Cross-cultural communication

Growing up, I was never one that warmed to tea. The English breakfast to me tasted like water, and milk gave it a mild, flatter delivery to the palette. It may be surprising thus that now I am one known to sermonise on the wonders of tea; the many infusions, its link to culture, history, art, and conversation. Tea has healing properties, can be used medicinally and simply for pleasure. But it is so much more than the liquid in the cup.

Before taking up my position as editor of Quinteassential’s blog, I spent 3 months volunteering in Africa with a women’s support and activist group (WOSAG), teaching women in communities about sexual reproductive health rights and domestic violence. Whilst there, amongst educating women and enriching the social teaching of the areas visited, I aimed to absorb some of the culture for myself, so that the experience was a two-way thing. I didn’t want to walk in as the ‘white saviour’ figure that is associated with critical views of volunteering abroad, or ‘voluntourism’ as it can be known; I wanted to both make an impact and change my own life at the same time.

When I first arrived in Ghana, I was advised to give a gift to my host family. I’d brought a box of pink Women’s Tea by one of my favourite brands, Yogi Tea, for Awula, my host mother. It’s a blend of spices like cardamom and fennel, and one of the best things about the brand is that the label gives you a small sentence of Buddhist wisdom, a mantra to help you glide through the day. Whenever slumped or down, a Yogi Tea will always perk me up as its words remind me to be happy and grateful, as well as the tea itself being a wonderful infusion of spices and flavours.

I’d hoped that this pink tea would be a gateway for a conversation between my host mother and counterpart, but initially she came across as shy and accepted the gift by taking it and putting it in her room, also asking ‘is it healthy?’. I said yes, and allowed her to brew over it alone.

It wasn’t until around 6 weeks in to my placement when my host mother and I sat down for a cup of tea together. Whilst the water brewed, she told me that the Lipton black tea that is served here with accompanying ‘tea bread’ and butter, was actually taken from the English. She asked why we have this, and I said that it really came from India, but perhaps the ritual nature of drinking it was initiated by Britain. And perhaps the reason for it was in order to bring people together. Tea is a language that everyone can speak.

I recalled from my teenage years a particular friend’s house who were tea fanatics. So much so, that if anyone was forgetful enough to utter the letter ’t’ in anyone’s presence, it was automatically their duty to boil the kettle and bring through a tray of cups and milk. Tea time was valued and celebrated perpetually in this household.

Perhaps it’s the caffeine, perhaps it’s the act of holding something, of having a job to do with one’s hands that both stimulates rich conversation and eases the interlocutor into a comfortable state of relaxation. In this case, we started talking about skin colour. My host mother believes that we were all created the same, and it is the climate that changes our skin to be different.

I agreed to an extent, but not to the logic that if we had been born in each other’s countries we would be opposite skin colours. This led us to wonder what complexion the first people on earth would have been. Arabic? In fact, where was the Garden of Eden? (We were speaking on religious terms, as though God created the world.)

Awula asked me, ‘where is the Garden of Eden? I am asking you.’

‘I really do not know.’

‘Some say it has been and gone, some say we are living in it. The garden had fruits, trees, water, everything that we have in this world, but we have more.’

In this sense, we really are all in the Garden of Eden. What a beautiful and logical way of looking at it.

So, readers, it is an honour to share this world with you. And I invite you to ponder that thought next time you sip a brew, of whatever it might be, and if not alone, to communicate with the one you are sharing it with.

With a thirst for unusual experiences and a love of culture, Ellie desires to see the world and shine a lasting beam of light upon it as she passes. Spicy, warm, soothing, healing and somewhat mysterious; that’s her down to a tea.