It is time for another Chai Rant.
Years ago, about the twentieth word I learned in KiSwahili was “chai” … which, if you know Kiswahili you would immediately recognize as a borrowed term becasue it is a very unlikely set of phonemes for that language. In KiSwahili, Chai means tea.
If I tell someone in the United States, for some reason, “In KiSwahili, ‘chai’ means ‘tea'” the usual response will be “Oh, yea, I know that stuff. I like/don’t like “chai.” Chai is tea with cardamom and cinnamon and bla bla bla….”
And then I have to make the “shut up moron” clamy-clampy thing with my hand in their face so they stop yammering and say, “No. Chai, in Kiswahili, means tea. Nothing is implied about what is in the tea, how it is served, how it tastes. Nothing. Nada. Chai is the word for tea in that language. They, the speakers of KiSwahili, get to have a word for tea if they want one, and since vast quantities of tea are grown in KiSwahili speaking lands, and copious quantities of tea are consumed there, they do indeed have a word for “tea” and that word is “chai.” As far as I know, there is no word in KiSwahili for your yuppified culturally melded South Asian rip-off drink that you so pretentiously call “Chai” … unless it’s something like ‘Mai ya muzunungu bombafu hanaakiri’ which you don’t want to know the meaning of.”
(It means “White man’s moron water.”)
So many years back I visited a very up scale resort on the Cederberg (a mountain range) of South Africa, out in the bush from Cape Town. There was a game preserve there on which were preserved black wildebeest. Black wilebeest are the most different of the various African wildebeest antelopes (aka “gnu”), different enough from the many subspecies to be counted as their own species. They are prancier, prongier, fluffier, bouncier and somewhat (but not much) blacker in color. So it’s funny to be very habituated to watching regular wildebeests which are kind of gruff and intense looking and tough, and then come across the back wildebeests and watch them stotting around the landscape like, in comparison to the regular model gnu, dancers in a Baz Luhrmann production. The Moulin Rouge of antelopes.
There are other animals preserved on the preserve as well, along with a great deal of interesting “bushmen” art. But one thing that was not well preserved on the preserve is the elusive and enigmatic aardwolf.
An aardwolf is neither an aard(vark) nor a wolf. It is a hyena that evolved to eat ants and termites, and is convergent on the aardvarks and anteaters with respect to its rostrum (snout) and teeth. It is an insectivorous carnivore. It is a carnivore capable of killing another animal no larger than a shrew, but that mostly eats ants and termites.
Yet, despite the aardwolve’s absolute inability to kill, say, sheep (baby or adult), the sheep farmers in the farms surrounding this upscale resort routinely kill the aardwolves. Some say they do so out of ignorance … these farmers, descendants from men and women who have eked out a living on the South African veld for some three centuries, and who learned from those before them (the bushmen, when they weren’t busy exterminating them) what they could not learn on their own, somehow have this major misconception about one of the local basic animals. Possibly. It is also possible that they shoot the aardwolves out of disdain for all wildlife, because they are farmers and want only the domestic animals god gave them to farm on their god given land. Could be. It is also possible that they shoot the aardwolves because they know that the namby pamby liberal eco-environmentalist bushmen-lovers (such as those who built the up scale resort I was visiting) don’t want them to.
In any event, the number of aardwolves seen on this preserve had gone from a few to a couple to one to zero over the previous year or so, and the suspicion was that the farmers were killing them.
And those farmers …. they were farming chai.
To be more exact, they were farming a southern African plant drunk locally as tea. This is an excellent infusion that I enjoyed greatly when working in South Africa, and with which I would fill my suit cases on returning to the US so I would have enough to drink between trips. But, Americans, this ‘tea’ is now available at a grocery store, tea shop, or even coffee house near you.
It is called rooibos. Rooi = red, bos = bush. Redbush. Rooibos Tea .
While visiting this upscale resort, I learned more about rooibos than I had previously learned, because this is where it is grown, and it occurred to me that it would be good for the New South Africa (this was not long after apartheid had been lifted) if people outside of South Africa knew about it, demanded it, and thus created an export market.
That eventually happened, and now you can get rooibos tea.
But for a few years, you really couldn’t get it even though you could. Rooibos tea has a fairly strong and distinctive taste, but compared to “real” tea (from the tea plant) it is much more tuned to human taste buds. Tea, because it is a bitter drink is a somewhat acquired taste or requires milk and sugar. rooibos, while excellent with milk and sugar, is good to drink right away, and most people who try it plain or with a bit of sugar like it right away. Also, compared to many of the other teas sold by companies like Celestial Seasonings, rooibos totally kicks butt. So many teas are drunk because people think they are good for you (antioxidants and other “properties”) but they taste like aardwolf piss. rooibos, on the other hand, tastes good AND it has all those “properties” built in as well.
Nonetheless, for the first few year of rooibos tea being occasionally available in the US, it was almost impossible to find it unadulterated with some flavor like lemon or vanilla. It might be that they’ve been flavoring rooibos in South Africa all this time as well, but I certainly never saw it. No. You’d go into the grocery store, and there’d be this aisle, and there’d be coffee, instant coffee, Horlicks (like Ovaltine), and eventually, the teas, and about half the teas were regular tea and the other half were Lipton (or some other major brand) rooibos tea. No frills. Two versions: Regular and extra strong (matching what I believe were two varieties of the plant that produced the tea).
I felt at the time that tea purveyors in the United States were reluctant to put an unadulterated African product on the market. But that may just be me seeing anti-Africanism and racism everywhere.
In any event, you can now find rooibos tea in many stores, plain or flavored. Try it.
But it does bring up the question: By drinking (and buying) rooibos tea, are you supporting the New Post Apartheid South Africa, or are you supporting a bunch of aardwolf-haters in the Cederberg?
Honestly, I’m not sure. I assume the New South African government and the people (all of them) that the government serves can help figure this out. South African wines may help the economy, but South African wineries have a history of repression of non-white people that is pretty bad. Yet, many wines today are produced by companies owned by “previously disadvantaged” peoples (as the term goes) and under the new constitution many of the practices of the old days are no longer allowed. And so on.
Oh, and I should mention, that I spoke here of KiSwahili and the word “chai” and I spoke of South Africa. They are unrelated. Different regions of Africa. Nonetheless, Tea is a British Thing, and and African Thing, and for the many Americans who read this blog, not just something you dip into a cup of hot water, but rather, something you learn.