Saturday, September 6, 2008

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.

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