptly-named) Fortune never saw himself as part of a global conspiracy, but just as a humble botanist, even though he was about to commit what she calls “the greatest single act of corporate espionage in history.”

The impact of the espionage was incalculable; within decades, India surpassed China as the world’s largest tea producer, China sunk never to recover until the 1970s, Britain rose and the global commerce moved to the West for the next 180 years.

***

A new tea empire arose during that time, and true to Tryon’s fears and disgust, a new kind of capitalism developed. It would be spurred on by bureaucratic, infrastructural, commercial and military capabilities, supporting slavery, colonialism and land expropriation aided by plunder through British institutions.

Fortune did not know it, but this would mark the beginning of the end of Chinese domination and a rise of imperial Britain, both countries’ fates tied to a bunch of leaves dipped in hot water mixed with spoonfuls of sugar. As Sarah elaborates, (the aptly-named) Fortune never saw himself as part of a global conspiracy, but just as a humble botanist, even though he was about to commit what she calls “the greatest single act of corporate espionage in history.”

That legacy implicit in our tea making cultures is still with us today. The great inequalities, between class divides and between nation-states that characterize the modern world can be traced to this global commerce’s long and violent operations.

The tea empire in India evolved over centuries as a critical cog and a microcosm of the larger problematic capitalism with its oppressive social and political structures in places such as West Indies the Ottoman Empire and mid-1800s western India.

The centrality of slavery in the massive production of Tea Empire in India, the rise of 18th centuries tea merchants in South Asia and their centrality in the slave trade irked Tryon and his ilk. In tea, Tryon saw the dehumanizing excesses of global economies as well as the racist debauchery of the Euro-American enterprise in subjugating distant lands to feed the royal fetish for tea under the banner of violence and racism.

The British Empire’s ability to modernize and industrialize rested on the power and reach of the two companies, their control of distant lands, naval superiority, and enslaved labour in India. Slavery, therefore, has always been an integral part of the sugar and tea economy; a core part of the Western world, and it took a violent struggle, most successfully in the 1790s in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) to break its yoke.

In tea, Tryon saw the dehumanizing excesses of global economies as well as the racist debauchery of the Euro-American enterprise in subjugating distant lands to feed the royal fetish for tea under the banner of violence and racism.

Tea and sugar proved to be convenient alternatives to alcohol, a good addition to British culinary options, and good source of cheap calories for the masses. As the Industrial Revolution got underway, where the factory replaced the plough beginning in the mid-1700s, tea sweetened the transition away from hard farm labour giving the factory workers regular hits of caffeine.

The mercurial duo of tea and sugar made not just cultural sense as a classy drink but also spelt a boon for British government coffers. As the wheels of industrialization grew louder and churned faster, tea accounted for every tenth pound into the royal coffers, while sugar imports could sufficiently fund the then global British navy. Sugar made tea popular while tea made sugar valuable to the empire.

The tea-and-sugar revenues filled the British royal navy coffers enabling them to conquer distant lands around the globe in the 1800s at a terrible human cost, especially in Africa and the West Indies.

In America, of all the British sensibilities that the Americans adopted, tea drinking seems to be one of those that simply dissolved into the Atlantic Ocean, with minimal traces of tea culture making it on the journey west. The Charleston Tea Plantation in Wadmalaw Island just southwest of bustling Charleston, South Carolina, is the only lush, green landscape that holds on to legacy of tea in the whole of continental America.

The sprawling 127 acres of gleaming rows of green leaves unfolds in Waccamaw, one of the Sea Islands that dot the shoreline. The plantation is owned by the Bigelow Tea Co., in partnership with third-generation tea taster William Barclay Hall. It is what remains of the legacy of the Boston Tea Party or what was simply known as “the Destruction of the Tea in Boston till 1830s.”

That incident over 240 years ago on the evening of Dec. 16, 1773, involved the Sons of Liberty in Boston, disguised as Mohawks, stealing aboard three British merchant ships and tipping over more than 340 chests of quality East India Co. tea into the sea. This destruction of tea leaves as a protest against England’s unjust taxation policy sparked the Revolutionary War between Great Britain and its Thirteen Colonies culminating in the independence as the United States of America.

***

On the other side of the world in the choppy seas of the Indian Ocean lies the archipelago of Sri Lanka. This tea paradise’s long relationship with beverage goes back to 1890 when Sir Thomas Lipton arrived on the island of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, seeking to acquire real estate. 128 years later, the tea industry employs 1 million of the 22 million citizens.

