About ten young men are waiting, playing cards or chatting around a fire. It’s a scene from any street in Niger over the past three decades. One, “the man of tea”, attends a small metal kettle on hot coals. He is responsible for the long and laborious process of brewing his group, or Fada’s, powdered green tea. This is the reason they have come together.
Men give their fada a name, which they often paint on the wall by which they gather with teapot murals. The names they choose to call themselves can speak of men’s hopes and aspirations for their future. Names like “Money Kash”, “Honeymoon” [Honeymoon] or “Brooklyn Boys”. Others exaggerate their members (“Top Star Boys”) or reiterate their religiosity (“Imani“ [faith]). Some – like “Boss Karate” – are named after common interests. A few talk about the challenges facing men: a fada is called “MDR”, which means eat-sleep-start over [to eat-to sleep-to restart]; another is “The International of Chrômeurs” [The International Unemployed].
In the 1990s, student groups began to rally on the streets to protest against the government, demanding political reform. Soon, groups became useful for sharing news, exchanging views and making connections. The preparation of the tea was a natural addition. The political motivation of the fadas slowly faded over the next three decades, to be replaced by a kind of silent protest – the protest of bored people in a country with a struggling economy. By choosing to gather in the streets around a kettle rather than indoors, the men are a visual sign of the health of the nation. They wait for the kettle to bubble and their future to improve.
[Young Nigerien men say] ‘zaman kashin wando’, which literally means ‘the session that kills the pants’
“[Young Nigerien men say] ‘zaman kashin wando”, Which literally means“ the session that kills the pants ”. It’s a phrase that describes the stillness one feels when your future is on hold. Hausa is a highly metaphorical language; “To kill here means” to burn out “,” said Adeline Masquelier, professor of cultural anthropology at Tulane University in Louisiana. “It refers to the fact that anything they do in their waking hours wears out the parts of the pants they sit on. Young men refer to themselves as’masu kasin wando‘(‘ those who have worn pants’) – that’s a derogatory expression. “
Their aspirations are quite ordinary: to find a job; to marry; to start a household. One leads to the other; marriage is unlikely if the young man has no income. When jobs are scarce, the only alternative is to wait. Academics refer to time lost before adulthood in Niger and other countries like India as “waithood”. These unemployed young people are not entirely adults. Instead, they are bored and stuck in limbo, and thus fill their time with tea.
Why we are bored
In her book How Emotions Are Made, psychology professor at Northeastern University Lisa Feldman Barrett explains that emotions are not universal – there isn’t a single experience of fear, happiness, or anger that everyone shares. Instead, emotions are shaped by our cultural and social background and sometimes by the words we use to describe them.
Due to the subtle differences our language makes in the way we perceive emotions, it is not trivial that the French word for ennui – boredom – evokes creative apathy, while German – Langeweile, a compound of “long” and “time” – is more literal. In Russian-speaking countries, boredom is Skuka, an onomatopoeic word for the sound of a chicken. There is also kukovat, Russian for “cuckoo”, which means “wasting time”. People get their inspiration from the words of the things around them.
Langeweile seems to predate English “boredom” by a few decades, coming into effect at the beginning of the 19th century. This is timely because some historians suggest that boredom did not exist before – at least not in the sense that we know it. To be bored, you had to have a reason to be bored and be aware of time. For the working classes, this was not a problem. There was always work to do and no great stress in keeping to strict schedules. Some work was best done in the morning, but there was no need to be more specific than that.
You might also be interested in:
• How boredom can inspire adventure
• The Kenyan word that gave birth to a nation
• What happens when you don’t have a word for a dinosaur?
Yasmine Musharbash, head of anthropology at Australian National University, says the boredom started out as a uniquely Western feeling. Scholars refer to “modern boredom” as the type that arose around the industrial revolution. Around this time, the observation of “clock time” became much more important. In the age of steam, trains ran on a schedule. Suddenly, as public transport grew in popularity, the need to know where to be and what time was important. Likewise, for workers in factories, timing was necessary. It was the start of shift work.
Clock time was imprinted in the lives of Westerners, bringing with it “free time” and, for the lucky few, money and social connections to go with it. Soon Westerners were bored with themselves, and it wasn’t long before they took their boredom and spread it elsewhere.
