Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Taste of Gambia

About a week ago my taste buds finally gave in to the attack of remembered Gambian tastes that have so relentlessly been dogging me since I came to this country. Everything I ate tasted bland and without chafka1, like the white part of boiled eggs, or cold too-wet rice cooked with no salt. My desire for food from back home had finally overpowered me, staked a mini-coup in my taste buds and set up camp, allowing no other taste in, forcing me to the conclusion that American food is tasteless (a complaint I have often heard made by other Gambians, about non-Gambian food), so I could not enjoy anything I ate here - always it fell just short of the food from back home. Chicken, e.g., tasted like chicken back home, but minus a vital component which the cooks here just cannot get right. I was at a loss what to do. I plied my food with tabasco, asked the fast food people to add extra hot buffalo sauce to the wings I bought. All to no avail - even the hot sauce tasted like a sour, older, less efficacious version of Gambian kaani, which explodes in your mouth when you eat it and produces streams of sweat on your head and a running nose.

Something was off, and I didn't quite know what it was. The same dish may taste completely different as cooked here, from when it is cooked in Gambia, and it was not just a matter of getting the right ingredients. If cooking is a language all humanity speaks, and one that with globalization contains increasingly similar idioms (the cheeseburger, e.g., seems lately to be spoken everywhere) then the difference is in the dialects spoken. The dialect of spice, practiced in the Indian countries. The dialect of cheese, which is so common here. The dialect of maggi and jumbo, spoken with such verve back home, used to express everything, from domoda to sossi chereh (and also the dialect of mayonnaise, and also the dialect of vegetable oil).

One can attempt to build up a catalog of tastes, a mental collection but one which you wished you could carry around, removing a taste to show your friends, when they ask what foods taste like back home (and also for yourself, re-visiting and re-savoring a taste in your times of greatest need, when you miss home most). Not just the taste but also the association of memories contained within it, and also its place, and its time. For instance Churaa Gerrteh (Groundnut Porridge) in the early evening, just after timis/dusk: first the slightly damp, slightly burnt smell of it from the backyard as it is being cooked, bubbling, hungrily fed sugar which it swallows with satisfied belches as the day departs and the evening comes in. And then it is done, but so hot you have to run your spoon through it for a while to make it cooler2, tasting it at intervals to see if it is ready yet. During these tastings it feels loamy or watery, depending on the cook's decisions concerning water - but in either case it runs down your mouth and into your throat almost too easily, leaving behind it a trail of sugar and a new taste which is more than the sum of the water and the groundnuts-and-rice mixture it is made of. And after the stream has run down there are left tiny balls in your mouth to chew on (all of this happening all at once, and not in the slow detached way words seem to portray). Milk (sour if you can get it), dilutes the sugar in the porridge, making it even less consistent and spreads out the tiny balls in your mouth even more, making them float about as your tongue tries to get a hold on them, all the while swimming towards your expectant gullet. For a food so light in the eating, chuura fills you up surprisingly well, having the same weight in your stomach as a good bowl of chereh - which is much heavier - getting you through the day when you heat it up for breakfast the next morning.

Another entry: Supah Kanja, of the best kind - the aku kind - creates a synergy of rice and palm-oil-okra stew which it is hard to believe could come from its constituent components. Once it is in your mouth, of course, you cease to be able to distinguish where the sauce ends and the rice itself begins (as you can, e.g., with chuurah, where you can still separate the rice-gerrteh mixture from the water, even in your mouth). It begins an assault of salty tastes on your palate, while the okra making each spoonful slide around and be ready to swallow almost immediately. (In contrast, Domoda does not have this slidy quality, nor does Benachin). One has a choice of bases too, in addition to rice, each one changing the central feel of the meal: findi, to take away some of the slipperiness and force the supah to form lumps with a grainy base, giving you more chewing time, making the meal a more ruminative one; or foofoo, which takes away the center of attention from the Supah itself and makes it merely sauce, while the main part of the meal becomes the lumps of foo-foo, whose toughness puts rice to shame.

