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Part 2: Is it Makoti or Maak ons tee?

Insights | Feb. 8, 2019, 2:58 p.m. |

With my attempts to establish the veracity of the claim by interrogating the word itself having fallen flat, I felt that tea would perhaps offer better prospects. After all, the specificity is curious enough. Why not “do some work” , “make yourself useful” or anything of that sort? Why tea? There certainly had to be something there. So I decided, to trail the scent of tea, wherever it would land me.

Tea, I’ve come to learn, has quite a captivating history wrapped in that unassuming bag. Legend has it that a Chinese herbalist, Shennong (or 神农, the name literally meaning “the God of Agriculture”) chanced upon it while boiling water. It is said that some tea leaves were blown into the kettle; successfully concocting the first brew. Being a curious fellow, he decided to taste the dirty water and the palate was pleased by the discovery and so tea became. But as with all legends, for dates we are left to our own devices at most we have to settle for the usual “long long long ago”.

So I appealed to the historian and found that it is believed (based on archeological finds) that the Chinese started cultivating tea about 6 to 7 thousand years ago. From then, for a long long time, it remained the beverage of choice for the elites but continued to grow in popularity until it became the national drink of China around the 10th century CE. The emperor at the time had married his niece to the king of Tibet. Princess Wen Chang not only introduced Buddhism to the Tibens but also, you guessed it, tea which soon after became the number one beverage there as well.

The Turks soon followed, then the Japanese and by now as I am peeking through time and watching things unfold, I’m asking myself, “Is it people spreading tea or is it tea taking over these people?” and I cannot help but marvel at what appears to be the mystical power of this beverage. From here on, things get even stranger and messier. Mind you, I have not forgotten about umakoti.

In the 16th century, the Portuguese introduced it to Europe and by the early 17th century the Dutch and British were in on the tea action with the help of one Jan Huyghen van Linschoten whom in a classic case of corporate espionage (one that would be the envy of the likes of the Bosasas & Gupta Cos. of this world) stole trade secrets from the Portuguese for their benefit. Interestingly, tea didn’t enjoy much popularity in Britain until king Charles II, married the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza and when she moved to her new home she brought with her what? You guessed it again, tea! Which then, became a popular drink especially among the elites; the Aristocrats.

Henceforth tea became the colonial beverage of choice. They were so in love with it, it became the cornerstone of British culture; becoming a symbol of status and even civility. So in true colonial style, they took it everywhere they ventured; the Americas, India, and right here in Africa.

In fact, tea became so popular in Britain that in the early 19th century, it accounted for 10% of all government revenue with the Brits spending much of their silver buying tea from China. Having assumed so much dominion over people, tea then began to rear its ugly head. The first Opium War, can partly be attributed to tea as it was among those products that were draining the British of silver in favour of the Chinese.

In Colonial America, it was no different. It is said that when an English gentleman by the name of Joseph Bennett visited Boston in 1740, he made the observation that ladies there “...visit, drink tea and indulge every little piece of gentility to the height of the mode and neglect the affairs of their families with as good grace as the finest ladies in London.” That sounds more like the effect of alcohol to me, save for the grace but I'll leave it there.

Similar to the role it played in the 1st Opium War in China, tea was also involved in the conflicts in America. The act that outraged the British parliamentarians was the dumping of British tea in the Boston Harbor by Americans. The events that followed would lead to the American revolution. If by now you still don’t view tea with at least a little bit of suspicion, I don’t know if you ever will. For me, this is sounding like the case of the ring in the movie Lord of the Rings. I can even hear the narrator’s voice “...One by one, free lands in middle earth fell to the power of the ring but there were some who resisted...”. In the case of tea however, it appears no one resisted.

The British and Dutch also brought it to South Africa. Here too, tea became a phenomenon of sorts. So much so that some indigenous cultures; such as amaXhosa integrated tea ceremonies into their traditions as well. In relation to marriage for example, some of the indigenous cultures’ traditional practices require umakoti to bring crockery when being handed over, so that she can make tea for her in-laws and/or visitors; a symbol of work, civility or generosity I guess. So quite evidently, umakoti and tea are not far off from each other even by way of traditional practice.

There is also the aspect of traditional dress. AmaXhosa call the cloth used to make the traditional attire for oomakoti amajarimani. An obvious import borrowed directly from the word Germany (read Dutch), complete with a trilling r sound which is foreign to the Xhosa language. The cloth then is called ijarimani (or the German cloth).

To take it even further, you may recall that not so long ago domestic work was called ukusebenza emakhitshini (being employed in the kitchens) and so domestic workers were people who work emakhitshini even though the role itself normally included other work but as you know, the kitchen is where tea is located. Their counterparts in the corporate world were referred to as Tea Girls by their employers. A title that remained even if the bosses preferred coffee, leave it be the fact that for the most part, the role mainly involved cleaning. Interestingly, from the perspective of workers, the role of teagirl attracted more reverence as it was considered of a higher status.

This pretty much settles it for me and the conclusion is quite simple, if we don’t rid this world of tea now, it’ll most certainly be the end of us all.

On the matter of makoti being a loan from the Dutch, my best bet is that it’s true. Not forgetting the dress that comes with it.

So the remaining question is, “What’s the “proper” word for bride then?” That friends is umtshakazi and you can throw in umlobokazi as a bonus.

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