Abdul comes running down Mako’s main road, swinging a clumsy haze of flying ashes and embers. In a hurry to get back to his friends’ soccer game, he sets the little stove down at an angle beside me, and hot charcoal tumbles out. Eight years old, Abdul does not hesitate to scoop up the live coals and toss them back into the stove. The Senegalese’s tolerance to heat will never cease to amaze me.
My friend Fode then sends Abdul to fetch a cup of water so he can begin to prepare attaya, Pulaar for tea. Within minutes the scent of attaya brewing begins to pluck idle men from the road. They beeline towards this boutique with greetings of “asalam aliekoum,” “eh boy, nice,” “nanle ejam” and “cava?“ A hot teapot is a universal invitation. We pull up chairs for close friends and stranger alike.
Together we begin the most significant portion of the tea-making process: waiting. Attaya is both a means to kill time and a necessity at any social gathering. The guys talk and laugh, slipping between Pulaar, Wolof and French with thoughtless ease. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which language is absorbing the other.
We lose some would-be drinkers to the wait. They amble off to visit other friends or attend some business. Those who remain are the picture of patience. My eyes, however, follow the tea as Fode lifts the pot to pour a steaming stream into one of the shot glasses. He proceeds to jirrtugol, or cool the tea by passing it between two cups. With hands that imitate the flicking of a wand, he tips the cup and lifts it high. Magically, not one drop misses the waiting cup below.
As he lifts the cups higher and tosses the tea ever faster, a thick white froth grows in the shot glasses. The thickness of this layer makes or breaks your attaya. When I prepare the tea, I’m lucky if I can get a centimeter. Fode’s foam bubbles over the edge of the filled cup. Finally, he pours the tea back into the pot and rinses off the glasses. All the while, not a drop of froth leaves the cups.
Attaya, like everything in Senegal, has an age hierarchy. Fode first serves the two oldest men in our group. Then he refills the cups and sends one of my little host siblings into the house to serve my two host mothers. Afterwards, the rest of us drink with glasses poured just high enough to stretch to everyone. The tea is hot, sweet and strong. The next two rounds, brewed from the same pack of tea, will get successively weaker and sweeter.
As Fode’s fan coaxes bright red sparks from the dark coals, the guys’ laughter lulls over me. The gentle pace of tea time reflects the rhythm of life in the village. You cannot walk past two homes without crossing someone who calls to you to join them for tea. Attaya sipped from communal glasses invites drinkers to share stories and company. The slow-brewing coals fill and justify empty time. Whether it be on the porch of a popular boutique, or in a home where rice is sparse, wherever people gather they drink attaya.