A little further northwest of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) lies Myanmar ( Burma), with its evolving generational politics of tea culture. Burma, as it is more popularly known internationally, is grappling with its tea-taking culture truncated across generational lines. Currently only middle-aged men keep the consumption of steaming laphet yay- Burmese tea alive. Laphet yay is the signature Burmese tea; black tea, evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk. From Puta in the northerly region to Naypritaw in the central regions and in Yangon, tea consumption is more than regular past time; it’s a cultural moment for Burmese citizens. Word has it that the pro-democracy 8888 political uprising against the 1988 military rule might have started in a tea shop somewhere in the capital, Yangon.

The Indian subcontinent, one of the cradles of ancient tea, is home to Darjeeling, a boutique tea, referred to as the ‘Champagne Of Teas’. According to Jeff Koehler, author of Darjeeling – The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea, Darjeeling remains India’s internationally renowned tea thanks to its auction sales even though it makes up a mere 1% of the 2 billion pounds of tea that Indians consume annually. India produces just 8 million pounds of Darjeeling tea out of 87 tea estates in the Himalayas.

However, it is further south of the Equator in Kenya that the true nation-state building power of tea lies. Measuring just about 582,000 square kilometres, Kenya has about 198,000 hectares of tea plantations churning about 480, 000 tonnes of tea annually. Introduced in the country in 1903 by GWL Caine the crop would be commercialized 21 years later by Malcolm Fyers Bell. Currently, Kenya has surpassed India and even China- the ancient homeland of tea – in tea production. Small- scale production is managed through 66 factories handling about 500, 000 small-scale farmers on 100,000 hectares of tea. Most of it is auctioned in the city port of Mombasa and exported abroad for blending with other lower quality tea varieties.

Now as the fortunes of the Asian giant rise once again, China is becoming a fierce and aggressive player in the tea sector, yet it still has to compete with Kenya and India who are former British colonies.

So was Fortune history’s beguiling economic spy, or a mere botanist who brought tea and its technologies west?

Now as the fortunes of the Asian giant rise once again, China is becoming a fierce and aggressive player in the tea sector, yet it still has to compete with Kenya and India both former British colonies.

Fortune never saw himself as a spy or a great player in global geopolitical games. It is as though his greatness (or villainy) lies accidently in him being a China and plant expert right at the point where the leaves that shaped the world lay halfway around the world from his Scottish neighbourhood. He was not a hero in his own eyes.

Nevertheless, by his small act, never has the fate of history been so drastically dependent on a bunch of leaves since Eve in the Garden of Eden, as when Fortune smuggled that humble seedling.

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Darius Okolla is a writer and a social commentator based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Culture

Racist Undertones in the Media’s Reporting of COVID-19’s Origins

News reports claiming that “wet markets” in Asia are the source of the coronavirus obscure the fact that the consumption of wild animals is common in the West. How can the Western media condemn “unacceptable” animal consumption practices in the global South while maintaining studious silence on the same in the global North?

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In pre-colonial Africa, before the Berlin conference that led to the “Scramble for Africa” among European countries and the subsequent creation of arbitrary territorial boundaries we now refer to as countries, “states” were defined by some form of shared heritage, not just in the form of hard tangible artefacts, but in culture – practices and knowledge that are acquired by peoples in situ. When populations moved, they carried this heritage with them and adjusted it to fit in with the new realities they encountered in their new homelands.

The current crisis precipitated by the COVID-19 global pandemic has severely restricted travel for recreation and business and the sharing of experiences and ideas across the world. In a manner of speaking, it has put globalisation on “pause” as countries must look inwards for ways to mitigate its impact on health, social, and economic systems.

The complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic lies in the fact that there is still no universally accepted approach to its mitigation or management. Individual countries have, therefore, been compelled to draw on their own intellectual and material resources to address the impact of the pandemic, with varying levels of success. Some countries have taken a reactionary approach, while others struggle to find direction, illustrating the need for us to retake control of our living heritage and re-imagine ourselves in the light of our own needs and aspirations.

Double standards

The true origins of this pandemic may never be known, so those of us who are lay people take what the media give us. The spectre of a zoonosis “jumping” from wild animals into humans through the consumption of their meat and the sheer speed of communication (or mis-communication) about this are among the most startling features of this pandemic.

When the pandemic started, the media were instantly awash with (frankly revolting) images of people of Asian descent eating whole bats in soup. Suddenly, newly-used terms like “wet markets” were de rigueur in news bulletins, as were images of Chinese markets with live and dead creatures of all kinds for sale, either whole, live, or in various stages of dismemberment. It was only a matter of time before the racist dog-whistle “bush meat trade” hit the airwaves (nauseatingly familiar to those of us who work in the conservation sector).

