Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Adventures of Samba in America #3

In the Senegalese shop there was music playing from the back, a male baritone layered over the strumming of a Kora, unhurried in its delivery. It was in Wolof, and the voice sounded familiar.

"Who is that?", he asked the shopkeeper. An old man dressed in a chaaya - how long he had gone without seeing a chaaya - and short kaftan, sitting on a stool with one leg lifted onto it. In the manner of the old man's sitting he saw a familiarity with the World, a comfortableness within it that he envied. He had felt restless since his arrival. Filled with a waiting that would explode within him. A need to do something - anything - and a feeling he could not do enough, he was falling short and wasting valuable time. 

"Njaga Mbye", the old man replied, showing kola-nut stained teeth.

Ah - no wonder it had seemed familiar. At home he wouldn't have been caught dead listening to Njaga Mbye. Here now it stirred something deep within him, and it seemed at once the most beautiful sound he had ever heard in the world, and something so fundamental to his identity he did not know how he could have missed it before.

The shop was filled with bales of cloth of many colors, and in the window looking out onto the street were set kaftaan and abaaya pre-made, and other clothing he had seen the women back home wear during Juli but which he did not know the names of. There was the smell of must and age in the air. The sharp biting winds from the street did not reach in here.

"This is my friend", his friend told the shopkeeper, after they had exchanged pleasantries, and the old man reached forward to shake his hand, smiling. 

"And how is Gambie then?", the old man asked. His head covered with graying hair, the remnants of a beard around his chin, looking like the hair had fallen out instead of being shaved.

"Fine", he replied, "everyone is in peace". The old shopkeeper nodded, satisfied.

"You are from Banjul?". He said yes - the answer would be long, and probably the old man would find it uninteresting, the place names he would name meaningless to a Senegalese. But he was not from Banjul, and it became suddenly important to him here to point out that fact, to not be mistaken or mis-placed.

"No", he told the shopkeeper, letting go of his hand, "Kuntaur".

"Is that far from Sairay-kunda?", the shopkeeper asked him, and he had to stifle a laugh at the old man's earnest expression.

"Not really", he said, finally. His identity could wait. The shopkeeper nodded, looking proud at his knowledge of Gambian geography.

"Well - welcome here then", the old man said, gesturing with his hand as if the City were indeed his own private domain, and he within it the receiver of guests. Or perhaps he had only meant the shop. In any case his hand returned back to its resting place at his side and he sat waiting for them to speak. 

"He is the one looking for a job", his friend told the old man.

"Ah", the old man said, "wawe kai. You are in luck. My previous boy just went on holiday - he was Malian". The old man and his friend laughed, though he could not find in anything the old man had said that which was funny. He smiled. They bid the old man farewell and left soon after that. 

As they walked back home he turned to his friend.

"And the job?", he asked. He had not understood in the ending of their conversation with the old man the reaching of any agreement. "Are we to talk to him again?"

His friend gave him a funny look.

"No", he replied, "you start tomorrow - didn't you hear - his other boy left".

That night as he lay on his mattress on the floor he thought about God. His friend was out working a night shift, and he was alone. Yet his loneliness now seemed only a small portion of a larger loneliness, one he had been experiencing since he got on the plane to come here, and one which waited for him every where he turned, all-embracing in its completeness. He had never prayed much, back in the Gambia. There was God in his life alright, but only in the removed, distant way there were other countries, with other men in them. He did not think of it much - and when he did he would use the defense that he was good of heart, and in the end this was all that mattered. Not praying five times a day. He would get to it someday, when he got older. When he had more time. But now he was young, and had things to do, and not enough time in the day to do them in. He said these things to much laughter to a marr-kass who had started a conversation with them on the street corner, over a baraada bubbling with attaya. The other guys laughed - the marr-kass laughed, too, even as he shook his head. On his last night his mother had spoken to him about prayer. She had commended him to Allah, and told him that this was the only thing he would have out there to protect him against any eventualities. I will pray for you, she had told him, but you must also pray as much as possible, for yourself. You come from a good family. Allah will not abandon us. 

But now he did not know what to do. He had not prayed once since he arrived. Should he get up now and start? Perhaps not. Or perhaps he should... Was it too late? Allah was not, after all, fooled. Yet was He not all-forgiving? Perhaps then he should get up and begin... but would  he be able to stick with it? It was in this wavering state that sleep found him, and at last bore him away into a dream of his sister pounding netetu in the backyard whilst he stood watching, his mother behind her in the kitchen from whence came the sound of fish being fried. Their chatter as they discussed the latest neighborhood gossip. 

In his dream he smiled. 

Friday, November 21, 2008

Mandabi by Ousman Sembene Review

Ousman Sembene, the Senegalese film director, has quite the International reputation - his death in 2007 received a lot of media coverage both offline and on-. The wikipedia article on him tells us he was considered the "Father of African Cinema". In addition he also wrote novels which won him great critical acclaim.

His movies are not very readily available back home (as with all other works of art created by African artists - it is unfortunate how much easier it is to lay my hands on Dan Brown's latest than a novel written by a Gambian author, in the Gambia.) After much searching, I was finally able to get myself a copy of Moolade, his last movie, using the Internets. It was hands down the best African movie I had seen until then. By the end of the movie I was certain his reputation was deserved - the camera work alone would have been enough to make it a masterpiece, even had he not had an engaging plot. It is set in a village, and it is one of the most faithful representations of a village on camera that I have ever seen. You are almost there - it captures the mood and the atmosphere and the lighting perfectly. Again and again the camera takes wide-angle shots over the roof-tops that are almost ethereal, making out of the collection of huts and animals running around a place, replacing the image you always had of a village in your head with something concrete you could actually live in. There are incidental scenes containing so much life they make you wonder whether they were really in the script or were part of footage the director gathered and inserted into the movie. (There is a scene, e.g., with a goat skipping over a rope set in the doorway of one of the village compounds and running off, all shot in absolute silence. Words don't do this scene justice - you must see it for yourself). There is a wordless quality to life in moments like this which are only ever successfully captured in the best films, and this one came as close as any, even given its sparse setting. I liked it so much I saw it again, this time with a couple of friends, and recommended it to everyone I knew. [Note: though the wikipedia article gives a summary of the plot of the film it does not do a very good job - you can find a list of other reviews here.]

I saw a copy of Mandabi, an earlier movie, in our campus library last week and grabbed it with high expectations. Mandabi was made in 1968 (much earlier than Moolade), and was based on one of Sembene's novels. The plot itself is simple: a man living in Senegal receives a money order (a "Mandaa", the equivalent of "Western Union" these days) from his nephew in France. The nephew has gone there to try and make his way in the world, and the money is from his savings working odd jobs. He sends a letter along with the money order, explaining his intentions. It is testament to the amount of detail that is put into Sembene's movies, and well-roundedness of his characters, that the content of this letter alone would have filled up a whole movie. In it the nephew explains that he left Senegal because there were no jobs, and he too wishes to make money and marry a wife and start a family. He tells his Uncle to forget all the fears he may have about him losing his way, out in the wild western world. "Those who come here and lose their way", he says, "do so only by their own choosing". He says not a drop of alcohol has never passed down his throat, and assures his Uncle that he prays regularly, when he gets home from work, and spends the rest of his time going to school. The last part of the letter then explains what is to be done with the money: the greater part of it is to be saved away for him for his return, a smaller fraction is to be divided between his Mother and his Uncle.

The film then follows the developments leading from this, from the Uncle's perspective. His wives (he has two) have somehow managed (by their suggestive behavior including "borrowing" rice from the shop and even buying such luxuries as new bras, on the strength of the Mandaa) to let the whole village know about the money order, and as soon as the news is out all the men in the village begin to make their way to the Uncle's house, to "share in the fortune".

All the members of the village are very poor, as is the Uncle. In Senegambian society a structure has been built over many centuries to support this level of poverty, which many people suffer from. This structure involves sharing with your neighbors and helping them out in tight spots, in return for which they will help you when you need it (which is often, on both sides). This system works great when everyone participating in it is at the same level of poverty (a friend of mine once told me his theory that this is the reason the Gambia has not had any of the poor people's revolts in other countries: this system makes it just bearable, all the time, and ensures that no one becomes so poor they become desperate). However it has the disadvantage that once one person makes an attempt to rise above this they will be pulled back down, because no matter how much money they make, e.g., once they have spread it around helping all their neighbors then it becomes spread too thin, so that whilst the aggregate poverty level has been decreased a little, it is only by a negligible amount. In the movie one of the Uncle's wives puts it aptly - when she is sent to give some of their almost-finished rice to one of the neighbors, she complains to the other wife "If you have 9 beggars and you want to help them all, all you will become is the 10th beggar". Layer on top of this structure the system of manners that have been built over time, and which make it very rude to say a plain "No!" (e.g. back in the Gambia when a beggar asks you for money and you cannot give them any, what you say is "Forgive me until next time") and you will understand just how difficult it is for the Uncle to send people away and tell them he cannot help them. There is also the matter of the Uncle's pride and his need to be socially accepted - the person who shares their fortune is called a good person, and flattered and greeted with smiles everywhere he goes. He becomes very popular. The person who does not becomes as good as an outcast - people call him cruel and selfish. In the course of the film the Uncle in fact gradually makes his way from one of these poles to the other - when he begins to tell people that the money is not his and he cannot give them any they immediately turn against him.

The film would no doubt have come to a hasty conclusion if he had been able to receive the money immediately - he would help those he could help and spend the rest on himself, and becoming poor as they were once more they would leave him alone. But the problems begin the moment he goes to the post office to pick up the money. He does not have any form of valid ID, and the clerk informs him stiffly that he must get one. Thus begins a long and tedious (and ultimately fruitless) journey through the City, during which he gets cheated at every turn, and at one point even beaten up badly. He cannot speak French, does not know the ways of this new and bureaucratic world which is so different from the one he is used to. He must depend on the kindness of strangers, and the services of educated men to do everything for him: from translate his nephew's letter to take photos for an ID card. The people he meets in the government offices he goes to treat him contemptuously - in their fine suits (set against his waramba) he is everything that they have been taught is bad about themselves and have been trying to escape.

As in any Sembene movie (and as in real life) everything is not as clear-cut as the preceding paragraph perhaps gave the impression of. There are many layers here: even whilst the educated office workers he comes into contact with cheat and abuse him there are some who jump to his defence. On the street he gives out charity to a woman who asks - at home he is domineering and treats his wives like children, shouting and threatening to beat them when they step out of line. You begin to feel pity for him, and how unfair it is that "the system" does not treat him equally because he is uneducated, you begin to feel a bitterness against "the system" (a bitterness he himself never shows signs of feeling, interestingly enough - he seems to have accepted that this is the way it is for people like him."People like us", the Imam says when he comes to ask him for money, "should help each other out"). You feel all these things until his older sister (the money-sender's mother) comes visiting from the village. She hits him over the head and calls him foolish. "How could you live here all your life", she asks with scorn, "and not get your papers in order? When I return you better have my money!".

