The tea ladies come before the sun, lighting fires, shaking jars, spooning sugar. They hum and sing, lost women marked with tribal symbols, far from home. They sit and wait, kettles hissing in ember and ash, the great day beginning, rolling off the Nile like a damp, smothering cloth.
Khadiga Salim takes a breath. She has hopped two buses and spent two hours traveling from the slums to downtown Khartoum. She’s been here 16 years, since gunshots and cattle raiders chased her family from their farm in Darfur. Her sister brought her into the trade, told her, on these streets, my dear, a tea lady is the best you can be.
Wet, smooth and swift, her hands dart from jar to sifter, stoking the fire, the silver kettle blackening. Life has gone by selling tea to friends and strangers on a patch of sidewalk barely wider than her lap. This city turned hard and the man she married ended up no good, but her voice is pretty, like a hymn drifting down from a high wire, soothing the men in white turbans who sip from slender glasses.
“I’m divorced. I have four children. The money is not enough,” says Salim, her cheeks faintly tattooed with the thin lines of the Misseriya tribe. “I wanted to clean houses, but there were no offers. I have to work in the street. I can’t afford a shop. The police chase us. They steal our kettles and take our jars.”
The tea ladies of the Sudanese capital are widowed, broken, struggling, alone. Thousands of them have fled poverty, escaped wars, buried families; age has crept upon them. Spreading out across the city, dressed in colors that seem robbed from rainbows and peacocks, they tarry in the shade of trees and buildings, next to shoe-shine boys and men selling phone cards, pouring until dusk, hiding their stoves, disappearing with the night.
Police have scalded some of them with their own water. The Health Ministry says their wares are unclean. They exist in a pliable netherworld between misdemeanor and need. This city runs on tea; it lightens the hours, restores the soul in the afternoon swelter, enlivens the chatter of laborers, bankers and sheiks.
The tea ladies know the stories of Khartoum; whispers and tinkling spoons. Come and sit on a busted chair or a box, let the glass cool in your hands. What’s the hurry? If you listen, you can hear the slap, slap, slap of fishermen’s nets in the marshes.
Salim drapes her leopard-spotted shawl, light as gauze, over her shoulders and head. A breeze lifts and quickly passes. The fire warms the air around her, but she doesn’t sweat; she smiles, bright, but like the breeze, not for long. Her palms glow white, the tips of her fingers stained the sepia of an old photograph; her sandals look nearly new, though, copper straps and amber flowers. She mentions the name of her village in Darfur. And she speaks of the nearest town; it sounds like a song: Babanusa.
“We raised goats and cattle, but we don’t have them anymore,” she says. “The war took them. They were stolen or died of starvation. My father died in Darfur. My mother died in Khartoum. I walked away from my husband. He beat me and made trouble. I don’t want trouble anymore. I’ll never get back to Darfur. I know this.”
She washes a glass, sets it on a silver tray. She throws charcoal on the embers. A customer says something about her old home; Salim turns away, looking down the street, watching the shade shrink in the sun. At least 300,000 people have been killed in Darfur, more lives than the number of teas she has poured.
Around the corner, Zahra Ragil’s son feeds at her breast. Her kettle simmers. She and her husband left the Nuba mountains for the city 20 years ago. He had found factory work, but these days is a hospital janitor; Ragil has set up a crate and stove on a sidewalk of laborers, shopkeepers and dripping air conditioners. She earns $6 to $14 a day, but charcoal, tea and sugar are expensive and what often starts out as a good day ends up turning bad.
“It was better in the mountains,” she says, leaning against a brick wall painted green. “Here, all our money goes to rent and the children’s education. I want to go back to the mountains, but schools are no good there. I cleaned a police station for a while. I earned $40 a month. Not enough.”
The police have taken her kettles and jars 20 times in the last eight years. They sell them, she says, at markets for the poor. That would be just about any market here. Oil money has sprouted new blooms of tinted glass on the skyline, but mostly people wait for life to get better. The shade vanishes; Ragil’s kettles — one silver, one brass — shine. Her son, Mohammed, squirms and is whisked away on the hip of his 8-year-old sister.
“Most of the tea ladies know one another. We don’t have time to talk. We say ‘Hi’ and rush to sell our tea,” Ragil says. “When the police come, we call to warn one another and our customers help us hide our belongings.”
Forty years old and still playing hide-and-go-seek. She smiles at that, but isn’t really happy, sitting in a red print dress, baking in the sun, kettles boiling but no one around, only spoons poking out of cans and glasses to be cleaned, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh in the water bucket. The rainy season, she knows, is turning her mountains back home slick and green.
“I sit here and think about my children’s future,” she says. “What will happen to them? Can they take care of themselves? As I get older, it’s more difficult to work. I don’t know how much longer I’ll live.”
She closes her eyes, listening for her son, who is quiet in her daughter’s arms.
The breeze turns stingy on Salim’s street. Two men from the bookseller’s slip over for tea. Salim pours. All her family’s horses are gone and children are starving; she wonders how that could be in a world that has everything. Maybe only some of the world has everything. She is generous with her sugar, and the men sit for a while, listening to street sounds beyond a falling-down building.
“It seems I never sleep,” Salim says.
The five o’clock bus isn’t long away. She’ll have to pack up soon, douse the fire, scrape embers, tighten jar lids, dry the kettle. She sighs and fixes her shawl; maybe time for a few more customers, men needing something sweet on their way home.
She polishes a spoon and sings a song from her lost land, her voice high and smooth as water.
“It’s from the old days,” she says. “It’s about a time before villages came under attack by the army. I sing it because life is not so good anymore and it makes me think about the past, which was beautiful.”