I have often spoken about how the portrayal of the consumption of wild animals is one of the most overt and widely accepted expressions of racial prejudice in our times. It has long been an accepted norm that the meat of wild animals must be described in genteel terms when it is consumed by white people, as is the killing of all manner of creatures. The nature of conservation discourse has normalised the use of the different terms “game meat” and “bush meat” even to describe consumption of flesh from the same animal species, based on the ethnicity of the procurer. Slaughter is routinely described as “sport” and dignified as ““noble” all over the world when perpetrated by white people, and occasionally elites of colour. After 20 years as a conservation practitioner, I am familiar with the cult-like manner in which we pursue the cause. It is considered above reproach, and all manner of ills can be visited upon human societies as long as they can be demonstrated to be serving some environmental conservation goal.

When the pandemic started, the media were instantly awash with (frankly revolting) images of people of Asian descent eating whole bats in soup. Suddenly, newly-used terms like “wet markets” were de rigueur in news bulletins, as were images of Chinese markets with live and dead creatures of all kinds for sale, either whole, live, or in various stages of dismemberment.

It was, therefore, a feeling of déjà vu when the tone taken by the Western media portrayed the outbreak almost as some kind of “divine retribution” visited upon the Chinese people for the consumption of meat from wild animals. (This was before the virus spread globally and stopped being regarded as a Chinese problem.) Indeed, scientists were falling over themselves to look for coronaviruses in all manner of trafficked animals, like pangolins. Racial undertones have always been part of global conservation practice, and that is the reason why Europe and the United States have largely escaped the opprobrium that has been visited on China for the ivory trade, despite it being third globally behind the former two in this vice.

When wildlife is used as food in the global South and East, it draws near universal revulsion in the West with regards to the “cruelty” of the activity. Those who have visited the United States, however, are familiar with the seasonal hunting and eating of deer, elk, moose, squirrels, opossum and rabbits, not to mention turkeys, ducks, and other wild birds.

Those who are so irked by “wet markets” would do well to familiarise themselves with the “rattlesnake roundup”, an annual activity in the state of Texas in the United States. The roundup is a display of extraordinary cruelty where thousands of rattlesnakes are collected from the wild, mostly by being flushed out of their dens with petrol. It takes around two weeks to collect the required number of snakes for the festival, during which time the captive reptiles are kept in the dark without food or water. Come the weekend of the festival, the entertainment of visitors will include the ritual decapitation of snakes and the participants (including children) competing to strip skins off the still writhing snake bodies and flaying them for meat (which is served on site and consumed with a variety of drinks). Children also engage in making murals from hand prints in snake blood, amongst other activities.

A close observation of the reportage on this reveals the degree of effort put into “cleansing” this strange ritual, notably its description as a “celebration of culture” that brings in $8.4 million into the town of Sweetwater, Texas. The scale of the carnage hit a record high in 2016 when 11 tonnes (24,262 pounds) of rattlesnakes were reportedly harvested. The reporting didn’t specify that this represented around 10,000 snakes (calculation made from the average weight of a rattlesnake).

Those who are so irked by “wet markets” would do well to familiarise themselves with the “rattlesnake roundup”, an annual activity in the state of Texas in the United States. The roundup is a display of extraordinary cruelty where thousands of rattlesnakes are collected from the wild, mostly by being flushed out of their dens with petrol.

How then does the Western media contrive to maintain this critical focus on “unacceptable” animal consumption practices in the global South while maintaining studious silence on the same in their own countries? What then is a “wet market”? Can the Texas rattlesnake roundup be described as such, and if not, why not?

Characterising the consumption of reptiles, rodents, chiroptera (bats), marsupials (opossums) as “Asian” traits is simply racial prejudice. Similarly, the capture, caging and sale of wild animals in Asian markets is described as cruel whereas sport hunting, whaling, and foxhunting by Caucasian peoplesare accepted, celebrated, and even defended robustly, when need be.

Conservation, tourism and dietary tastes

Personally, as an individual with very conservative (some might say pedestrian) tastes in food, travelling is full of challenges in terms of foods that I encounter around the world. I remember particularly an incident of a Maasai colleague being perturbed by a dinner offering of “venison” at a lodge in rural Quebec in Canada. I had to clarify to him that venison is deer meat.

The Maasai are traditionally livestock producers and are known to frown upon the consumption of meat from wild animals. But this was a relatively mild challenge for him, compared to various raw meats, raw fish, marine crustaceans, and snails that he and I have encountered on our travels to different continents.

