Zinder – Tea Ceremony with the Wodaabe Nomads

The Wodaabe tribe may be mostly known for their male beauty contest during the Cure Salee festival, but meeting them for a tea ceremony on a more personal level can prove to be very interesting, too.

A North American friend, Kelley, invited us along to visit some Wodaabe friends living in Zinder in Southern Niger. This nomadic family is currently residing in permanent house, due to the last years droughts in which most of their cattle, their livelihood, has perished. We arrived at sunset, and were invited to sit down on a mat in the front yard. The subdued women, covered in headscarves and long kaftans were seated with the children further back, while the bearded men in traditional white turbans and gowns gathered around us and conversed with us in soft voices. Once night fell the darkness was complete, except for the orange light of glowing coals on which the kettle was being heated.

Massa, a strong, lean and handsome man in his late twenties, prepared the tea with great pride, immersing his entire soul into the act. The first cup of the three-part tea ceremony is made from black tea leaves, boiled until bitter, and slightly sweetened with sugar. The bitterness represents the unfamiliarity of strangers meeting for the first time. In a sweeping movement, Massa poured the steaming tea in a thin stream from high above, trickling slowly like a waterfall into four glasses. Lovingly, he then poured the tea back into the kettle, and repeated the procedure twenty or so times, until Massa decided the tea was ready to be enjoyed.

As we sipped the bitter but delicious tea from our tiny glasses, Kelley told us the story of how she had met Massa and his family ten years ago. She was posted in Niger as a Peace Corps volunteer and specifically worked in the bush with the Wodaabe tribe.

A friend of hers from California fell head over heels in love with Massa, and spent three years living with him as a nomad. One day the girl decided she missed the comforts of home, and Massa agreed to move with her to the United States. Massa even showed us his passport with his US Visa, where his profession was stated as “shepherd”. But Massa hated living in the States. After only two months he realized that his love wasn’t strong enough to endure the lifestyle in the West, and the separation and subsequent divorce was a fact. Kelley, however, stayed in touch with Massa and his family throughout the years.

As the mosquitoes whizzed around us in the thickness of the night, the second cup of tea, made of green tea leaves, was served. Softer and more sugary, it represented a friendship that has blossomed into a trusting relationship.

The third and last cup of tea was made of weaker black tea with a lot of sugar, to represent the sweetness of love.

After sharing a communal bowl of vegetarian spaghetti, we bid our goodbyes and left the family still conversing in the dark. As foreigners, we had the luxury of leaving their simple abode, and spent the rest of the night enjoying cold beers in a dirty back-alley bar called Escaliere with a traditional Nigerien live band and in the company of plenty of hookers.

A perfect night!