Teatime in Hillbrow

2012-12-16 10:00

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As Joburg’s West African immigrants gather for a tea break in the streets of Hillbrow, Percy Mabandu joins in the ataya-brewing ritual and revelry

At the height of the Joburg summer with the golden city’s cerulean sky morphing into a cloudless twilight, west African expatriates convene for a tea-sharing ritual on the streets of Hillbrow.

The congregants, made up largely of Malian and Senegalese immigrants, also include locals with a taste for thrills from far afield like ataya, as the Wolof-speaking people of Senegal refer to tea, and the leisurely ritual of preparing and enjoying it.

Tea has, for centuries, been brewed as the beverage of choice to welcome travellers in the desert cultures of the north. Hence, this becomes an attempt at whetting nostalgic tastes.

As the pleasant chill of the wind at dusk graces Olivia Road, between Fife and Tudhope avenues, portable gas braziers come aflame.

Sharing the milk-crate-cum-table contraption are the rest of the utensils. These include 100ml shot glasses, a kettle, and some boxes of potent tea leaves.

Various groups of five to eight strangers crouch around each mound of apparatus under colourful umbrellas.

The air is charmed by the music of Youssou Ndour, loud laughter and banter from the merry crowd. This is a street bash of sorts.

Seated next to me is a soft-spoken man who introduces himself as Alpha Diallo. He was born in Dakar, Senegal, and moved to New York with his parents when he was seven years old. A nomadic predisposition has seen him live in 18 countries in just 10 years. He’s worked as a merchant, bouncer and even had a stint in the US Army. Reaching for the boiling aluminium kettle, he says: “I was in Iraq, too, man. It was terrible there, I ran away. So you can call me a fugitive too.”

Diallo is the host brewer under my umbrella. Once the water reaches a boil, he adds the tea leaves into it. He then allows it to simmer for a few moments on the burning brazier. Once he’s convinced of the concentration, he adds a heap of sugar into the bubbling beverage. The sugar is followed by shots of water to help it dissolve. A few moments on, Diallo begins pouring the first round.

He pours the tea out from an impressive height. The golden tea stream plunges into the glasses and creates the prized foam atop the drink. The host then pours from one glass to another and repeats a few times before serving.

The first cup is bitter and strong, though with a sweet streak from the heavy-handed sugar dose. The tea grows less potent, sweeter and more pleasant with successive servings, as more water is added into the simmering solution.

Amid the unfolding, elaborate ritual of preparation and consumption, the music grows drum-heavy with lilting vocalists churning the dusk into a

comic spectacle.

West Africa has come to Joburg, riding on a tradition that dates back centuries to the rainy forests and bushes of Asia.

Somewhere on the border of northeast India, north Burma and southwest China, tea plants first grew and have since spread to the rest of the world.

According to the (partially) reliable sources at Wikipedia, the drink we know as tea was imported to Europe from Asia during the Portuguese expansion in the 16th century. This was the time at which it acquired the term ‘chá’ for a name. Cha is from the Cantonese word ‘chàh’.

The widespread pronunciation ‘chai’, used in popular restaurant cultures across the tea-drinking world, is an Arabic derivation of the word.

The exploits of the the Dutch East India Company first introduced tea to England in 1644 and, apparently, Britain and the rest of the English-speaking world has Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II, to thank for the now-ubiquitous tea parties. Though first drank there circa 1660, tea was only widely consumed from the 19th century.

Tea has been lauded for having various health benefits, though generally these have not been adequately demonstrated in humans. This beverage is so lovely, even cricketers take tea breaks with religious regularity.

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