The variety of dietary tastes and preferences around the world are one of the most prominent indicators of human diversity, and have long been celebrated and studied by travelers and scholars. This pandemic, however, has upset the genteel veneer with which we present our differences and has left our class, racial, and cultural prejudices ruthlessly exposed. If indeed the slaughter of wildlife is a vile aspect of human nature, then why is Theodore Roosevelt’s 1909 hunting safari in Kenya so celebrated by a conservation body (The Smithsonian Institution) over a century later? This expedition was a bloodbath, where the hunters killed and trapped more than 11,000 animals, including multiple specimens of the “big game” species that Roosevelt took particular pleasure in killing.

Conservation and tourism have long been an arena that struggles with racism and classism, and my country Kenya has for the last 100 years been the poster child for what is good and wrong about the nexus of conservation and tourism in Africa. Due to travel bans and lockdowns, tourism in the country has largely collapsed. The obsession with foreign tourists (referred to lovingly as “arrivals”) has left established facilities struggling to appeal to indigenous and local clients for whom they had very little time under normal circumstances.

The real tragedy, however, is in the wildlife conservancies, where conservation NGOs had been going out of their way to convince and coerce previously resilient pastoralist communities to spurn their livelihoods and identities (that were based upon livestock production) and to share landscapes with wildlife. The narrative was that livestock was bad and their numbers had to be suppressed. The landscape didn’t belong to the people, but to the wildlife, and the wildlife had no intrinsic cultural value. It was for tourists, and pastoralists’ livelihoods would reside in service to the tourists.

To be a “good” (read: compliant) community worthy of handouts, the community needed to move to the periphery of their lands, leaving the best parts for tourism They had to reduce their herds (or move them away to go and overgraze someone else’s turf), and learn to serve (be a waiter, ranger, cook, or beadwork maker) at the altar of tourism.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, reports from community conservancies invariably feature penury – communities struggling to make a living and depending on food handouts, all due to the collapse of tourism. For those who understand the livestock economy, pastoralist communities depending on food handouts is unthinkable in a year that has seen such abundance of rainfall and pasture growth. The conservation cult had succeeded in compromising the resilience of entire communities.

The language of environmentalism and assistance

Students of political history will experience déjà vu; 200 years after its initial foray, Western neoliberalism is once again bringing rural Africa to its knees by destroying resilience and creating dependency. The only difference is that this time it is hidden in the language of environmentalism and assistance.

The world today needs to wake up to the threat to social stability posed by the global environmental movement fashioned in the West. The pursuit of its goals is relentless, and has the hallmarks of a cult. Nonagenarian Westerners like Sir David Attenborough routinely prescribe future goals to young populations in the global South (backed by environmental cinema that deliberately excludes human populations from the frame). As our youth struggle with the visions of old Westerners, our leaders are confronted with advice and “guidance” from a European teenage girl, delivered with the glib assurance of someone who doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of knowledge required to confer a modicum of self-doubt.

As African students of environmental sciences strive to make their voices heard in academia, they get confronted by ludicrous theories like the half-earth theory, proposed by E. O. Wilson, a pioneer of ecology from Harvard University, one of the pinnacles of academia. This theory proposes that half the earth should be “protected” for the survival of biodiversity.

The world today needs to wake up to the threat to social stability posed by the global environmental movement fashioned in the West. The pursuit of its goals is relentless, and has the hallmarks of a cult.

However, what proponents of this theory don’t state is that this biodiversity will be protected mostly in the tropics, because the temperate lands do not have biodiversity worth protecting in such a drastic manner. Any attempt to actualise such a move would amount to genocide, but the world routinely accepts such fascism when environmental reasons are used to support it.

Indeed, the United Nations and other global bodies like the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) have taken up the cause, proposing to raise the recommended percentage of land under protection, from the current 14 per cent to 30 per cent. The voices pushing this movement are varied, but two uniformities persist – the voices are of white people and they say nothing about the difference in consumption patterns between themselves and the global South.

So-called “global” environmental targets must be tailored to meet the needs and aspirations of individual nations, or we run the risk of imperialism. Yellowstone National Park was created by violence and disenfranchisement, but it is still used as a template for fortress conservation over a century later, and celebrated as a world heritage site.

For generations, our consumption patterns have never been spoken about globally, because to do so would be to acknowledge that we in the global South have always been sustainable societies. Logic dictates that our consumption patterns shouldn’t now be used to vilify us as the source of a scourge, which strangely appears not to have affected us in the way the global North expected.

The term “new normal” has been bandied about ad nauseam to describe the post-COVID19 world. In reality, the manner in which the people and the environment of the global South have been exploited by the Occident over generations has been abnormal. The coronavirus crisis may have just set a few things right.

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Culture

Food Kiosks Are Revolutionising Kenya’s Urban Culture

The majority of urban residents in Kenya cannot afford to go to established restaurants and eateries. To cater to their needs, food kiosks have sprouted in cities such as Nairobi. These kiosks not only serve delicious and nutritious food, they are also meeting places for the urban working class.

