Attaya: or, the importance of “wasting” time
On the side of a dusty Gambian road, Peace Corps Volunteer Tre’ Giles sits outside of a bitik on a hand-carved wooden stool.
Legs crossed, he sweats through his clothes under the sun's heat and performs with deontic precision a form of libation. Though cars drive past – honking and sputtering and revving their engines – he remains committed to his task. In one hand, he holds a small glass; in the other, a tray and a matching cup. He alternately pours out a viscous, amber-colored liquid from one glass into the other. His pouring hand rises until the distance the liquid must travel without spilling becomes implausibly great, and yet, with each pour he hits the bottom of each glass with robotic accuracy, conjuring, slowly and steadily, a blanket of white foam.
When asked what he is doing, Tre’ says, “Brewing attaya.” When asked why, he says, “People see that I can make it and it shows them I’m not a Toubab."
Like many Volunteers, Tre’ has adopted a Gambian name, wears Gambian clothes and eats Gambian food while working in a rural African community for his two-year assignment.
As if called by an unheard dictate, a Gambian man appears at the precise moment when, satisfied with the volume of foam, Tre’ pours the liquid into a small, ceramic tea kettle at his feet. He picks the kettle up and redistributes the amber liquid into both glasses until they are half full before standing and offering the tray and its glasses to the man, who takes a glass and says, Bissimilah, in prayer, and drinks it.
On nearly every Gambian street corner, outside nearly every Gambian compound, underneath mango trees, beside taxi stands, between school class periods and during lunches, teenagers, mothers, brothers, taxi drivers, teachers, working men and women, and even Peace Corps Volunteers are brewing and consuming the ultra-potent, saccharine form of green tea called attaya.
The difference between attaya and normal green tea is in how it is made. A normal green tea takes five minutes; the attaya process can take hours. While some believe attaya to be as caffeinated as coffee, if one were to compare the caffeine content of regular green tea to that of attaya, the difference would be negligible (a simple black tea would be an even better – and faster – choice); and, if caffeine consumption were the desired goal, coffee would still remain far more potent than attaya, green tea, or black tea.
But while some people in The Gambia do use attaya as their caffeine fix, that's not the point.
“It’s a social beacon for people who are free,” said Alpha Jallow, Peace Corps The Gambia’s safety and security manager, as he explained the milieu of pan-African attaya. “A beacon for bringing people around.”
And certainly there is an almost mystical magnetism around attaya. If someone starts brewing, it only takes a few moments before someone else has been seemingly summoned to the compound, street corner, or taxi stand to share in the drinking process. The attaya kettle has the ability to pull people in and hold them in place.
Haruna Jallow, Peace Corps The Gambia’s Education program assistant, explained the idea behind the brewing process via homonym. For him the borrowed word attaya sounds like the two Fula words, waa and taya, meaning “don’t go.” And this is the locus of what attaya is: a shared moment in time.
Ephemeral, subdued. A caesura from the tempo of daily life.
And, Haruna says, whoever is brewing attaya has the ability to slow down the process to hold his companions in place for a few more moments, to tell his friends to spend a little more time there, to tell them "waa taya." “Don’t go.”
The relative silence and calm of attaya runs counter to what most Peace Corps Volunteers want to do. They want to show their families and friends back home something large and imposing: a new school, or a barren wasteland turned into Edenic fertility. Spending a moment of time with a host country national and connecting with him or her on a personal, cultural, and spiritual level is hard to show and even harder to explain.
For Volunteers, physicality dominates. Building a library for a school is demonstrable; it is something that exists and is tangible.
The converse to physical structures or projects is harder to explain. Being a-physical, it has no palpable object one can point to as validation for the time, money, and sweat that went into it, which often causes explanations of what the Volunteer has done to be prefaced or postscripted with self-effacing comments about “not having done all that much.”
Although it’s tempting to latch onto and desire something physical, the moment many Volunteers really feel connected comes from a moment of cessation, not physical action.
For Tre’ and many Volunteers like him, it wasn’t until he was invited to sit and drink attaya with a group of people, and then encouraged to brew his own, that he really felt like he had been accepted into his community.
“The key to good attaya is the conversation,” Tre' says. “As soon as they see me making it, it shows I’m trying to be a part of their culture.” It is tempting, when faced with impressive photos of new buildings, lush gardens or freshly painted and informative murals, to ask, “What am I doing wasting time brewing attaya when I could be out doing something grandiose?” But buildings, gardens and murals are simply coordinates in physical space where people can meet, converse, and enjoy a moment in time with others while sharing attaya.
Let’s sit then, you and I, and spend a moment of time together brewing attaya.