Atayaa – The Art of Tradition

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Djiby Thiam (read ‘cham’) sits down on the bamboo bed, plastic straw woven mat on top.  He has just gotten back from high school in Galoya, two villages over, on the bus (100cfa there, 100cfa back – the equivalent of about 25 cents each way).  Djiby is tired, he had 5 classes today, all before 2pm: English, Philosophy, History, French, Spanish.  His neene (mother), to his left, cooks rice and fish in the big pot over the logs that she occasionally readjusts to get just the right amount of heat under the pot.  Oh what he would do for a nap, lunch wouldn’t be for about 30mins, maybe 45, but tea must be made.  He gathers the materials:

Little metal green teapot

Cardboard box, just a little bigger than a matchbox, of Chinese Green Tea

Two or three little glass cups, the size and shape of shotglasses

Plastic bag bulging of sugar, thin enough to rip any second

Metal tray, circular

Second pot or old tomato concentrate can full of water

Coals, collected from under the pot that cooks the rice for lunch, over burning logs

Little ‘fourn’ or metal thing to hold the coals, with a receptacle below to catch the ash as it falls

Hand-held plastic fan or piece of cardboard to wave to keep the coals hot

(Optional) Fresh mint or basil, Neene Faty gathered some this morning from the garden

Once all of the things have been found from their various places around the compound – the fourn besides Neene (mother) Jeynaba’s bamboo bed (Mother Jeynaba was making tea until late last night), the coals from the fire, the hand-heald piece of raggedy plastic straw that used to be a very functional fan from Baaba (father)’s room, etc., he quickly joins the other boys his age for lunch inside the room with the TV, quickly returning to start the tea.  Bending over, fourn on the ground next to him, his back to the center of the compound.  Coals in the fourn, fan them until they glow.  Rinse out the metal tea pot, not much larger than his hand.  Takes off the plastic packaging outside the little cardboard box of tea, crumpling the plastic and tossing it next to him – a breeze carries it away into the sand of the yard.  He opens the box, pulling out another plastic bag – this one holding the tea.  Dumping the tea into the pot (it takes up almost half of the space inside the little pot itself) he crumples this plastic up as well.  It, too, catches a breeze and flies away to be caught, eventually, in the piles upon piles of plastic bags.  Innumerable plastic bags.  And yet, this plastic coating is such a symbol of ‘new,’ of ‘clean,’ of ‘nice;’ until that plastic is removed and hapazardly forgotten about, only to blow away in its search of others.

Filling the pot the rest of the way with water, he sets it directly on top of the coals, flickering red with the breeze and the fanning of the plastic fan.  He looks around idly and sees that the men are now trickling back from the Mosque.  Many men in the community meet at his house for lunch, bowls getting delivered from their respective houses and stacked on top of each other to be consumed one at a time in groups of 5 or 6 men on the mats.  He admires Mamadou Sy’s new clothes, perfectly starched above his white leather shoes.  Did he want that?  Did he want to be like these men when he grew up? These clothes represented wealth, success.  Two of Mamadou Sy’s children had gone to the university and one worked in France, sending him money every month to support the family – Djiby was expected to do so as well.  Tradition encouraged him to go to University, find a well-paying job, then get a wife – in that order.  All the while, keeping his family in mind and sending money all of the time, this was tradition.  Parents have children so that they don’t have to work forever.  At that moment, his father walks in, greeting him and the others in the compound and walking over to the men, all beginning to lounge casually – the women bringing them pillows.  He looks back to the pot and sees the pot is now boiling.  He finds the cardboard box from the tea and folds it up, using it to pinch the handle of the teapot without burning his fingers.  Holding the tray with the glasses, he pours the tea, starting close to the cups and slowly, gracefully pulling the pot up in the air, away from the cups, the stream of tea never changing.  He fills one of the cups with sugar and pours it into the pot, returning the tea in the other cups back into the pot.  He painstakingly pours the tea into a cup, back into the pot, repeating this to mix the sugar.

The men sit down around their bowls and begin to eat.  Lunch traditionally being the biggest and most important meal of the day.  Djiby pours all of the cups now back into the pot and sets it back on the coals.  His friends come and go to watch soccer on the TV inside.  He wishes he could join them, but he is responsible for the atayaa today; a task not only necessary, but also an honor to provide it as a level of hospitality and respect to anyone visiting the house.  He dutifully returns his focus to the pot, to the tradition, but dreaming all the while about what life would be like if he got to go to America… or maybe France or Spain?  No, he wanted with all his heart to go to America.  English is his passion and love.  But the pot begins to boil again.  He pours one cup, then sets the pot aside.  He begins the particular process of pouring the tea from one cup to the other until a ring of foam lines the inside of each cup.  Satisfied, he pours the tea back into the pot and returns it again back to the coals, this time adding just a few leaves of mint and basil.

The men have finished eating, the children carrying away the half-empty bowls back to their respective houses on their heads.  The men proceed to lounge and discuss the matters of the village, or just chat.  Djiby has timed the tea just right.  He rinses the outside of the cups, half-filled with foam, and pinches the pot off the coals, feeling the heat on his fingers through the thin cardboard box remnants.  He takes the pot and two cups, puts them on the tray and walks carefully over to the shade where the men lay.  They ignore his arrival.  Pours a cup, half-full, for Baaba Hamath first, owner of the house and chief of the village, then for the next elderly, and so on until everyone has had their half cup shot of sugary tea.  The men continue chatting, stopping only to sip noisily on their glasses.  Pot empty, Djiby returns to sit on the wooden bed next to the fourn.  He adds water to the pot and begins the process all over again.  This takes hours.  Slowly, everyone around the compound recieves one, two, sometimes three cups of the sugary tea.  Some feel they cannot function without their after-lunch cup or three.  It is a staple of life.  It is tradition.

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It is slow, it is artful, it is sweet.  It is Senegal.  It is a culture, imported (Chinese green tea) from elsewhere, that has become integral to the daily life of the Senegalese.  It is deliberate.  It represents hospitality.  It represents the pace of life.  It represents the dedication to tradition, even if this tradition is relatively new.  It is regarded with respect, with love.

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