Saturday, November 24, 2007

Cafe Touba

Until about a year ago, I did not drink coffee.

I had tried it a couple of times, but hated the taste so much I did not make it past the first two or three sips before I was pouring it out in the sink, and making a good old cup of tea instead. And then finally about a year ago, having nothing better to do and bored out of my mind at a workshop, I sat down and drank a whole cup of Nescafe. The results were spectacular: it felt like my head had grown bigger, my eyes wider, I could sense things, man, all around me, the Universe and everything, you know. [Before you call me light-headed or weak, oh gentle Reader, consider that this was my first ever full cup of coffee]. After that I drank Nescafe now and again, for that feeling (alas - over time it dwindled, though it never completely went away). I still hated the taste, but the fact that it heightened my awareness so and kept me awake nights was what I liked, what forced me to make a cup. Yet more often that not, I would pour out a cup after I had made it, more interested in the idea of coffee drinking than in the torture that the actual practice entailed, the bitter taste in my mouth that even milk and plenty of sugar couldn't disguise. This, then, was my view of coffee: that like medicine, it tasted horrible, but you didn't drink it for the taste, you drank it for the after-effects. And so I drank, and grimaced, and bore the pain, and wondered how come people looked so happy in Nescafe ads on TV.

Then I went on a trip to Senegal. I stayed at a friend of a friend's house, and in the night, after
we had had dinner and were watching TV, he disappeared into the kitchen, and came back with a dish with little tasses on it. "Cafe Touba", he announced gaily, asking how many sugars we would take. I had seen Cafe Touba before, mostly being made by Bai Faals on street corners down here, so they could stay awake all night during one of their chantas - theirs was black as night, and they served it from large buckets, using their plastic cups to make it foam, before they drank it without sugar or milk. This coffee now was a gentler coffee - perhaps because of the home environment and the TV, when the Bai Faals would serve theirs under the harsh glare of a streetlight - but still I felt some amount of dread, as I had never tried it before.

It turned out to be the best coffee I had ever tasted, real coffee (if I may use the term), as close to Nescafe as real people are to the plastic manikins they have in stores. For the first time I realized: you could drink coffee for the taste - the coffee tasted golden, the coffee tasted brown, the coffee made my taste buds dance with joy even as it gave my brain a jolt like that very first cup of Nescafe. "What is this?", I asked my host in wonderment and surprise (my tastebuds wizzed! my brain wuzzed! I swear this is not just for dramatic effect! The world actually seemed a better place, I felt like loving my neighbor, being my brothers' keeper, etc., etc.) and my host explained that it was industrialized Cafe Touba, that some bright guy had taken the Cafe Touba previously available only on the streets from small sellers, and created a factory that packaged them and sold them in little brown sachets, a carton at a time.

Three days later, after I had packed and was on my way back to the Gambia, the last thing I picked up was my carton of Cafe Touba. On the ferry, I held tightly to it, looking around suspiciously at the man who stood behind me and looked away every time I turned around, making plans in case he should make any wrong move, plans which mainly involved throwing my bag of clothes at him and running away with the box of Cafe Touba. I brought it home, safely, in the end, and stashed it away in a secret place in my room, where I keep things I hold of great value. Now, whenever someone I know goes to Dakar, I make them get me a carton, and add it to my jealous stash. I am writing this blog post on Cafe Touba - every weekend, a mugful of it after dinner is what keeps me up all night, wide awake when everyone else is fast asleep. It is a ritual I look forward to the whole week, putting it on the stove and waiting for it to boil, pouring it into the mug, adding sugar, the long, contemplative sips afterwards, the feeling of deep calm, like I have finally arrived...

These days, I look in pity at drinkers of Nescafe, when I pass them on the streets in the morning, their pale faces and unhappy grimaces, the lines of disgust worn into their mouths, so they look to be forever revolted by the world and the people around them. These poor, poor, people, I think, shaking my head and smiling a secret smile, that no one else can see, if only they knew what they were missing....


  1. I feel the same way about cafe touba. It is indeed the best coffee I've ever tasted. I've never read anybody explaining their passion for this coffee, I guess it is one of those things we take for granted in our dear country.

  2. Hi,
    Is coffee grown in Senegal/Gambia do you know?