The older sister is atypical of the other women in the film. She pushes him around and treats him like a child, she is sharp-tongued all will brook no nonsense. His wives, on the other hand, run around and do everything they can to satisfy his every whim. But even they are cast as merely people subjugated by a system far more powerful than them (similar to the relationship between their husband and the educated bureaucratic world) - they are accepting of this system, but are portrayed despite this fully as people, with their own dreams. They pick up their husband when he falls, they fight on his behalf when he is outnumbered. When he has descended so far into debt he finds it hard to haul himself out again one of them gives him her only gold necklace to pawn. "Are you sure?", he asks, the only time in the movie he defers completely to her and is gentle, almost submissive. She nods. "But it is yours...", he says, still not taking it, looking sadly at it. "Take it", she replies, "material objects are to cure shame - for they cannot cure death". [The use of language here, as elsewhere is quite elegant and packed with old proverbs, something that will be lost when you cannot speak Wolof and have to use the subtitles].

But as the title suggests, in the end after all it all comes back down to the money order. By the end of the movie it has created a mini economic system of its own - on the promise of its receipt items have been borrowed and lent, and there is a big debt attached to it. In order not to give away the ending I will not discuss how the situation is resolved (or failed to be).

One thing that kept nagging at me as I watched the film was whether someone from outside the cultures it is set in would truly get it - why were all these people asking him for money? Why was he giving it to them, when he did not have enough for himself and it was not even really his? Whilst the concerns it raises are universal, the film itself is set very deeply in the societies it treats and is completely unapologetic about this. This makes sense - any attempt at making some of the scenes easier to comprehend to an outsider would have detracted from the story. One way to deal with this is to attempt to look beneath the scenes themselves - this is the kind of film which bears close watching. The language of the film is Wolof (with some French) - the version I got had English subtitles.

In the end, like any great work of art, the film raises more questions than it answers, and stays in your mind long afterward. I highly recommend it.

Friday, September 19, 2008

New Gambian Blog: Asembereng

My friend Jarju, one of the coolest Gambians I know and definitely one of the top Gambian computer people, has a new blog up. It's mainly centred on technical problems he comes across on the job. It's a welcome addition to the (tiny) Gambian-blogs-by-actual-Gambians space.

You can visit it at

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The King and the Guewel: A Ramadan Fairytale #2

Part 1 here

The next day the King, hungry once more and in a foul mood, looked about him for someone to take it out on. He remembered the mbahal he had eaten the previous night, and how good it had been. Remembering it now made his stomach growl, and made him even angrier. It was all that guewel's fault, talking to him about food and getting ideas into his head. He ordered a member of his guard to bring Alpha before him.

"Rise, guewel!", the King roared at him as he bowed low before him, "and give me one reason I should not have your head off this very minute!".

"If the Burr would have my head", Alpha replied, trembling, "I myself would separate it from my body, and present it to you...". He stole a look at the King, then looked quickly down again. "However, once more my head is much more useful to you where it is located, now".

"?", the King said (meaning "And how is that so?", for Kings do not need to ask full questions).

"Because, my Burr, I have another story for you which I think you will rather like...".

The Story of Domoda

Once there were two tribes who lived on the other shore of our magnificent river. The guewels have forgotten their names, but what is remembered of them is the great animosity that existed between the peoples of these tribes. This enmity went back centuries - its initial cause had been forgotten, but not its result. Children from each tribe were taught to fear the members of the other, young people were warned on the point of banishment against marrying or setting up any form of romantic attachment with them, old people spoke of them only with bitterness. This was long before your coming, oh Burr, and your abolishment of all tribes, that we might all be one under the guidance of Allah...

One day a hunter from the first tribe went into the forest after game. His name was Salifu, and whilst it was normal at that time for large hunting parties to go out at once, together, he had long preferred hunting and killing animals on his own. That day game was not forthcoming - it seemed all the animals in the forest had been warned of his coming, and had gone into hiding. He wandered desolately, not seeing a single deer. Sometimes he would hear a rustle behind him, but turning there would only be the movement of leaves recently parted, and nothing more, not even footprints. Finally, exhausted and dispirited, he came upon a clearing, and decided to rest a while in it. As he sat with his head against a sturdy tree trunk, by and by he heard the sound of singing. It seemed to come from somewhere behind him, a sweet voice filling the air with melody. Rising he followed it.

At the other end of the melody was the prettiest woman he had ever seen. She had come to the forest to collect kindling for a fire, and whilst she foraged for pieces of wood on the ground she sang to occupy herself, thinking herself alone. The song she sang was a silly childhood one, with no meaning, but he did not notice this. All he could see was her face, and her voice in his ears, and he stood watching her in a daze, amazed as he had never been before. He was careful not to make a sound - he felt he would not be able to bear it if this moment were to end, if she were to stop singing, and leave. The world he had left - his father's farm and his village and the lands of his tribe - seemed but a dream he had woken up from into the real world, this one, where such beauty existed as he had only ever dreamt about. (You smile, my Burr, but who else can describe love as well as a Guewel? Who else with such words? Is it merely a coincidence that we are the ones sent at the head of every wedding party?).

But soon the woman paused at her task, warned by that ability of women to realize when they are being observed, and turned to him. Her song died in her throat as she saw who was there. She recognized him for one of the other tribe the minute she saw him, by certain identifying marks on his face. And he saw in her recognition of him, in the look in her eyes, that she, too, was of the opposite tribe. There came flooding into his mind the meaning of this: the years of bitter enmity that stood between their people. Yet this only awakened in his heart further desire, so that he was determined that he would have her for his own. And what she thought at that moment we do not know, though her eyes looked down shyly at the ground at his feet, and the bundle of faggots she held swung limp in her hands.

The story does not tell us how he hunted her. Surely not like the animals he hunted: first with stealth, and then a calm and vicious intent to kill. She would have required gentleness, my Burr, and a light touch. Perhaps they arranged to meet again: he suggesting it, and she agreeing (for she had been caught at her most vulnerable, in song). And this meeting led to other meetings, and to even others. And within the spaces created by these they gradually learnt the ways of each other. In any case they came to desire each other as only young people are able.

All of this had happened, of course, without the knowledge of either of their tribespeople. They were not unaware of the situation that existed, and of the problems that would arise from a discovery of their illicit affair, and they spent many hours in conversation trying to come up with a solution to this seemingly-insurmountable problem.

One day they arranged to meet at their usual spot in the forest. This was in the time of the Harmattan, when the nights became cold, and the days were filled with a dry dust. She waited for him, as she had waited many times before, expecting at any minute to see his form making its way through the trees. But he did not come. After a while, when it began to get dark, she left and went back to her village, her thoughts divided. What could have kept him? Had he come upon some tragic accident, that had made him unable to come? That night she moved closer to the night fire and the conversation of the men, hoping to pick up a clue to his fate. But they did not speak of any accidents that had befallen the other tribe, as they would have been sure to do, and with great delight.

All night she worried, unable to sleep. The next morning fetching water from the river she broached the topic with her cousin, a young and mean-mouthed girl who was jealous of her.

"I do not know where he has gone", she told the cousin, "he has never before acted in this way". The cousin gave a snort.

"As to that", her spiteful cousin replied, "You may as well set your mind at rest, and look for someone from your own tribe. For he is bethroted to another, and will be married to her tomorrow".

She would not believe her. It was only her jealousy that had made her speak in that fashion. Turning away from the hateful words she set off home, not listening to the admonishments of the other girl.

All night she lay, wondering why he had not come, and thinking perhaps that what she had heard might be true. She woke early the next morning, and tying a wrapper around her waist went out. She heard the drums from the neighboring village in the distance, and followed their sounds of celebration. She came in this manner to the village of the other tribe, where marriages were held early in the morning, before the sun had risen. Concealing herself behind a tree at the edge of the village, she looked out on the ceremony before her. There was her Salifu, sitting on the ground, with a beautiful woman at his side. They were dressed in the traditional wedding cloths of the tribe, and were both eating from a large bowl set on the ground before them, a practice that would tie them together for life. She stood watching them as if in a dream, and a great trembling rose through her body as she forced herself not to cry out. She gnashed her teeth and wringed her hands, without even noticing. And then when Salifu got up and gave a piggyback ride to his new bride to complete the ceremony, she could take it no more. In a despairing madness she ran into the forests, screaming and tearing her hair out, pursued by her cousins, who had at last tracked her down. She came at last to a deep pit that had been dug as a trap for wild game, and even as her pursuers called out her name she flung herself into it, so her body was broken on the sharp stakes placed within it.

The men of her tribe gathered, in anger. There would be war, she would be avenged - this was swiftly agreed. She had been grievously wronged, led on by a good-for-nothing from the hateful tribe, and driven to suicide. Such an insult the tribe could not let stand. A messenger was sent to the other tribe with a challenge - tomorrow at noon the two tribes would send their best men into battle. There would be no quarter. There was no room for negotiation. The drums beat. The young men sharpened their weapons and set up camp along the banks of the river. There was a great clamour, and a great excitement.

But that night whilst the men slept, the women of the two tribes gathered. Certain old women amongst them had long thought about the futility and senselessness of the enmity that existed between them, and had mused idly on what it would be like if the tribes were to come together. But men will not listen to old women when it comes to matters of diplomacy - and besides what did women know about war? And so the old women had gone unheeded all these years.

But now they had called together a meeting of all the women-folk from both tribes. The mood of the meeting was defiant. They were tired of their men fighting each other, and really for what reason? Who remembered what reasons the tribes had originally become enemies? Even the oldest woman present, who had lived through five generations, had only a vague memory of her mother telling her of a fight involving food during a famine... but even she could not remember the details, so young had she been then. They had to come up with a solution. Speaking to the men would not work - the men of both tribes were stubborn when it came to matters of pride, and would not budge from their positions.

Finally someone suggested a simple solution which nevertheless began to sound more and more like something that could work, as it was discussed: they would cook for the men. Coming together as one tribe they would create a dish which was so filling and yet so delicious, whose smell and taste and savoriness were all of such high quality that all thoughts of war would be driven from the minds of the men.

And so all night whilst the men slept in preparation for war, the women cooked. Gathered at the mouth of the river, they had set up camp with many cooking pots on many fires. But what would their men eat? What food would they serve them the next day? And keep in mind, my Burr, that it could not just be any food - it had to be good enough that it would stop a war, and restore peace, perhaps even heal the rift that had existed for so long. The best cooks from the two tribes, the women whose names were spoken most loudly in the bantabas when the subject of food came up, conspired together and at last came up with just the right dish.

When the men woke the next morning, early at dawn, they were so distracted by the mouth-watering smell coming from the mouth of the river that not a single one of them thought more of war, but instead all together they moved towards the source of the smell. When they got there and saw the preparation of the women they begged to be allowed to have some of the food, as they were all to a man very hungry; and the women would not let any man get a serving until he handed over his weapons and promised to not go to war.

And in this way the war was averted, and the two tribes once more made friendly, eventually even merging to become one tribe. The name of the dish that those illustrious women invented that night to stop a war, my Burr, was Domoda. And if I am not mistaken it is what your cook brings in now on a platter, for I can hear the muezzin proclaiming the end of the fast.


