Bittersweet tale of Kenya’s celebrated tea

Tea pickers at work in a plantation in Kericho. Those who planted the first tea bushes had it rough clearing land. PHOTO | TOM MATOKE

What you need to know:

  • Working on the plantations was tough, as the White settlers subjected grown African men and women to demeaning punishments.
  • Africans were made to lie down like school children and caned by colonial police officers.

  • Blacks were also prohibited from walking on  the grass grown around the tea estates.

Looking at the well  maintained, rolling tea plantations in different parts of the country, one can understand why Kenyan tea is highly regarded internationally.

Yet behind the history of the thriving multinational tea companies that were originally owned by British colonialists lies untold tales of  suffering of hundreds of African labourers who were recruited to plant thousands of hectares of tea bushes.

John Kipsiele Chumo, 100, who worked on different plantations in a career spanning  20 years, says the White Highlands where  tea estates were established were forcibly taken from Africans, who were moved to concentration camps and later recruited as labourers for the settlers.


“The Whites did not buy land. If a White man saw attractive and fertile land, he would send surveyors to demarcate it for immediate occupation, in total disregard of  the Africans  living there,” says Mr Chumo, adding that Africans were subjected to back-breaking work, clearing thousands of hectares of forested land in the 1930s, a task that entailed cutting down mature indigenous trees and removing timber to make clearings for tea plantations.

He says many Africans died in the process, some as a result of snake bites, and others because of the unforgiving weather in the highlands.

Working on the plantations was tough, Mr Chumo says, adding that  the White settlers subjected grown African men and women to demeaning punishments.

For instance, lateness would earn the culprit 12 strokes of the cane by a colonial administrative officer.


He vividly recalls with indignation the misery and humiliation African labourers were subjected to by their bosses, who used “systematic degradation and fear” to embarrass Africans into a disciplined workforce.

Mr Chumo, who worked in plantations in Kericho, Nandi, Bomet and Limuru, tells of  how a naïve and uneducated African labourer who was deemed to have committed a “crime” deserving disciplinary action would be given a sealed letter by his/her immediate supervisor and instructed to deliver it to the area district commissioner, blissfully unaware that it contained the punishment prescribed for him/her.

After reading the letter, the DC would summon a police officer attached to his office to whip the errant worker.

In addition, the DC would parade the hapless worker before  his colleagues and announce that the culprit had received 12 lashes for indiscipline.


Mr Chumo narrates how “Africans were made to lie down like school children as a colonial police officer of the rank of Officer Commanding Station (OCS)  gave him/her 12 strokes on the  backside; if the victim resisted any stroke, it was not counted".

 “The caning was so embarrassing that workers endeavoured to increase their productivity at work to avoid being subjected to the humiliating punishment,” he says.

Workers were not just from Kenya, but also came from neighbouring  Uganda, Tanzania and even Rwanda, and they were employed  in the  expansive tea estates in the Rift Valley and Central Kenya.

Rwandan labourers were mostly taken to work in 12 estates, namely Changana, Saosa, Kapsangor, Kitumbe, Marinyeni, Majengo, Chogondai, Tiret, Cheptabes, Chemasing, Kimonet and Chemamul in Kericho County.


Serious crimes like theft were dealt with swiftly and sternly, with the  perpetrators being sentenced to jail with hard labour,  plus the dreaded 12 lashes.

The all-powerful DCs acted as judges and presided over sittings that handed out specific punishments for different crimes.

Labourers who were convicted of theft had their names and details of their crime circulated to all White settler plantations, who blacklisted the culprit and would not employ him/her on their plantation(s).

“Africans who committed serious crimes like theft were also ordered to vacate company houses immediately. The swift and harsh punishment was meant to serve as a deterrent,” Mr Chumo says.


Racial discrimination was rampant in the tea estates, where the white colonialists considered themselves “superior” and “demi-gods”, and they derogatively referred to Africans as  “monkeys”.

“Only ‘disciplined’ African workers had  the privilege of  addressing a White man as “sir” or “bwana/mkubwa” while labourers deemed to be indisciplined were required to stand at attention and salute the colonial bosses  whenever they passed by.

