(Almost) Wordless Wednesday: local texture

Mango tree in the parking lot, Lava Cafe, Musanze

Here are some of the textures and patterns from our first four months in Rwanda. Click on the first thumbnail to scroll through the photos.

Tea gardens

Tea growing around Kinihira, Rwanda. Tea plantations are traditionally called ‘tea gardens.’

In late December, we were included in a Christmas season lunch at the home of the Director General of Sorwathe and his wife. Sorwathe is the Société Rwandais de Thé or, in English, the Rwanda Tea Company, and is located about 70 kms. north of Kigali.

Before the meal, we had a chance to tour the factory, which is the largest in Rwanda and produces over 6 million lbs. of made tea annually, almost all of it for export.

Fresh tea leaves about to go to the withering process, where they will lose excess moisture. The leaves have no scent while fresh.

Sorwathe was founded in 1975 by American Joe Wertheim.  It remains 85% owned by Mr. Wertheim’s Connecticut-based company, Tea Importers, Inc.  It cultivates 650 acres, mostly in drained swampland (marais). Click here to see some really nice photos of their tea gardens.

After coffee, tea is Rwanda’s most important export.  Tea cultivation began here in 1952, and Sorwathe was the first private factory.  Although the factory sustained serious damage during the genocide, it was also one of the first to reopen in the aftermath.

The stages of black tea processing. Only the terminal bud and 2 young leaves are plucked from the bush.
These beautiful sacks will take most of the withered tea to the cutting stage, after which it will become green or black tea, depending on how long it is oxidized. Orthodox tea is not cut, but rolled whole leaf, which gives it a more nuanced flavor.
The chopped tea is a vivid green.

Sorwarthe was the first tea factory in Rwanda to obtain ISO 9001:2000, ISO 22000:2005, and Fair Trade certification.  It is also a participant in the Ethical Tea Partnership.  The company was the first to manufacture orthodox (rolled, whole leaf) and green teas (also white).  (They will proudly tell you that they export green tea to China.)  It is also the first to start organic tea cultivation in Rwanda.

Sorwarthe creates 3,000 job opportunities for the surrounding Kinihira community.  It also supports the local tea growers’ cooperative, ASSOPTHE.

[UPDATE:  The U.S. State Department presented its 2012 Award for Corporate Excellence to Tea Importers, Inc., and SORWATHE, in recognition of their commitment to social responsibility, innovation, and human values. The award is given annually to two American businesses abroad.]

The factory’s buildings are detailed in shades of green, and its surroundings are friendly and sometimes rather whimsical.

In the early days of the factory, old railroad steam engines were brought in to provide heat for the tea dryers (used after oxidation). To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Sorwathe in 2005, a 1920’s steam locomotive of the East Africa Railway Company was restored in Nairobi and installed in the factory garden.
The company’s accomplishments are displayed on a sort of merry-go-round at the entrance.
Sorwathe was an early large donor to the construction of Rwanda’s national public library, now almost complete.
A topiary teapot at the entrance to the factory.
The factory has beautiful views.  In clearer weather, the Virunga volcanoes are visible.

You can order Rukeri Tea, Sorwathe’s garden mark, from Tea Importers’ website.  The company also runs a guest house next to its factory.

Our lunch was eaten on the patio of the couple’s house, which overlooks their lovely garden and a knockout view of the tea gardens in the valley below.

Cottage garden flowers and tea fields.
Foxglove and stock are among the old-fashioned annuals in the garden.
The tea fields and hills beyond a shaded garden.
Virginia creeper vines on the house.
The trees in the foreground are Ficus sycomorus or sycamore fig. They are native to much of central Africa and parts of the Middle East.

If you live in U.S. zone 7 or higher, you can try growing tea bushes (Camellia sinensis) at home.  The plants like soil a little on the acid side and are drought tolerant.  Pests can be treated with horticultural oil.  If left unpruned, the plants will grow into small trees.  You can buy them from Camellia Forest Nursery in Chapel Hill, N.C.

The songs and dance of Bwiza

A local singing group from the Kigali area released their first CD, Kwizera, with a concert at a local venue on Sunday evening.

With “stirring vocals, traditional amakondera flutes and stunning poly-rhythms,” the group offers ancient and more recently written songs in the traditional style that is their legacy from the Rwandan royal court.

Kwizera means “to hope” in Kinyarwanda. One of their songs says, “Ngwino grebe Rwanda yacu nziza, ubu turakomeye”  — “Come, look upon our beautiful Rwanda, now we are strong.”

The group performs dance as well as song. Here are a few photos from their performance at an October craft fair held at the American Embassy.

One of their songs says, "Rwanda, now you're mature. Let us sing about you; the world has to know you." The modern songs were written by Ngarambe Valence of Bwiza.

The group is from a community known as Bwiza, located on a mountaintop near Kigali.

A few years ago the village was barely surviving, living in poverty and poor health and unable to send its children to the neighboring school for want of shoes.

Now, with support of local officials and a small Seattle-based NGO working with the Kigali-based Health Development Initiative – not to mention the generosity of individual expats and Rwandans – the people of Bwiza are rebuilding their lives. Once hunter-gatherers, they now have goats and cows and are harvesting larger crops from newly-built terraces.

If you are in the U.S. and would like to buy a copy of Kwizera, go to the Seattle website.  The CD is free with the purchase of 3 bags of Rwanda coffee (click on the Coffee Rwanda tab) or a $35 donation to the NGO. You can also watch short videos about Bwiza.

(If you are in Rwanda, leave a comment, and I can put you in touch with someone selling the CDs.)

Recently, some craftspeople in Bwiza learned to make this highly efficient cookstove, which uses less wood and provides a more stable base for the cooking pot. The sales of stoves they don’t use themselves will also help support people in the village.

More fuel-efficient cookstove. Training for making the stoves was provided by the American tea company Sorwathe.

Here are a few photos of the beautiful craft products that were available for sale at the October fair. In previous years, the proceeds of the event went to Bwiza, but this time, as other efforts have improved their lives, they performed at the fair for a professional fee.  The 2011 proceeds from booth rentals and entrance donations will go to several other nonprofit groups around Kigali.

Bags made from African "wax" cloth.
These baskets were crafted with traditional techniques and modern bright colors.
Wax cloth and recycled paper jewelry and pretty clutches.