“And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, all from my cup of tea.”—Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
In his early twentieth-century novel In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust describes the “all-powerful joy” that a sip of tea invokes. The joy stems not from the tea’s flavor, but from something transcendent that arises during the act of consumption. The smell and taste of the tea—and the madeleine cookie that accompanies it—transport him to another time and bring memories to life: flowers in a garden, people in a village, a parish church.
December 15 marks International Tea Day. In his iconic reflection, Proust focuses on the experience of drinking tea. International Tea Day, however, has a different goal. The “holiday” dates to 2005, when tea-producing communities around the world joined together to draw attention to the intimate, material experiences of producing tea in a global commodity chain.
In A Time for Tea (2001), Piya Chatterjee writes that the history of tea’s commodity chain is the history of the domestication of the exotic. To seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European and American consumers, tea was an alluring commodity: Its storied origins evoked landscapes of the new and mysterious. This sense of distance from the familiar, however, gradually transformed into the quotidian ritual of teatime, reflecting a quintessentially “English” definition of civility and taste. Chatterjee asserts that hidden in this shift from the “strange” to the “familiar” is the very history of empire: “the mappings of exoticism, the continuous struggles over symbol and sign, and the cultural cartographies of conquest.”
In Steeped in Heritage: The Racial Politics of South African Rooibos Tea, I explore these struggles through the story of one tea-growing community. Rooibos is an indigenous plant that grows only in a small part of South Africa’s Western and Northern Cape provinces. Marketers describe rooibos as a “miracle” beverage that will supposedly help people lose weight and control diabetes; it will promote longevity, make skin more youthful, cure acne, prevent cancer and Parkinson’s disease, guard vision, protect the liver, improve male fertility, soothe colicky babies, promote sleep and relaxation, provide comfort, and on and on. These depictions, however, are more than marketing flourish. Residents of the growing region also describe a “rooibos miracle.” Some even call the tea “Mandela-like,” imbued with charismatic qualities that will heal the unhealthy body, the racially divided nation, and the depleted land.
A tea executive I interviewed described the benefits of rooibos beyond its healthful properties: “What’s interesting is that in tough times, people drink more tea. It’s cheap. It makes people feel comfortable. Tea and makeup, both those things go up. . . . Tea makes people feel good.” The world’s largest flavor company, Givaudan, selected rooibos as one of the flavors “to watch” in its annual forecast, and concoctions such as Vanilla Rooibos Lattes regularly feature in the United States as Starbucks’ “Drink of the Day.” Marketing portrayals of South Africa skip from ancient history to the immediate present and future, from South Africa as a primitive land to the country as a “place to watch.”
While this marketing is reminiscent of Proust’s “all-powerful joy,” the narrative negates years of colonial violence, apartheid-era dispossessions, and continuing inequality. As the executive said, rooibos simply “makes people feel good.” Despite the redemptive and celebratory tales of rooibos’s natural and indigenous healing power, the tea grows in a precarious place. Focusing on transcendent—even romantic—stories of consumption can lead to multiple erasures: The tea-growing region is a social and ecological landscape in which many inhabitants face uncertain futures, livelihoods, and claims to belonging. Yet the tea stories woven into marketing narratives require a production of locality—a natural, indigenous, exotic locality that is either unpeopled (the African wilderness) or populated only by “natives,” portrayed in these tales as a natural part of that wilderness and not fully or securely human.
International Tea Day asks consumers to rethink this narrative. The story of rooibos is not just about the tea or the plant but about how people claim their belonging in relation to an uncertain political, economic, and ecological future. By exploring the ironies and surprises that surround the plant/commodity, Steeped in Heritage looks at how people envision themselves as attached to places and how those attachments play out in fierce contestations over nature, race, and heritage in a land where climatic shifts are pushing the indigenous ecosystem southward.
As you sip a cup on International Tea Day, consider what the experience conjures in you. Maybe, like Proust, you find that the warm, aromatic flavors bring to life intimate memories from your past. But trace the tea’s production beyond the cafe and contemplate how the production of tea—whether in South Africa, India, China, or elsewhere—carries its own stories, stories that weave together violent dispossessions of colonialism and its aftermath with concerns about precarious economic and environmental futures. Like the joy invoked by Proust, producing tea can include narratives of intimate, affective belonging to ecosystems and loving relations with place. Acknowledging the realities of the violence behind these idyllic images, however, can lead to more complex understandings of tea growers’ persistent attachments to the plants they cultivate.
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