Tea is a global panacea. A good portion of earth’s inhabitants believe that for any and all stressful situations, a nice brew will pull you back from the edge. The gurgle of the kettle, the burble of tea from spout and the gentle glug of milk (if you take it) is the normal Irish ritual, along with a trowelful of sugar. Other countries take their tea green, minty or spiced.
Timbuktu isn’t much better. It is beseiged by desert on all sides, a patient army of sand standing in wait at its perimeter. It is the launchpad for festivalgoers to reach the annual Festival Au Desert in Essakane. Essakane, a used-to-be lake town that is now the most lakeless, is the most arid place I’ve ever been. Apart from the toilets, Essakane is clean, though. Timbuktu is not. Shredded plastic bags blow hither and tither and the streets stagnate with raw waste.’It’s a dusty shit-hole,’ said Bob Geldof before heading off there, just after the above photograph was taken.
Bob was the reason I was at the tea party. I left festival to go to Djenné, the site of the world’s largest mud building, a mosque, and intended to stay the night before heading towards Timbuktu again. The carpark of my hostel was full of white jeeps when I arrived, and after throwing down my bags I sat in the shade to write. As the jeeps revved, I looked up, catching a glimpse of Bob Geldof as he put on a cowboy hat and strode over into the jeeps. At the time, I was journalism student, and this seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. He was in the area filming ‘Geldof in Africa’, and his gruff mood would become infamous in the following months when he said that he was sick of being ‘Mr Africa’. A day later, I tracked him down at an archeological site outside of town, snatching an ambushed interview as he berated a local museum owner for not protecting artefacts properly. After posing for a snap, he and his entourage sped off in the direction in which I needed a lift. Timbuktu.
Buses are in short supply in Djenné. One leaves daily, but only if and when it suits. Go to Africa and you’ll quickly learn that the best bus to get on is the fullest one. Buses don’t leave the depot until every paying space on board is full. So, meeting Bob meant I had missed the only full bus that would leave Djenne that day.
The next morning, I sat at the bus stop. An hour later, the bus arrived, and the driver stopped the engine, surveyed the potential passengers, and walked away. We would leave when it filled. A further half hour and passengers began to trickle in. Two Americans joined me, whom I recognised from the festival. The most striking thing about them was their lack of baggage. Kurt, who wore a scarf wrapped around his head like the locals, was dressed head-to-toe in supple tan leather and carried nothing but a hide bag that he had made himself. It held his camera, with small film holder straps sewn to the interior and another leather strap to secure the camera body and lens. I asked, and he told me about his trousers. Out hunting, he had skinned a deer, he said, and once the skin had dried, he unpicked a pair of Levis 501s and laid them out the material on the deerskin. Using those as a template, he cut himself a pair of deerskin Levis, and had worn little else for his trip to Mali.
Questions of hygiene set politely aside, we sat, as strangers do, in broken silence. The pair decided to wander off around the town and I assured them that I would shout if the bus suddenly reached capacity.30 minutes later they shouted at me from a junction down the street to come join them.
Around the corner, three Malian men sat around some charcoal burning on the ground. One fanned it with a piece of cardboard until the coals were hot. Meanwhile, leaves and grasses of some sort were being stuffed into a ceramic blue teapot, and water was added. The pot was set on the coals.
Malians drink tea thrice. By that, I mean that every pot of tea is boiled three times to get the most out of the leaves. The first pot is ‘bitter, like death’, the second is ‘sweet, like life’, while the third is ‘just right, like love’. Every tourist in Mali will hear this in some form or another. It’s an insult to the pourer if you drink less than three cups. It’s an insult to the guest if you’re offered a fourth. (The leaves are dead after three brews). For the second and third brewings, an unhealthy amount of sugar is poured in, one that has left me with a sweet tooth that must be assuaged every time I drink mint tea now. A handful of grimy glass teacup were produced and the tea was poured.
So, we sat and drank tea, and talked about the astronomical price of mobile phones and what we could grasp from what little French we shared. After three cups, I got up, along with Kurt and his deerskin Levis and his friend, and picked up what we had left at the bus stop. We walked out of town and hitched a lift at the next junction. It was a good day. And although I’d eventually sell a feature on the Bob Geldof encounter, it was far from being the most interesting part of the day.The tea party was.