Monday, March 28, 2011

Three Cups of Tea, Malian edition

They say the first cup is strong like death, the second sweet like life, and the third is sugar like love.  I say, all three cups are disgusting.

We met our Tuareg friend at the same time we met the Mohameds.  His English was impeccable, making it hard to believe he was a nomad, but he is.  Three weeks prior he had left on his journey to Timbuktu, arriving the evening before us. He was only staying for two days in order to trade his salt goods, and requested we stop by his tent to say hello.  "I'll make you traditional tea," he stated. "You can ask questions about our way of life and we will show you the jewelry we make.  If you like, you buy. But if not, don't worry, we'll still be friends."

The Mohameds led us to his tent after we made our way through the small market. I don't know if we would have stopped by otherwise, since Bremen mentioned his distaste for the tea, which he once had in Bamako, and neither of us had any intention of buying jewelry.

Our reception was a warm one as we crouched through the door of the tent, slipped off our shoes and sat on a rug designated for us. While the water boiled we learned that Tuareg women are the head of the households and are the ones to make all decisions, most especially where the men are to direct the caravans.  We were told the caravans move at night, avoiding the heat of the day while guided by the map of stars.

Once the tea was heated, the sugar added and thoroughly mixed, I, the sole female of the group, was offered the first cup.  My tongue numbed immediately.  The herb they claimed to used was obviously one I've never had before. Bremen again mumbled his distaste for the tea and forced down the last few sips.

Once everyone in the tent had tea, drunk between three shared glasses, more water was added to the pot and I was left to struggle with my inner germaphobe. The thought of having to drink another cup of tea, from a glass that had been passed around many mouths made my entire body shudder.  I managed though, and sure enough, the second cup was sweeter than the first, and the third more so than the second.  But I vowed to myself that it would be the first and last three cups of nomadic tea that I would drink.  Unfortunately some promises are harder to keep than others.

With the final drop drunk from the final cup, velvet place-mats were laid before us, displaying a variety of jewelry. Again we were told "if you like, you buy.  If you don't like, don't worry, we'll still be friends."  The prices were astronomical. Even when bartering. As badly as we felt, we left empty handed.  But true to his word, we were still friends.

The Tuareg nomads have a bad rap, as they're believed to be the main culprits of hijackings, kidnappings and killings... not to mention the cause of my mother's irrational fear that I'd be turned into a sex slave.   But the kindness of our friend dispelled all the rumors.  The Tuareg's only focus, from what I saw, was to make money. Sadly, in light of recent events, their lack of wealth and desire for a better way of life has led many down a rocky path: one filled with Gadhafi and the possibly false dream of receiving US $10,000 he promised them if they joined his team. I hate to think that my Tuareg friend might be amongst those who chose to join the ranks.

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