May 20, 2010

Pineapples and Tea Leaves

A couple of weekends back my dear friend (and YWE program manager) Pauline, invited Brian, another volunteer, Bethany, and I to visit her village, just a couple of hours north of Nairobi. We set out, with Kiromo, a driver from TechnoServe, on a beautiful sunny Saturday to visit what Kenyans call 'shags'. Shags is the slang term for the farm or village. So I guess it turns out that I'm also from 'shags', a village of just over 10,000 called Lowell, IN. :-) 

We arrived in the early afternoon and as we pulled up, Pauline's mother came to greet us at the gate. Her sweet mother knows no Kiswahili or English, only her mother tongue, Kikuyu. So on the way to her home, Pauline taught us how to greet her mom in Kikuyu. Her mother was very impressed by our greetings. 

We followed her mother inside the gate to find a lovely concrete blockhouse inside. The home was surrounded by lush green everywhere we looked. The richness of the farmland around was breathtaking, we all found ourselves wanting to skip off and take photos before even having lunch. Fortunately and politely Pauline told us we'd have time after we ate to walk around the farm.  

As we ventured to the backyard we found Pauline's father sitting peacefully under what appeared to be his favorite resting spot, underneath a big shady tree. Like her mother, Pauline's father knew no English but knew Kiswahili, it was just that we only knew kidogo (little) Swahili and couldn't communicate directly. As a result, there was a lot of smiling and head nodding that day! 

The food was ready soon after we arrived and the women settled into the living room area inside the house. The men, Brian and Kiromo, joined Pauline's father outside. This apparently is the norm when visiting a Kenyan's home, the men hang out together and the women stick together. Brian sat with the men for a bit but he quickly joined us in the house given the language barrier. 

We enjoyed the impeccable food Pauline's mother cooked for us. Kenyan's are so hospitable and you can never go hungry in their presence. There's such a strong culture of sharing whatever you have with everyone around you and this comes out when you visit someone's home. As a visitor you will receive some of the heftiest portions and it is a good idea to try and eat as much as you can because saying thanks is much more than just a verbal gesture it's said with the stomach!

After enjoying a tasty meal of chapatti, goat stew, veg stew and irio (mashed potatoes with corn) Pauline gave us the tour of her family's farm. We walked around back out the front gate to take in the view of several well manicured farms stacked on the surrounding hillsides. There was a ravine with a rapidly flowing river below, flooded from the recent heavy rains. 

Pauline's family used to grow lots of coffee when she was younger and during that time there was a huge coffee boom in which her father was able to easily sell the beans and use the money to send all of his 11 daughters off to school. Each one of Pauline's sisters has her college degree, an amazing feat for any Kenyan family. It's important to note that Pauline and her siblings played a very big role in earning their education, as they were the ones that had to pick the coffee beans every day, a task that Pauline is very happy to have in the distant past!

As we went walking around the farm, we saw hard long spiky leaves covering the entire hillside. These were pineapples Pauline's mother was managing. Nearby there were rows upon rows heading down to the river of small tea shrubs. Pauline gave me a small lesson on how to go about picking tea leaves. You have to look for the ones that are a bit lighter in color and are accompanied by a tall stem, once you've identified the right leaves, you quickly pinch them off. 

We continued to make our way along the hillside, finally rounding back to the house. As we came back in I was inquiring about what it would be like to really pick the tea leaves; with basket in tow. Pauline asked if I wanted to try and once I said yes we were right back in the tea leave shrubs with Pauline's cousin, an expert in this task willing and eager to show me the ropes.

I placed the basket on my head and tried to identify the right tea leaves to pick. Once I had a handful I was advised to throw them over my back as they would easily fall into the bottom of the basket waiting for others to join. Well sounded easier than it was. First of all one must learn how to balance the basket and then second, you've got to actually get the leaves in the basket, good aim is important. After a few tries I started to get the hang of it but will be the first to say, it is not easy work! Apparently, Pauline's cousin wakes up at 5am to start picking the tea leaves that head to the market the same day by 1pm. When she demonstrated how she picks tea it as if someone had hit the fast forward button because she was able to pick the leaves with such agility and speed I couldn't believe my eyes. She had clearly been doing this for some time. 

Once the tea adventures were finished in the field, we went back to the house to have some in a mug in the liquid form. We sat in the open air and sipped our tea, enjoying the conversation of good friends and a simple way of life. 

As we were getting ready to leave to head back to Nairobi everyone except Pauline's dad came outside  to send us off. We didn't necessarily expect him to get up from his cozy chair as we had already said our goodbyes while he was seated underneath his tree. He is age 92 but during our visit he claimed to be well over 100 given his age could only be estimated without any proper documentation, of which he had none. However, he actually came out and joined us, which Pauline later conveyed on the ride home that for him to come outside the gate to say goodbye to visitors was a very big deal. Awww :-)

Pauline's 'shags' was a beautiful place full of green lush farmland, natural beauty and a kind of peace you only find in a place without electricity and the constant interruptions of modern life. She comes from a loving family who values the gift of education and an appreciation for hard work. We all felt very lucky to have enjoyed such a lovely way of life on that sunny Saturday afternoon. 

Farmland on the hillside opposite Pauline's farm

Pauline is always making me laugh!

Enjoying lunch (one of Pauline's sisters also joined us)

We brought a small gift for Pauline's mother (new set of spoons)

Brian, Kiromo (TNS driver) and Pauline's father


Pineapples in the foreground

We enjoyed a pineapple and it was so sweet, very delicious!

Pauline educated me on how to pick tea leaves

She then showed me how she used to walk up the hill carrying a large sack of pineapples on her back, and emphasized how she would do this several times in a day = hardcore

I decided to give the picking of tea leaves a real try with Pauline's cousin showing me the ropes

She picked the leaves so fast!

Brian and I with Pauline and her lovely family


  1. That's some crazy wide-angle lens action you've got going on there.

  2. Good eye! These photos were taken by a friend's SLR.