Tea ladies are women who sell flavoured tea and coffee on the pavements. Their customers sit around them on stools usually under the shade of a tree in any street in Khartoum.
It is a breezy morning and being the Sudanese person you are, you crave a cup of tea. You turn to your right hand-side, you see a tea-lady and you begin walking her way. You take one Sudanese pound worth of Legimat (Zalabaya) and a cup of tea ‘with medicine’, the Sudanese word for tea spices such as cinnamon, ginger, cardamom. You are enjoying the delicious snack and you get up from the short stool and head to the tea-lady to pay her for the delicious snack. She is no longer there.
You stand there in utter shock: but she was just there. Your curiosity drives you to take a right into a side-street and you find her sitting at the end of the street, with stools around her and customers sitting there enjoying their cup of tea. You pay her only after asking, what happened?
“There was a police sweep coming our away, we are not allowed to be on main streets anymore,” she tells you. The Governor of Khartoum, Abdel-Rahman Al-Khider has been determined to “civilize” Khartoum in the past few months. The idea seemed well-intentioned in the beginning, a wider four-laned Nile street, a beautiful corniche for walking, cleaner streets and more greenery.
The state government saw the need to civilize Khartoum by civilizing its people. The police raids on men who wash cars on main streets began: they would get picked up or prevented from doing their work by the police. The governor said they are making the streets dirty and it looks uncivilized. In all honesty, they could be given serious tips on how to keep the surroundings clean when washing a car, but most importantly, you are denying a large number of youth the only income between them and living a life of crime. After all, we could all think of million things to do other than standing in the sun the whole day.
Then, we all turned to another job that is bringing an income to many families, especially families headed up by women. Tea ladies have become a part of our community, a “marginal” job at the centre of Sudanese life, whether for the civil servants or the unemployed youth and the underemployed journalists who keep a tab at their favorite tea ladies’ berth.
There is Sara*, a young tea-lady in West Omdurman who worked at some company, but left after being subjected to sexual harassment by her supervisor and now works as a tea lady. Or Helewa, who fought with the rebels, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) during the civil war and now makes a living making the best Zalabeya in Khartoum.
Last week, Helewa wasn’t there, she was harassed out of that spot she favoured for years, by the police.
I like the new greenery and the colorful benches on the side of Nile Street, but I also like Khartoum state with tea ladies on main streets and men selling peanuts and cold hibiscous juice by the side of the street.
After all, they are the soul of the city.