And then there are the foods in the catalog which are eaten here too, but treated differently (it is like finding a language close to Wolof, but in which words have a subtly different meaning). Salad, e.g., is never eaten alone, as a dish in and of itself, as it is here as part of a vegetarian diet3. Instead it is always a base, a foundation on which is spread the true meal, usually fried fish (brittle and stiff from too long exposure to the hot oil) or meat sauce. Eating salad alone would be like eating rice alone, with no sauce. Then there is peanut butter, which is placed here in the category of butter and jam, with almost all of the oil removed, processed and put in a jar ready to be spread out on a layer of sliced bread to make a sandwich (the famous PBJ sandwich, whose very though turns my stomach). At home it is made at the market from fresh peanuts in machines which do nothing to the oil, leaving it all intact so when you cook your domoda, as a sign that it is done, the oil will float to the top, the meat, okras, and jahatu floating in it, little Islands under which lie the submerged mainland.

Domoda is peanut butter stew in the same way bread is flour - one would not eat raw flour, and claim they had known bread. By the time the domoda is done, the peanut butter has lost all the qualities it had which made it eligible to be spread on bread, and has come to discover the oily side of its nature, a quality which only came out over a hot fire, at a slow boil. All the chunkiness is gone by this time, and the taste of peanuts - which dominated before - has now receded into the background, becoming a more subtle taste, more sophisticated as it moves in the higher society of meat (or fish) and vegetables. At least in the best domodas - the better the domoda the less you can taste its original peanut butteriness. So well does this peanut butter sauce work with rice that you can, in fact, instead of having sauce and rice separate, mix them both together and heat it up to eat that way, and it still tastes as good (or better). Supah alone of the other foods possesses this quality.

Even the methods of food preparation are different. At Subway: Asian men standing behind counters in neat uniforms, their hands sterilized and wrapped in plastic, their smiles fixed as your just-baked bread travels down the assembly line of its conversion into a sandwich. Back home: the obese woman selling mboroe-nyebeh4 , who sits at a bench behind a table, her big bowl of beans (which will get progressively emptier as the evening progresses) still warm from the charcoal stove, set before her. What size, she will ask, and when you tell her she reaches into a bag of loaves on the ground at her side, cutting off the requested size and slicing it in half, dipping into the nyebeh5 , and liberally coating the insides of the bread with it. And what sauce, she asks, even as your mouth starts to water. Palm oil or regular oil, it goes on top of the nyebeh and drips over the sides of the bread, so you can't wait to lick it off. Perhaps there is something lost in the process of moving that lone woman selling sandwiches to a factory process, even as gains are made in the economies of scale - the feel of the process itself so different the end-result - the food - tastes very different.

I miss all these things, on a surface level. But it occurs to me that my missing is deeper, and concerns another catalog, one which lies under the main catalog of tastes, and is less well-defined but just as important. It is perhaps easier to explain it using smell: growing up in Gambia, one came to recognize a certain smell which attached itself to packages from America. Clothes and toys and books had this smell, when they first arrived - you couldn't easily describe it (how to describe a smell?) but you came to associate it with newness and fanciness, and childish excitement at getting new presents. It wore off after a while. Thinking back on this now I imagine Gambia also has its own set of smells - though I stayed there too long to be able to distinguish them - and that if the situation were reversed kids here would smell the same smell of Gambian newness on packages their Dads had brought back from trips to Gambia. It is the same with taste - there is an under-taste which underlies all the food you eat in a country - it survives in your mouth between meals, refreshed by every meal you eat, informing your belches and the after-taste in your mouth (and also, ahem, expulsions of a less polite nature). This ur-taste, underlying all other tastes and taking years to build up, is what haunts my eating, and what I search for so fervently. And of course I cannot find it - the Ur-taste of America is colder and less spicy, and also geared more towards the sweeter center of the spectrum. To revisit our metaphor, it is created by a different dialect, one that is not spoken here.

Yes, very well, you say. So you come from Gambia - of course the food there will taste better for you. What of it? But the refusal of my taste buds to adapt, to give me any respite in their continuous search for the tastes of home, is intimately tied with the difficulties I (and I imagine other immigrants) have settling in. I believe were one to cease the other would too. Puzzlingly, sometimes I wonder whether it was really as good as I remember. Now I have this new foreign experience to contrast against, the taste of my homeland is the taste of heaven, of no possible earthly compare. Everything - recalling the way ditah tasted in my mouth, a smell that reminds me of mboxa-bu-laka - will set off a wild round of sentimentality, that leaves me paralyzed. Yet there are memories of my interactions with food back home, ones that I suppress and do not often think about, ones that tell a different story. It turns out that in fact I hated Chu (a dish I dreamt about eating only the other day, waking up with tears in my eyes) - we cooked too much of it back home. My love for mbahal, at one time one of my favorite foods, had died, in an incident involving a goat.6 For days I would go without eating rice, instead going out at work to one of the restaurants on Kairaba Avenue, to buy chawarma and... cheeseburgers and pizza. I am sure if a Subway chain had opened at this point I would immediately have become a happy customer.

