The Timelessness of Tea in the Sahara

The Timelessness of Tea in the Sahara

The historic city of Agadez, Niger, sits along the southern fringe of the Sahara, where nearly everything seems to take on the tan hue of the ubiquitous, powdery sand.

The city, known as the gateway to the desert, began developing in the 15th and 16th centuries with the establishment of the sultanate of Aïr. The center of the city served as a crossroads for caravan traders and is divided into 11 irregular sections. Each section contains mud buildings and religious structures, including a 27-meter-tall minaret, the highest mud brick structure of its kind in the world.

Historic trading hubs such as Agadez are inevitably known for their social customs. Among those are the Tuareg tea ceremony. A young man relaxing on an Agadez street with friends demonstrates the age-old practice of brewing tea. It is a leisurely and time-consuming affair that lends itself to spending time with guests and loved ones.

A brewer sets a small teapot to boil on coals. He pours water into small glasses and transfers each glassful into the pot, one by one. He adds tea and sugar; then comes the elaborate pouring. The tea mixes as it is poured from glass to pot and back again. The brewer draws the pot away from the glass to get a long stream, and the process is repeated multiple times. The brewer tastes the tea a time or two throughout to measure progress.

When done, the brewer pours out the tea in a long stream into small glasses, kicking up a sudsy froth on the top, and then hands them out to friends and guests. The long pour tamps down the heat so the tea can be drunk immediately. Once the guests drink the tea, the brewers collect the empty glasses on silver metal trays, splash bottled water into them and scrub them out with their fingers. Then they brew another pot, and the age-old ritual begins again.