Thus was Alpha saved from a beheading for the second time.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Cherno Barry has revamped the website, making it into the one place you need to go to if you need to find out about Gambian writers and their work. It's got tons and tons of resources, from reviews to complete plays and poems to author info, and will only grow more complete with time. Check it out at

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The King and the Guewel: A Ramadan Fairytale #1

Once upon a time, before Gambia was Gambia, there stood surrounding the river which is now called the river Gambia a large Kingdom. It is said by the guewel, the carriers of our oral history, that this Kingdom was so wondrous in its treasures, its King so wise and just, that men came from all over the world to behold its treasures and learn from him. It is said that the people of the Kingdom were happy under his rule, and commerce flourished as it never had before, and all was sumptuous as in a golden age.

But the King had one fault, and it was this: when he was hungry he became unpleasant and disagreeable, and developed a nasty habit of beheading people. Since it was only at Ramadan that the King became hungry (for Allah is the only King who can make other Kings go hungry), his courtiers looked to the coming of Ramadan each year with great apprehension.

Now there was at that time a guewel who was of the court of the King, and whose skill with a Kora was well-known and admired throughout the Kingdom and beyond. He was known as Alpha Omar, and he it was who began and ended all the notable naming ceremonies and other festivities of the Kingdom, for he knew the origin and lineage of everyone, down to the least night-watchman, such was his talent as a historian.

One hot Ramadan afternoon, the King was passing into the palace, flanked by his guard and men of state, when he came upon Alpha practising within a shaded enclave at the palace gates. Hungry and feeling irritated by the repetive sound of the Kora, he ordered his guards to seize the guewel, and bring him inside to be beheaded.

"This infernal noise must stop!", the King said in a voice of thunder, stroking his beard and curling his lips. Alpha pleaded, reminding the King of how noble his grandparents had been, but to no avail.

But Alpha knew the King, and knew he could not resist a good story.

"Very well, my Burr", he said, giving a sigh pretending to be resigned, "As you wish. But it is a pity that I will not be able to tell you the story that I had prepared specially for you tonight".

The King sat up.

"What story?", he asked, still frowning, though there was a glimmer in his eyes.

"Alas - it is too long, and I would not want to waste the time of the beheaders... it will soon be time to break the fast, after all...". The King gestured impatiently, cutting him short and waved the beheaders away.

"Tell it to us", he said, "we are listening".

And so settling down on the ground before the throne and folding his legs, Alpha began to tell him a story.

The Story of Mbahal

Once on the shores of this very river which runs through our Kingdom there lived an old woman. She was hunchbacked by age and often sick, and almost completely blind but, as often happens in such circumstances, she had two beautiful daughters who lived with her. Their names were Awa and Asanatou, and their father had died when they were still but infants. They loved their mother dearly, and fed and bathed her, and ran about attending to her every want. In this way they lived in some measure of happiness, despite their extreme poverty.

One day, an evil King (for the King of the land was at that time a tyrant, hated by his people, the very opposite of you, my Burr) came back from hunting, and decided to take a path which led past the rickety hut of the old woman and her daughters. The girls were outside pounding coos, and when he saw them the old King was so struck by their beauty and the grace with which they worked at the mortar and pestle he determined immediately to have them for himself. For though he was old and grown fat and wrinkled, and slobbered when he spoke so all were in truth repelled by him, still he had retained the habit of his youth: that all that was pretty within the land could and would belong only to him. His palace was full of hundreds of women he had seized from their parents and husbands, taking them away to forcefull wed them. (This being different from you, my King, whose very proposal of marriage is the highest honor a woman within these lands can hope for, and which has led to so many young and beautiful women in your palace). The old King sent his guewel, who approached the girls and told them of the King's intentions. The girls, who were as wise as they were beautiful, knew there would be no point resisting, for it would lead only to trouble. And so they assured the guewel that they could think of no higher honor, but that they had their old mother, and would wish that the King extended the invitation to her also, for she was infirm and in their care, and would fain survive alone out in the forest.

The King upon hearing this asked for all three to be brought before his presence. But so greatly displeased was he by the ugliness of the mother that he declared that no such creature could ever enter his palace, where everything was beautiful and a pleasure to the eyes. The daughters wept sorrowfully as they were seized by the King's guards and taken away, thinking indeed that their mother would perish, out here alone. She stood and watched them go, and did not say a word, but only looked at the retreating back of the old King who had wronged her so. And when they had disappeared she went back into her hut and sat down alone in the dark.

That night, she went to bed hungry. She was a strong woman, who had raised her children alone after their father had died and before they had learnt to fend for themselves. When she woke in the morning she decided to make something to eat. She hobbled to the corner of the hut, where the few cooking implements and ingredients were kept. She groped about, feeling for things. She found an empty bowl. Then she found some rice, and threw it in. Then she found something soft and mushy, that smelt sharply when she brought it up to her nose. It was netetu - she threw it in. Then she found some pepper, and half a bonga fish from the day before. She added salt, and feeling her way to the water container outside filled the bowl with water. Putting it down, she went to the back, where a fire was left burning at all times. It was not out, and she added logs from the firewood placed at its side. Then going back to the front she brought back the bowl with her mix in it, and set it atop the blazing fire. Then she sat waiting for it to cook.

Now it so happened that the King had a Son, a handsome young Prince recently reached adulthood, who was as fair as the King was unjust, who was wise beyond his years, and much loved by his people. He had gone for a walk that day in the forest, his mind heavy with the knowledge of the increasing tyranny of his father. Lately he had been thinking more and more about abandoning his title to the throne, and going off to another land to join a monastery there, or perhaps achieve another form of honest living. He was thinking these thoughts when he suddenly smelled something very nice coming from the bend to his right. Hmmm what food is that, I wonder, he thought. It must be foreign, for I have never smelt anything like that around here. He took the path, the smell growing stronger as he walked it, and by and by he came to the old woman's hut. She was sitting outside, and when she heard him approach she scrambled to her feet, thinking it to be the King and his men returned.

"Who is there?", she asked, her voice crackling.

"Only I, old mother", the courteous prince replied, "pray do not be afraid".

After he had soothed her in this way the old woman invited the Prince to sit with him, and since her food was now cooked she bade him eat with her. The Prince had been hoping for just such an invitation, and he took the bowl he was given with much excitement. They ate in silence, the only sounds the satisfied sighs that issued from one or the other of them as they emptied their bowls. Halfway through the old woman looked up at the Prince.

"This", she told him, "would benefit greatly from some diw-tirr". She sent him into the hut to get the bottle of diw-tirr, and when he came back with it they poured liberal amounts on top of the rice, and where before it had been merely good now it was the best food the Prince had ever tasted. When he had finished at last he sat back and looked at the old woman in wonder.

"What is this, old mother?", he asked, breathless, "for I have never tasted its kind in the Kingdom".

"Oh it is only a collection of things I threw together", she told him, "from ingredients I had in the house. My daughters are not here, you see, and I had to make do". And here she trailed off, looking sadly at the ground. The Prince, sensing her sadness, asked:

"Where have yur daughters gone?".

The old woman, who thought him just a kind man who had been passing through the forest, told him the story of her daughters, and how they had been wrongfully seized by the King. As she progressed the Prince grew more and more incensed. He had had enough! This could not be allowed to continue. How could he abandon his people to the tyranny of this man? Excusing himself and thanking the lady for her kindness, he departed swiftly from that place, returning to the palace.

There he found the King, his father, sitting in the throne room, surrounded by the beautiful women of the land, their eyes red with unshed tears, forced smiles on their faces. He was making some amongst them dance, and some sing, and others to perform various tricks for his lecherous entertainment.

"Ah - my son has returned", he said, upon seeing the Prince, "come - choose which of these women you would bed tonight, and I would make you of her a present".

The Prince walked up to the throne, withdrew his sword, and without a word - swish swish - separated the head of the King from his shoulders. There was a silence in the courtyard as all looked upon the deed. Then a great cheer rang up, that was taken and echoed all across the City, and then all across the lands of the Kingdom.

The Prince was crowned amidst great fanfare, and became a wise and just ruler of his people for many years, undoing the wrongs his father had perpetuated. The old woman was re-united with her daughters, and so pleased was the new King with the dish that had inspired him that he declared it to be the national dish, and that all women would learn how to cook it as part of their education. It was named mbahal in honor of its humble origins. The old woman was invited to live in the palace with her daughters, and never more did they desire for anything in their lives that they were not supplied with.

This was how mbahal was born.

When Alpha had finished the King opened his eyes and looked at him.

"That was a good story", he said, "It has put me in mind of the dish: tonight we shall eat mbahal". And he clapped his hands twice, and the chief cook ran into the kitchen to see that the King's wishes were carried out.

A sound came from outside. It was the muezzin, calling the end of the fast for that day. Alpha gave a sigh of relief. Once the King had eaten all talk of beheading would be forgotten. He had made it through the day. He smiled as he thought about the mbahal he was about to eat, covered with diw-tirr...

The Adventures of Samba In America #2

Part 1 here.

One day as a child he had gone out to hunt rabbits with his friends, in the forest. They had a dog they kept, feeding it the leftover scraps from their makeshift barbecues, and it ran at their side, barking excitedly. He could not see himself in the memory, but he could see the faces of the others, excited, a blue pair of shorts, a dirty, discolored shirt torn at the side so the armpit showed as the arm was lifted in the motion of running, a red cap. Some of them had worn nyambalastic, and some had gone barefoot, somehow avoiding the stones and thorns in the path. It was this image that came to his mind now as he stood on the pavement, waiting for the light to change. Overhead a train screeched past on metal tracks, a noise that had irritated him in his first days here and set his teeth on edge, but that now was receding into the background so he barely noticed it. It took a new kind of seeing, to understand this country and its streets: they were so wide, the people in them so numerous. He looked down the road he stood on, and it stretched on and on, until it was swallowed up by the horizon. And people it seemed on every square metre of it, a wild array of clothes and colors, some holding bags, all rushing to get somewhere. Back home he had seen crowds this big only after his move to the City, and then only during events at the Stadium. There were the black Americans, and the ones who looked like Spanish (Latin Americans, his friend kept correcting him, they are called Latin Americans here). Then there were the toubabs themselves, though not as many as he had expected to see here, in their own land, looking straight ahead as they walked, as if they by some trick could see their destination always before them. They seemed so lacking of time. It felt alien to him, this constant movement, in contrast to the lazy stillness of Banjul.

His friend had given him a calling card the first morning before leaving home. Bright yellow, two ovals attached to each other, with "Hamburger" written on the front, and a list of destinations on the back. None of the destinations was Gambia (though there was South Africa and Cameroon).

- Call your people, his friend said, let them know you're here. You can use the telephone in the living room.

