Attaya

Sidney Stevens - Senegal


January 16, 2017

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.

Sidney Stevens