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....