He went into the living room. He stood before the phone, white and plastic and set in the wall. He held the card for a second, thinking of his mother and sister, waiting to hear from him, and a lump formed in his throat. What would he say to them? His mother had said don't worry about calling. He had heard her talking the previous night to his younger sister, in the room they shared, as he passed. His sister explaining the mechanics of the process to her, the old woman. ...flush it down the toilet, and then they don't know what country to deport them to. So they let them stay... He had walked on, not entering, going to his room. don't worry about calling. until you are settled down. And at the moment of his departure, with his sister smiling her brave smile, their eyes both red and tearing away at the composure he had built so carefully, so he had to look away from them or never be able to leave that place. He saw in the looks on their faces their acceptance of his sacrifice, the heroic journey he had already begun to take on their account, in their minds. To be caught, to be imprisoned. To get out and become a part of Babylon. And then what riches they would enjoy, what long-awaited rewards. Yet what had he done instead? The immigration officer had looked at his passport only once before handing it to him again, stamped, with a confident smile. Enjoy your stay sir. He had thought it at first a question, surprised that he should be getting in so easily. Trying panickedly to work out what he had been asked, and what to reply to it. A part of him wishing they would lead him off already, as he had seen them do to others in the line, one policeman on each side, looking grim. Realizing what had happened only after the person behind him rolled their baggage up beyond the yellow line, so he was forced to move forward. Surely it was not supposed to be so easy. And now here he was, unemployed in New York, possessing only the clothes he wore, and the few he had brought along. Where was the path to unending riches? He put the card in his jeans pocket, and left the phone where it rested on the wall. He would call them, later. Not now. Not now.

There were Senegalese here. Unlike the Gambians he met they were different - they radiated an aura of Senegal, as if they had learnt the great Secret of Nations, and now carried a little bit of their country with them everywhere they went. He could tell as soon as he saw them what they were, even before they ever uttered a single Savaa? They had restaurants selling Gambian food, domodah and benachin and mbahal. And jumbo and netetu and he imagined everything else sold at Marr-Seh Serekunda. And they had stores, too, selling African cloth and dress: warambas and kaftans in the shop windows, the last thing he had expected to see in New York. It was to one such shop his friend had promised to take him the next day, to see if perhaps they needed a helping hand. He had nodded, wondering what a helping hand meant. Would he be security, like the Senegalese and Guineans he had passed on Kairaba Avenue, standing at the door of shops and helping customers, watching that nobody left with anything they hadn't paid for? A part of him rebelled against this thought, even as his common sense chided him. Who would know him here. Yet he still grasped at a stubborn hope that his dream would right itself, that all this would turn out to be only a minor setback, and soon he would be taken by hand and led to the Real America, the Babylan he had heard and dreamt about, where he would be clothed and fed and allowed to reach towards those he had left behind waiting, and pull them up with him, towards this radiant surface, towards this new light.

Next Episode: Samba's job hunting woes, the call, familar music, "we deserve better", Samba makes new friends.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Ode to Benachin & Other Poems

[The following are the result of a competition organized at an unnamed high school in the Gambia where students were asked to write "poetic tributes" to their favorite Gambian foods, during the Ramadan period. There were over 100 entries - the best (as agreed by the judging panel of teachers) are displayed below].

Note: Though it may seem this way to certain accusing minds, I did not personally write these just because I am hungry and missed Gambian food. I'd never do that.

Domoda, the best dish in Sukuta

[by Abdou Sarr]

Domoda, the best dish in Sukuta,
My mother cooks you every Ajuma
You are the best food in the whole world
Your degeh is thick and your rice hot
I like you with diw-tirr put on top

I wonder who invented you
But whoever it was we are grateful to
Domoda, the best dish in Sukuta,
How happy I am every Ajuma
To go home from school and find you there.

I do Like my Dakhin

[by Serign Korka Jallow]

Some there are
Who quite Prefer
Mbahal with kobo bu laka
But I can say
With great confidence:
I do like my Dakhin.

Then there are those
Who'd trade their nose
For Chuyi Yaapa with Macaroni
But I can say
Without any hesitation:
I do like my Dakhin.

I know people
Who'd never be seen
With anything but Benachin
But I can say
Even woken from sleep:
I much prefer my Dakhin.

Ode to Benachin

[by Sambulai Forster]

Oh thou red dish of the Wolof tribe
Known in other countries as the Jollof rice
Oh thou that brings succor to my hungry days
And doth educate me in the Ancient gastric ways

Benachin Benachin how I love thee
As the bumblebee loves sweetest honey
I do proclaim: the very best food of Heaven
Would not taste half as good as you even

Benachin + Bissab = Happiness

[by Penda Mbye]

Benachin plus Bissab is equals to Happiness
Oh yes I know this formula to be true
Even though our Math teacher Mr Jarju
Never taught this, my friend, to me and you

Benachin is equals to Happiness Over Bissab
Using simple algebra you can prove this
And if you add a glass of Wonjo
Then, my friend, you will be in true bliss

And if you add dahaar to the equation
And a little bit of maggi sauce and some limong
And you eat the whole thing whilst it's steaming
You'll feel so euphoric you will dance and sing a song.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Adventures of Samba in America #1

Strangest of all he finds the way people smile at you on the street: this tight, quick, little smile that at once said hello and goodbye, as if friendliness were a thing to be given to strangers only in tiny doses. Smiles that seemed to say "I have never met you before and I do not know you but I am doing this because it is my duty to be friendly to strangers, but I beg you to do likewise and give me a tight little smile back and walk past - let us not turn this into a conversation". At first he gave back the wide smile of the village, the smile that preceded a lengthy greeting session, and made them quickly turn away as if scared of him. But he is learning. Yesterday on the street he gave the small, tight smile to a passing woman, overweight and sweating heavily as she walked past, and she gave it back. Then, gaining confidence, he gave it to a girl dressed in really short shorts, but she only swung her hair back and looked away, walking past him really fast.

Downstairs from where he lives there is a laundromat. Back in his home village washing day was a major weekly event: first his mother would gather all the clothes strewn at various locations around the house into a huge bundle, and put this in the middle of the compound with a bar of Sankung Sillah on them. Then she would chase down / wake up / hunt for all the women in the house: his five sisters, his cousin Amie, his young Aunty. Together they would take the clothes into the backyard. He did not know the exact process of what they did in there, but he knew it included a lot of feteh-ing sounds and soap suds, and when it was over his wet boxers would be dangling limply under the sun, on the clothes line tied between the mango trees. Here it took all of an hour, and was done with, and with so little effort he felt as if he had been tricked - perhaps his clothes only looked clean. But they smelt fine, when he smelt them.

The first time he was taken to the laundromat here by his friend he could not stop touching the machines. Oh he had known about clothes being washed in America by machines - because toubab were so technologically advanced and because, he suspected, toubab women were so lazy - but he had always thought of this in the abstract, if he had thought of it at all. He had, perhaps, categorized it in the area of magic, as we do with all technologies we do not yet understand, visualizing a bag full of dirty clothes the next moment bright and clean and shining, like in those TV ads for Omo. But now he could see the actual machines involved, and they were bigger and more powerful than any of the women he had known back home (except maybe Aji Yago, the nyaambeh-nyebeh seller). When he tentatively loaded his clothes into the open belly of the first one his friend pointed to and closed it, it gave a huge rumble which made him take a step back. No woman's voice had ever sounded like that! As he sat and waited for it to finish its task he thought how much time these would save back home (and for the first time he thought how much time the women spent on housework, on the washing of his clothes and the cooking of the food he ate, and accompanying this thought he felt a momentary and strange feeling he could not identify). But if machines did all the housework what would the women do? Walk their dogs, like they did here? Run down the street in too-short shorts, rudely swinging their hair at would-be-friendly smiles? The previous day a Nigerian woman he had spoken to had told him that the need for men had been replaced by the invention of artificial insemination. When she had explained what this was he had been lost for words, indignant at the very thought: everyone knew a man had many more uses than just that. Disciplining the children, bringing food to the house, keeping everyone safe and guarded from the dangers of the world. Now he had an answer ready for the next day: women, too, and the need for them could be replaced by these washing and cooking and cleaning machines. He smiled to himself as he thought these thoughts, even as the machine gave another rumble.

Then the machine started beeping, and his friend explained he had to put some more quarters into it. Everything cost money here, which shouldn't have been surprising, but was because in his dream of this place he had thought only of all the wonderful things he would do, the clothes he would wear, the foods he would eat, without ever thinking about cost. And in his talks about Babylon with the boys too - money would be made somehow, would come from somewhere - this was all that was said about that subject, and it was quickly dismissed as they started arguing again about which was better: a Maybach Benz, or a Yukon. Now he saw Yukons and Maybach Benzes all the time - they passed him whilst he sat in the 302 Bus, looking out of the windows, ignoring the old man with the tin can who was asking for money. He got up and put the last of his quarters into the machine, and it rumbled once, then started purring again happily. He sat down again. How had the other boys who had left worked it? They had been away only for so long before they started sending money back, and building a house, and sending their parents to Mecca. What secret did they possess that he did not?

In the mornings he was woken by the screaming of a child. Lying on the floor of the room he shared with his friend, he felt disoriented, looking at the ceiling and not recognizing in it the rain-patched brown ceiling he had lived under all his life. And who was that child? Then he remembered: he was in America, living in an apartment in Harlem, and the child screaming was from the family downstairs. She was eight years old and could walk and talk, but still went into wild uncontrollable tantrums that woke the whole apartment. He had seen her once being taken downstairs in one of those baby walker things by her mother, and had thought how old she was to have such bad behavior. She had started screaming at that point, as if she had read his thoughts, and, to his eternal surprise and mortification, her mother had begged her to stop, to please, please not scream, and in such a voice of pleading, as if asking her a favor! He had almost reached forward and slapped them both, shaking the mother and saying you are the parent here!, and had only stopped himself in time, remembering where he was and quickly rushing up the stairs and leaving them on the landing. He had heard about the indiscipline of toubab children, but seeing it now shocked him. What kid in Nyanija village would dare behave like this, in the presence of any adult? He felt self-righteous and proud: at least this was one thing his culture had gotten right, much more right than they had here. A child listened to its elders, or got punished, instantly and painfully.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Shrimp Sandwich

He said "Oh what I wouldn't do for a shrimp sandwich right now" and they laughed, not realizing just how serious he was. He could see the shrimps floating in oil, red from the tomato sauce as his mother stirred them with the baku (or was it a kudu loos - he was hungry, and could not remember the details - nothing but the shrimps), the marvellous shrimps, the beautiful shrimps. The fish when his mother fried them went "chssss" and smelt like fish being fried but the shrimps slid in without a sound, and smelled like a room in a house that was your mother's room and where you went to lie down when it was raining outside after a big lunch of domoda with beautiful, soft, melt-in-your-mouth pieces of lamb floating in the hot diwtirr-covered degeh as you sat there and ate with your friend who you'd just come out of the rain with and there was a lamba on RTS in the living room and your Dad was making bad jokes about the men in their ngembahs. And when the shrimps were done you went to the bitiki peul and bought an adansa, also soft, almost white, baked to an even consistency so that when you pulled out chunks of it the soft whiteness inside made you wish the old men at the mosque would hurry up and nordah so you could go break your fast; and you took the bread home and your mother had just finished making the shrimps and they were still hot and covered in onions and tomato sauce, they looked so red, you had never liked red so much, the color, had never realized colors could be tied to tastes and red was tied to saltiness and a hint of pepper and the taste of the shrimps, oh the glorious Oceany taste of the shrimps making you try to remember all the scientific words related to the mouth you had learnt in high school just so you could describe it properly to yourself in the future: palate, taste buds - what else, your recall failing but who cares these shrimps God these shrimps... Their crunchiness offset by the softness of the Adansa bread in your mouth and when that was done, when they were all mixed up and ready to journey forth into your throat and your stomach and spread the good news to the rest of your body you took a gookh of tea (gookh the right word here because no word in English could ever capture quite as precisely the first sip of hot tea down your parched, thirsty throat, the sound as much a part of it as the swallowing of liquid itself, the collective gookh of everyone in Gambia ak li ko worr as the TV announced the end of the fast, the gookh that brings us all together). In the end all that would be left would be the plastic bag (which had contained the Adansa) with a few stray crumbs on it, and in your body a tiredness as if you had just run a long race and finally arrived at the end, sitting around with the rest of your family and giving each other proud looks. We made it through the first day. Sigh. Now only twenty-nine more to go....

