Africa’s turning out to be my cup of tea

2009-09-03 15:44

ONE of the joys of ­being in the Sahel is getting to experience the mint tea tradition. The tea is brewed and served in three stages in tiny glass cups resembling shooter glasses.

The first cup is bitter, followed by a sweeter serving and a third cup that’s “as sweet as love”, according to Tuareg tradition as Timbuktian Mohammed says, repeating a lesson that comes with every cup of tea.

The lesson is this: the first bitter cup is like life – you feel it sting. The second cup is mild like life can be sometimes, while the last cup is sweet like amour.

And being a typical Tuareg salesman, Mohammed followed the third cup with a presentation of his wares. Tuaregs will invite you for tea because they are some of the nicest, gentlest people you will meet, and also because tea is a tradition and part of their sales pitch for the jewellery and leatherware some earn their living from.

No matter the motive for the invitation, partaking in this ritual is wonderful. The tea is brewed for hours on tiny braziers for the two tiny tea pots. It is served to two people a time, starting with the most senior person.

I love it for being both romantic and enduring, even providing glimpses of the person making it.

For example, people here love sweet things – so sweet that a shot glass of sugar goes into about 150ml of water. Some people even make do without mint even though it is a ­traditional mint tea.

Not Olga though. She gives the mint its dues and goes light with the sugar. She serves it by announcing “Olga’s tea!”. Individuality is very important to her. Her conversations are theatrical and often peppered with folklore and standard-to-dull voodoo tales from her native Benin.

She has been living and working in Bamako for a year and Olga is hooked on the tradition, like everyone else in Mali. Count me in as well.

Here the tradition follows you from a train station in Dakar and the barren villages to river banks and the Sahara, completing the sense of wonder that is Mali, a destination poised for romance.

My first encounter with the ­Malian obsession with tea was in Dakar. The infamously late Bamako-Dakar train was living up to its reputation. Tired of waiting for nothing, people unwrapped their tea paraphernalia and miniature gas stoves and started brewing.

But the most romantic encounter with tea happened in Djenné, Mali. I arrived at the Unesco world heritage site on a rainy Saturday night and woke up to a cloudy Sunday.

The night sky turned out brilliantly with what looked like a ­billion stars. The moon was full and hung on the horizon just above the flat rooftops. It was breathtaking. Below, on the street, a group of villagers walked past, singing worship songs. It was as sweet as (they say) love is.

There have been many tea moments. Other travellers’ encounters include sitting on a rooftop, drinking tea while listening to a Kora-playing griot tell the story of Sundiata Keita and the Mali empire he founded. Another, though not a fan of the “sweet and strong” brew, ­appreciates the romance of drinking it on the banks of the Bani River.

Another says her first night in ­Dogon country and its escarpment-perched villages is also memorable for being the first time she sipped the tea. It was bitter, like some of her experiences in Bamako, where local “friends” invited her to move in only to steal her cash.

It sounds like making much ado about something not quite special. Yet the tea tradition feels like a ­metaphor for life. It’s certainly the story of my travels here.

At first bitter for the many twists in my Senegalese tale, it became mild six months later when I was getting to grips with living here.

Now, the miracles and surprises of this journey considered, I am on my third cup – sweet and timeless.

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