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Tea ladies in Khartoum: Caught between social stigma and necessity

Ahmed Saeed
Tea ladies, women who pedal tea on street corners, are a typical Sudanese phenomenon. But life is often a battle for the women who toil long hours to sustain their families.
13.10.2015  |  Khartoum, Sudan
Hawa waiting for customers at her tea stand in Khartoum, September 21, 2015. (photo: The Niles | Ahmed Saeed)
Hawa waiting for customers at her tea stand in Khartoum, September 21, 2015. (photo: The Niles | Ahmed Saeed)

It’s late Wednesday afternoon, cars whizz by, dust hangs in the air, and dark clouds gather, signalling one of Khartoum’s heavy downpours is on the way. A customer orders a coffee. “With ginger or not?” says Hawa, who has been a tea lady for almost 20 years, and boils a fresh kettle.

I’m just trying to provide for my children.”

“Some of my family and neighbours snickered at the idea of me working as a tea lady, but I said I was not doing anything forbidden, I’m just trying to provide for my children.”

Hawa’s husband left her 20 years ago, leaving her with four children, the youngest of which was just a toddler. But thanks to sales of tea and coffee, she has managed to send her youngest daughter to medical school at Ahfad University, where she’s in her second year.

“My eldest son is a mechanical engineer who left to work in Libya. The second eldest son is a bank employee and my other daughter, a police officer with the rank of lieutenant,” she adds with pride.

She has good reason to be proud. Working as a tea lady, a typical sight in Sudan, she managed to take care of her large family as a single parent. “My father was also with me and I provided for him as well,” she says, adding that her eldest son did chores around the house and helped look after his siblings, work that girls are usually expected to do.

“He would save me some food for when I get back. He backed me up,” she explains. But her job left her open to social stigmas: “People criticised me for working as a tea lady,” she says. “But I had to make sure my children had enough to eat, and I had to do it, their father had left. Who else was going to?”

Tea ladies run basic outlets, often on the corner of a main street, where they have a stove, a table, and a few chairs for the customers.

Nazar Salah Aldin, a civil service employee and customer, says she was aware that the women faced social exclusion: “Some tribes or the woman’s close social circle will look down on tea ladies.”

Samia, a journalist and activist and a regular customer at Hawa’s stand, explains the pressures facing tea ladies. “There are no laws to protect them. Theirs is a marginal profession. As women, they are prone to violations because their profession is not organised by a law,” she says.

And despite the tradition of the stands and the tasty drinks they sell, their profession is a product of necessity. “Most of these women are responsible for their families, they are mostly IDPs with no other recourses,” Samia explains, adding that there were some new initiatives to form bodies to protect tea ladies, which she says “had a great impact”.

“The locality administration says they distort the city’s image, but in reality they make it beautiful,” Samia says. “They add another dimension that is popular with tourists. The profession just has to be organised by a law.”

Legal clarity is needed because the women face random confiscations by the local authorities, with tea ladies having chairs, equipment, and belongings taken away and they have to pay hefty fines for their return. “This is unfair because there isn’t any law against this profession,” Samia explains.

And working as a tea lady has enabled Hawa to sustain herself and provide a solid education for her children. She has even bought some land, impressive for regular Sudanese: “About 11 years ago, I bought an empty plot and registered it to my name,” Hawa says. “Bit by bit, I built it through saving money and entering into sandoogs (collective saving system with neighbours and friends).”

Meanwhile, activists recognise tea ladies’ efforts to take care of their families. In mid-May, a youth initiative by the name of “Sharia’a Al-Hawadith”, meaning “Emergency Clinic Street”, finalised a project building a unit for children with cancer at a hospital in Khartoum. A tea lady called Um Gisma was chosen to cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony. Um Gisma would serve tea and coffee as the young men and women sat nearby making phone calls to raise funds for the unit.

“Um Gisma was thanked for her patience and trouble she goes through by choosing her to cut the ribbon, but nevertheless she was criticised. Some people still cannot tolerate tea ladies as a profession, they think it is degrading,” Samia says.Some of those who criticised me now work as tea ladies themselves.”

Cheers and thank you for all the delicious tea.”

To signal their respect for tea ladies, two US embassy employees in Sudan, Caroline Schneider and Jennie Munoz, were featured in a number of local news outlets after they posted a video of themselves having tea next to one of the tea ladies on Nile Avenue. Alongside the video they wrote: “Carrie, Jennie, and everyone at US Embassy Khartoum congratulate the entrepreneurial women who serve tea along the Nile and businesswomen throughout Sudan.”

They went on to say: “Research shows that societies are more prosperous, stable, and secure when women are safe and empowered, so we applaud efforts to increase women’s access to education, technology, capital, justice, and leadership opportunities. Cheers and thank you for all the delicious tea.”

Hundreds who head to Nile Avenue in the evenings and weekends for a breath of fresh air would likely agree. Nohammed Alfateh, a political social analyst and a Khartoum resident, says it was the women selling tea pulling the crowds. “Doing so is only possible because of the tens of tea ladies who work along Nile Avenue.”

And meanwhile, Hawa has seen signs that the social stigma is finally receding: “Some of those who criticised me now work as tea ladies themselves.”

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