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It is 1 p.m. on a hot, sunny, Friday. Across from the Sigona Golf Club on the Nairobi-Nakuru dual highway that is being reconstructed by the Chinese construction company China Wu Yi, Phyllis Ikoa’s food kiosk is teeming with men in helmets and overalls munching their hot, fresh lunch with their rough seasoned hands. At Ikoa’s food den, it is break time for her customers, who have just ended a gruelling morning shift.

Ikoa’s food kiosk, popularly known in local parlance as kibanda (shed), is nothing to talk about: it is small and many of Ikoa’s customers lack sitting space, which comprises form benches and makeshift tables. The kiosk is occasionally smoky because she often uses firewood as fuel for cooking.

Yet, despite the apparent “discomfort”, nothing beats Ikoa’s steamy, well-cooked food served at the most affordable of prices. Nothing compares with the camaraderie that her food brings among the easy-going, jocular, casual labourers who congregate at Ikoa’s eating den to gossip about their supervisors and site managers.

“I practically know all my customers by their first names,” said Ikoa. “It is important for me to know them because they keep my business going. Without them, I wouldn’t be in Kikuyuland.”

Ikoa is a Mteso from Adungosi village in Malaba town, Busia County, which is more than 400 kilometres from the Sigona area, which is 17 kilometres from the Nairobi city centre. From Tesoland, Ikoa brought her culinary skills that have diversified, as well as rivalled, the local cuisine. The local cuisine is mostly unsophisticated and usually consists of githeri – a stewed broth of maize and beans, occasionally spruced up with potatoes and chopped carrots.

Ikoa’s food menu is diverse: Chapati and madondo (beans), rice and ndengu (green grams), ugali and tilapia from Lake Victoria, stewed matoke (bananas) from Uganda, and stewed or boiled meat that can be accompanied with either chapatti, ugali or rice.

Ikoa told me her customers prefer to eat her specially cooked meat, Teso style, with ugali. But it is her chapatis that have made Ikoa a popular name in Sigona, a location within the larger Kikuyu constituency in Kiambu County. Because of the popularity of her chapatis, some customers demand the inclusion of tea in her menu, so that they can enjoy the option of chapati and tea as a snack.

Ikoa’s food menu is diverse: Chapati and madondo (beans), rice and ndengu (green grams), ugali and tilapia from Lake Victoria, stewed matoke (bananas) from Uganda, and stewed or boiled meat that can be accompanied with either chapatti, ugali or rice.

Phyllis Ikoa’s chapatti-making skills have turned her into a household name in and around the Sigona area. “They’re people who come from Kikuyu town to eat my chapatti,” said a proud Ikoa. Kikuyu is just about three kilometres southwest of Sigona. There are others who come all the way from Kiambaa. Kiambaa is a bit further; it five kilometres up north of Sigona. “They all say my chapatis are really big and tasty.” I asked her why her chapatis have become famous and popular: “What now can I tell you? I prepare them well, they’re soft and they are big enough for one to enjoy them with either tea or with an accompaniment of your choice.”

I found a female customer who works at the Sigona Club house at Ikoa’s eating joint. Looking sophisticated with her permed hair, she heaped praise on Ikoa’s chapatis. Despite looking out of place, the lady said she was not restrained by those concerns.

“Because of the lady, I’ve been getting orders to make her chapatis for ‘important’ people,” said Ikoa. By important people, Ikoa meant people who ordinarily would never be seen ordering chapatis at her kibanda, or even letting people know where the chapatis were cooked. She also makes, on order, chapatis for families who may not have the time to make them, or because they think she makes them tastier, and for unmarried men and women living alone.

“Phyllis’ food is the best around here: it is well-prepared, it’s nutritious, it’s fresh, it has variety, but above all, it’s affordable,” said mzee Santana, one of her loyal customers.

Santana is a caddie at the Sigona Golf Club. Now in his mid-70s, he carries a wide range of experiences. He has seen it all. He has been a caddie for 46 years since 1974, when he first came to look for work in Sigona from his home town of Limuru. Without food sheds like the one run by Ikoa, Santana told me, many caddies would be going hungry.

“Where would we be eating and there isn’t a food kiosk inside the club? In any case, the club would never ever dream of having such a structure inside the club’s precincts,” he said.

With a club house that can be seen from the road, the golf club only caters for the golfers, who happen to be some of the wealthiest Kenyans and privileged foreigners working in the country. At lunchtime, as the golfers took their break and troop to the club house, the poor caddies’ had to worry what and where they would fill their stomachs with.

