Tea in the Sahara

One of the cool things about being back in the country is my re-acquaintance with African tea. It’s not so much the tea (which I’ll come to) but the whole experience that I’ve missed.

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I was introduced to the concept by my good friend Rab who grew up as a missionary kid on a group of islands off the coast of Guinea Bissau. I’ll pause while you consult an atlas.

Tea is a good 4-6 hour experience if it’s done right. All you need is a tiny charcoal stove, a tiny ceramic pot, some water, some tea leaves, a whole lot of sugar and time to appreciate the whole thing. The tea arrives in rounds taking maybe 15 minutes each to boil. From the tiny tea pot you’re served a shot-sized glass of black liquid, occasionally with grass, sand or leaf in it depending where placed the stove.

Round one is hard work. Even to a fan of the beverage it’s hard work. It tastes like the tea you find in the ginormous tea pots in church several weeks after a funeral. only re-heated and with sugar added. But don’t let me put you off. At it’s finest (the fourth round) it tastes like a mixture of coke, tea and cigarettes all mixed together with sugar added. I mean that in a good way though I suspect it’ll not come across that way.
Basically we just sit outside Rab’s garage in the driveway watching the tea boil and chatting. This sounds perhaps a tad simple. But you see it cuts away a lot of the nonsense that we seem to have filled our lives with. We are cursed with TVs in every room, and though I hate to admit it, we are scared of silence, of being together without music. That the very noise of our existence together might frighten each other away if it’s not drowned out with Top 40 hits and inane DJ chatter.

When we meet together, it’s often to watch a DVD, or go to the cinema, experiences where for the most part we sit in silence. Depending on whether or not you’ve got friends that talk all the way through the film or not. Everything we do has so much to distract us from each other that we lose each other in between.

Now I know this is not always a bad thing, we need time to be alone together, to be distracted together. I just miss the variety. So I think all that the tea does is take people away from what has become the normal social context and sit them down and simply bore them into enjoying each others company.

Before you know it you’ve passed three hours talking to someone, maybe taking the piss out of them, maybe just slagging, but occasionally you’ll rediscover the long lost art of conversation. Instead of the 21st century equivalent which is mostly conversation reacting and stemming from whatever’s on TV.

Mankind (an interesting word when you split it up, kind of ridiculous when you think about it. Man? Kind? You must be joking…) has been doing this for years, sitting round camp fires telling stories, eating missionaries, invading Poland. The tea was just an excuse to get people together. This is what we’ve been doing for donkeys ages. We just forgot how when we got to Ireland and realised it did nothing but piss all the time and we had to move indoors and invent Strictly Come Dancing.

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