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.