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Our Collective Amnesia: Review of "A Living Mirror - The Life of Deyda Hydara"

Books and newspapers are very important in a society. They act as our collective memory, the things we can always go back to to take another look at events, to recognize repeating patterns in them, and to understand them. Whilst newspapers are of necessity published in a rush (there is a deadline, and it must be met - the paper must be out on the streets by so-and-so time), books have the luxury of being more meditated-upon, and are often better thought-out as a result. Authors can take years writing a single book - no one complains. This gives the authors of books a great advantage over newspaper writers and editors - the advantage of time, the ability to look at the bigger picture instead of just immediate events, and to allow events to reach their full maturity before commenting on them.

"A Living Mirror: The Life of Deyda Hydara" is one such book, written by Aloa Ahmed Alota and Demba Ali Jawo. It is a biography of Deyda Hydara, the Point editor who was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2004.

The book begins with Deyda as a young man, playing football on the streets of Banjul. We follow him as he is signed up, almost accidentally, for the French school, where he performs so well he is allowed to go to Dakar to complete his studies. These studies are cut short (though not before here, too, he has demonstrated his intelligence by already beginning to read philosophers such as Sartre. "Your verb conjugation is excellent", his teacher remarks on his first test) after his guardian becomes unable to afford the school fees any longer. He returns home and gets a job at Radio Syd, and the book follows his activites as he falls in love, gets married,and quits the Radio job to start a newspaper. We see, at the beginning, Deyda the man.

The middle part of the book is devoted to a series of Socratic-type dialogues Deyda had with one of his editors, during which they speak on various issues raised in articles Deyda wrote for the Point, ranging from the power of government to the rights of women. In them Deyda is presented as a learned man with very strong views on issues, and the editor as humble student asking just the right questions to keep the debate flowing, pausing only to read out relevant sections from articles as he is ordered to by Deyda. This part would perhaps have been a bit more interesting if the editor had acted as devil's advocate, arguing against some of the points Deyda made, making the discussion more lively. As it is, though, we do manage to hear of some of Deyda's opinions, and the ways in which he justified them.

Right at the end, we are told about the Point newspaper's 13th anniversary party - the speeches given that night, the dancing, the visit from the new US ambassador. And as the evening progresses, and we learn about the two female co-workers Deyda was planning to give lifts to their houses that night, we suddenly begin to realize what this entails. (There were two women in the car, when the shootings happened). The prose really flows here - you can feel the authors' emotions, as well as the emotions of the people who must have told them the tale. And then, after the unmarked Benz draws up to Deyda's car, and he is shot, after the assassins have escaped, we follow the ones left behind, their reactions recorded as they each get the news - some fainting, some in denial and going to check for themselves, some unable to accept that this was really happening. Not surprisingly, this part of the book was the most well-written.

There are a few little problems with the book, ones which can certainly be excused for having happened to first-time authors [both writers have worked for major Gambian newspapers in the past, but had not published a book before this one, as far as I know]. One of these problems is the excessive use of cliched expressions, especially in the first half of the book. Take, for example, this passage from page 57:

By now the lanky, sunken-cheeked adoscelent Deyda had developed into a beefy-faced, well-rounded adult with a bulky frame. He rocked on a springy step, especially when a journalistic scoop or a well-written story bowled him over.

Deyda rocks on "a springy step", especially when he is "bowled over"? There are more passages like this which add to a certain sense of unneeded clutter in the narrative, sometimes getting in the way of the story. [Deyda's uncannily prescient declaration that he would be shot, for example is referred to as a "hoary old chestnut" amongst his staff, a metaphor which just does not sound right given both the context and the expected readership].

Right from the beginning the authors admit to having "adopted a fiction style" for presenting the life story they had before them, in order to make it more engaging to the reader. This is rarely a problem - it actually does help the book flow - though sometimes it leaves you wondering what really happened, and what the authors made up to fill in the gaps. On page 85, there is an encounter between Deyda and the Gambia Press Union lawyer selected to represent the GPU in court:

Deyda stared at [the lawyer] and asked her for the umpteenth time, "Are you sure you'd like to represent us in court?"

[She] smiled and waved her hands in the air. "I've told you again and again that I can and will take up the case".

Deyda beamed. "You mean you can stop the National Media Commission from emasculating the independent media?"

"I'll fight it out in court."

"And I'll use my newspaper to enlighten the public on the ominous danger the NMC Act posed to freedom of expression in this country."

They both laughed.

This sounds more like actors reading from a script than an actual conversation between two people. This kind of set up happens a few more times in the book, but is a small price to pay to have the rest of it flow the way it does.

As biography, the book does not work as well as would be expected. The subject as presented is too flat. At meetings and press conferences he is always mowing the opponents down with his superior words, and they in their turn always clapping and cheering at his every utterance. He is always cheerful and happy and optimistic (almost superhumanly so), he is never afraid, he never has doubts.

It is instead as chronicle of media repression in this country that the book does a marvellous job, covering everything from the advent of Radio Syd to the debates in the National Assembly about the creation of a National Media Commission, and the subsequent attempts at parley by the Minister of Communications at the time. None of this is covered in any history curricula in the country, and most of it is information that could have been acquired only by talking directly to the persons involved, so bad has our societal amnesia become. Alota and Jawo have done us an invaluable service in putting this important part of the history of our democracy between two covers, adding to the store of collective memory in place for future generations.

After the main story itself, the book contains a series of photos of Deyda, and two appendices. The first appendix is made up of tributes written by his peers, all condemning the murder, all putting in words the horror and outrage felt by the whole country. The second one is a selection of articles, mainly from his "Good Morning Mr President" column in the Point newspaper. As we read these, and get closer and closer to his fatal hour, we cannot help but be struck by how brave he was, how he dared say the things which other people did or would not, in always clear and sometimes brilliant prose, never condescending, always taking the time to argue out his case, presenting the facts as he saw them. And it is the articles in this appendix which in the end convince us of the point the main story was trying to make all along: what we can see in these writings is the reflection of a man who until the last stuck to his beliefs - and died rather than relinquish them. If "patriot" wasn't such an overused, meaningless term these days in the country, I'd even call him a true patriot. The country is sorely in need of men like him once more.

You can find out more about the book by visiting

Friday, May 30, 2008

Internet on Mobile Phones [Comium]

I got a chance to get a sneak peek at Comium's GPRS service this week, and it was super-cool. GPRS stands for General packet Radio Services, and is a technology that allows you to do things like use the Internet on your phone. I've been waiting for this forever - looks like Comium have finally gotten it. Right now it's apparently in testing mode, but they'll soon have it live so regular users can use it. This looks to be a big win for Comium, if it happens, and certainly a commendable improvement and a radical shift away from the "you bet ten million? I'll bet twenty" cellphone marketing mania that has hit the country. Not to mention depending on how expensive it is, it could potentially take the Internet into parts of the country where the ISPs don't reach.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The day I met Hedge-Head Guy

The guy I will come to call hedge-head sits upright in the barber's chair [an office swivel chair downgraded to be a barber-shop chair, by pulling out some of its stuffing and tearing away some of its cover fabric so it hangs, then running dirt and sprinkling left-over hair strands all over it. Or maybe just an old office chair]. When I come in, it looks like he is staring into the one of the mirrors directly opposite him [there are mirrors all around one side of the room, attached to the wall]. Then I come closer and see: his eyes are closed. He is barely breathing, his chest riiiiisiiiiing and faaaalliiiiing slooooowly, his hands resting on his lap, as if he is asleep sitting up. And over him the barber hovers with a pair of small scissors, snipping away at his hair. His hair is trimmed at the edges, strictly and with great economy, like a hedge attended to by a master gardener who has retired and is working on this last hedge as his masterpiece, the one all gardeners in the future will remember him by. Look at most people's heads and it is immediately evident that the head is the one in charge, the hair knows it is expendable and largely unimportant in the greater scheme of things, compared to the head. But not his hair: it is thick and dark, and occupies a larger space (and probably has greater mass) than the head - imagine Marge Simpson, minus the frivolousness; imagine an afro, minus the ethereality. This head knows its value, knows its owner would abandon his head without a second thought if he had to choose between it and his hair. And the barber knows it too, coming in on a certain section, bending low over the head, eyes squinted tight in concentration, assaying each single hair under his scissors, as he works out just which particular one of them is going to get the cut. Then he decides, and with a delicate movement of his hand a surgeon-in-training would kill to have, he reaches forward and - snip! - cuts it off. It falls away from the head, the circling ceiling fans overhead catching it and drifting it away, away, playing with it until they lose interest and turn in the other direction, and it falls to the floor. Then he lift the scissors again, to above head height, retreating, taking his head back again so he can get the big picture, and decide which area to trim next.

