Happy Women’s Day 2023, avoid tea and tears; a luta continua!

Saturday March 04 2023
International Women's Day

Women at KICC Nairobi on March 2, 2023 during celebrations of the 2023 International Women's Day. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NMG


Last month, a Kenyan team dropped a BBC documentary about the sex-for-work practice at a big farm in Kericho County.

Kericho County is where the some of most glorious tea in the world is produced, mostly strong black teas that pair well with milk and sugar to muscle us through the work day. The number of brands that source their product there is impressive, a testament to the Kenyan agricultural industry and capacity to export. And with tea comes tea pickers.

Tea picking employs men and women, but I grew up with the understanding that women are preferred for this job because of our apparent dexterity and delicacy in picking the very tippy tops of the best tea. Believing this helped me keep a positive attitude towards the industry. Of course, tea is grim and drenched in the blood, shackles and sweat of our recent colonial “past” like every other primary good that the world has come to love. Coffee, cacao, sugar and tea. But at least tea employed women, right?

Honest wage

In a world strangled by the profit motive, enslaved by the philosophy of perpetual growth and crushed under the boot of patriarchy, there haven’t been many places for women to earn an honest wage. Tea, like the clothing industry, seemed to be an acceptable niche. There is something magical about tea plantations. They are vast, beautiful to behold, orderly and lovely. Dewy plants in the dawn light, calm and picturesque and far from the noise of urban life, an idyllic setting for a nine-to-five.

I figured Kenyan tea-picking women were up there, somewhere below Cuban cigar rollers who listen to literature as they work, but certainly above Vietnamese seamstresses. It is a fantasy that allowed me not to dwell too deeply on the sexual predation that always comes in hand with these kinds of gendered employment.


Was it a surprising documentary? No. It was awful in its familiarity, actually. The transgressors wore the faces of countless men I know, with their broad smiles and potbellies and petty bureaucratic bullying. This wasn’t an expose about rabid Trump supporters in America, a distant and somewhat entertaining disaster in the Great Elsewhere. No. This is happening here, every day, all the time. To us women.

This is our lot, in one ugly iteration.

Tea picking is going the way of many industrial jobs. Those gangs of women bathed by morning light, singing joyful songs of harvest to keep a work rhythm going are a museum piece. There are machines now: Big, beautiful metal things that are either depriving people of jobs or liberating humans from the tedium of physical exertion in order to do something better, depending on one’s world view. I happen to be on the side of mechanisation, universal basic income and people-centred economies.

In a way I appreciate that this BBC documentary has given us a glimpse into a dying trade. I appreciate more that it has given me a much-needed and much-resented reminder of the State of the African Woman in 2023. It is still sub-optimal, full of exploitation, denigration and sexual predation.

Happy Women’s Day and remember: A luta continua siempre, compadre!

Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report; Email [email protected]