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.


  1. As usual, Amran, you make us see the human side of life in your writings. Excellent piece, this.

  2. Thanks Sal - glad you liked it.

  3. Your website made me feel very nostalgic for my 9 years in Velingara. Would any of your Pulaar speaking friends like free copies of a paper in Pulaar? See

    We mail them free of charge if specifically requested.

    Thanks, Jane