Musharbash has visited and studied the Aboriginal Warlpiri people who live in Yuendumu, near Alice Springs in the Northern Territory of Australia, since 1994. Each year she returns to spend some more time, and in recent years decades has noticed a change in the way generations of Warlpiri experience boredom.
“Traditionally, and by that I mean pre-colonization, there would have been no boredom,” she said. “Boredom is when you rub against time. It just wouldn’t have happened before. Because of colonization and the way the day is structured – school bells, hours of work – time becomes a straitjacket. Imposing Time on the Warlpiri way of life has caused confusion and younger and younger generations are adopting the routines of European Australians.
Anthropologist Victoria Burbank, professor at the University of Western Australia, describes that for many Aboriginal Australians, the way of life of European Australians is completely incompatible. European Australians spend a tremendous amount of energy teaching their children to sleep, unlike native parents.
“Bedtime trains us for work and makes us good workers,” Mushrabash said. “We are learning that certain things have to be done at times. It’s a pretty brutal lesson, but it’s a way of accepting that time is your master.
It’s a way of accepting that time is your master
Musharbash says Aboriginal Australians have become “oppressed” over time. However, to alleviate the boredom, they can try to escape this oppression. “If you live in the present, there is no oppression, [time] just happens and happens, ”Musharbash said. “You take a nap, or you go hunting, or you prepare food, or you sit around a fire and tell stories. And you talk about things and come up with deep and fascinating philosophies, you have endless time to do it. The need to use free time well goes away if you don’t worry about the clock ticking until you need to work.
As with pre-19th century Europe, we cannot tell if the feeling of boredom in the Warlpiri community predates the word. Although clearly from Musharbash’s experience, the older generations have less to do with boredom – whether they feel it or not like it – the further they are removed from European lifestyles. “Not everyone is sleeping at the same time, you sleep when you need it, then you start chatting and getting hungry – there is literally nothing telling you you have to do anything,” says -she. “It’s very difficult for Westerners to imagine.”
The key to the future
The absence of time that Musharbash and Masquelier observed in the Warlpiri community and in the people of Niger has also been observed in other non-Western cultures. What unites everyone, however, are some of the unhealthy ways we manage too much time. When the weather gets too muggy, people no matter where they’re from tend to commit to the killing time – which, as a rule, can be quite destructive, Musharbash said. People make fun of television, food or alcohol, gambling and drugs.
In Niger, young people are often described as holding the key to the nation’s future. “Educated samari [young Nigerien men] particularly feel unemployed given the prevalence of male supportive standards, ”Masquelier said, because their education was prioritized over that of their sisters. While unemployed, “they are forced to live in a reduced existence in which there can be no free time because the time is never on,” she said.
Young Nigeriens interviewed by Masquelier describe time as a “void that they are trying to ‘fill’ or ‘kill’”. The Hausa word that we would translate into English as boredom is “rashi“, Which means” a lack of “- as in”rashin da’di “, or “a lack of pleasure / satisfaction”. Boredom in Niger is a question of absence. If, as Musharbash says, killing time is destructive, to be productive, they have to fill it. And that’s the point of their tea time.
“The consumption of tea has caught us like a virus,” said a young Nigerien. “Tea is our drug,” said another.
The tea man who compared the drink to a drug easily pointed out that time could be wasted on something negative like the addictions mentioned by Musharbash. For these men, drinking tea has become a way to take back control of their time. Their time is no longer aimless; it’s social, collaborative and positive.
Masquelier says tea time is absorbing young Nigerian men into the “now”. The slow process fights two anxieties for young men. On the one hand, they have something to look forward to; they want the tea to be ready. On the other hand, they can take care of the tedious process. The alternative would be to drop a tea bag in a cup and brew the tea on their own – but where’s the fun?
Waiting for tea, alongside playing cards or backgammon, “is a form of purposeful engagement that counteracts the oppressive weight of boredom by anchoring those who wait here and now,” she says. It gives them something small to focus on, rather than the bigger, long-term goal of the job.
The tea men show that it’s okay to have big ambitions, but to cope with boredom, you better live in the present and enjoy what’s happening in your immediate future.
Join over three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly newsletter of bbc.com features called “The Essential List”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.