It’s More Than Just Tea

Alexis Adams - Senegal


January 31, 2012

Tea time here in Senegal is nothing like you would expect it to be, no crumpets and fancy dresses, and definitely no elaborate china and pinkies in the air. It’s more like a group of 6 or 7 people sitting around a coal stove for nearly an hour drinking Chinese green tea called Ataya from two shot glasses.

I have a love hate relationship with Ataya. People love inviting me to drink Ataya and I hate drinking it! I’ve burned off taste buds, ruined taste buds, and lost too many hours of sleep because of it. My French teacher is perhaps the only Senegalese that I’ve encountered who shares my sentiments about Ataya. Our conversation went something like this:

P: what did you do last night?

A: Not much, I had some Ataya with your son and his friends.

P: Me, I don’t like Ataya. I don’t drink alcohol, some cigarettes, or make tea.

A: Did you just compare a 25cent box to tobacco and alcohol?

P: Hahahaha! Yes, it’s the same thing, you lose all your time doing nothing! Just sitting around for hours just to have a couple sips of tea.

In Senegal, Ataya is not just a drink – it’s an activity, particularly popular among teen-aged boys. As for me, my first Ataya experience set the tone for our volatile relationship. It was probably one of the hottest days in Joal and I was invited to go to the beach with one of the other fellows and her host family. I was excited because it was hot beyond belief and it would be my first time at the beach. What I thought was going to be a beach turned out to be a large pool of lukewarm water. To my right a man was bathing his donkey and to my left was a woman doing her laundry. Nevertheless I went in, optimistically hoping for some refreshing waster and was met with the contrary. It was dirty and salty and had a slew of clams and seaweed on the ground. After about 20 minutes in the water my everything started to itch and burn and I was deathly thirsty. It was clearly time to go. After I got out of the water I was greeted by laughter as the others jeered at my expression.

Stephanie’s older brother asked me if I was thirsty and when I answered yes I saw him reach for his man purse (I had been curious as to what he could possibly have in there, he had it on all day) and pulled out a tea kettle and two shot glasses. My mouth gaped open! He could not possibly be serious! I was hot, covered in sand and salt, and thirsty and he was going to give me tea! There was not a boutique in sight so I had no choice but to smile and say thank you when he offered to make it. Little did I know that this would not be a five minute job, he took about 15 minutes to dig a hole and gather twigs and other flammable apparatus to aide the two pieces of coal. After about another 15 minutes of boiling he poured what I thought was the first cup of tea (it wasn’t). He proceeded in pouring the tea back and forth into two glasses, creating a thick white foam in each glass(this took about 7 minutes). We then waited what seemed like another ten minutes and then tea was finally served! I was the first to drink, being so thirsty I didn’t think that it could possibly be hot. Without hesitation I grabbed the glass and started drinking in one swift motion. To say I blistered my tongue was an understatement! I couldn’t feel the tip of my tongue, and I fumbled the glass and spilled the tea on my white t-shirt. I wasn’t able to taste anything, ruined my shirt and was STILL thirsty. I was then notified that it wasn’t done. The 9 other people with us had to drink and he had to start the process all over again two more times because there are three rounds in Ataya.

Every experience since then hasn’t been much better, but the other night I decided that I wasn’t going to let Ataya win, and I made Ataya for the first time! Granted it was just for me and my friend Samba and I didn’t drink any of it, but I still made it and felt very proud!

Alexis Adams