Grace Mitchell stood under a lawn umbrella that protected her fair complexion from the hot African sun. She held out a sprig of freshly plucked tea -- two bright green leaves and a leaf bud from the tip of the bush.
"By order of President Moi," she explained, "all tea in Kenya is plucked by hand, which ensures its top quality. Automated plucking bruises the leaves and lowers the quality of the tea."
Mitchell's tea farm, Kiambethu, is in Limuru, about 10 miles from Nairobi and some 2,000 feet higher. The road out of Nairobi climbs steadily, through Kikuyu villages and farms, up from the mile-high plateau where Nairobi sprawls, to the country lane that leads to the farm.
Paying a visit here is like stepping back 50 years into Kenya's past. The farm sits on a sloping hillside with a view of the distant Ngong Hills, their four humps foreshortened from this angle, and of Nairobi far below, with the flat Athi plain stretching beyond it to infinity. Emerald lawns surround the slate-roofed farmhouse; beds of flowers blaze in the sunshine. The tea fields begin at the foot of the garden, vast expanses of dense green bushes that carpet the red earth on the hillsides.
Mitchell hurried out to greet us: a tiny woman, delicate as a bird, wearing a cream-colored safari jacket and slacks and a matching silk shirt. A brown felt hat covered her white hair.
"Do come have some tea," she invited, leading the way across the deep veranda. She explained that the house was built by her parents back in the '30s to replace their thatch-roofed wooden farmhouse, which was devoured by termites, "that scourge of Africa!"
In the living room, comfortable chintz-covered chairs faced a fireplace where logs crackled on the hearth. Out of the sun, at this altitude, the air was brisk and cool, even just 100 miles from the Equator. The warmth of the fire was suddenly welcome. Wildlife paintings by local artists hung on either side of the fireplace, and on a wall near the dining room door, a coat of arms and royal signature caught my eye. It was the Order of St. George and St. Michael, bestowed on Mitchell's husband in recognition of his many years of service in the Kenya Police Force, and signed with a flourish, "Elizabeth R."
White-clad waiters served aromatic Kenya coffee as well as some of the farm's own tea, accompanied by homemade buttery cookies. We sat on the veranda to drink our tea and observe the amazing variety of birds attracted by the feeding tables and flowering shrubs in front of the house. Tiny sunbirds with iridescent blue and green heads sipped nectar from pink hibiscus blossoms; rosy-red fire finches hopped around on the grass like animated plums; a handsome black and white whydah with a bright red beak and long trailing tail feathers lorded it over the smaller birds and insistently chased them away.
Later, as we sat under an awning on the lawn, Mitchell presented her lively account of the history of the farm, her family and the tea industry.
Her grandparents had come to Kenya from Britain in 1903, shortly after the first white settlers arrived, and her father purchased the farm -- some 300 acres of virgin forest -- a few years later. He cleared most of the forest and tried a variety of crops -- flax, coffee, pyrethrum, maize -- but without success. When a friend sent him some tea seeds from India, he found the crop that would succeed. The tea flourished and Kiambethu Farm, Mitchell said, became the first to produce it in East Africa.
Kiambethu means "Kikuyu dancing ground" in Kikuyu, Mitchell told us. "When I was a child," she said, "the Kikuyu warriors used to shed what little clothes they wore, smear themselves with oil and ochre and paint, don their feathers, and gather for huge ngomas -- dances -- on the farm. For a small child it was rather terrifying!"
But back to tea. After emphasizing the importance of picking the leaves by hand, Mitchell described the meticulous art of plucking. Only the leaf bud and the two tiny leaves at the end of each twig can be taken, in order to produce the best tea. The pluckers (who are almost always women) toss the picked leaves into baskets on their backs, then carry the brimming green loads to the tea factory down the road.
At the factory, the long process of wilting, cutting and drying takes place before the tea is packed in plastic bags and put into wooden crates. It is shipped to tea companies overseas, where it is blended by experts and packaged under the familiar labels we see on our grocery shelves.
Mitchell led us past the barnyard to the patch of indigenous forest that she, and her parents before her, have zealously guarded and preserved. An ancient Kikuyu, leaning on his walking stick, came out to meet us -- the forest watchman employed by Mitchell to prevent the locals from cutting down trees for firewood, and from digging up the medicinal herbs that grow under the trees. The herbs were, and still are, used by African healers in the practice of traditional medicine, but are becoming increasingly rare as more native forest is destroyed.
We walked down narrow paths in cool green shade, into a deep valley. A crashing in the high treetops and a swaying of the topmost branches revealed a troop of black and white Colobus monkeys clustered on slender limbs that bent under their weight. A mother monkey clutched her snow-white baby to her breast and looked down curiously. A large adult male made a showy leap through space to the next treetop, then clung to his new perch, his face in its black and white mask turned downward to stare at the tiny figures on the forest floor.
Back at the house, we enjoyed a buffet-style lunch: thick homemade soup and warm, crusty garlic bread, followed by a cold buffet of meats, fresh garden vegetables and salads. Dessert, coffee and more Kiambethu tea completed the meal. The desserts were our undoing: Homemade vanilla ice cream, hot jam tarts, coffee mousse and fresh tropical fruits laden with thick country cream.
As we left, Mitchell urged us to visit the Anglican chapel on our way back to the main road. Just down the road from the farm, it was built by her father of native stone and wood. The exquisite stained glass windows were brought from the ruins of a church in England that had been destroyed by World War II bombs. Mitchell's parents are buried in the churchyard, along with world-renowned anthropologist S.B. Leakey and his missionary parents.
The church and graveyard look very English, but all around them are the farms, green ridges and far-off blue hills of Kenya, and the African plains 2,000 feet below. And the light, bright green of tea growing on the hillsides, as far as the eye can see.
There are eight to 10 tea farms operating in the Limuru area; visits can be scheduled through travel agents in Nairobi. A U.S. State Department advisory on travel to Kenya is still in effect, due to an increasingly frequent pattern of robbery-motivated attacks on tourists; for more information, contact the State Department's Citizens Emergency Center, 647-5225. For more information on travel to Kenya, contact the Kenya Tourist Office, 424 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017, (212) 486-1300.
Dorothy Stephens is a writer in Marblehead, Mass.