“Phyllis just came the other day,” explained Santana. (The other day for mzee Santana is about 10 years ago.) Before the arrival of Ikoa, there wasn’t any kibanda anywhere; the caddies would just laze in the sun during the lunch hour while the golfers enjoyed the sumptuous meals.

Before the real estate construction boom around Sigona area started about a dozen years ago, caddies comprised nearly all of Ikoa’s customers. “Over time I developed a rapport with them and even when they did not have ready cash, I’d still give them food and they would pay me afterwards once they had the cash, said Ikoa.

Ikoa has an exercise book in which she records her debtors’ names. Today, most of the people who are in that book are casual labourers who are paid weekly, on Fridays. Because of Ikoa’s credit facilities, they can eat and pay later.

“When I began my business here, I realised two things”, said Ikoa. “My customers were the lowly-paid rough and tumble workers who operated on a shoe-string budget, hence they required pocket-friendly priced foodstuff, if they were going to afford to eat it. It’s true, people can’t do without food, but only if they can afford it.”

The food seller said that to keep her customer base happy and always coming back to her, she knew she wasn’t going to compromise on the quality of the food and the pricing wasn’t going to fluctuate too much. “If you want to keep your customers intact in this industry of ours, quality of food is of utmost importance.”

Ikoa has an exercise book in which she records her debtors’ names. Today, most of the people who are in that book are casual labourers who are paid weekly, on Fridays. Because of Ikoa’s credit facilities, they can eat and pay later.

For Sh50 Ikoa’s serves you with a hot plate of rice and madondo and a spattering of vegetables (either cabbage or sukuma wiki), or rice with ndengu, or stewed matoke. For Sh70, you get, depending on your preference, a big brown or white round chapati served with madondo or ndengu.

“Phyllis’s food is filling especially for us guys who do tough manual work, because she serves it in good portions. Here, you know, you’ll be served with fresh food because the food is cooked on a daily basis. You can never hear of anybody complaining of stomach upset, for example, so we’re good,” said Kimani.

Ikoa’s sumptuous delicacy of ugali and tilapia with staked soup, at Sh100, is a favourite among her customers. “She introduced a delicacy that was not very much known in this area. Now people eat fish here with the expertise of the lake region people,” observed Kimani.

Friday is a particularly busy day for Ikoa. It is when the casual labourers are paid their weekly wages. On Fridays, Ikoa knows that she has to prepare lots of chapatis and bean and ndengu stew because of a special clientele that passes by at around 2 p.m. Some Muslim youth who work at the Shell petrol station on the opposite side of her kibanda, have formed a good habit of passing by her kibanda on their way back from the mosque, which is 600 metres up from her food kiosk. They order lots of chapatis, which they eat with bean stew served in a large bowl for the four lads to share, and eat with their bare hands. After eating chapati with madondo, the lads drown the food with copious cups of black tea.

Ikoa told me that with the onset of coronavirus, her kibanda business has been badly affected. “Many of my customers have been laid off and I had really to scale down on the food I was used to preparing. Some of my customers would come to me and beg to be given food, with the promise of paying me later, but from what work? It was difficult”.

Mzee Santana told me once coronavirus was declared in Kenya, “the first thing our bosses did was to lock themselves in their houses and keep away from the club. When they gathered the confidence to trickle back to the club, they said they didn’t want to see us near the club and near them. Can you imagine?”

So, outside the club’s main gate, one can see many men waiting outside in groups of three and four. Santana said the club’s management had decreed that all caddies, henceforth, would only be let in the club’s premises with the express permission of their respective golfing bosses. “This means that work becomes intermittent and therefore unpredictable. But one cannot stay at home waiting to get a call from his boss for work.”

Likewise, Ikoa cannot afford to stay at home doing nothing. “After a couple of weeks into the lockdown, I was getting calls from my customers, asking me to venture out and make some food for them. Some of them just wanted a place to hang out, away from their restrictive homes, which they were not used to staying at all day long.”

Hence, during this coronavirus crisis, Ikoa’s kibanda has become a meeting place for her customers, who discuss their trials and tribulations, and pool their little cash and buy food from her, while persuading her to provide them with food and keep a record in her exercise book.

Not an entirely new phenomenon, vibandas have always been around since the early 1970s, when they served only tea (in heat-resistant glasses) and mandazi, mainly in estates in Eastlands, which lies in the south-eastern part of Nairobi. Today, they are found practically along every road and street in the city, especially in working class and informal settlements. They, in essence, have become an integral part of the city’s culinary food parlours, serving exotic indigenous dishes and foods that were once ordinarily made in homes.

Street food embodies the essence of Nairobi’s culture, and during the COVID-19 crisis, it is street food vendors that have sustained people who do not have the luxury to have a home-cooked meal or to order food from restaurants. It is the likes of Ikoa, who with their expertise in preparing food that is nutritious and affordable, that have revolutionised the culture of street food in the city.