What, then, to make of this apparent taste hypocrisy? While my memories had been firm and without contradiction my problem had been easy to diagnose: I missed home, and the smell of it, and its taste. I missed all these things because from my perspective they were the best possible options in the World. Yet my memories had never been as firm as I first believed. All this time I had been standing on treacle, which I had taken to be concrete.

Looking back, everything is coated in the soft glow of evening after it has just finished thunderstorming7. This is the peculiar form missing home takes, and if it is anything it is the feeling of absence8 I feel, all the time. This absence makes me pass judgements on everything here, and it is easy to forget it is the root cause, to begin to think of the judgements I pass (on the food, the weather, the people) as valid ones in their own right, opinions I have reached by acute observation and actual (and fair) comparison with the things back home. Something which these judgements are not. The ideal situation would be one in which I could both appreciate everything here while still holding on to the space of home in me, always waiting to be filled. And perhaps this is impossible without first ditching the dichotomy of "home" and "over here".


1 taste, in Wolof

2 "Jay-ri", this repetitive action is called in Wolof - I am aware of no English equivalent.

3 A meal consisting entirely of salads and vegetables is as surprising, and as much of a culture shock, as the old women who pick up waste after their dogs, walking them down the street.

4 mburu bread, nyebeh beans; put together they become mboroe-nyebeh, one word running into the other just like the bread and beans.

5 the Wolof word for beans, the perfect word for their mushiness in your mouth when you chew down on them boiled

6 With a bowl of mbahal before me, I saw a news report on GRTS about a goat born with two faces. At the exact same moment they showed the goat's wet, slithery double-face I chewed on a spoonful of mbahal whose main component was a wet, slithery okra. The association was built, and mbahal never tasted the same to me again.

7 over here it rains, a gentle patter you do not know about if you have not stepped outsidel in Gambia it thunderstorms, glorious displays of power that shake the Earth and send the power company scurrying to turn off their generators before something terrible happens.

8 A word I use often to describe my homesickness - when one is far from home one becomes acutely aware of this simple word, with its many connotations of emptiness.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Fiction I enjoyed in 2009

Doomi Golo: Netali by Boubacar Boris Diop - When I read online that there was a novel written entirely in Wolof, I immediately set out to find it. At worst, I thought, it would be good for the fact of being written in my native language, even if it was a terrible novel - I approached it ready to excuse any amount of bad plotting and writing. I had nothing to worry about - it turned out to be one of the best novels I had ever read. My gushing review does not do it justice - I wish I had enough time to spend many years studying this novel, so I could write a dissertation about it. In the end it was more than just a novel to me: it also opened up a window into the world of Wolof possibility, and let me peer through, and what I saw was breathtaking, and beautiful, and heartbreaking, and everything I never imagined I would ever encounter in a written work in my language.

Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig - Possible my favorite book of 2009. Novel about two men - one of them gay, the other a political prisoner - locked up in a prison cell together. One tells the other stories to help alleviate the boredom of being imprisoned. This is the main premise of the novel, but it comes together as so much more. Each of the embedded stories is in itself fully fleshed out and could have made this a great novel; the frame story in which they are embedded however is what makes it spectacular to read in the end, a touching portrayal of the point at which two people's lives touch in unexpected ways which leaves your heart heavy.

Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware - I have been trying to read more graphic novels lately, and the more I read them the more I find them as good as the best novels in their own right. Jimmy Corrigan is astonishing - it is the story of a sad little man, and a chronicle of his family. Before I read this I knew the meaning of the word "anti-hero", but only on an intellectual level - reading this I finally realized what the word truly meant. Jimmy is not very likeable - neither are some of the other main sub-characters (such as his grandfather), and yet never once through the book do you feel disconnected from them, or stop pitying them, or see themselves and their searches for a good life reflected in yours.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - This year I realized David Mitchell was in fact one of my favorite writers. I had read Black Swan Green (which does not appear here but was a book I enjoyed immensely), and was about half-way through this book when I realized that I was almost breathless, and kept going back to re-read sections I especially admired, all symptoms, it dawned on me, I had suffered from while reading other David Mitchell books. Cloud Atlas is made up of a collection of inter-connected stories, and while the connection is rather tenuous at times, the stories never fail to entertain. They all possess that cliff-hanger quality which is usually reserved for trash lit - so much "real literature" is boring. Boring this book is not, and I eagerly await the next book from David Mitchell.