I watch all this whilst I'm running an impatient finger up and down the arm of the chair in which I sit, behind them. They both ignore me, barber and hedge-head, one concentrating so hard he probably didn't see me come in, the other with eyes closed, hands on laps, still breathing realllllly sloooowllllyyyy, like the African Buddha. The second barber has his own customer - an old man who lives on my street - that he is attending to. This man has simpler needs - he is dressed in a formal shirt and tie, here after work, wanting his usual haircut and shave. He and the barber know each other, you can tell by the way they talk politics whilst he cuts his hair, both completely comfortable and not reduced to the usual sneaky, almost panicked glances and would-be-lifesaving, of-course-I-support-the-Party platitudes strangers on the streets here clench onto with both hands on the rare occasion when they are forced into a political conversation. The barber is Sierra Leonean, I can tell from his language and his accent, and they speak creole. The old man knows his creole well - he seems to have spent some time in Sierra Leone, at some point. I imagine a situation in which he (the old man) was a barber in Sierra Leone, when he was younger. Perhaps the barber, a child then, would be taken to the old man's barbershop in Freetown every Saturday by his Mum, to have his hair cut. The young child (the future barber) would cry and cling to his Mum, and the old man would offer him a sweet and with a patient gentleness convince him into getting into a chair. Then, whilst the future barber's mother went to get the groceries, the old man would cut the future barber's hair, and then let him play with his scissors whilst he waited for his Mum to come back (this, in turn would lead to the barber developing an early love of playing with scissors, which fact did not lead to a certain cliched accident, but in fact led to the barber's current vocation and lifelong love of hair, especially the cutting of it). And then, when the war happened, the old man at last had to pack up and come back home. Years later, the future barber, now a young man wishing to finally leave home and make his way in the world, hears his friends talking about coming to Gambia, and has a sudden inexplicable (to him - we know it is driven by the kindness he received from someone from that country as a child) urge to move here. He saves up and bids his mother farewell and takes the next flight out. About six months later, his barbershop now doing very well, the old man is coming home from work (he, too, has done very well for himself, securing a government job and a good wife) when he spots the (once-future) barber standing at his shop door, looking out with a smile on his face he (the old man) would recognize anywhere. "Me picken - na you", he says, crossing the road and hugging the barber with tears in his eyes. They embrace and spend hours talking and catching up, and from then on he cuts his hair here every week, filling happy and fulfilled and generally alive and in love with the world and complete, whenever he sits in one of the barbershop's chairs and airs his views to the amicable, deferring barber.

The first barber is still working on hedge-head guy's case, even though the hair on his head does not seem to be getting any less. I've been sitting here for hours! OK maybe it only feels like hours, but still. I consider asking him when he'll finish. How would I do it though? Should I tap him on the back? Clear my throat? Raise my hand and leave it up there until I am asked to speak? In the end I do nothing - the ritual they are involved in, the first barber and hedge-head guy, feels ancient and almost religious, there is something about it which repels interruption from even the rudest and most thoughtless person. I sit and watch them and think sadly that this is something I will never have, never experience: this raw, animal connection with a barber, one who will spend hours working on my hair, leveling it and picking out stray hairs, smoothing it every couple of cuts, all the while a look of rapt adulation and worship on his face, as if he is living his dream. For one thing I just don't have enough hair - my hair grows to a certain height and then stops, even when (as during a particular period in high school when afros where in vogue) I apply liberal amounts of shampoo and other hair products and comb it every morning in front of a mirror. And even when it does grow, it never has the cohesiveness that hedge-head guy's has, the agreement, the understanding between the separate hairs, the collusion, the... democracy. Instead it looks natted and raaga, like an afterthought that you didn't even think about very hard before you discarded it.

A third barber comes in. He's smaller than the other two, and fair, a Peul. He goes to the back of the shop where there is a large black cassette player, and puts a cassette in. He presses Play, and all sounds in the shop are drowned out by: country love songs. The singer has a Texan drawl, and he belts out lines like "And you caint evah evah layt go o' ma loav" with great energy, over a guitar. The second barber is shaving his old man's chin now - they are both silent. There is a white lotion in a jar he stops every now and then to apply to the old man's raised chin, before applying his razor again. I have hopes - perhaps the third barber, the Peul who just came in, can fix me up. I sit up, throwing significant glances in his direction as he rummages through a drawer (maybe he's looking for a third electric shaver to use on my head). But he closes the drawers one after the other without removing a thing. Then he goes to stand in the corner of the shop, directly opposite the mirrors and, strumming an invisible guitar mounted somewhere around his lower stomach, he converts into the Texan country singer right before my eyes. " caint evah lea'me, you caint evah break ma hart.." he mimes along, moving his mouth and making faces. Everyone else in the shop ignores him: the old man paying great attention to the electric razor making sweeps parallel to his throat, the second barber hard at work; the first barber and hedge-head guy (eyes closed) still caught up in their Zen/Barber moment. So only I sit there looking at him with mouth wide open, fascinated. He pretends I'm not watching, energetically strumming on the guitar like only a person who has never strummed on a guitar thinks it's done, pumping his hips, making painful faces as he sings "ma loav", until he has worked up quite a sweat.

Finally the song ends, and he opens his eyes and looks at me, grinning. "Dangaa Cut?", he asks me, and I am trying to come up with something suitably sarcastic to reply, when I see something move to my side. I turn around and hedge-head guy has finally opened his yes, his barber has taken a step back from him, and he (hedge-head) is looking into the mirror. But this is not a look of vanity - this is the kind of look we would give our lives in mirrors, if we could watch them and see how much of them was left us to live. He takes it slowwwwllly - like his breathing - looking at it from the front, from the back, from each side, bringing his hands up so they hover just a milimeter away - but not quite touching the hair - and using them to measure the straightness of the hair. You can feel the anticipation in the shop as everyone awaits his verdict - even the second barber has stopped shaving, and together with the old man they are looking at hedge-head guy, as he decides. Then finally he turns to the first barber, and smiles, an approving smile, a you-can-come-into-Heaven-now smile, and everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Dusting off the stray hair on his clothes, he brings out a black leather wallet and pays the barber [who looks happy, like an artist who knows he has done a job well and true to his art]. As he leaves I look at his hair and jokes run through my head. Like: Q:"How do you know Musa (let's pretend he's called Musa) has been to the barber shop?". A: "He still has all his hair". Or: Q:"what did Musa put in his last will and testament?" A:"To my hair I leave...everything".

I sit down in hedge-guy's vacated chair, feeling inferior - I can imagine the barber's sinking feeling as he looks at my hair, which is such a small fraction of hedge-guy's that it can't even be written down as a number. He must feel like a Nobel-prize-winning writer who now has to go back to writing advertising copy for a toilet-paper company. I lower my head, trying not to meet his eyes in the mirror. "You want cut?", he asks me, standing over me. Why *do* they ask? Is it like a legal thing maybe, where they can't cut my hair without asking me first, in case I sue them later? Why else would I spend an hour sitting in here waiting, otherwise? I start filling the bitter-sarcasm-gun to fire, reminding myself to include something about "wasted time" and "customer service". Then I remember hedge-guy and his humility even despite how gifted he was in the hair department, and I bite back my sarcastic reply and nod my head. Another country song is about to start up - the tape has just finished turning to the other side in the player. The old man is done - he gets up and leaves, shaking each barber's hand before paying. I lean back and the barber wraps a cloth around my neck. Then as he reaches forward to start cutting, there is a "wwweeeewww" from the player, and the lights go off.

"I'm sorry", the second barber (who went out to check) comes in and tells me, showing me the empty container and pointing at their generator, "but we ran out of fuel. Unless you want to wait whilst we run to the station and collect more....".

I look outside. It is getting dark - there are less cars, and more people. I think of hedge-guy and the old man both home now, hedge-guy standing in front of the mirror with a tapeline to give his hair one last measuring before he sleeps. I'm hungry. I want to go home.

"No", I say, "never mind - I'll come again".

"Sorry, heh?"

"No problem".

I leave.

Soul Science

Musical Album - collaboration between a Brit [who travelled to the Gambia] and a Gambian.

Stranded "whales" in Senegal

81 pilot whales (which are really dolphins), stranded in Yoff, 48 get rescued by fishermen in dugouts. The others die and are hauled off by marine biologists [wishing to study them], people with skin problems [wishing to use the blubber as skin oil], and people supposedly wanting to eat them.

From the Article:

Local experts said a similar mass beaching of whales had occurred at the same spot some 30 years ago. Some residents had fallen ill after eating meat from the dead whales.

They had no precise explanation for the mass stranding.

"It's like a collective suicide. Even when you push them out, they still keep coming back," said Ali Haidar, president of the Oceanium marine conservation organization in Dakar.

More here and here.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Capleton Concert at Independence Stadium

An ambulance worker stood next to me at the Capleton Concert last night. We stood in the back, separated from the hordes of screaming, fist-pumping reggae fans, against a wall and in the shade of the building's overhang. I recognized him by the label on his shirt: "Sussex Ambulance Service", and the fact that he stood stiffly (at least at first), hands behind his back, stomach bulging straight ahead, back straight, head up and looking out at the crowd. I imagined him rushing to the aid of anyone who fainted, catching them before they reached the ground and rushing with them to the ambulance parked out front, clearing the crowd that would gather with shouts of "Clear the way now! Sick person coming through!".

The ticket lines were not as long as at the Morgan concert, probably due to better planning: tickets were sold before the event, and people were strongly encouraged to buy these pre-event tickets by setting their prices lower. So this time we got in as soon as we arrived, no hassle or climbing over walls. Before Capleton got on stage there was the usual warming up, this time with Pisces and One Tribe sound [who played some really good DJ sets, segueing from
reggae to dancehall to rap and back without a hitch, until everyone in the stands was on their feet and swaying to the music. Towards the end they played a mix of 2Pac songs, ten seconds of each, which you wouldn't think would work in the context but which actually came out sounding really well, and having me want to dig out my old 2Pac mp3s when I got home].

Then Caple himself arrived in a Hummer, with a whole guard of cars and soldiers running ahead of him, at around 1am. They circled the stadium a couple of times (you could see him in red in the front of the Hummer) before they finally packed and he got out, waving like a politician at the crowd. Everyone who was up in the stands came climbing down and onto the grass. Clouds of marijuana-smoke flew up into the air and circled the stadium. A local Gambian musician got onstage and performed a song.

If you've never heard Capleton perform, it sounds kind of like a mix between reggae and heavy metal. The reggae part: exhortations to kill homosexuals (or, at least, shame them into "changing"), claims that Jah is most high, exhortations to "burn Babylan", more claims that Jah is most high, etc. The heavy metal part: lots of screaming and jumping up and down on stage, and pumping hands into the air. He's a powerful performer on stage though, and sometimes his voice reaches such extreme levels you fear for his throat, and then right the next moment he is crooning info the mic, wishing he could hold his lover in his arms and promising her the world.

Caple's band came on first, playing a long instrumental piece that sounded like it had jazz relatives in the family. After it was done, Caple came on, in his signature all-reds, asking the crowd to lift their lighters into the air and wave them (proof that we had fire, proof that we will burn all that is not good, when the time comes). The ambulance worker stood still through all this. Then Caple went backstage and changed into kakis and a Jamaican flag headwrap, screaming as he came back onstage "Now I'm On! Now! I'm! Fucking! Onnnn!". The crowd wailed , and sang with him, waving their lighters in rhythm. The ambulance worker started swaying gently with the crowd, timing it so at the end-point of every sway he would lift his head a bit more and peer into the distance, like he was just doing his work, you know, trying to see if anyone in the crowd had fallen down or something. All fresh air had left the stadium by this stage - everyone was soaked in a living, breathing mass of marijuana smoke. Then Caple got even more worked up, running up and down the stage, telling the crowd he couldn't hear them (even though they could probably be heard all the way in Banjul). They screamed, they held each other, they waved lighters and joints and mobile phones in the air. The ambulance guy abandoned all pretense, and with a triple-hop jump timed with Capleton's own onstage he became part of the crowd, screaming "Burn Baby-Lan!" and pumping his hands into the air with the best of them.

