Ahhhhhhh Attaya

Attaya is the Senegalese tea drinking ritual.

I’ve seen it labeled as a ceremony, but for me that formal-sounding word conjures up visions of tea-time in England and Japanese tea ceremonies. Instead, here you see attaya preparation and degustation everywhere:  on sidewalks, in gargottes or improvised street-side restos, in formal restaurants and homes, all day and all evening.  For me, attaya will forever be associated with my work day at CREDILA.

Wherever it is served, a constant is that it always appears in three rounds. The first is strong and bitter, the second more sweet with a little mint, and the third, very sweet.  Why?  Ah, there appear to be as many explanations as there are attaya makers in Senegal.

Mbaye Faille, CREDILA attaya maker par excellence, in the staff room.

One blogger wrote that attaya’s three rounds are “supposed to reflect friendship: The longer we’re together the sweeter it grows.”

Another turned more literary, citing to a passage from Native Stranger: A Black American’s Journey into the Heart of Africa (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), where Eddy L. Harris learns why Gambians always have three cups of tea:

“Do you know why we always drink three cups of tea?” Peter asked. “And do you know why the first cup is always the sweetest?”
I slurped my tea.
“No, why?”
“The first cup is the love of your mother. The second is the love of your friends. The third is the love of your love.”
I laughed.
“It’s true,” he said. “Ask anybody.”
(The Misfortune in Men’s Eyes)

A third blogger I located, a young Dakarois back from university in the States, gives his darker, modern spin to attaya’s social significance:  “Why do young able Senegalese men drink and make tea all day and all night? BECAUSE THEY HAVE NOTHING BETTER TO DO! and because it tastes good…The unemployment rate in Senegal is about 46%. Schools are multiplying, so are young people with numerous diplomas. We have the most qualified and unemployed people ever…. So what do we do? We drink tea to keep ourselves busy, to kill time, to be useful to someone and get recognition for it: there is often a designed tea maker who just seems to have special tricks that make their tea taste better. That person is often praised and asked to make some more. He is the man and we not drinking if he is not making it… For that person, tea isn’t just a hobby, it is a lifestyle!”

A fourth blogger provides some history and personal observation that rings true with my experience of the past 9 months of attaya drinking.

“Attaya’s variation really depends on who brews the best attaya. The dry leaf measurement, sugar, water all has to be proportionate to the number of people drinking it, The leaves are bitter so the outcome of the taste too depends on whether it should be made strong, medium weight or light like some chamomile tea. Making it requires some skill.  Whatever the outcome, the taste of the attaya will largely depend on the brewer.

Attaya occasions can be simple, often behind house under mango trees, or elaborate at naming ceremonies. Attaya sessions are good past times for family members and friends. Best served after lunch, especially after palm oil stew, beef stew or peanut butter soup. It is high in caffeine and can be used as an energy drink but if taken in an empty stomach, can cause stomach upsets, nausea or some sleeplessness if taken taken late evening.

Night watchmen, drink attaya to keep them awake and the brewing scent can send robbers and night mischiefs away.”

Her comments about time and conversation surrounding the tea drinking/slurping parallel my little universe.  “All 3 rounds of attaya can be made in an hour or three hours. But it’s best to have at least 40 minutes in-between.  . . . Some drink quietly and others will slurp noisily depending on how good they think it tastes. You will be commended if it tastes good. Others will complain if it’s too strong and others if it’s too weak. After the three rounds no matter what the outcome, you will hear all kinds of stories, mostly depressing, some inspiring and others outright incomprehensible. Every story gets audience over attaya. Wonderful wonderful feeling. You all can call it a day!!”

Pierre Thiam, owner of a Senegalese restaurant in Brooklyn called Le Grand Dakar and author of Yolele, a Senegalese cookbook that we brought with us, describes les trois normaux in symbolic terms of life’s three stages:  the first is bitter like life; the second is sweet like love; and the third is gentle like the breath of death.

Having witnessed up close and personal the Senegalese passion for talking and expressing one’s opinions, I am confidant that all of these versions are “true.” I remain smitten by the one I (think I) first heard:  the first round is bitter like death (amère comme la mort), the second is gentle like life (doue comme la vie), and the third is sweet like love (sucré comme l’amour).  Eh bien.

Attaya at CREDILA is an institution.  Our attaya maker is Mbaye Faille, who I think is one of the law faculty gardeners.  He shows up in the late morning/early afternoon and starts the process of gathering water, firing up the hotplate, and washing the small glasses used both to make and serve the tea.  Even if I miss his entrance, my ears perk up when I hear the tinkle of glasses jostling one another in the wash bucket.

