How We Tell Stories Through Tea
Semhar McKnight is a writer and the editor at BEDA Magazine, a media house centered on telling African stories through multidisciplinary mediums. The article is based on an interview with Tee Manji, MTC's founder, and Semhar's own observations on the development and impact of Mawimbi Dance.
Once, our stories were necessitated by our environment—everything not-us that surrounded us—which was huge and demanding and intricate and often harsh but was also the source of life. In those times, the space between the story and the subject of the story was nonexistent.
There were no books, there were no cozy armchairs in which you could curl up safely to read about wars and murders and monsters that would come in the night to eat you. The story was told in—let’s say—a small circle of light, safe perhaps for the moment, but only for the moment. The danger that was in the story was also in the world, right next to you: just outside the circle of firelight, just outside the mouth of the cave.
Such stories were potent things. No wonder that they came to include built-in protection like beings who, if treated right, would grant you a good hunt or bestow the secrets to halt a receding hairline. These creatures were a part of nature and extended to our collective knowledge on what was safe to eat, how to build our homes and raise our kids.
Think of any five-year-old you’ve ever met. They learn languages so effortlessly, they sing, and dance, they make up games and have imaginary friends. They have an astonishing capacity to listen to and tell stories. As we get older a lot of us lose that urge, we get tied up in work and life and that creative impulse goes on the backburner. But we’re hard-wired for stories, it’s part of our earliest development and the way we learn to experience the world.
Times have changed, we’re no longer gathering around the fire to share knowledge. We have the internet now; you don’t even need to actually go to the supermarket for groceries anymore. At the core though we haven’t changed, stories are still important—it’s how we’re wired.
When we talk about the African stories behind our teas it's so we can remember the generations that came before us and learn from them, much in the same way we used to. The story behind Mawimbi Dance is all about the Kenyan coast, and from the colour to the hint of tropical fruits in the blend, it immediately throws me back to my childhood.
I didn’t grow up in Kenya, but I have my own memories of going to Massawa along the Red Sea in Eritrea where we would swim all day, get stung by jellyfish, cry for a bit then go diving for clams for dinner. When I pour a cup of Mawimbi Dance and take in the fragrant notes of the tea it reminds me of those hazy summer days with my grandma and my aunties and cousins.
Tee has a similar story—except hers is set in Kenya—and her own childhood framed the inspiration behind the creation of Mawimbi Dance.
“When I’m trying to capture these memories in the tea, everything from the smell, to the colour to the ingredients is representative of that. The smell of the ocean, the colour and the taste of mangos and pineapples in the blend bring back a lot of those memories”.
Mawimbi means “wave” in Swahili, and while the ocean can be joyful, the history of the ocean and the coast in Africa is a complex one: “While I was creating this blend, I spent a lot of time staring at the majestic baobab trees dotted along the coast, especially in Kilifi. Some of these trees are centuries old…and if trees could talk, I am sure they would tell us of the atrocities of our slave trade history”, Tee explains.
The baobab is also one of Africa’s most sacred trees, both for its properties and for its significance in so many of Africa’s old religions. Also known as the Tree of Life, it utilises every aspect of its anatomy to stay alive. While people have been eating the fruits and using the bark and roots in all manner of medicinal ways, even animals flock to the baobab tree. Elephants will often strip the bark for water during times of drought, birds nestle in the hollow spots, and bats flock to its sweet-smelling flowers. An ecosystem in itself—the baobab is a symbol of survival for animals and for people and continues to be so to this day.
Painting Credit: Milena @ www.milenasilverart.me
Mawimbi Dance has—along with its signature white tea leaves and buds, smoked baobab intermixed with the delicate notes of the white tea, the fruity tartness of dried mango and pineapple, and butterfly pea—a blue flower rich in antioxidants and chock full of health benefits. That’s what gives Mawimbi Dance its signature hue, and when you brew the tea and the leaves start to unfurl, the leaves look like they’re dancing in your cup, reminiscent of the lush gentle waves of the Swahili coastline.
The intermingling of stories and histories and ingredients native to Africa with our own individual memories is MTC’s raison d’etre – to tell the story of Africa through the creation of uniquely African Tea Blends. The processing itself is meticulous, requiring a level of time, detail, and expertise that few people know about and has been lost for the sake of modern convenience.
Seeing how carefully the teas are blended, especially as a die-hard coffee fan has given me so much respect for the craft of tea. Everything worthwhile takes time. My grandma knows this, she’ll spend 5-6 hours making sugo (what we call pasta sauce). There’s definitely a less roundabout way to go about it and when I asked her why, she replied with, “Well yes, it can be faster. But if you just buy a jar from the supermarket and eat you’re just eating to live. There’s no love. There’s no chatting, no family time, no nice smell in the house for the neighbours to know you’re making sugo. You don’t enjoy your life when everything is fast”.
Tee shares similar sentiments;
“I want you to be still with the tea blend and take some time out to deeply inhale and let the tea speak to you. I’m always looking for ways for the tea to dance and merge into something which is hopefully balanced and nuanced while at the same time evoking emotions within you that spark something from your memory bank of emotions”.
The power of storytelling isn’t just about remembering our past, it’s a part of our future. From the very beginning of humankind older members would tell younger members not only stories of disaster—how the crocodile ate Uncle George—but also stories of success —how Cousin Arnold hunted and killed an antelope—so that each generation of young people did not have to learn these things from scratch. Which plants were edible, which poisonous—this was essential knowledge, and those with no teachers wouldn’t have lived long.
Stories are woven into our very being. By rediscovering the ingredients and teas and terrains of Africa we’re learning how to keep our deep-rooted history alive and allowing them to blossom into the creation of African inspired tea blends.