Saturday April 21, 2012 | 10 comments
My grandfather, Arthur Njuguna Komo, will celebrate his 111th birthday this year. Born in 1901 into a traditional Kikuyu polygamous household, my grandfather is uncertain which month he was born in, as most traditional societies in Africa did not mark time by our Gregorian calendar. Seasons and events such as births, deaths, initiation, and marriage ceremonies counted as traditional time flags for the tribe in general.
“111!!!” a friend remarked. “How does it feel to be his granddaughter?” I smiled because I knew that what was important was that I stood on the shoulders of giants in the tea and human rights battles of the Kenyan small-scale farmers. My own father – one of Kenya’s prominent political warriors who helped shape Kenya’s new constitution – taught me to walk in humility and let your deeds go before you.
Recently, I bought my grandfather some thermal jackets that he is very fond of wearing. I am told that he loves to put them on in the late afternoon as he drinks his tea and takes his walks on my father’s estate, stopping sometimes to witness the cows being milked in the evening. The rich milk from my father’s dairy cows is used to brew his milky tea. Most Kenyans drink a very milky tea with a 50/50 milk/water ratio or even, in some cases, a 80/20 milk/water ratio. In the evening, my grandfather consumes his bowl of traditional bone soup, made with indigenous bitter herbs to strengthen his bones. He is still lucid and remembers that I am “selling tea in America.”
The last time I spoke with him, I told him how well his tea, Grandpa’s Anytime Tea, was doing in many tea shops, both in the U.S. and the U.K. He reminded me to keep working hard and to make buyers aware of the tough times the Kenyan small farmers face as they rely on the rains to come on time. This year has been particularly hard for the Kenyan tea farmers as they faced frost late last year. Thousands of tea farmers were affected by the low temperatures, which caused the tea leaves to wither. The frost also destroyed tea plantations in the west of the country and caused tea farmers to lose millions of Kenyan shillings.
This particular day, my grandfather called me at 3:00 AM to talk. He seemed a little frustrated that I had been asleep as he recounted the fact that when he was young he would be up, getting ready to milk the cows. “Promise me,” he pleaded, “that you will do your best to sell this tea.” Sensing a need to drive home the point that so many families depended on the sale of the tea, he reminded me that I was to work hard and sleep less to ensure that the tea was sold. It was a lecture that I had not prepared for and he was adamant and passionate. Finally, as he was finishing up his lecture, he asked me about the teas I was selling. I explained that we had one of his bold black teas. “There is another tea you should try,” he remarked. “I usually drink this tea in the afternoon; maybe the people in America will enjoy this one too. I will make sure that we send it to you.” And with that, Grandpa’s Afternoon Tea was added to our tea selections.
“There must be something in his tea,” one tea enthusiast told me. “You can’t just have one cup.” Another British tea buyer remarked “Grandpa’s Anytime Tea is my favorite. It tastes like a posh Yorkshire tea with more depth. Definitely something your grandpa would enjoy.” It’s a testament to his careful tea-plucking methods that he learned over 50 years and his refusal to adopt machinery. Employing the best tea pickers in the area, he has given them the opportunity for profit sharing and a stake in the land. You see, when I think of my grandfather, I get a little sad because I know he will never make the journey and meet the many tea drinkers, enthusiasts, and aficionados who have embraced his teas and his story. When I think of my grandfather in the early hours of the day, as I am busy skyping with clients all over the world, responding to emails, and talking to the farmers in Kenya, I am reminded of all that is good and decent in this world. My grandfather’s handshake means more than a contract and his direct questions hide no ulterior motives. He taught me to be kind and gracious in a suspicious world because that was his culture. He taught me to be honest even when I would lose credibility. In a vast world that he would never travel, he taught me the universal law of “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
I was especially touched by a poem written for my grandfather by tea enthusiast, Marlena Amalfitano:
Now that I am old,
In the quiet evening
As shadows draw across spinney and lawn,
Between last bird song and first frog call,
I hear the angels talking,
Their voices soft around the edges of the air
I did not hear them
in the night cries of children
Or the rush of work,
nor in the protest songs of war,
nor even in the tired sleep of years gone away
But now that I am old,
I hear the angels talking.
When I am older,
I will hear their words,
Each one hovering like bell chimes in golden air
When I am older
When I go home.
My grandfather’s teas are available at Royal Tea of Kenya’s website. We are grateful to the many tea stores and other outlets all over the world that carry “Grandpa’s teas,” as part of their tea inventory. I know my grandfather, the world’s oldest tea farmer, would like to thank all who sell and buy his teas. This post is dedicated to him and them.
For more on my grandfather, please read Jane Pettigrew’s wonderful World Tea News article.