Graceland by Chris Abani - "Dis Elvis, you no get faith. Television is the new oracle.", said by one of the characters in Chris Abani's Graceland to another character, is my favorite quote of the year. I have always admired the Nigerian novelists for their sense of humour, which coupled with their penetrating understanding of humans makes them fantastic writers (see, e.g., the war rape scene with the house boy in Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun, which manages to make you laugh even as you feel absolutely horrified). Chris Abani is a writer I need to read more of in 2010 - I saw his TED talk about telling stories, which is what led me to this book, which I gulped down in a few days, and was greatly captivated by.

Cosmicomics by Italo Calvin - In 2009 I discovered the magic of Italo Calvino. I had previously tried reading "If on a winter's night a traveler..." but had not finished it. I picked this up and from the first story I was hooked. It is not so much a collection of stories as an exploration of the symbols that make up stories, and how they come together, and the effects these symbols have on us the readers. After this I read "Invisible Cities", and enjoyed that very much, though there will never be another collection of stories quite like Cosmicomics for me.

The Boulevard of Broken Dreams
by Kim Deitch - About a comic artist driven mad by a creature he imagined one night during a weed high, I read this book in a haze on a visit to San Francisco. It is one of the strangest books I have ever read, its very structure like a plan for madness, with just enough sanity to make everything logical and connected (in a twisted kind of way), but not quite enough to escape the black hole of insanity around it.

Lush Life: A Novel by Richard Price - I am a great fan of The Wire, and greatly envy my room mate, who is on his first time through the show, his ability to go home at the end of the work day and open a new episode fresh, without knowing what will happen next. Now imagine The Wire in book form, complete with the realistic, gritty dialogue that series is known for, as well as the pace driving the action forward with never a stop for respite. This book is that, and more. I read it on a 7-hour bus trip to New York. When night fell, and the bus overhead lights refused to work, I leaned against the window and still read it, first from the insufficient daylight coming in, and then the passing lights of other cars on the highway. I could barely put it down.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation,... by M.T. Anderson - There are books which set off at a fast pace, and keep up that pace throughout, such as Lush Life, and Cloud Atlass. Then there are ones which start off slowly, and keep this slow pace throughout, so if you are not paying attention you may dismiss them, but if you are at some point the payoff will happen, and it will suddenly dawn on you that you have been reading for two hours straight, and your internal rhythm had become synchronized with the rhythm of the book, and your internal thoughts had started to sound like the voice of the book. This book - and its predecessor in the series - are those kind of books. It is set in the time before the American Civil War, and follows the live of a slave called Octavian Nothing, who is part of an experiment by a college of scientists. You know a book is good when you are reading a long discourse on philosophy in a section about the behavior of man, and it is one of the most touching things you have read all year.

Aya of Yop City by Marguerite Abouet - A comic book set in Ivory Coast, following the adventures of a young girl called Aya. So much of this felt so real it would feel for a moment as if I was back home, sitting in the front yard watching my sister do her friend's hair, while outside on the street the woman next door sold fried pancakes which she mad while you waited.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James - Set in Jamaica during the days of slavery, and told entirely in Jamaican Patois, this is another book I found it hard to put down. Like Doomi Golo, the author could have based the success of the novel on the gimmick of language alone. Instead he used the language merely as a means, telling a compelling story with characters so human you can imagine them after you close the book.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Doomi Golo: Nettali by Boubacarr Boris Diop [A Review]

Suppose a man, a Wolof man, were to write a novel. Not simply a novel about a Wolof man, you understand, but a novel written by its main character (the Wolof man) in Wolof, documenting a Wolof life. Suppose this man wrote, not for critical acclaim or a wide readership, but out of a sense of obligation to record the facts of his life for his grandson, who had traveled overseas and not yet returned. The man at the sunset of his life, certain he will not see his grandson again, this lending a certain urgent sadness to his prose. And yet every word weighed down by the many years of his life and what he has done (or failed to do) with them, and also a resignation that all was as it was predestined to be. Such is the central conceit of Boubacarr Boris Diop's Wolof novel Doomi Golo: Nettali.

