Gandhi may have had varying views on the consumption of tea, but it is for a tea launch that I visit Satyagraha House, located in the serene suburb of Orchards, Johannesburg, where the lawyer-turned-activist and India’s Father of the Nation lived for two years at the beginning of the last century.
It was here that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi stayed until 1909 and developed Satyagraha, his political philosophy of passive resistance. He lived with his friend Hermann Kallenbach, a German architect who built the house in 1907.
The French travel company, Voyageurs du Monde Africa, bought Satyagraha House in 2009 and had it restored and opened to the public as a museum and guesthouse in 2011.
The house, with its strong South African design influences, retains the original thatched roof, chimney, a garden with indigenous plants, and a vegetable patch at the rear. Gandhi famously adhered to a strict vegetarian diet and an austere life, so the guesthouse conforms by serving only vegetarian food, and now bespoke tea.
Through exhibited photographs, plaques, panels, and popular Gandhi motifs such as the spinning wheel, cotton fabric and his circular glasses, the home is a visual essay of his domestic life in South Africa for those two years.
The cool weather and the tranquility here offers the perfect setting for a cup of tea, preferably under the two century-old trees in the backyard, appropriately named Pride of India.
It is in this backdrop you get five minutes with the lithe and effervescent Swaady Martin, the entrepreneur who in 2012 founded YSWARA, a home-grown African luxury brand now present in 17 countries. Soon after our meeting, Martin is jetting off to Paris for yet another launch of her teas.
In South Africa, she has a factory at the Cradle of Humankind and a store at the culture-rich Maboneng Precinct. Martin calls her bespoke tea at Satyagraha House “lemon verbena chai”, sourced from natural ingredients and created by her.
Home for her is different places, but Martin has been living in South Africa for the last seven years. She was a regular visitor at Satyagraha House when it opened. That’s how the inspiration for the collaboration came about.
The 39-year-old, whose father is American and German and mother is French, Guinean and Ivorian, and who calls herself a citizen of the world, has a genuine interest in African culture, and a deep love for India.
“I am grateful that my DNA is mixed, as this is how I feel. I have an Asian soul,” says Martin, who confesses her immense love also for Gandhi.
“I have always been an admirer of Gandhi as the visionary and also as the loving revolutionary. And to be able to able to create this tea for Satyagraha House and for Gandhi is an immense privilege.”
It’s a happy coincidence; I tell Martin her brand YSWARA has an Indian ring to it and means God in Hindi. She agrees.
“It talks about the ethos of our company and the soulfulness that is really the thread of everything we do, that same soulfulness is also in Gandhi’s philosophy and the lifestyle that I relate to.”
Africa may be the largest exporter of tea in the world but Martin says the current entrepreneurial climate in Africa is tough.
“In the context of Africa, it’s challenging to be an entrepreneur everywhere. Being a female entrepreneur in Africa is especially challenging, it’s not for the faint-hearted,” she says.
Despite the tepid environment, Martin continues with her journey of creating “extraordinary teas” that now form part of any visitor’s date with history in a heritage home in Johannesburg.