Things We Remember Over Cup of Tea


You are probably reading this during your tea break at work, letting the warmth from the tea surge through you, filling you with a comfort that only a cup of tea can induce.

There are certain memories in my life that are pegged to a cup of tea. Such memories include the visits we paid to our long-lost relatives once a year or so.

My home area, or gishagi, is deep in the heart of Nyeri County. The welcome to almost every home was a cup of ndubia, a sugarless cup of tea made by boiling the tea leaves in a mixture of 50:50 water and milk.

My brothers, couple of cousins and I would be seated on low stools, in the often smoky kitchens as an older cousin went in search of the visitors’ cups. They were metal cups, all manner of colours, but the most common were cream with flower patterns on the outside.

My favourite was a heavy variety, red on the outside, white on the inside and with a black rim.

The visitors’ cups were kept in a cupboard, nice and clean after each guest left so they were never chipped. They came in two sizes, 15 and 22, named after their prices because one used to cost 15 Kenya shillings and the other 22.

For some crazy reason, the numbers were always said in English. Even to the most illiterate relative, it was fifutin and tweditu.

God help you if the family you visited really liked you or your brother or mother. To show how pleased they were to see you, the family served you tea in a tweditu. That thing must have held at least half a litre of liquid; and there was no saying no! You gulped the liquid and said how grateful you were.

As you left your hosts, the liquid jiggled in your belly, but you still had to see all your mother’s sisters. You prayed that in the next house, they would serve you with a fifutin so your belly would not jiggle so much.

Then your aunt, the one who is really close to your mother and looks just like her, sees you. She shakes your hand for a full minute, using those old, long, Nyeri greetings that you rarely hear these days. And you got the sinking feeling that it was going to be a tweditu.

The odd thing about all my Nyeri relatives was that none of them grew tea; all of them had coffee bushes on their land. None of them took coffee. The irony never crossed my young mind; coffee was just this red bean that we picked with my cousins, took to the coffee factory and then the family got money for school fees, and, I guess, sugar and tea.

There is another cup of tea I remember. My very first job was as a veterinary research officer at the now defunct Kenya Trypanosomiasis Research Institute or KETRI. I worked with a technical team that would be called up, from time to time, to conduct surveys on tsetse fly and trypanosome anywhere in the country.

Once, we were asked to do a survey in the then Garissa District (now County). Never mind we had to take an armed guard with us from Mwingi town to protect us from the shifta.

The shifta were bandits in the North-eastern part of Kenya. They were so feared that one never traveled to the interior regions of the province without armed guards.

This particular armed guard regaled us with stories of how, when the shifta attacked, he abandoned people in their Land Rovers and let the bandits get on with it.

“They just want sugar and cigarettes, just that,” he said, and laughed.

By the time we got to Ijara, on the edges of Garissa County, we had met enough of the residents and were more scared of our armed guard than the people he was supposedly protecting us from.

It was obvious he could not differentiate ordinary folk from the shifta, whoever those were. If anything, the Somali people in Ijara welcomed us with much joy.

We treated all the cattle brought to us for free as we collected the blood samples we needed for research. In a place with no resident veterinarian, our presence was divine providence for the locals.

We were accommodated for the length of our stay at the local chief’s office, thanks to the efforts of some youth who cajoled him into giving up the space.

Every morning, the local women brought us the sweetest tea on earth. It was milky, seasoned with cardamoms, had loads of sugar and was poured from a flask.

The tea had a smoky taste to it, maybe because the milk used to make it was stored in traditional smoked vessels. We had one meal a day, at about 3 pm, and for the rest of the day, it was tea and more tea. But what a divine cup of tea.

I have tried many times to replicate the tea we took in Garissa all those years back but have never succeeded. I wonder if they still make tea like that these days. Perhaps I will ask one of my Somali friends.

I also remember tea that was not particularly tasty, but which brought much joy.

Somewhere in my second year in secondary school, the administration decided to introduce a sandwich to accompany the mid-morning mug of tea. It was no longer a tea break, the girls renamed the break paradiso.

The tea arrived in large silver kettles and the person in charge of the table poured it out into those ugly high school mugs all Kenyan students are familiar with. Having a full belly in the late morning was nothing short of paradise, teenage hunger pangs could be so mind-consuming.

I don’t recall how the tea tasted, but then tea made for hundreds of school children is unlikely to be made in a manner that would make for invigorating memories. It had just enough milk not to be called black tea and just enough sugar not to be ndubia, the 50:50 water and milk version I was used to.

A few years ago, former students from my high school were invited for paridiso with Mr. Brook, the chemistry teacher who had retired.

I missed paradiso, even after all those years, and perhaps that was my last chance at it, but it was going to be a bit of a do for me at the time.

Today, as you hold that cup of tea, or coffee, look into it, smell it.

What stories come to mind? Stories long obscured by the cobwebs of time; stories that nevertheless warm your soul and remind you that you have been blessed.

Tabitha is a contributor to Sahan Journal.

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  • Job Mwangi

    Very interesting read. We had a different name for the ‘twendi’ …. ‘ndindika’. I think meaning ‘push-me-to-finish’ something to do with the quantity you were dealing with.

  • abazz

    Well, its amazing how I could relate with many things you mentioned as I wait for the mechanic to change the break pads… I really want the garissa tea. In wajir, the twenditu is named ‘aar galan’ loosely meaning ‘that which can satify a lion’.

  • Fadhil Ahmed

    Authentic experience; well said, Thabita. It takes some serious observations and pride in who you you and your culture in general.
    As i sipped my Venti Late going to work today and read Thabita’s story i got home sick and probably won’t enjoy the office that much. it is one of those days you hoped for a “desaster” to give you that positive distraction.

    Mr Aar Galaan, was that “container” used for serving such scarce and precious commodity?

  • kiterunner

    This is a very interesting piece. I am a lot younger but can relate with your experience with relatives when I visit home.

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