Set in Dakar, Senegal, in the district of Nyaarela, it tells the story of one Ngiraan Fye, an old man waiting for his death, sending out this last communique to his absent grandson, a "hardworking and disciplined young man who the whole district still talk about with great respect". Ngiraan writes to tell him of all he has missed in his absence, but also to give an account of his own life, and his son's (the absent grandson's father). Divided into multiple books, each book dealing with one facet: the boy's mother, the boy's stepmother who came from France when his father died, the political state of the country (including a short exploration of Sheikh Anta Diop, as well as colonial occupation), and many more.

One could spend many years reading all the different levels in the novel, and finding interpretations for them. Wolof culture is permeated with Islamic values, and so a peculiar form of existentialism is manifested by Ngiraan. He believes in Allah, and that when he dies he will return to Him, and that He is the source and root of his life; and yet still he cannot stop wondering what his life was for, and what he did with it. These questions nag at him throughout the book, refusing to go away or be easily dealt with. In one section he is set upon finding out about his ancestor, who he has only memories of from childhood, but who he holds in great reverence. He goes on a journey which gets more and more allegorical as it proceeds, becoming a representation of the search for the soul and the ever receding self. In the end what he finds upends all his initial thoughts about this ancestor, who turns out to be an evil man reviled by all and not the hero he had thought. "The search for oneself", the narrator tells his grandchild (and the Reader), "is the most difficult and seldom ends in places we prefer or expect - one must be strong in order to attempt it". This continually happens in the novel, with Diop taking us to places we did not at all expect, and forcing us to revisit our original assumptions. Parallel to this,there runs through the novel a Borgesian fascination with mirrors, as a means of telling us what we are - a task they often fail at, partly because we put our own interpretations on even the things we see in mirrors, rendering them not as objective as we would like to believe. In one memorable scene a pair of gorillas which cause strife between the colonizing white men and the locals, and more than one death, by destroying the constructs created at sea for incoming ships, are finally trapped using mirrors. They end up tearing each other apart.

Ngiraan's search for identity is only the whole culture's search for identity writ small. Again and again we return to the question of who we really are, by way of Sheikh Anta Diop, by way of Lumumba, by way of the young people walking down the street dressed in the latest European fashions. But if this were only a recounting of African heroes and their achievements then it would not be anything out of the ordinary, and would tell us nothing new - that is well-covered ground after all (and tired ground, in the hands of the many dictators on the continent self-styled after these heroes, ready to namedrop them at the slightest shake of a microphone in their faces). Diop goes much deeper - Ngiraan's daughter-in-law returns from France to bring his son's corpse back, and from the moment she steps off the plane she distances herself from everyone around her, claiming she is white and does not belong amongst them. Immediately we begin to see the metaphoric possibilities.1 If Ngiraan is the part of us earnestly painstakingly attempting to build an identity that falls in line with our history and heritage, she is the part that has given in to the strong temptation to float away on the river of the new culture all around us, where every one else seems to be floating these days. ("This need to continually assert our pride in our culture and our belonging to it", Ngiraan asks, "does it not point to a deeper dislocation? Surely the one who is does not need to continually assert what he is. Why would he imitate himself?" - words, after all, cannot make us - they only describe what we are; no matter how fervently one hopes, one cannot become something by merely repeating over and over that one is not its opposite). She does not stop at merely telling people she is toubab, she goes to see a Marabout, who promises he can turn her into what she has always wanted to be. He does so, changing the color of her skin and giving her a grand name, but the price he asks is high (aren't the prices for these things always): that she will give one of her two children to him. She refuses, and he turns her into a spectacle every one in Dakar travels to see, almost causing a riot. Finally soldiers from the French embassy arrive to rescue her. She rushes out to greet them, tears in her eyes, thankful that her ordeal is over at last. They ask her to come with them but they will not let her bring the children, who "cannot possible be hers - look how dark they are, and how white you are". She hurls herself on the ground and asks for their mercy, but they will not budge, and in the end she is compelled by the soldiers to leave them, wailing where they stand in front of the house. The reader is left to reach their own conclusions.