People from around the faculty start to drift in.  Secretaries from adjoining offices, other buildings and grounds workers, the center chauffeur and security guards form the core group.  Newcomers regularly come and go, with the degrees of separation from CREDILA employees not more than two or three.

I know their faces and voices more than their names and positions.  Mostly their voices, for the object of attaya is talking.  My afternoons of reading and writing at CREDILA or meeting with students is against this backdrop of Wolof wafting from the break room.  Back and forth debate is the norm.  Raucous laughs regularly punctuate the conversation.  Sometimes angry outbursts occur, but are short lived and eventually translated into laughter before returning to equilibrium.  French words sprinkled here and there catch my attention.  My three glasses are served to me while I work, as well as to other faculty members who stay in their offices during this 2 – 3 hour break.

At first, the CREDILA attaya posse hesitated to include me in the ritual.  They worried that the first glass would be too strong and asked me repeatedly if I preferred skipping straight to the second.  I’m drinking the second glass as I write.  Its minty taste with just a touch of sugar is my favorite.  (I see Mbaye coming back between rounds 1 and 2 with a bunch of mint in hand, and keep my eye out for the secret patch somewhere in the weedy courtyard.) Nonetheless I drink all three when I’m here, for you can’t really know sweetness unless you’ve drunk the bitter.

My first big hurdle was trusting the boiling process to kill whatever could make an afternoon in a faculty sans working toilets unpleasant. The three sticky, brown stained glasses are used by everyone, in shifts.  The washing in between is perfunctory, and in water from the tap.  So far, so good to the last drop.

I also had to learn to do drink attaya correctly.  My usual practice is to watch everyone else (e.g. hang back at a market and figure out what locals pay, watch others signal the car rapide driver where to stop) and mimic.  Given that I can be a bit focused on my work, it actually took me a week or so to realize that Mbaye was checking regularly on the half full glass lingering at my side, for many minutes on end.  Yikes, with only 3 glasses, the point is not to savor! You drink it efficiently so that others may use the glass and savor the time in between rounds by talking at length.

Vincent savoring the second glass.

But when it comes to attaya drinking, I learned just as much by listening as watching.  Rather than taking dainty sips bit by bit, one uses the frothy top or mousse to buffer your lips and tongue as you draw in the piping hot liquid with a loud slurp.  I love doing this, if nothing else because my kids would die laughing seeing me so out of character.  I also had a great time explaining to colleagues how making this sound in the U.S. wouldn’t go over so well.

Although I rarely enter the inner sanctum, I do pop my head in occasionally when returning my glass (a practice that Mbaye has come to accept, even though his preference is to serve me at the table and pick up the empties).  We were low in numbers last Friday, when I took all these pictures. Vincent and I were in the middle of a vigorous debate about American society and capitalism when the second glass arrived, and so I joined the circle for the last two rounds.  It’s a lovely thing, especially as departure deadlines loom, to let go of my Western work of ideas and reason and focus instead on the Senegalese travail of maintaining social relations.

Me slurping with abandon, yet unable to suppress the pinky.

Here’s a recipe for attaya offered at this blogger’s site, that looks to be adapted from Thiam’s cookbook.

Round one (Lewel)
In a small tea pot (brada) put one cup water, 1 small glass (Kas) of sugar, and 1 small glass (kas) of tea leaves (warga). Set the pot on the fuurnu (small grill or gas burner) and bring the mix to a boil. Remove from heat and pour some of the content into each of the four small glasses. Begin pouring the liquid back and forth between the glasses until each glass has foam on it. Keeping the foam in the glasses, pour the liquid back into the brada and bring to a boil again. Remove from heat and pour into the glasses. Mix again until foam is even bigger then serve round one.

Mbaye enjoying the fruits of his labor.

Round two (Niarel)
Add water to the brada (warga should still be in the pot). Add mint leaves (nana) and/or pastilles (a mint candy similar to gum drops) to the pot. Bring to a boil. Add two generous kas of sugar, bring to a boil again. Remove from heat and pour some of the content into each of the four small glasses. Begin pouring the liquid back and forth between the glasses until each glass has foam on it. Keeping the foam in the glasses, pour the liquid back into the brada and bring to a boil again. Remove from heat and pour into the glasses. Mix again until foam is even bigger then serve round two.

Round three (Nietel)
Add water and a little more warga to the pot. Add mint leaves (nana) and/or pastilles to the pot (be generous, this is the yummy round!). Bring to a boil. Add three generous kas of sugar and bring again to a boil. Remove from heat and pour some of the content into each of the four small glasses. Begin pouring the liquid back and forth between the glasses until each glass has foam on it. Keeping the foam in the glasses, pour the liquid back into the brada and bring to a boil again. Remove from heat and pour into the glasses. Mix again until foam is even bigger then serve round three.

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