The Tea Trail with Simon Reeve
Producer/director Adam Warner (pictured) on the challenges and revelations of his trip across Kenya.
What are the origins of the British cuppa? Where does our tea come from? Who are the people who grow it and what’s life like for them? Not questions I’d ever given much thought to. But over a period of three months late last year, they became the focus of my working life. Finding answers to them took me on an epic journey across hundreds of miles in a continent I’d never visited, and opened my eyes to the legacy of British imperial history. By the time the journey ended, I had come to see the nation’s most popular drink in a new light.
The chance to shoot a documentary in Africa was a gift. The energy, colour and natural beauty of this vast continent are breathtaking. I’d never been to Africa, for work or pleasure. I hadn’t shot a travelogue or worked with Simon Reeve. And I’d never made a film for This World. I hadn’t accepted a job offer more speedily in my career. But I soon came to appreciate that filming in Africa is far from straightforward.
For a start, trying to communicate with people 4,000 miles away, some living in remote areas, whose first language isn’t English, over unreliable mobile phone networks, was at times deeply frustrating. Sometimes you just can’t make yourself heard or understood. Cultural differences mean there’s plenty of margin for error. Misunderstandings are inevitable.
And shooting a travelogue about the British cuppa meant having to cross 800 miles in two and a half weeks. That may sound like plenty of time, but then, have you seen the state of the roads in Africa? Getting around anywhere is difficult. Even the shortest journey can take forever. Kenya’s A roads (some of the best in the continent) are tarmac, it’s true, but often only in part. The remaining road surface is pitted with potholes. Turn off the main road, and you’re driving along dirt track. Here the ruts are so deep, even at low speed, your brain is hurled from one side of your skull to the other.
And then there’s always the risk of illness. I had had an arm-full of jabs to protect me against infections and diseases like rabies, hepatitis and tetanus. I’d been well briefed on the need to take precautions - drink only bottled water, avoid eating uncooked food and so on. And taking my daily dose of anti-malarials became pretty routine. But I was continually haunted by the knowledge that if I got sick, the show would go on - and I’d be left behind.
The good news was that I was with an experienced production team who’d worked across Africa and had confronted all these problems and others on many previous occasions. I set off on the first leg of my African tea trail.
The Tea Trail
The journey took us by rail and road across Kenya from east to west. We began in Mombasa, home to Africa’s biggest tea auction and one of the most important cities in the world for the British tea drinker - most of our tea bag tea comes from here. From Mombasa we travelled by train to Nairobi the capital, retracing the steps taken by European settlers who first brought tea to the continent in the 1920s. And over the course of the next two weeks, we worked our way through the country, talking to the people who grow and ship us our tea – the pickers, packers, truckers, salesmen and auctioneers - to find out about their lives and the conditions they work in.
Sitting at my kitchen table six weeks on, I can say that the trip was remarkable first and foremost because of what it revealed.
I was familiar with some of the history of tea growing in Kenya; that early European settlers had taken land at gunpoint; that the British imperial authorities had been duplicitous - deporting many Africans and handing over vast areas of their land to Europeans. And I was aware that before Kenyan independence in 1963, only whites were allowed to grow tea.
But to hear at first hand an account of the British authorities’ brutality towards Kenyan detainees during the Mau Mau conflict in the 1950s was truly shocking. Wambugu Wa Nyingi was held without charge for nine years. He told us how he had been repeatedly beaten and tortured and saw several friends murdered in front of him. He bears the physical and mental scars sixty years on.
His candour was upsetting. Although he acknowledges the British government’s expression of regret for abuses committed during the Mau Mau rebellion, to this day, Wambugu still feels remorse that his land has not been returned to him. It was an interview I will never forget.
Our visit to Narok in Central Kenya we met the Maasai (The People who speak “Maa”) one of the world’s most famous tribes. They’re nomadic herders. For centuries, they have relied on cattle for their livelihood - milk, meat, skins, dung. All that is changing. The family group we met had recently suffered the worst drought in living memory. Land used for pasture had dried up. Many of their cattle had died. Lucy Seleyian, a grandmother who leads the community, told us that to survive, many Maasai have been forced to give up their nomadic lifestyle and become farmers; corn, beans - some have even taken to higher ground to grow tea.
One further tea trail revelation came on the final leg of our journey, in Uganda. Here, child labour has been recognised as a problem in the tea industry. In recent years, the Ugandan government has been trying to tackle it. And judging by the reaction of the people here, it’s now generally frowned upon.
But it still goes on. We spoke to Abel, a ten-year-old boy, who told us he picks tealeaves to earn money to feed his family. He earns a paltry income. 1000 Ugandan Shillings per day is the equivalent of just 25p. Abel is one of an estimated 2 million child workers in Uganda.
It’s all too easy to take a simple-minded attitude to the problem and to wish child labour could be simply wiped out. But in reality, that would mean taking away the livelihoods of millions of children and their families. Child labour is a huge problem in the developing world. And it’s a problem with no easy solution.
Which is why it seems to me that schemes designed to support tea smallholders and their families are a good thing. There are many in operation, but those under the general description of fair trade are the best at ensuring farmers are paid a fair price for their produce. The farmers also receive extra money to invest in community projects. One primary school we visited is being supported by one of these schemes. As a result, several children who used to pick tea are now in school.
By the end of my journey, I had come to accept an uncomfortable truth: that many of the people in the East African tea industry earn just enough to survive. Since returning home, I now always look twice at the packet when I buy my tea.