Sally Mauk: Women new to tea business and old bring expertise to Missoula

2013-03-01T19:15:00Z 2013-03-01T21:50:24Z Sally Mauk: Women new to tea business and old bring expertise to MissoulaBy SALLY MAUK for the Missoulian missoulian.com
March 01, 2013 7:15 pm  • 

Shirlene Davis grew up in a musical, churchgoing family in New Jersey – her uncle was the legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis – and she went on to become a nurse, and then to work with disenfranchised women and the homeless.

Joy W’Njuguna grew up in a family of tea merchants and farmers in central Kenya, who sent her abroad to be educated, hoping she would become a lawyer.

Both women now live and work in Nashville, Tenn., where they co-own a tea-importing business called Royal Tea of Kenya.

As this paper reported earlier, the two were in Missoula this week to promote their expansion into the local tea market.

I had no idea tea could be such an exciting topic till I sat down to talk about it with these two women, whose passion about their product is immediately evident.

Davis’ tea expertise is fairly recent; as she says, growing up she thought of it only as a “a bag you dipped in hot water.” W’Njuguna’s tea history goes back generations, almost since tea bushes were first introduced into Kenya in the early 20th century. Her 112-year-old grandfather still manages a six-square-mile tea farm, and Kenya is now the third largest producer of tea in the world, and the largest exporter of black tea.

But W’Njuguna’s role as the owner of a tea import business is remarkable in this respect: she’s a Kenyan woman, and it’s still rare for women from her country to be educated, much less own a business. She credits her progressive parents, both of whom were educated abroad just as she was. W’Njuguna says her father encouraged her to be a feminist.

“By putting me through school and making sure I got the best education,” said W’Njuguna. “Most of these patriarchal families concentrate on the male child, but my father, because of studying abroad after (Kenya’s) independence ... studied here and wanted to go back and build Kenya.”

And her father felt that rebuilding meant everyone in society, including women, had to participate in the new, post-colonial economy.

“It was always about doing better, it doesn’t matter if you’re a girl, it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy, just do your best,” W’Njuguna said.

Seventy percent of the people who pick Kenya’s tea are women, according to W’Njuguna, and they manage the household with the money they earn. She and Davis want their company to help these women improve economically. Davis, in charge of the company’s branding, named their signature tea “Royal Golden Safari” in honor of the first African woman to win the Nobel peace prize, Wangari Maathai. A conservationist and women’s rights activist, Maathai died last year.

“She’s truly missed because she was so instrumental in women’s rights in Kenya,” said W’Njuguna. “So (Davis) named this (tea) Royal Golden Safari because it is golden in appearance, and she was our royalty ... and safari means journey in the sense that even though her journey has come to an end on this earth, her work will always be memorialized in this tea.”

If that sounds a tad ambitious for a mere beverage, you underestimate the role tea plays in Kenyan culture (and many other non-American cultures for that matter). Visitors are always offered a cup of tea in Kenya, and not just to be sociable.

“It would be a way for them to observe you,” said W’Njuguna. “They would look at you, they would shake your hand, and they would know if you were telling the truth ... are you a person of integrity. ... That way of just sitting ... having your tea, listening to your soul, your heart and moving forward. Tea is a way of life, and that’s what we want to promote.”

W’Njuguna and Davis think Americans are ready to slow down and become more reflective, and that sharing a cup of tea is a perfect catalyst to foster that shift.

I’m heating the water right now.

Sally Mauk is news director at Montana Public Radio, KUFM, in Missoula. She writes a twice-monthly column for the Missoulian.

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