A Love Letter to Ataya

My first day in Senegal, I sat with my knees close to my chest, leaning against a concrete wall, while warily eyeing my new Senegalese host brother as he lounged on a mat and invited me to join him. A lanky twenty-something approached us, placed an old rusty black stove on the ground along with a massive bag of sugar, a metal tea pot, a small box of cigarettes, and two clear shot glasses. I took a deep breath.

Soon he had taken green tea out of the cigarette box, let it steep in the tea-pot over coals on the black stove, added all the sugar, and was rhythmically pouring it between the two shot glasses. I was mesmerized. The stream of light brown tea rose high in the air making foam, his mouth in a soft line with calm concentration. He continued for a long time as the sound of water pouring relaxed my shoulders. When he felt finished, he cleaned the two glasses, poured some tea in each, handed me one and took the other downstairs.

I tasted it and coughed, the strong flavor stinging my throat. I smiled tightly to pretend I liked it, much like how the tv shows would portray if I were trying alcohol for the first time… had I ever drank. When I finished my tea and handed it back to him, he poured two more glasses, this time giving one to my lounging host brother and taking one for himself.

That was my first experience with ataya.

Since then, I’ve gone from looking at Senegalese people like they were crazy as they sat for four hours having tea, to happily ditching my plans and sitting along with them. I love the slow pace of afternoons as we crack open peanuts and drink tea from the same two glasses. I’ve come to love ataya’s taste. Ataya’s sharp green tea flavor appeals to my inner hipster – the one who imagines drinking green tea (not coffee like all the plebeians) while tapping away on her latest Macbook Air from the dinky but immaculate coffee shop. Ataya’s overwhelming sweetness and lazy pace appeals to my inner southern belle – the one who will happily add more sugar to her sweet tea on hot afternoons while commenting that eastern North Carolina barbecue is far superior to that western North Carolina crap y’all eat. Then I’m jolted back to reality by burning myself with tea because, yes, I am now making ataya myself.

I learned late one night with my family surrounding me while laughing hysterically as the tea covered the sandy ground around me. The next day I practiced with water, my sister’s face amused as she placed a rag on the wet tile below me. I stubbornly tried again and again. When I finally got the hang of the pouring, I thought, “Maybe this could be my meditation.”

My family now uses ataya as their American daughter’s party trick and I’m happy to oblige. When the tea is ready, I walk with a saunter, trying to imitate the vaguely sensual swagger of a Senegalese women, shyly giving the atailla first to the oldest and the guest. When guests look with awe and say, “You made it?!” and my family says, “Just watch, she’s a real Senegalese woman,” pride washes over my heart.

I like ataya so much that it made the top of my Things I Like list. I like ataya so much that when the guard found out there wasn’t ataya in the US and said, “It’s no good there!” referring to the US, I was inclined to agree. I like ataya so much that when I’m home my inner Senegalese woman, hipster, and southern belle will make all y’all spend lazy afternoons cracking open roasted peanuts and having ataya until you like it.