by Tim Dawe
I’m in Nairobi staying with family within the razor-wire security expected of expats, feeling a little too secluded. When an opportunity presents to tour a tea plantation of course I jump at it; Kenya is famous for it tea and coffee plantations.
We take the well-constructed road towards Naivasha, my driver Ngugi and me, turning off – and up – to the green hills at Limuru, 40km and a world away from frenetic Nairobi. Kiambethu Tea Farm is not well signposted so I’m late for the 11am talk by the seventy-something granddaughter of the founder, “AB” McDowell. AB established Kenya’s first tea planation here in Limuru. Today Kenya is the world’s biggest tea exporter. Fiona Vernon, a second generation Kenyan, is English-old-school – it’s “Keen-ya” not Kenya. She stands at the grand fireplace of her drawing room cluttered with generations of memories as we sit encircled, drinking her best tea. After twenty years, three times a week, this is not a slick PR presentation; it’s a grand-aunt commandingly recounting her family history. Viewed from my latecomer armchair I become part of a mannered Noël Coward play.
Her story unfolds of young AB’s 1910 arrival in Mombasa, waiting to make his mark before “bringing out his bride from the old country” and his gamble to buy and consolidate Kenya’s first tea plantation – quickly selling half the large estate on a rising market. Our party of nine from North and South America, Europe and Australia learn about the production and manufacture of tea and about the life of pickers. The first surprising revelation is that over the years this “tea plantation” has been reduced from hundreds of acres of tea to just two. The first plantation…and the smallest? An hour or more passes. No one notices.
We are introduced to Julius, the archetypal retainer, who takes us through the ramshackle farm, now paying its way with a few milking cows. Chuma, the kelpie-cross follows in every one of Julius’ footsteps. Seeing just a few tea bushes was never going to last long. A few steps further we’re wandering through a rare remnant of temperate rainforest. It’s a tiny, and refreshing, counterpoint to the district’s monoculture farming. Julius is a natural in explaining its medicinal bounty. This family legacy, and Fiona’s pride and joy, is an unexpected wonderland.
Pre-prandial drinks are held on the front veranda. From the manicured lawns green mounds of now other people’s tea plantations extend to the horizon under a cloudless sky. Colobus monkeys play chasey, tumbling down the tin roof in a rehearsed routine. Lunch is served.
The dining room resembles a small gallery. We sit at a long table as generations of gentlemen stare out at us from the walls. A three course meal and vin ordinaire is homely. Another revelation dawns: it’s not tea, the farm, or rainforest; it’s us, this tour group…we generate this family’s income, and possibly its generational survival. There’s an echo of English landed gentry living in genteel poverty in a damp stately home with a broken roof facing death duties. Fiona is the perfect luncheon hostess giving orders and engaging guests. An elderly family retainer pours soup and we help ourselves to home-grown vegetables.
There’s an elderly couple from Stuttgart on my left, an adventurous young woman from Santiago on my right, all of us first-timers to Kenya. Opposite are teachers from Toronto, completing their three-year assignment. Everyone is relaxed and enjoys themselves – and their own Kenyan stories. It’s 3:30pm and no one seems keen to leave. Home brand packets of tea appear. Payment is typically low key, no ghastly cash receipts – or even receiving.
“Just, ah, leave the money in the saucer,” says Fiona.
Kiambethu is more than expected; it’s better, and a delight. It’s a glimpse of what was, and perhaps what might have been, in the rolling greenery of Kenya’s tea estates overlooking the Ngong Hills.