“Oh, I’m from the United States”. Blank stares. Did they not understand?
“I’m from the United States” I repeated, slower. Still no response.
Ravena jumped in “and we’re from Kenya” she said laughing.
The assistant director continued his introduction “They are here for a tour.” Then pointing to me, “She wants to take pictures.”
“Oh no, they can’t do that” the supervisor replied. “Not without clearance from the office” she said, pointing behind her. “We don’t know you, what if your pictures end up in the papers in the UK?” Yep, obviously didn’t understand me.
“No they wouldn’t, we’re just interested in how tea is made.” I said, laughing nervously. It’s not like we were going to steal their production methods and become their biggest competitor.
“No you can’t. Maybe if you were a distributor. Are you buying tea?”
“No, we’re tourists. We’re just here to see how it’s made.”
We were led, camera-less, into the factory for our tour. The smell of tea permeated the air.
The entire process of preparing the tea for distribution after picking takes approximately 20 hours. We were shown the various steps starting with large troughs full of tea leaves which air is blown over to reduce the moisture content. From there the tea drops down through pipes to a machine on the floor below. Here the tea leaves are ground up into little fragments. The tea gets finer and finer as it moves along the conveyor belt, and browner in color. At this step the tea looked and felt like chunky dirt.
From here the tea moves to a massive kiln-looking device which reduces the moisture content even further. I got to stick my head in and see the tea blowing around in the hot air. Next, fibers are sorted out of the tea and finally the tea is sorted into different grades. At the very back of the factory was a machine for packaging the tea. I was hoping to buy some to take home with me until I realized that the tea was packaged into 70kg bags. “I want to take some home with me. What do you think Ravena? That could fit in my suitcase, right?” I said joking. She laughed “Maybe if you had a suitcase just for tea.”
The factory is surrounded by a 640 acre estate, 500 acres of which has been cultivated. The tea bushes were planted back in the early 60’s and the same plants still remain today. Every once in a while the plants must be cut back to retain the tea’s quality. Over 90% of their tea is exported “to your country” I was told (referring, yet again, to the UK). Currently, all of the plants produce black and green tea, but they are in the process of growing purple tea in their nursery.
“We are told it prevents aging” said the assistant director. It seems they’ve discovered the Holy Grail of tea.
The estate was stunningly beautiful with bright green bushes planted in rows along steep hillsides. It was pouring outside and the tea in the distance seemed to vanish off into the haze. I’d roll down my tinted window now and then to take pictures, allowing a little rain to stream into the car and onto my lap. Alexia left hers open a little longer than usual and Ravena told her to close it.
“I want to be rained on. I want because I’m friend of Jesus” she said matter-of-factly.
“I am Rose, like the flower.”
“I’m Gwen". I was tempted to say, "Like Gwen Stefani" but I stopped myself. "It’s nice to meet you.”
“Gwan in Swahili means king.”
“Oh really? I didn’t know that. You said Gwan?”
“Yes, it means high official or king.”