At about 4am Caple made the first announcement that this would the last song, and he had to leave so he could get some sleep for his performance tonight. But he couldn't seem to get offstage - an hour later he was still performing song after song, preceding each one with the same "So this is the last one - goodnight!". Finally at around 5am a para went onstage and gave him a note, and at the end of the song he was performing he just simply stepped off stage and walked away. [Ambulance guy was gone by this time, lost in the milling crowd].

In the end it was a much better show than the Morgan one, though it didn't last as long.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Invisible Hands of the Gambian Commerce

Opposite the Mosque on Independence Drive, outside the building that houses the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Employment, there sits a cobbler. Watch, as he deftly inserts a long needle trailing its thread into the side of a leather shoe, and then carefully pulls it out the other side. Around him and on the ground are a pile of such shoes, mouths wide open, waiting to be mended. There is also the other cruft of his trade: the leather patches and sole replacements, the long needles which he uses, spools of (predominantly black and white) thread, tins of polish and brushes. He is a permanent fixture here, like the old men who sit on the other side of the road, Men of the Mosque awaiting the muezzin's call to the next prayer. He is very good at what he does - he will fix a gaping sole to make you swear it is fresh from the factory. He sits with a cloth spread over his lap - it is on this that he places his work. And whilst he works, whilst you wait for him to finish, like all the best tradesmen, he is full of stories, to hold your interest, and make the work seem faster.

Down the road, walking towards the Arch (and, beyond it, the Sea) there is a shop, a local bitik. Outside it a Fula woman, her skin fair, who sits frying pancakes for sale. Around her run her children, two small boys recognizable instantly as hers, by the look of their faces: flat at the sides, triangular almost in appearance, tapering towards the top. Her pancakes are popular with passersby, a brief repast between meals, still hot and drenched in oil, a spoonful of hot sauce added to the top before eating. The children are twins, identical, though it is easy to distinguish between them: one is the crueler, always subjecting the other - the submissive, the perpetual victim - to the most painful contortions of limb and body, so he screams in pain. She will intercede, and stop him, but there are the pancakes to watch. She cannot do it all, at once - the children will learn to fend on their own. They run the streets of Banjul wild, giving as good as they get from the local kids. When the
bitik-keeper goes inside to eat, or to pray, she watches the bitik for him, looking up every few moments from raking the pancakes through the hissing oil, and behind her to see if anyone has entered the bitik.

This particular
bitik-keeper's family has been here since his father was a young man, and came over from Guinea. He brought his wife, and they stayed, and had children. Soon he became as much a part of this area of the City as any resident, coming to know everyone. There are four other bitiks now, within walking distance of his - but he was here first, and there is a generation - the ones who were young men and women of able body when he first opened up shop - who will still only buy from him, only trusting him, though the others have identical wares. They will go to other shops, when he is closed, but there is none of the familiarity they display in his, the gentle unburdening of complaints and grievances - about their grandchildren and their failing bodies - whilst he sees to their needs. He is an old man now, and his children are grown up - it is their turn to run the shop, something they have been groomed for since they were knee-high, calculating change behind the counter whilst their father took a break to pray, or to sleep, so he could keep shop in the night.

Our cobbler ran away from home when he was but a child, barely a teenager. By his telling it was a great adventure. There is a quiet pride in his tale, this his story of redemption that he will tell anyone who will listen, of liberation from his Quranic teachers from whom he fled repeatedly, and his father who whipped him each time and sent him back when he at last got home, breathless and elated. This went on and on until the father tired of it, and calling all the family together washed his hands of him in public, and left him to his own Fate. All the years in the City have removed any illusions he may have had about urban life, and he speaks of his home and his father, if not with sentimentality, at least without accusation, or shame, or any lingering bitterness. He speaks of them merely as one would speak of the weather, or the state of the country, or of other things one cannot change - without rancor, testing at the same time with a free hand the strength of the thread he just inserted, whether it will hold its leather on the rough roads of Banjul. - Futa, he says, is bigger than Gambia, in its entirety. There are parts of it in Senegal, in Mali, even in Bissau. He spreads apart his palms to show the largeness of it with the space thus created, opening his eyes wide to add to the effect. He has a habit of blinking his eyes more often during pauses in his speech, an act which accentuates his long, feminine eyelashes.

In Banjul alone there are hundreds of
bitiks, small one-man shops that sell everything from soap to bread. The majority of these are run by Guinean Pulaars. Within my street block alone there are three, all within two minutes of each other. To open a bitik you need first to rent a large room, empty, devoid of furnishings. Down the center of this room you will have a carpenter create a custom wooden partition, which has on one side wooden ledges nailed across it (these will be for holding your stock), and on the other side is smooth and empty, like a wall. The partition is then set up across the center of the room, neatly dividing it in half (and leaving space, of course, for passage between the two halves). One half of the room is your new shop, and the remaining space will be your bedroom, where you and your family will sleep (hence the wall). A wire will be put up between the end of the partition and the wall directly opposite it, and on this wire a curtain will be strung, creating privacy in your bedroom, from the prying eyes of your (future) clientele. Finally, for security, you will need a large metal door, with two bars crossed over the front when it closes, held in place by stiff, unyielding padlocks.

In the
bitik opposite my house (the one I would traditionally call "my bitik") the bitik-keeper lives with his wife, and younger brother. He is teaching his brother - who recently arrived from Guinea - the local money, and how to make change in it. Also: how to be polite to customers, and call them "boss", so they keep coming back; how to measure oil, or vinegar, or bleach, into a container; how to wrap amphora, the little hand-rolled cigarette which are so popular with the youth. His brother is a bit slow, and sometimes, when the day is particularly hot, the bitik-keeper yells at him. Eventually he will leave the bitik to him, perhaps opening a new one in another part of the City, perhaps going back to Guinea for a while, to be with his extended family again. His wife is pregnant, and daily he watches her with concern as she lies in the back-room, looking up at the ceiling, or sitting at the door to the bitik, leaning over the gutter now and again to spit (her spit trails lines of sadness, I imagine, being discharged by her body: I have never seen her smile).

If Globalization is a world religion, then the
bitik-keepers are the local priests of an arcane sect within it. Bitiks are packed to the ceiling with cartons and cartons of goods, from all over the world: the blue of packets of Freedom menstrual pads, the yellow of Cerelac tins. Peak Milk and Omela, vying for the faithful's purchase. Sardines and canned beef from Brazil, toothpaste from India, slippers from Senegal, shaving razors with advertising copy written in exotic Arabic script on their packets. And the more immediate domestic needs of the stay-at-home women: oil, and vinegar, and rice, and sugar, all measured out by the cup- or tin-ful. The view of him obscured by a fly's eye barricade of metal mesh with large holes in it and a small wooden door set in the middle to admit payment and pass out goods - a simple but effective security system - the bitik-keeper-priest stands behind a counter, waiting for clients. And they come - in the morning to buy fresh bread, and akara and mayonnaise, and teabags and the other foods of breakfast. Soft drinks, at lunch time, and water. Maggi and Mayonnaise, Ketchup and Mustard. There are brands which are staple, and have been around forever, so that the brand name comes to be a synonym for the product type - Freedom, Peak (and, to a lesser extent, Omela), Moon Tigers (in the latter case the brand name far outlasting the product). And there are others which change every few months, to be replaced by new brands purporting to be of better quality and less price (remember Loppy, Jumkin, Davida, Foster Clarke's - all at one point or another the concentrated juice powder of choice for the discerning Gambian household).

Outside the sun is hot [the Gambian sun is never anything else but hot, which makes it seem surprising that there are not more synonyms to describe the hot-ness of the sun, in the local languages. Surprising, that is, until you come to live under it: then you understand: this particular display of heat defies the attempts of language to describe it, not because it is too nuanced, too strange, but because it is what it is, and nothing more. The sun is hot - what more is there to say?]. Just inside the Ministry of Trade is a conveniently located tree, which grows up snuggled against the metal railings, so the shade it projects shields the cobbler from the sun. This is how he can sit here the whole afternoon, and not be driven to conclude his business and hastily flee indoors, like everyone else. He has a small stool, on which he sits. Next to this is a four-person wooden bench, for his clients. - My friend said to me, get this amount of money, let us leave at this time, and go to this place, where we can take a bus. The money I got from my mother's purse, and the time by sleeping outside of my house that night so I would not be missed, and we met at the agreed place early the next morning. The cobbler's hands as he speaks seem to be detached from his narrative, their action automatic and removed from the conversation: testing the leather siding of the shoe, holding the needle poised over it, pressing - just so! - to lead the black thread into the leather, the needle's thin silver head emerging on the other side. - On the bus the driver would not take us because we were too young. Then he would not take us because we did not have enough money. We begged and lied and pleaded with him, until he, impatient to depart, let us board. When people pass he raises a hand to greet them, and asks about their family, and does this and resumes the story so seamlessly it is as if the greetings are part of the telling. He seems to know everyone, asking after their homes and ailments, drawing smiles from the most dour of faces.

The large warehouses, the importer's stores, are near the Port. It is here that the goods come from the Port, when they have arrived from other countries - and it is here that the local shopkeepers come once a week, to order what they need. To stretch our Globalization-as-religion analogy a bit farther, this is their Mecca, or their Rome. Keeping a bitik is a delicate balancing act, keeping in your mind at all times track of stock levels, and what needs to be replenished. What sells, and what does not - what to get more of, because demand outweighs the supply you have in stock, and exactly how much of it to get so as not to end up with an unneeded surplus, slowly deteriorating, until it expires and you have to throw it out. In addition you must possess an almost uncanny ability to gauge the public mood, to predict what will be in demand next, what particular chocolate the kids will buy, and keep buying.

The Pulaar are present in almost every country in Africa, from Senegal to the Sudan. You will find them in Nigeria, Togo, Burkina Faso, Benin and Mali. In each of these countries they are a minority, but one which has learnt the local languages and the ways of the indigenous culture - whilst never losing their own - integrating so well that they become the most successful small traders, all the while with their minds left behind, at home: Guinea. [this phrase - "mind left behind" - borrowed from the Wollof, very useful in describing the condition of not merely remembering the place you were born in, but going beyond this, as if you had left your mind behind when you left, so now even as you wander the Earth your mind is at home, calling out to you to return].

In traditional Pulaar culture, the cow is an animal of great importance. It is a measure of wealth and status, and a source of meat, and milk. Cows were handed down from generation to generation, and also used for dowries. Sometimes, in a car on the Banjul highway, one will pass a Peul herder leading a long line of cows, majestic (or perhaps merely stupid?) animals which will not increase their speed for any man or machine, and for which traffic will have to stop until they have passed.

bitik keeper plays many roles. There is a drawer, where he keeps his money - he is the cashier and accountant. Behind the drawer, in plain sight, often as not there can be found a catapult or other similar weapon, warning would-be thieves - he is the day watchman. He sleeps in the bitik at night, in the partitioned area in the back with his ears cocked for any sound that will draw him from his sleep and rising reach for the catapult - he is the night-watchman. His family sleep with him in the tiny back room, his wife and the little children. When he goes out, or takes a nap in the afternoon his wife runs the shop in his absence. And when he is old his children will take over from him, or other family members from Guinea will arrive, to pick up where he will leave off. It would be easy to draw parallels between the keeping of cows, and the keeping of bitiks - the steadfastness and labor which must go into each enterprise, the handing down of property from father to son, from brother to brother.

