Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Which is your Favorite? Coffee or Tea?


Before the advent of modern thermos flasks, the most famous container for the preservation of beverages in Africa was the gourd or Calabash followed by the clay pot then the tea kettle. The origin of tea may be disputed, but in East Africa, it originated in the Kenya highlands before finding its way in England and then to other parts of the world. English barons or English settlers to East Africa, were the first to establish large cultivations of the tea plant around Mount Kenya. That is when the area around the Rift Valley in Kenya came to be known as 'the White Highlands'- -or in other words the highlands of the white man or the highlands that best suit the white man's lifestyles.

The scientific name for tea is Thea (Camellia) sinesis. It was not until 1922 when tea found its way in the Northern Frontier District (NFD)-a land predominantly occupied by Somalis and annexed by Kenya in 1953 with the help of the strong British colonial administration that had the upper hand in East Africa. It was in 1953, when the current Queen of England, Queen Elizabeth II of England, succeeded the throne while vacationing in Kenya.

In many Somali narratives, tea has been the cause of many divorces. A woman who fails to serve her husband on time becomes a victim of a quick divorce. A poorly lit fire or an old fashioned brewing container known as goofoow is often blamed for the divorce. Tea is to Somalis and the English people as coffee is to the Arabs and Americans. To a Somali, tea is more than a beverage. To some communities, it deserves more respect than beer or whisky.

Among the locals in Southern Somalia and Northern Kenya, the time tea was introduced is known as 'sannadkii biyo fuud' which refers to 1922. From there on, tea became a prominent beverage consumed on a wide scale. The inhabitants of the NFD region concocted the name 'warikow'-a name that exists to this day. A wide scale consumption of tea reached Southern Somalia and beyond, perhaps, afterwards.

Worldwide, the English people hold the record for tea consumption. Because of the absolute ownership of the big farms in East Africa, Britain became its major consumer, financier, and supplier. The major distributor of tea in Kenya until recently was an English owned company called Brooke Bond Liebeg. On the other hand, Britain played a major role in the colonization of Asia. That is why countries like Japan, India, and Sri Lanka play a major role in the world tea market.

Inside tea processing factories in Kenya, the tea leaves pass through five different categories or qualities known as 'sheaves'. The first, second, and third sheaves are of the best quality and major sustainer of the economy or hard currency earner; these three sheaves find their way in the shelves of major shopping centers in Europe, Middle East, and North America. The remaining two-actually of low quality-remain consumed locally.

From a historical perspective, coffee consumption predates tea consumption. The history of coffee is very old as it was consumed for milleniums in the Middle East, Northern Africa, and East Africa to due Arab influence. Coffee is thought to have originated in Ethiopia where coffee berries have been used for medicinal and ritual purposes for centuries. It is thought that the first person to have discovered Coffee was an Ethiopian herding goats. The value of coffee was brought to his attention by a goat that consumed the berries and leaves of the plant and then suddenly broke into dance.

In many English speaking countries, a break from work is known as coffee break. Italians call coffee caffe; in Turkish it is Kahve; while in Arabic it is qahwah, and in Kiswahili it is Kahawa. The scientific name for coffee is Coffee arabica and c. canefora. In the United States, a place where ready made coffee can be found is called a coffee shop whereas in other countries it is the coffee house. The machine that grinds coffee is a coffee mill while the one that brews it is a coffee maker.

After the defeat and collapse of the mighty Ottoman Empire, retreating Turkish soldiers left behind some of their food rations including ground coffee in Italy. An Italian priest named Cappucin stumbled upon an area where Turkish soldiers had abandoned. The most important commodity that captured his attention were packets of ground coffee which he began to experiment by brewing over fire. Upon tasting, he found it tateless and then added some cream and from there on evolved the name cappuccino.

Besides Kenya, tea is grown in India, China, Japan, and Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). With the exception of Arab North Africa, Africa south of the Sahara is much dependent on tea as a preferred beverage. With no coffee makers, Africans are dependent on tea kettles for brewing varieties of teas. Those who assume starbucks coffee as the best beverage may be mistaken. A taste of warikow will surely reveal the contrary.

For Somalia, it is tea as usual-every minute, hour, or day-whether at home or away socializing in the Diaspora. Whether served with milk or in black form, the aroma and taste is what consumers give considerable delight. Without tea, there is no cocooing for visitors. Guests feel exuberant welcome with a cup of warikow-the best brew on earth. Regardless of whether tea or coffee is your favorite, one thing is certain: besides soda, the two remain the most consumed beverages worldwide.

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