Tea time in Senegal is not quite the rushed job we 21st century on the run career focused, busy, busy all the time people are used to. It’s not just about boiling water and a tea bag and a rushed gulp on the run while chasing a deadline or making it on time to that very important urgent meeting in town. The first time I drank Senegalese tea was last year in January 2012, while on a sudden pilgrimage to the holy city of Touba. The Magal (Commemoration) of Touba is an annual pilgrimage observed by half a million followers, disciples and devotees ofCheikAhmadouBamba (exiled Senegalese Revolutionary, Spiritual leader, similar to Ghandi of India, Martin Luther King of the USA, and Mandela of South Africa). Mouridms, which I hope to later, write about when I have learnt more about the religion, put simply is based on orthodox Islam and Sunni Islam. I had decided the day before to go and experience it and since I was in the country for a holiday, embarking on a spontaneous pilgrimage did not seem at all out of the ordinary. For me it was an adventure, an opportunity to experience an element of the city that turned out to be one of the very important aspects of Senegalese life, as important as the art of making tea. It had been a long and hard dayof negotiating thousands upon thousands of bodies who walked, shuffledand pushed ahead in a one way, two way straight lines to the Main Mosque and its surrounding holy buildings. I was told by my guide and many others that not many people make it to Touba, and getting there is considered a positive sign that one has a good heart, or that your heart is in the right place. After losing my guide amongst the throngs of people pushing and shoving against each other and eventually making it to the main mosque, where we walked barefoot on the hot marble floor I was not quite sure what the whole fuss was still about. After my guide went to pray, we ventured to the holy city’s vast library which was of more interest to me. However by the time we got there it was so hot and crowded that I was barely able to see a single book or Holy Scripture on display. Fatigued, parched and in semi delirium we decided to rest under the cool shade of the library grounds. Not having been on a pilgrim before I didn’t understand the force and passion with which people shoved and pushed their way through as if trying to make it through the pearly gates of heaven, I was grateful for a moment of peaceful contemplation.
On our way back to our compound, I had a very interesting encounter with what I call the Islam police for lack of a better word. I was wearing pants( Allandin style) and though my guide had assured me that it would be perfectly fine and acceptable to wear them to Touba, we soon found that I would have to be detained and forced to pay a fine, and wear something more appropriate. It really felt like I was playing a role in some ancient epic however the sharp sound of lashes against painful whimpers meted out to others found dressed inappropriately, or breaking a code of ethics according to Muslim (sharia) law brought me back to the seriousness of my situation. After what felt like years, I was released and had to change right there and then into a huge canvas which I wrapped around my body. They would confiscate my pants, my one and only and favourite pair, so we negotiated until I got them back and we were well on our way to our campsite. We found our meal ready to be eaten – I was famished – after a tiny nap, it was time for tea. I looked at the whole set up with interest; a small coal-fired stove, small shot glasses, sugar, mint, water, Chinese green tea and a group of friends. It was time to make tea. I was too tired to pay focused attention on how they made it, but what did catch my attention was the constant pouring of the tea from one small glass cup to another, the waiting, the pouring, the shaking , the tasting and then eventually the tea, came in a small cup. I was puzzled by all the effort just to make one shot of bitter-sweet tea. In reality it does not take that long to make but for one who is unaccustomed to its ritual nature, it can feel like forever.
After that experience of tea drinking in to Touba I began to notice mostly men and women making tea around the city of Dakar. If, like me in the beginning you are not living with a Senegalese family, it can be easy to miss this essential part of Senegalese life. My guide, who soon became a close friend, invited me to tea on Sunday at his home and it soon became a habit of visiting him for tea. I would watch him with keen interest while he made cup after cup, distributing it to me and other tea drinkers in the house in order of seniority. I never once tried to make it, still thinking it was a lot of effort for such a tiny cup. Then one day after having moved in with a Senegalese family through a local journalist I met while covering the pre-election violence I decided to try to make it. It looked simple enough. The journalist friend, who is now my partner,was the tea maker in the family, which meant that his tea was the best, and he did it with such ease I was sure I could make it too. My first lesson began with him, in the comfort of his room which smelled of perfume and Senegalese incense, and Luciano – his favourite reggae singer singing in the background.
First you need to prepare the fire on the small portablebrazier using charcoal. A task which seems easy but actually making a fire in a small brazier does take some practice, especially when one is used to just flicking a switch to boil water. Then when the fire is ready, you should already have your tea, water, sugar and mint if you want to make the tea more fragrant ready – preparation is key. Pour a full shot glass of tea into the teapot and bring it to boil slowly over time until the tea leaves open and create a thick-seaweed looking substance. After about 20 or so minutes of checking in, pouring a little water here and then, it’s time to put in the sugar, and it can vary depending on your taste. Senegalese use a lot of sugar in their tea. Shake the teapot mixing it together and leave to boil. After another ten minutes or so, taste the tea, if it needs more water or sugar then you add a little more ofwhatever is needed and then leave it to boil again. After some time or after the sugar has completely dissolved into the liquidtaste it again. If the taste is suitable, pour the tea into one glass and thenbegin makingthe foam. Pouring tea alternately into each cup until there’s enough foam in both glasses, about half the glass. After you are satisfied with the foam, pour the tea back into the tea pot and leave it to heat up again, while cleaning the glasses to make sure they are not sticky to the touch and the foam is not tampered with. When it’s done the tea is ready to be served, two glasses at a time, each person has a glass to themselves. The foam making procedure will have to be repeated if there are more people around. And that is just the first round; the same process of making tea is repeated three times. Others often stop at two rounds either because of time, a shortage of ingredients or laziness (being tired) but the general rule is three cups per person, which can make tea time a whole afternoon event. The practiced hand can make three rounds of tea in an hour, a less practiced hand like mine well… I just stop at two. Typically tea is served or made around three o’clock in the afternoon, usually after lunch. The first round is usually stronger, and the tea gets lighter with the second, third or fourth round. Even then there’s always room for improvement, there is always a second, third or fourth chance and then still tomorrow is another day.