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Culture

An Ode to the Comic, the Transgressive Counter to Stifling Official Narratives

Being a visual medium, just as the map is, the comic book is a kind of counter-cartography that centres the people, which imperialist narratives would rather see reduced and captured in the extractive logic of mapped territories and nation-states.

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An Ode to the Comic, the Transgressive Counter to Stifling Official Narratives
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History is the science of the state, while memory is the art of the stateless.”
– Wendell Hassan Marsh

I’ve never been good at drawing. My hand-eye coordination is rather mediocre, and my visual intelligence middling. Even academic concepts that required some level of 2D/3D visualisation, such as geometry, made me have to actually apply myself. My home was always the written word, in language, in libraries, in novels and stories, to the level of pure abstraction. Which is why algebra and calculus, though challenging, were still somehow delightful – they were a kind of language of their own.

And yet, I’ve always found myself lost in maps. Even though I “dropped” geography as a subject as soon as I was able to – this, I would attribute to my geography teacher whom I was clashing with at the time – I still kept my beloved Philips World Atlas. I used to pore over maps of obscure places like Kiribati and Patagonia during night preps in boarding school instead of doing my homework.

The map is a visual representation of space, compressing land, distance and physical features into a super birds-eye view – if a bird could fly high enough to gain a glimpse of a whole country, continent, or world. By this, maps become instruments of power, giving humans a perspective that is impossible to acquire in real life. Thus maps are never neutral, and are not unequivocally factual or objective – politics and power are always packed into each line and curve, each hill and valley.

What would it look like for Africans to create maps that represent the way they see and experience their own lived realities and experiences? How would one pack in our histories, struggles, movements, triumphs and identities into representations of physical space?

The Pan-African quarterly gazette Chimurenga Chronic explored these ideas in their March 2015 issue titled “New Cartographies”, but questions still remain. For instance, when representing Somalia should one go by the lines drawn by Europeans at the 1884-5 Berlin Conference, or should one go with the territories that Somalis call home, which encompass parts of Ethiopia and Kenya? What of the Swahili Coast, “which extends from Kenya through Tanzania and northern Mozambique to include parts of the Indian Ocean, and whose reluctance to be integrated into any nation-state project other than its own goes back seven centuries”? How about the Sahel region, where the sand obscures the pretentions of “international” borders for people like the Hausa and Fulani?

What would it look like for Africans to create maps that represent the way they see and experience their own lived realities and experiences? How would one pack in our histories, struggles, movements, triumphs and identities into representations of physical space?

That edition let memory run loose on history. The idea of memory and lived experiences being transgressive in the face of officialdom has stayed with me since, and has recently re-emerged in my mind in The Nest Collective’s comic book series on Mekatilili wa Menza and Wangu wa Makeri, illustrated by Joe Barasa and Daniel Muli, with Ray Gicharu as art assistant.

For me, the comic book is the transgressive counter to stifling and oppressive official narratives. Being a visual medium, just as the map is, the comic in my view a kind of counter-cartography that centres people, which imperialist narratives would rather see reduced and captured into the extractive logic of mapped territories and nation-states – a logic that has now evolved to the point where, as expertly elucidated by Kalundi Serumaga, African people have become hostages to their elites, for whom borders assume a menacing role, not just in keeping others out, but to ensnare and enclose “their” people in. And in combining text and pictures – which are typically drawings, not photographs – the comic book exists in this liminal space where possibility, not foreclosure, is at the heart of representation.

“Working with the comic book form was quite an adventure because we as the Nest Collective don’t typically work in comics, but we were attracted to the infinite possibilities of the comic form because in comics you can draw a thing, whereas in film – which is one of our primary forms – you’d have to build a whole set,” Njoki Ngumi, member of The Nest Collective, tells me. “The comic book form allows you some distance, your idea doesn’t have to exist corporeally; it can exist directly from the imagination of the illustrator.”

This series in particular takes the stories of two formidable women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whose encounters with the colonial apparatus elicited very different reactions from both. The story of Mekatilili wa Menza revolves around her resistance to British taxation of the Mijikenda people. She dances the kifudu dance at village clearings, a funeral dance that would attract curious onlookers because it was out of place and out of context to perform on an ordinary day. When she had attracted a crowd, she would challenge the people to resist British taxation and control. In the comic’s rendering: “Are you slaves or are you free people? Are you not sons and daughters of this good earth, just like these pale ones? Why then do you let foreigners dictate to you how you shall live your lives?”