All this - the play with internal and external representations, the characters' misadventures and how deeply they are engrossed in them - make for intriguing reading. But the highest accomplishment of the novel is its powerful presentation of the Wolof language (and by extension all the other local/native languages) as a language which is fully capable of holding one's model of the World in all its complexity, and able to navigate this complexity with ease. This statement may seem like a self-evident fact to people not familiar with the local languages and what happens when one begins to learn to assume a foreign culture. Not learn a new language: the process by which we the previously colonized bit players in the epic play of globalization come to adapt the language, customs and mores of our colonizers is much more involved than simply learning a new language. It runs much deeper than the level of mere word substitution (the words of our local languages for the words of the foreign tongue), instead coming to be a gradual substitution of large swathes of our World View for the foreign one. Yet all this happens so subtly and creeps up on us so gradually - one moment we're learning to read Peter and Jane in primary school, years later we're writing essays in English - we barely even notice it. But the consequences are far-reaching: by the time we have reached enough mastery in English to be able to go to college it is too late. Somehow, through a process of selection over the years, English has become not just the language we communicate in but the language of our thoughts. All forms of sophisticated thought - from science to literature - having been presented to us in this language, we come to equate it with sophistication and the higher forms of intellectual reasoning, far and above any local language we speak.

This is where Doomi Golo succeeds so well as a novel. There are novels in which the voice and the narratorial presence do not matter so much as the events that are narrated: one could conceive of these novels translated into other languages with ease, with not much being lost in the process, beyond the usual quibbles over what word or sentence structure best maps to the one in the original language. Doomi Golo falls squarely out of this category. It presents to us the possibility of a man who speaks only Wolof, yet has the same complicated thought processes we have come to associate, in our Anglicized minds, with people who can speak that language. The language used in Doomi Golo is constantly beautiful, sharp and spare in places, in others rising to grand heights of description. One gets a thrill every time one reads Ngiraan's many plays with words and ideas, at the freshness of his insight, at his wisdom. In one section he represents the days as men marching through time, each vying for more popularity than its fellows. He takes this idea and uses it to explore days in history on which significant events happened, changing the perspective - now instead of these events happening with the day being merely an unimportant background, instead the day comes forward as - if not the causer of the event - at least as important in its creation as the people involved. And while the people did it for their own reasons, the day did it so it would be remembered in history.

By the end of the book Ngiraan has gone into a delirious state2. The narration in the final section is (fittingly) picked up by a mad man, Aali Kebooy, who also lives in Nyarelaa. Aaali Kebooy has been murdered multiple times, and seems to have some form of magical power, as well as an incredibly long life. It is he who explains to the grandson about the death of his grandfather, and writes the postscript to the book. By the end of the book we are left with the impression that we have read a truly great work, and it is a pity that more people cannot read this book and understand what it is saying.


1 yet, I hasten to add, these metaphors are not stilted, nor do they seem forced. The people represented are fully fleshed-out characters, with lives beyond the metaphors.

2 there is a whole section in which he is captured by monkeys and made their slave - there are strong indications this only happened in his mind

Friday, November 6, 2009

Re: Trade Rigged Rules [Gues Post by Yaya Jallow]

Last week I posted on Facebook a link I had seen with animations by oxfam on trade and how it is rigged to work against poor countries. My friend Yaya Jallow, an economics student in Ghana, wrote this essay in response. It is quite insightful and I though it should be presented to a larger audience. Enjoy.

Response to ‘Trade Rigged Rules’: For the average Non Economist

By Yaya Saidou Jallow

Before going on to the arguments for trade, it would be best to start off by defining trade and to ask, what is the purpose of trade? We need to understand these two points in order to fully appreciate the arguments below. The main problem with the Oxfam argument is that the author either does not know or ignores the true purpose of trading and thus ends up making arguments that, though on the surface look valid, looked at more closely will reveals its flaws.

I won’t bother you with the textbook definition of trade; trade is just the exchange of goods (or goods for money) between two parties. Now the question to ask is, why do we trade? Can’t we just produce everything we want? No we can’t, but even if we could, it wouldn’t make sense to do so. This is because there will always be goods which others can produce at a lower cost than we could. Thus it would make sense that we produce goods that we can produce relatively cheaper than others, sell it to them and use the proceeds to buy the goods we do not produce from the others at a cheaper price. An example, assume Gambia and Senegal are the only two countries In the world (unrealistic I know and they’d probably even try to invade us). Also assume that there are only two goods the citizens of these countries need, food and clothing. Gambians and Senegalese could try and produce both goods for themselves or Gambia could produce one of the two and Senegal could produce the other. By specializing and producing only one good, Gambia and Senegal could produce more of the two goods than they could separately.