The first time I learnt how to make tea; I wanted to do it alone by myself. I pulled such a sweat and I don’t sweat easily, I was sure I would never be able to master the art. It was clumsy, awkward more than anything very uncomfortable. My hands were charred from making the fire, and the heat of the liquid from making the foam, there was sugar, tea leaves everywhere, the glasses were sticky, my state of mind was just as messy: I was really anxious, frustrated and apprehensive that even after I had been pouring and pouring tea from one cup to another I did not end up with foam on both cups, the tea had made its way to the floor. More over my hands and arms were trembling and becoming numb from the hand motions of pouring teal from one cup to another – it was a mess. I made tea three times in a span of two months and literally gave up on making tea after it took me the whole afternoon and the better part of the evening to get it together. It was hard labour for me.
It was really an incredible thing for me to realize that I struggled with something that seemed so simple and effortless for others to do. I left Senegal in May of 2012 thinking that at least I had tried to make tea and would make it for friends and family back home, show-off the new skill I had acquired even though I was still not confident in my ability to make it. Back home the usual anxiety of being back got a hold of me and even though I sometimes thought of making tea, I dismissed the idea using all manner of excuses. I convinced myself that I even if I wanted to, I could not since I did not have the things I needed like shot glasses and even incredibly the small brazier to make the tea, even though it was perfectly possible to do it on an electric stove and there was never a shortage of shot glasses in South Africa. But in retrospect I think the truth was, I was afraid of failing, of trying to show off my new skill and then embarrassing myself because I was not quite good at it, so I never once tried. I did speak about “being able to do it” though.
I have been making tea again since my return to Senegal this year. This time I started off as one who actually does not know how to make tea and allowed another new friend to show (teach) me how to do it. The lessons I had learned the first time around came back and I realized the fundamental truth about life that I had chosen to ignore. That in order for me to improve my tea making abilities, I have to practice making tea every day. This tea making for me says a lot more about ones’ state of mind than the actual tea itself. The texture, the taste, the consistency the thickness of the foam speaks volumes about where your mind or heart is at while you make the tea. I found myself focusing on making the perfect foam because it looks aesthetically pleasing while neglecting the substance, which is the tea itself. So sometimes the tea would be too sweet, too bitter or too weak depending on the state of my three Ps and an F;Patience, Persistence, Positive thinking and Focus. When I worry or am anxious about something while making tea it will show up in the end result in the cup. Also with this kind of tea making, since you’re making it for others, you get immediate feedback – it’s okay, it’s good, it’s great, no comment. Then I found a new area of focus or worry other than making the tea. Do they like my tea? Is it good enough or bad and getting discouraged or encouraged depending on what people say. I have found myself not wanting to make tea because I fear people won’t think it’s good and if the tea is not good, it means the tea maker is not good either. So I judge and condemn myself on other peoples’ opinions be they true or false, looking for praise, affection, applause and an award for my labored efforts and not finding it, I stop myself from continuing to learn and to grow, because I don’t make tea like someone who has been making tea every day since they were ten years old. It’s more than fool hardy to do this to myself. A recipe for failure if there was ever one. Perhaps this has been the lesson I needed to learn, that contrary to what I have convinced myself to believe; In order for me to do something well, I have to be willing to do it badly. So if I am not willing to fail when trying something new or learning a new skill, I will never learn anything new, because we all learn by doing, repeating the same thing every day, seeking counsel from others who have done it before, until we know how to do it well and that Failure – that thing I fear with all my heart – is an essential and almost unavoidable element of success.
When I am not focused on the task at hand, when I am thinking about what I should have, could have been doing, if I’m day dreaming, in a hurry to go somewhere, am unhappy or angry about something and allowing those emotions to take over – I won’t make good tea. As the tea maker you know if you have been focused or not. So more than anything tea making is a form of meditation, of mastering the mind and its propensity to make anything and everything else more important than the task at hand the now moment. In other words there are many ways to pray in this world, in Senegal many pray five times a day, kneeling to face their true north in open and unashamed acknowledgment that they are not GOD, others make tea, others build, make clothes, sing,shop keep you name it, it’s not really important what you do as long as whatever you do is done as a prayer, worshipping the creator by serving others. It does not matter how fast or much of it you do, it’s the quality that’s important, and quality can only be determined or improved with daily practice, patience, persistence dedication, positive thinking and focus. Virtues, that money whether you have it or not, can never buy. How’s that for a cup of tea?