by Bob Kunzinger
Late at night we drink tea with a hint of mint and sugar stirred in the dark leaves. Traditionally, at least here in Senegal, the host pours the pot from high above a few glasses, no drops missing. First, the chief or a guest or someone with a birthday will slurp it from the rim of the glass until it is empty, and then more is poured from the pot’s high perch and the glass is passed to the next person around the fire. The tea is potent. By eleven pm my African friends, whose nature and genes defy caffeine, sleep peacefully while I, well, I clean the village, repair the Mosque wall, redesign the flawed forage, and fill the troughs.
This tea opens my veins. Once I couldn’t sleep, so I scrubbed the kettle, rid it of months of food chunks, rice burned black to the inside. At dawn, our cook cried, “Who cleaned the pot?!” I confessed and smiled, but everyone stared, shook their heads and walked away. That night the rice was dry and bland. Weeks passed before whatever had grown or crawled inside the kettle returned and flavored the food. I blame the tea.
The tea ceremony is called Attaya. The first round is strong and bitter, the second sweeter with a hint of mint, and the third round is sweet and minty. It mirrors friendship, which grows over time to reflect how the longer we know each other the sweeter the relationship becomes. What happens most during Attaya, however, is talk. We consume conversation. We talk about the rain, if there is any, the wind, which is more common, and the oppressive sun. And the villagers return to their natural spaces, rest or sleep peacefully. I leave the fire wondering if I had enough materials to tunnel to Mauritania. I just can’t sleep.
I usually drink first, last and sometimes after each other friend around the fire until I am tea’d up as if I drank two pots of espresso. I vibrate. I stare at the stars while friends snore nearby, and I redesign the heavens. At home, I might have dozed off in front of a movie after a snack, seldom walking out to see the stars, settling instead for the famous ones on late night television. But not in the village where after the tea and conversation around the fire leaves everyone fast asleep, I sit up straight at three am and find astrological images of American authors. “Look,” I’d tell no one, “there’s Hemingway! And Orion’s belt looks like the shotgun he used. And there to the south is Fitzgerald, the racist bastard. Look, there’s Zelda picking his drunk ass up off the floor.”
But, unlike at home, it doesn’t wear off. No ebbing sense of tiredness, no headaches when I don’t drink. No. When I first arrived in the village, the chief looked like God; he is taller than most, well over six feet anyway, and dark, with long, thin, strong arms, and a white robe that wraps down his legs. He is ancient and eternal. He is Achilles. He is Gandhi. He is Mohammad. Even when doing nothing at all, this man has complete determination about him.
“What is your purpose here?” he asked me in those first days. “Why are you here?”
“To see what’s out here; to meet people like you,” I said, and he nodded. “To have a look around,” I added. “To see more stars. You have more stars than we do at home.” We laughed, and that first night he poured tea in some beautiful and ritualistic way. I had traveled often, but never before had I felt so safe, so in touch with a group of people, and so welcomed. I wondered what life here would have been like had the Europeans not decided for them what their future held. At the same time, I could not imagine a more genuine existence. I stayed.
One night, while staring at the stars, after I found the zodiac which resembled the Stoning of St. Stephen and profiles of Chinua Achebe, I went out to the well where men did not go during the day, and I hauled up water for the emaciated cattle. Some nights I’d study Arabic, listen to men chant, grind millet into flour, and teach myself Fulani. Often, I’d walk outside the village wide awake, stupid awake, like the personification of some nocturnal double-shot, and I’d blend with the sound, the lack of sound, the immersion of my entire self in the liquid of African sound and listen to what was missing. It took a complete opening of my senses to finally tune in to what wasn’t there: no sound of blame or disillusionment. No sound of hypocrisy. All I could hear in that tight-rope awakeness was that one passing moment: the complete absorption of now. It took an absolute absence of civilization to feel completely aware and connected.
It wasn’t the tea. Sugar and caffeine had nothing to do with this.
When I first came to the village, I bought space in a van on Saint-Louis Island just below the Mauritanian border. The driver, a tall Toucouleur man with black etched marks on his temples, told me to join them. At one point on the all- day trip east to the village, across the river region of Senegal, our van driver pulled over to sell us to another driver. They negotiated beneath the hood of the van while we sat in the dust of the worn-out road, its edges chewed by age and wind, some portions completely digested by drought, and those of us who weren’t Muslim ate rice and drank warm water beneath the oppressive May sun.
We were sold quickly to the other driver and eventually we left. At dusk again, we pulled over so the driver could break fast along with any others who so desired, and shortly later we continued on to our final stop where well after dark I trekked on foot across the barren land.
I was befriended by many in the small village, and through hand signs and a friend who spoke Pulaar, we communicated. Eventually, the conversation moved toward history, toward colonialism, toward the west, and toward slavery. I told them I was on Goree Island a month earlier. It, along with Saint-Louis Island where I spent the night before catching the van east, had been holding areas for slaves during French rule from the 1600’s through the 19th century, and even before then as ships moved back and forth to Lisbon. Saint-Louis, in particular, became the crossroads of all things West Africa. It was the gathering place for Europeans and Africans, Christians and Muslims, slaveholders and slaves. It was on a West African island like Saint Louis where Europe first stole the heart of West Africa when Antonio Gonsalves brought Africans back to Portugal in the 1400’s and began one of the longest sustained genocides in the history of humanity. It was simple enough to pit Africans against each other—supplying arms to one area, such as Mauritania, to capture another area, such as Senegal. What remains, then, is a region raped of her strongest men, her most able women, and her very future. What strength this continent must have had and lost. It was only later in the village I discovered the idea, the faith, that is Inch’Allah, “if God agrees.” I had never experienced faith like this where fasting is a pleasure and where sacrifice is a gift.
And every night, I look forward to the break of fast, so with my friends, I can drink potent tea.
Awake doesn’t really describe it. It is the kind of consciousness that comes with the confidence that everything is going to be alright. You can’t legally grow that. It doesn’t brew well.
At dawn, before the fast of day, there is a way in which everyone wakes, smiles, and moves like fluid through the small village. It is Ramadan, and people eat before dawn to sustain them through the day, when through fasting rather than swallowing they seek the grace of Allah, and the pangs of hunger remind them of their pure pursuit of the truth. Then as the sun sits on the horizon, they wait, watching, water and bread at the ready, to break their fast and come to life, culminating before long in Attaya.
But for me it is the space, the unreachable horizon, the vast imagination of Africa spread like distant but promising hope. It is that quick but fleeting moment of clarity that makes me sit up straight and watch the increasing soft glow on the eastern plains. It is the persistence of some primitive way of life that had no chance of surviving but survives anyway which finds me in prayer and at peace, which keeps me awake searching the heavens.
Bob Kunzinger is a writer now living in Virginia who lived in Africa for some time. His work has appeared in World War Two History, The Washington Post, and many newspapers and journals throughout the world. He has published eight collections of essays, and several works have been noted by Best American Essays. Bob is currently at work on a book of essays about crossing Siberia with his son.
The above ATTAYA image is taken from here.