When I was a kid there was a bitik next to my house where I spent my days. The bitik-keeper - whose name was Amadou - was the funniest adult I knew, and he never said a harsh word, or got angry. He wore netted undershirts, his skin showing through the holes in them, a different color everyday. He kept me entertained with a long line of jokes and pranks (including the "fake knife" trick, which involves showing someone a knife, moving the knife behind their back, and then sticking your little finger held straight and rigid into their back so they believe it is the knife. To my young mind this was the epitome of all practical jokes. I terrorized my screaming little sisters with this trick for months before they finally caught on). And in return I was loyal to him: what little pocket money I had I spent at his shop, buying sweets ("kebba damfaa", "minti bu nyuul" and even, in my times of greater bounty - such as during Tobaski - "condem mlik"). My favorite joke was when he pretended to be an old Chinese Kung Fu master, showing me silly karate moves which had me in convulsions. He also made really good omelette sandwiches - everyday at break-time high school students would come to his shop, and he'd be kept busy for an hour frying, slicing, mayonais-ing, ketchup-ing, and cracking them up with his witty insights.

Any other cobbler would have finished fixing the shoe by now, a silent, efficient job to be paid for and forgotten. But not him: his work is tied to his narrative - one cannot come to an end without the other. In this way, in later days, when you look at the shoe as you apply polish to it in the morning it will bring to mind his tale, and a rueful smile. - We traveled for many hours on the bus, he says - the needle the bus, the thread the passengers - and at last we came to a place where the driver told us we could all get off, for food, and to pray. We went into a canteen, my friend and I, and bought one bowl of rice which we shared - even this seemed too great an expense. The needle has emerged now, at the other end of the shoe, and he holds it between finger and thumb, motioning with it as he speaks. His eyes glimmer for a moment, a laugh passing through them, and he smiles. - We did not feel full - far from it - but we knew we had to save our money. We did not know what awaited us in Dakar. After we were done we asked the canteen keeper if he would give us water. But he had run out - all he had were drinks, for sale. He laughs, out loud this time. - Drinks! As if we had money to throw around. So I went in the back of the canteen, and taking up an ablution kettle I put it to my mouth, drinking deeply. - But that is for performing the ablution!, my friend exclaimed. - Is it not good water? Will it not satiate our taste?, I asked him. I held it out, and he took it from me, and drank as I had, until the water ran down his chin. And we both laughed, and went back to the bus.

Not all Peul who come to the country choose to keep
bitiks. Becoming a seller of oranges requires less up-front investment: one only needs a wheelbarrow and a pen-knife, and also some small capital to buy the first wheelbarrow-full of the fruit. With a little extra money, you can also get a radio, which keeps you company during the long hours at the side of the road - it is a slow trade, and one which requires patience. A wheelbarrow is like a poor-man's bitik, with the added advantage that you can move around with it, be completely mobile and not tied to one place. An orange costs only a few dalasis - it is probably the least expensive fruit in the Gambia. There are orange wheelbarrows everywhere you go, usually by the sides of roads, manned by old Guineans and young, waiting for thirsty passersby. Sometimes they are all in a row, accepting competition and a decrease in overall sales for companionship.

There are two main schools of orange peeling. The first, the "chip" (imagine an artist chipping away at a wood block) is carried out by holding the golden (or dark green, as it were) orange in one hand, and chipping away at it with a pen-knife with the other, until the white nakedness of the orange's true self is revealed. The chip works away at the sides - afterwards there will be some peel left on the top and bottom of the orange - these must be cut away with the penknife. By the end of it the orange peel is reduced to a collection of short, thin slices. This is the chip method's main difference with the method of the second school of orange peeling: the twirl (a.k.a "the 360", a.k.a. "the snake"). The twirl begins by setting the orange against one edge of a sharp penknife. Then, whilst the penknife is held firmly in position with one hand (one may wrap a handkerchief around one's pen-knife hand, if one's palms have a propensity to sweatiness), the other hand rotates the orange, at the same time moving it up the length of the blade. This movement sheds the skin of the orange, exposing the white and creating a long, unbroken peel. It is a beautiful technique, when done right - it is also one that requires more practice than the chip. (Do not confuse the twirl with the "faux twirl", a third technique which can be carried out by just about anyone, and which is what most people use when they peel an orange: moving the penknife across the surface of the orange, instead of the orange across the blade. The faux twirl can also create unbroken orange peels - these are not, however, works of art, but merely cheap imitations, children at play with paint and canvas in contrast with the work of a true surrealist). The wheelbarrow serves another purpose - gathering the orange peelings. These are sold off to Senegalese, who take them across the border and sell them to exporters, who send them off to Europe and America. Dried orange peels can also be used as kindling for lighting fires.

bitik-keeper is reading the Quran, sitting on a bench behind the counter, when I go into the bitik. - How is the family?, he asks me, getting up. In recent months we have gotten friendlier, exchanging pleasantries, even the occasional joke (or rather: I have become more receptive to his attempts to exchange pleasantries, not choosing to see so much behind his courteousness a thinly veiled attempt to sell me things I do not need). - All is well, I reply. - Good, he says, and tell your father that my wife has delivered. On Monday. - That is good, I remember to say, what was it? - A boy, he replies, smiling at me. I nod. He looks gaunt, and lacking of sleep, as if it was he who had delivered new life. His time here is almost done. Soon he too will be gone. His brother - the heir apparent - is nowhere in sight. Perhaps he is at the hospital with the new mother. His sister washes clothes in a plastic tub by the side of the gutter, wringing them with both hands, turning the black surface of the gutter white with soap suds.

On the day of the naming ceremony all the
bitik-keepers and their wives from the neighborhood come. The mother is dressed in bright colors, and holds the new baby in her arms, wrapped up in soft, white cloth, so that only its pink face is visible, curled into a toothless yawn; the father in a plain purple kaftaan, moving amongst the guests, being of service to them. The ceremony is held in the main house that the bitik is an appendix of, a concession from the landlady, so it would not have to be held out on the street. The new baby is shaved and given a new name - Muhammad - and there is much joy and laughter. A small goat is killed. Everyone converses loudly and freely in Peul, and a modest lunch is cooked and served, with drinks. Afterwards when everyone else is gone, the new mother sits with her in-laws outside the shop, all still dressed up, watching as her husband's sister stirs something cooking in a pot on a charcoal stove set on one of the heavy stone covers of the gutter. The baby is passed around, and everyone exclaims over it, and makes silly-baby-sounds, and funny faces.

- And at last we reached Dakar, the cobbler says, his pace of work increasing - the fixing of the shoe is almost done now. - And there, waiting for us, was the greatest challenge we had faced yet. A man, from my family home in Futa, recognized us as we got off the bus. His eyes widen, his hands are held suspended over the shoe. He stops speaking for a moment, looking up, a simulation of the terror he felt then in his face now. - He grabbed us by the collars, and asked what we were doing so far from home, on our own. I did not know what to say! Finally I blurted out a story about how we were with our father. Your father?, he asked me, Then take me to him. He let go of my collar - and my friend's - and without a word to each other we both ran off as fast as our feet would carry us into the crowd, his angry shouts behind us.

One day I go to the
bitik, and the bitik-keeper is not there. It is his sister who sells me the mints I came for, whilst her brother makes another customer an omelette sandwich for dinner. I don't ask them where he and his wife have gone. Perhaps they will be back, in a few days, appearing behind the counter and calling me boss like they had never left. Sitting at the door to the shop is a new Peul I have not seen here before. He wears a Barcelona T-shirt, and a cap turned sideways. Leaning against the bench next to him is a large wooden display case, stacked full of DVDs in plastic jackets, with lurid cover images. "DOLPH vs RAMBO: The Best of the Fight". "LOST Season 3 (ALL COMPLETE)". "BEST OF WESTERN ROMANCE (42-IN-1)". - How much are these for?, I ask him. - Which one do you want? I point at one at random (on the cover, 50 Cent, and a promise to hear the "Best America Music Ever"). - Hundred, he says, in a tone that tells me he will sell it to me for fifty.

Whilst the bitiks are run by older Peuls and their families, the younger ones mostly take to the streets, selling oranges and shirts, cigarrettes and matches and mints, and, lately, DVDs. These days you can buy any movie you want for a D100, barely a month after it is out in cinemas. The quality is bad (what else would you expect, cramming 42 movies unto one DVD), the cover designs lurid and outrageous (and obviously of Asian influence), but do not belittle these pirates: they are the first (and only) front in Hollywood's local battle against the other -woods, especially Nollywood, which has grown exponentially in the last few years, with a Nigerian Movie rental shop in every major town in the country, and whole households staying up all night on Nigerian Movie-thons. Without them the Nigerian movie could very well replace the American movie as the escape fantasy medium of choice, and then what would happen to the myth of the white man as eternally strong and invincible, in a war able to destroy whole countries alone and without any external aid, walking away with only a few minor bruises and a background theme song?

Sometimes, the janitor from the mosque comes across the road and sits on the cobbler's bench. The cobbler makes him attaya, and they drink, and speak. He does this now, crossing the road with his kaftan waving behind him, taken off in the heat and left to hang on a window of the mosque. The mosque has a long and dignified history, stretching back to colonial times - and now it is being expanded, a golden dome added to the top. The janitor is covered in cement, from the work inside. He sits, and looks at the traffic - he has heard the cobbler's story of origin a hundred times. - We spent almost a year in Dakar, and slowly I learnt the trade of the shoe, how to polish, how to repair. Every month I took a little for my food, and my board, and the rest I kept in a tin can. And then at last we decided to go home, to visit. He stops work (which is almost completed, anyway) for a moment, holding the shoe aloft, a grin showing his teeth, large and white. - We bought presents for everyone. You should have seen me, in a new pair of jeans, fresh from the city - everyone had so many questions. And my mother! He stops, and his grin does the rest of the work of describing the home coming, the excitement, the happiness, his eyes contain a memory of tears shed, perhaps on the occasion, perhaps in his first re-telling of it. Even the disinterested janitor turns to smile at him. And what better ending for a story, even if in real life the story went on, and is still going on, sitting out here on the road repairing shoes for strangers and missing his mind where he left it, in Futa? Knowing when to stop, to create an ending - this is the mark of every good storyteller.

Almost eight years later, when I was in high school, I met Amadou again. It was on the street, and we both recognized each other. - How you have grown, he said - he was exactly the same, down to the trademark netted under-shirt he always wore. He asked a few questions - I was in a rush, or unable to speak, to ask him where he was, or what he did now. The conversation went nowhere, was only his smiles and my nods. After a while he shook my hand with a final smile, and walked away. I haven't seen him since.