And they say the English drink tea

On plastic or string-woven stools by the side of the dusty road, a group of men can inevitably be found, engaged in conversation. At the centre of the circle they circumscribe, a painted metal cabinet sits, an array of jars of spices lined along its top, the smoke from burning sandalwood emanating from smouldering coals. Seated behind this one finds the Tea Lady, an essential part of Sudanese street culture. Beside her, charcoals boil water in enormous kettles, and coffee pots made out of old tins of ghee—or even aircraft oil—bubble away.

As a visitor to Sudan, these ladies are one of the first things that one notices, a quaint constant found in every town. They seem to keep the country going, blood-sugar levels sustained by sweet, thick shai (tea) or spiced jebbana (coffee) in scorching heat that kills the appetite.

In the early morning, they serve doughnuts from iron pans filled with oil, keeping hunger at bay until the eleven o’clock fittur (breakfast). Come late afternoon, the drink of choice is shai bil-laban, tea with milk powder. Their incense is burning into the night, and in restaurants, it is a tea-lady that provides post-meal coffee, franchised into the corner of the establishment.

Yet a rumble of discontent rolled through government not so long ago. A female minister made a move to diminish the tea-ladies from the streets of Khartoum, claiming that they represented poverty, gender issues and they are not a civilised feature of the country, stimulating prostitution and drug use. Luckily, a group of intellectuals rallied behind their cause with a counter-campaign, saying that they formed a vital part of Sudanese culture. A student at the Documentary Film Workshop at the Goethe Institut had wanted to make a film about them, but was denied permission by the relevant ministry. “It was the perfect story”, she said.

These ladies, many of who are migrants from Ethiopia, do come from the lower end of the economic scale, struggling to make a living. But they form a great hub of society, a social lynchpin. Under the great bridge to Tuti Island, the groups of people sat beside the Nile are all supping tea. On the shores of the island, where Khartoum “heads to the beach” come weekend, it is the tea-lady that provides the only refreshment. Outside a major hospital in Khartoum 2, visiting relatives sit waiting, engaged in discussion around these stands. On the street in front of the French Cultural Centre, staff and students alike sit in the late afternoon, the tea-lady serving with her notions of French. And in a delicious fish-restaurant in al-Amarat, it is an Ethiopian tea-lady that provides the after-meal drinks.

Mine will be a shai bil-nana, shukran.

» See more photos: Tea Ladies.