But perhaps the height of misconduct was for a Black to relieve himself within view of a White man, and any worker caught doing so by a White man was severely punished.

The labourers were also given codes according to their tribe to enable the White bosses to identify a person easily by their ethnic background. 


Blacks were also prohibited from walking on  the grass grown around the tea estates.

Apart from the whipping, another form of punishment used by the colonialists discipline was denying them blankets, Mr Chumo says.

“The hardworking and disciplined Africans were given up to 12 blankets a year, ensuring them sufficient warmth while their indisciplined colleagues were denied blankets, exposing them to the extreme cold at night, he says, adding that many workers  died as a result of the biting cold.

Notably, he adds, African labourers had few complaints when it came to salaries and wages.


Casual labourers received a monthly pay of Sh2, which Mr Chumo says was more than enough for a whole  month’s expenses.

Being a more senior employee, Mr Chumo earned a Sh20 monthly  salary  in the 1940s, and got free accommodation in the tea estate together with other labourers.

“Salaries and wages were  paid promptly and were more than enough to cater for Africans’ needs since the country’s economy was doing well,” he says. 

Mr Chumo attributes the success of the country’s tea industry to the strict colonial disciplinary standards as well as the endurance of the African labourers. 


He says few Africans resisted the White man’s rules in the tea estates and those who did were forced to live in hiding in faraway towns to avoid arrest.

Most simply persevered the harsh treatment.

He, however, recalls an incident where colonial soldiers arrested a group of  Maasai morans and took them to work on a  plantation, a move that was strongly resisted by the morans, who said they could not take up the “taboo” work since  they were pastoralists.

 “The more than 100 Maasai morans blatantly disobeyed  the White man’s orders to clear forests and plant tea, they walked out of the labourer’s camp, never to return,”


In another case, a labourer who received the dreaded 12 lashes  for a petty crime decided to move out of town to an unknown location after word of his humiliating punishment reached his kinsmen.

Mr Chumo recalls how the labourer was "greatly humiliated after being given 12 strokes on  the backside like a child. He could not face his kinsmen after the incident and moved to another  town, leaving his wife and children behind,” recalls Chumo.

The strict working conditions and tough discipline, as well as the humiliating punishment, saw many labourers,  particularly Kenyans, abandon their jobs to save face before their  communities.


As a result, tea plantation managers preferred to work with  labourers from Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania, who did not have the luxury of abandoning their jobs and  moving  to faraway towns when the going got tough.

“Many labourers who were accorded alien status by the colonialists ended up living their entire lives in Kenya, with some still living in the country. They also buried their dead in cemeteries near the tea plantations where they lived," Mr Chumo says.

These labourers included the first generation of Rwandans  who were recruited to work in Kenya following an agreement between the British colonialists in Kenya, and the Belgian colonialists in Rwanda. 

Mr Chumo says many alien workers were excited at the prospect of working in Kenya — whose economy was doing well at the time —  but their enthusiasm quickly died thanks to the harsh working conditions.


Africans’ lack of education made it easy for the colonialists to take advantage of, and mistreat, them. 

But despite everything, he is full of praise for the colonialists for recognising Africans’ efforts to get an education and improve their lives. 

He says the colonial bosses rewarded education, discipline and positive effort with promotions and other incentives.

“Every year our bosses would write for us recommendation letters for good performance to open up job opportunities and promotions in other tea estates or plantations whenever an employee expressed the desire to move to a different farm,” he says.


Workers who maintained high discipline throughout received a variety of rewards, including farm implements likes hoes and machetes, blankets and foodstuffs, with milk and honey reserved for special occasions.

Mzee Chumo, who retired in 1950 after 20 years of service, however, regrets that the government has never recognised the efforts of the African labourers who  lay the groundwork for the multi-billion multinational tea plantations.

He strongly feels that the labourers should be accorded hero status like the Mau Mau fighters and other heroes for their contribution to the country’s economy.

“The Kenya government should take measures to honour casual labourers who endured the burden of clearing animal-infested forests to create room for tea plantations, and the men and women who died executing this difficult task,” he says.