The Tea Estates in Nandi Hills

Paul Duffau and Justin Lagat in Nandi Hills

Paul Duffau and Justin Lagat in Nandi Hills

Yesterday, Justin and I headed to Nandi Hills to tour the tea estates there. We also took a side trip to a historical museum for one of Kenya’s heroes from the colonial period, and visited an almost-uncle of Justin’s.

Since the drive was more lengthy than the others we’ve tackled so far, we bombed out before dawn. This proved to be interesting—Kenyans are not much for getting up that early, I supposed as a function of the tremendous consistency of the sun-up and sun-down this close to the equator. Runners, bundled in warm-ups and hats, out-numbered the rest of the pedestrians, and traffic was thankfully light.

Kenyan traffic is hard to imagine for a westerner. Start with the lack of lane markings, add in a high degree of competitive fire since most of the drivers are young men, and then picture intersections without a hint of traffic control signage—no stoplight, no stop signs, nada. The traffic jams are impressive. Still, they make it work, but I’m glad Justin is driving.

A brief look at Kaspabet

Sorry for the blur - picture was taken from a moving vehicle.

Sorry for the blur - picture was taken from a moving vehicle.

The drive out took us past Kaspabet, one of the three main training centers in the region, joining Eldoret and Iten. The quality of runner here is high, based on what I observed from the road going by. Also, for the first time, I saw women training. Unlike the men who will pack a small bag and leave home for a training camp, the options for the women are more limited. This is partially due to cultural influences and a desire to protect their daughters, a task easier done from close to home than many kilometers away. I’d guess the ratio of male to female runners to about four to one. For contrast, in the US, there are more women runners than men, though the ratios approach one-to-one at the highest levels.

Kaspabet is undergoing a major resurgence with building construction proceeding at breakneck pace. For what I could see, most of the construction is related to new residential buildings. If you’re thinking of coming to Kaspabet for training, give it a year. There should be plenty of new housing. (Be aware that Kenyan standards for room size and rest rooms may not meet a picky westerners expectations.)

The Tea Estates

First, the tea estates, rolling up and down Nandi Hills, may be one of the prettiest sights I’ve enjoyed in a while. The vividness of the colors, from the green of the plants, to the oranges atop the Nandi Flame trees, to the brick red of the roads, was stunning.

Nandi Flame Tree

Nandi Flame Tree

Tea is a relatively new agricultural product in Kenya, introduced in 1903. Since then, it’s grown to be the fourth largest producer of tea in the world. Nandi Hills, where we were, is one of the smaller regions.

Workers picking tea.

Workers picking tea.

While efforts have been made to mechanize the picking of tea, this remains a back-breaking manual labor position. It is, however, a step up from the starting job, which entrails trimming the plants with a machete and weeding. The workers are paid by the kilo, so the more good quality tea they pick, the more money they make.

Most of the estates have living quarters for their workers. The type and sufficiency vary depending on the individual company. Usually, there is a small store of everyday items in the worker village to reduce the necessary travel of the workers to the nearby villages. In all, it harkens back to the days of the old company towns run by mines and mills. I don’t know the situation well enough to know if the same problems that beset the company towns apply here.

The fields are picked on a rotational basis, a fact I learned at Justin’s almost uncle’s house. Josaphat Tuwei retired from police work to run a small private tea estate. Kenya, unlike India and Sri Lanka, encourages small tea producers to plant and harvest. Approximately 60 percent of the tea grown in the country comes from these private estates.

Since the weather in the higher elevations is suitable year-round for tea production, the plants are under constant attention, picking when ready, fertilizing and weeding when not, and trimming back every couple of year to remove the old think leaves that make for poor quality tea.

Time out for a late breakfast and the Barsirian Arap Manyei Museum

Breakfast was at the Tea Planters Inn, in Nandi Hills. Two Spanish omelets, coffee for me and tea for Justin. Like most of the Kenyan restaurant I’ve been in (so far), the have large areas set aside for groups with smaller tables scattered in. My take is that eating is very much a social activity of sharing for the Kenyans. The idea of a small private and intimate table probably runs counter to the culture except in the westernized urban areas.

The Spanish omelets come with a peppery zing and the coffee everywhere is Nescafe in little packets. As good as they are with tea, the Kenyans need a lesson or two on coffee drinking.

We went to the museum next. For those not aware, the British in the 1950’s were disinclined to give up any of their territories. This did not represent a recent change of heart but a continuation of long-standing policy. They would never have relinquished their hold on the US if the independence driven thirty percent of colonists had been such a terrible pain – and an expensive one when Britain could not afford either.

The mausoleum with a symbolic olive tree in front.

The mausoleum with a symbolic olive tree in front.

Koitalel Arap Samoei was a Nandi Orkoiyot who fought the British over the Uganda Railway. For eleven years, he and the Nandis were a major thorn in the side of the British. They responded by inviting him to a peace conference and then, in the spirit of fair play, British-style, murdering him and his entire party in cold blood. That was in 1905.

In 1922, his son Barsirian Arap Manyei was imprisoned in a home in 1922. He was not released until 1962, making him the longest serving political prisoner of the age. That house has since been converted to a museum, filled with artifacts from Nandi tribal days. Justin and I were guided through the building by a museum representative.

Next door is a mausoleum, honoring Koitalel Samoei. There is tremendous symbology built into the mausoleum, from the direction of the sarcophagus to the four pillars representing manhood. They are not done yet, planning installing a lion, the tribal animal for that family of Nandis.

Learning to pick tea with Josephat Tuwei

Our final stop was in Kipraragon Villege to visit Josephat Tuwei. He has a small private estate that covers several acres of hillside and he was kind enough to educate me on tea. The tea, once planted, takes three years to reach a maturity suitable for picking. Once they are ready, though, the work becomes non-stop as each section of the estate needs to be harvested every 10 to 14 days.

Josaphat Tuwei teaching me about tea growing.

Josaphat Tuwei teaching me about tea growing.

Harvesting is not just a matter of picking whichever leaves come closest to hand. For Grade 1 tea, you need to select new shoots with two full leaves and the start of the third. Grade 2 tea has a third full leaf.

The pickers pick by hand, using a pinching motion between the fingernail of the thumb and hard calluses that get built up on the sides of the fingers to snip the stems. Good pickers use both hands, seemingly without even having to look at the leaves.  

Mr. Tuwei, an energetic man who does not look near his sixty years, had me try my hand at it. Interesting work for the five minutes that I picked but not a job I want for life. He was very encouraging as I figured it out. Together, we enjoyed more than a few laughs, including when Justin, who was acting as the photographer, suggested I smile while picking. “I can’t,” I told him, to laughs from everyone, “I’m picking and working.”

After walking through his sections, we retired to lunch. As I said, the Kenyans treat meals as social occasions, so we spent a considerable amount of time chatting, mostly about America. What was different? Could they visit?  

The subject of Henry Rono came up, from me, since we were this close to Nandi Hills. Indeed, we were in his home village and Mr. Tuwei knew where Henry’s old home was. The younger people looked a little perplexed, so the two of us shared a bit of history, of four World Records in 81 days, of the greatness of Rono. It’s good to see the memories still there, but sad to see them fading. In thirty years, Rono will join Zatopek in running lore, a legend that fades a bit over time.

When it was time to leave, we thought of seeing Rono’s home – but I like my heroes bigger than life and my imagination is better sometimes than reality, so I declined Mr. Tuwei’s offer to guide us and we got into the car.

Mr. Tuwei asked me, as we were getting ready to leave, to tell you one thing, though.

“Drink more Kenyan Tea!”