Buddha, Tea, and African Thunderstorms

Paul and I arrived in Nandi Hills with Boaz on the weekend at the end of March. His Toyota pickup was slowly churning up the dirt tracks, billows of dust coating the edges of the tea bushes.  Everyone was anticipating the rain, eagerly watching the towering afternoon clouds only to see them dissolve into a clear evening sky. It hadn’t rained in Nandi for four months (an unusually long drought) and this causes small tea farmers to struggle financially. The dry season drastically slows the leaf growth, therefore very little tea is plucked. When the rains fall, the tea bushes flourish and offer fresh leaves to pluck each week.

After the long trip from Nairobi to Nandi, we were greeted by Jacob and Ruth Katah (Boaz’s parents) who are some of the sweetest people we’ve ever met. They graciously put us up at their house. The house is on their tea farm where we currently get most of our green leaf tea. Jacob and Ruth also grow papayas, guavas, avocados, cabbage, carrots, pumpkins and kale. There are also a lot
of vegetables we don’t recognize, mostly bitter greens that are pretty intense for the western palate.

Buddha, our tea processing expert from Darjeeling, was supposed to arrive by plane at the beginning of April. We drove out to the hills of Nandi to collect him at the Kisumu airport, one and a half hours away. We were delighted to get out of the rural hills of Kenya, so we left to do a few errands while we waited for his arrival.There is pretty much nothing within a 40-minute drive of the Katah tea farm. Later that evening, we showed up at the airport along with a sky full of ominous, rumbling clouds pierced with lightning. It rained a little, then seemed to be clearing up. But just when we thought it had passed, the sky opened up a deluge of water on us! Paul and I have both experienced our share of monsoons but this was totally apocalyptic! We were standing outside under an awning trying to capture it on video when all the electrical power went out in the airport. As the emergency generator kicked in, we knew this would not look good for Buddha’s plane to arrive. After a few more power outages, we eventually learned all flight arrivals had been turned away.

Good news though…Buddha brought the rain! We picked him up the next day, with rain still streaming down. Along with Buddha, we were joined by Emily, a graduate student working with the Tea Research Foundation of Kenya to learn about our project. Boaz had also hired a small crew of farmers made up of young men and women to help us make handcrafted tea. We began our experiments of trying to turn freshly plucked tea leaves into the dried tea leaves you steep in your cup. Right away we were delayed by equipment needing upgrades, as well as a few more blackouts. Power outages continue to be a challenge for Boaz and his team, but with a few innovations they figure out ways to work though them. Three days later, we had our first success in a bright and lively green tea! Yum!  When we first started making tea in 2013, we weren’t even sure green tea would be possible. There were many experiments that resulted in good teas and not-so-good teas. Each night ended with a cupping (tasting) of the day’s output and tales of adventure from two wise old men, or “mzees”, one from Kenya and one from India.