February 21, 2005
Tea is the second largest crop that is exported from Malawi, and on Sunday we drove past thousands of hectares of neatly trimmed, carefully cultivated tea bushes. Over 46,000 tons of black tea are exported from Malawi each year. This is 90% of the crop.
Tea was first planted in Malawi in 1878, with tea seeds from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. The unpredictable weather in southern Malawi can make tea-growing difficult. In recent years, Malawian tea growers have partially overcome this by fresh plantings of clonal varieties better suited to the climate. But if there is a drought the crop suffers greatly.
The main picking season is from October to April, and as long as there is rain, the tea bushes are lush with new growth. So far this year, the rains on the plantations have been good, so the bushes are sporting a light limey green layer of new growth. It is these tender new leaves that are picked and used for tea.
Tea pickers have a tough life, to say the least. They must pick 20 kilos (about 50 lbs.) of tea a day, or they do not get paid. If they pick more than that, they are paid extra, according to the amount they harvest. Tea is checked for quality and weight at stations throughout the vast plantations. Pickers work from 6:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with a break at 9:00 a.m. for tea (you wouldn’t expect them to take a coffee break, now would you???) and lunch at 12:30 p.m. Some plantations give their workers an additional tea break at 3:00 p.m. We have seen pickers working in the pouring rain (they sometimes have slickers on to protect them from the harshest downpours) and in the blistering mid day sun. Unfortunately, tea pickers make abysmal wages (by U.S. standards). For 20 kilos a day they earn 70 Kwacha (about 65 cents). Some are provided with housing, which usually comes in the form of tiny bungalows that are grouped together. Some of these “accommodations” appeared to be fairly well-kept, while others need maintenance, repairs and a new coat of paint. Many of the tea pickers live in nearby villages in huts.
Malawian tea grows in rich red soil. That may be why it yields a dark red tea. Tea makers such as Lipton and Twinings blend it with other teas and put it in bags, but Malawians drink it straight. They do not use tea bags. They put loose tea in a small strainer over a cup and pour boiling hot water through it. Then they add liberal amounts of sugar and milk. Malawians love hot tea, even in very hot weather. They think we are crazy for drinking “iced” tea.
On Sunday we visited one of the partner churches, St. Andrews CCAP Church, which sits at the base of Mt. Mulanje, in the heart of Malawi’s tea growing region. From Buumvay to Thyllo and for miles and miles beyond, you drive by neatly manicured tea estates. Dan considers it the prettiest drive in Malawi, and on early Sunday mornings there are also hundreds of people walking along the road in their colorful traditional garb. With Malawi’s “island in the sky,” the gigantic Mt. Mulanje looming in the background, it is truly a magnificent tapestry.
St. Andrews CCAP Church was constructed by the tea plantation owners. They placed it right next to the road (for easy access) and adjacent to the golf course (after all, they were Scots). They donated beautiful stained glass windows too. Today the church is attended by Malawian civil servants, nurses, and teachers who are not originally from the area. There are 500 members, and I think every one of them was at the Celebration of Worship on Sunday. They had to set up more benches in the back of the sanctuary. It was jammed. The Celebration of Worship lasted nearly four hours. Six choirs performed. There is a tin roof on the church and we were baking inside, despite the open windows. I thought Dan was going to pass out from heat stroke in his heavy robe, but he survived. (Maybe the cup of tea they served us prior to Worship helped.)
Our friend, Dr. Sue Makin, the PC(USA) missionary from Mulanje Mission Hospital, came over and worshipped with us as well. After the Celebration of Worship, while the Mvano fixed our lunch (and more tea), the pastor, Rev. Moses Labana told us more about tea. We walked two feet behind the manse and into a tea field. Rev. Labana had grown up in the region and in his youth picked tea. “It is very hard work, for very little pay,” he told us. He showed us which leaves should be picked for the best quality tea. He worked his way up to be tea checker. He was the person who inspected the tea and weighed it. Everything was then carefully recorded in large ledgers.
Dan asked him if there were snakes in the tea fields. “Yes, there are, and some people pick in bare feet, but it is unusual for anyone to get a snake bite,” he said. He showed us how the fields are laid out and measured. There are narrow passages between the bushes for the tea pickers to walk through as they pick.
Later in life, Rev. Labana entered the “Mature Ministers” program and became a CCAP pastor. He has served many churches throughout the Synod over the course of his ministry, but is very happy to be in his home district now. It is no wonder, since many people consider it the most beautiful part of Malawi.
During the Celebration of Worship, the congregation presented us with some gifts. We were given juicy sweet Mulanje pineapples and fat yellow local bananas. The most special gift, however, was a package of hard to get, export quality tea. It is a gift that we will treasure – right up to the point when we drink it!