For this disturbance of the peace, Mekatilili was banished to Kisii, some 800 kilometres away from her coastal village. Twice the British exiled her, and twice she returned to her people in Mijikenda. How she travelled all that way, at a time when there existed a very rudimentary transport network, and without a map, isn’t addressed in the comic strip, though the LAM Sisterhood, in their Brazen theatre performance in 2018, imagined her walking all the way for weeks until her feet blistered, bled and eventually became calloused and mangled.

This series in particular takes the stories of two formidable women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whose encounters with the colonial apparatus elicited very different reactions from both.

Wangu wa Makeri, on the other hand, reacted to British taxation by becoming a headman, a colonial tax collector and an enforcer. She gained this position by leaning on her relationship with her lover, Karuri wa Gakure, who was paramount chief of the Kikuyu at Fort Hall (later renamed Murang’a). Wangu’s husband, Makeri, knew about this relationship as Karuri often would spend a night at their home in the course of his duties and travels as paramount chief. (Traditionally, when a male visitor came calling, one of the host’s wives was expected to “entertain” the visitor at night.)

However, in time, Karuri and Wangu’s relationship developed into an intimacy that was beyond the bounds of their traditional arrangement, and when Karuri let it slip that he was looking to name someone headman, someone “strong and trustworthy, that people can respect…who can collect taxes and punish lawbreakers”, Wangu declared: “Let it be me!”

Wangu ended up being the only female Kikuyu headman/woman during the whole of the British colonial period. She would acquire a reputation as a brutal enforcer. “Her outlandish punishments for tax evaders were the stuff of legend,” the comic book states. “Lawbreakers would have to carry her on their backs, suffering humiliation and ridicule from their neighbours.”

Is this why Wangu wa Makeri is taken to be such a “controversial”, “notorious”, and “near-mythical” figure (descriptors that all appear in the text)? Because she was unashamedly ambitious, amassed power and embarrassed men?

Her rule came to an abrupt end in 1909 when Wangu joined in to perform the kibata dance, a dance that was reserved for young warriors. In the process of vigorous dancing, her garment falls off, exposing her. Her detractors say she intentionally danced naked before her people.

Unlike Mekalilili, for whom dance was revolutionary and redemptive for the people, Wangu’s dance – with her in the precarious role of a woman in a traditionally male role – leads to her singular downfall. The system of colonialism which she had served so diligently could not save her in this instance.

The comic series maps these contours of power and patriarchy, revealing how, like in all oppressive systems, the oppressed often do have a chance to become complicit and collude with the system, but that this power is ultimately uncertain and tenuous. Or, they can fight back, and risk punishment and exclusion.

Still, thinking of the comics as a series of people-maps is useful to appreciate that the past is never really the past. We are still living with the fallout from the actions of those who resisted the colonial state and those who colluded with it – and sometimes that binary is not as neat as it first appears. Wangu’s role as an enforcer of the colonial state upended patriarchal expectations of her, and Mekatilili’s status as an old widow made her an unlikely revolutionary because fighting is usually expected of the young and male.

Unlike Mekalilili, for whom dance was revolutionary and redemptive for the people, Wangu’s dance – with her in the precarious role of a woman in a traditionally male role – leads to her singular downfall. The system of colonialism which she had served so diligently could not save her in this instance.

More than any other medium or form, comics straddle this divide between the world of concepts and the world of lived experiences, between the way the world should be and the way it really is, the place where hard, “objective” data fails and life happens. Just as one scans back and forth on a map to orient oneself and the physical space represented on the map, the comic book reader scans back and forth in order to refocus on previous panels and to find new elements for the construction of meaning. Readers literally make sense of the story through a “plurivectorial” reading experience, as if each page were a map.

Quoting Chimurenga Chronic again, “The syntax of comics – specifically, its reliance on visual substitution to suggest continuity, the representation of time through space, and the fragmentation of space into contiguous images, demands an active participation on the part of the reader. This fosters a unique intimacy, a physical and emotional closeness between creator and audience, the reader and the text.”

Comics are the medium that grapple with the most with uncertainty and even lack of data – most comics set discrete borders around their gaps, the “gutters” between panels. Comic critic Aaron King describes these comic gutters as “bordered entropy”, a place where the artist chose not to or did not have the means to portray information.

And this is what makes the comic form so life-giving, especially in a context where the official written histories typically capture the perspectives of those in power and erase those on its underside. How exactly Mekatilili got 800 kilometres across a wilderness teeming with dangers isn’t the point. It’s that the kifudu dance was danced again and that the Mijikenda are still striving for the return of vigango (totems representing ancestors) that have been stolen and taken to Europe and America. It is that there was a woman who was officially given the title of headman.

It’s not about being as direct and as practical as a map, but more about letting memory run transgressively loose on history.

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