Food Clothing
Gambia 3 6
Senegal 5 5

The table above is a hypothetical illustration of how much Gambia and Senegal can produce from a labor hour. In The Gambia for example one labor hour will produce either 3 units of food and 6 units of clothing. In Senegal one hour of labor will give you 5 units of food and clothing respectively. Notice that in this situation, the total amount of food produced between the two countries is 8 and that for clothing 11. Now if Gambia decided to focus solely on clothing and let Senegal focus on food, then Gambia can produce 12 units of clothing per hour and Senegal can produce 10 units of food. The sum of these will be greater than each country trying to produce everything.

Though the assumption seems simplistic, it is a very good representation of what goes on in the real world. The model shouldn’t be taken too literarily, countries should not depend on only one product but rather produce the good they have a comparative advantage in (I haven’t defined comparative advantage, didn’t want to get too technical). The basic idea holds though. Now that we know why we trade, we have to ask ourselves what the aim of trading is? The aim of trading is simple, get as much as possible from your trading partner and give him as little as possible (I know sounds grim). I think the previous sentence seems a bit too harsh but an example would clarify this point. When you go to the shop to buy let’s say bread, you don’t tell yourself “I’ll give the shopkeeper as much money as possible and get from him as little as possible”. That’s just crazy but this is what people mean when they say that importing is bad and exporting good. Though they do not know, but that’s what their statement implies. Countries produce goods to meet a demand, that is people want a product and suppliers produce it. The aim of production is not to create jobs, job creation is a by=product of production and trade. When you produce a good and export it, you are creating jobs (something the author of the Oxfam argument supports) but then you are denying your citizens from consuming these goods. The aim is to use the money from the trade to buy goods from the other country at a cheaper price than you would have had you produced it at home. Therein lies the gains from trading. Specialization allows a country to get more goods that was previously possible and at a lower price. This is a win for both producers and consumers. Producers will sell more goods and consumers will be able to get these goods at a lower cost.

Now to the whole reason I even bothered writing:


The argument here is that the Western countries subsidize their firms (and farmers) and therefore Western firms have an unfair advantage over African firms. This advantage means that they can produce at a lower cost and sell their products in African markets at cheaper prices than African firms. Western firms go as far as even dumping their products in African countries thereby putting many African firms out of business.

This argument makes a number of contentious assumptions:

    1. All (or most) poor people in Africa are farmers
    2. In Africa, the welfare of producers is more important than the welfare of consumers

It is true that most of Africa’s population is engaged in farming and most of these farmers produce cash crops, which means they can be severely affected by dumping, but anyone who lives in Africa knows that farmers are not the only segment of the population that are poor. People in a number of occupations are or can be termed as poor, dock workers, market women, laborers are just a few occupations in there Gambia where you can find people who can be termed as poor or almost poor. If the idea is to fight poverty, then don’t these people deserve the same consideration? Or is it that farmers are more important in the society due to some yet to be explained reason?

In economics we are taught that one cannot compare the utilities of two people, it must never be done. Actually it’s a cardinal sin for one to do so. For example, taking one dalasi from a rich person and giving it to a poor person and claiming that the improvement in welfare of the poor person is greater that the decrease in welfare of the rich person and thus society is better off is wrong. We cannot tell how much the rich person and the poor person value money and thus cannot compare their welfare gains and losses. The dumping argument assumes (implicitly) that the loss of farmers (and other African firms) is greater than the gain in welfare of consumers or that farmers lose and consumers do not gain. Both of these assumptions are wrong. On the surface, the dumping argument seems to hold merit but upon closer inspection. It fails to hold up. An example on the dumping process will shed more light.

Going back to our example about Gambia and Senegal, if the Senegalese government decides to subsidize their clothing industry in order to boost their exports of clothing whilst still producing food, the net effect of this is that it would be clothing would be cheaper in Senegal than Gambia and thus Senegalese clothing producers would be able to price Gambian cloth producers out of the market. This has effects in both Gambia and Senegal. First in order to subsidize they will have to raise taxes to pay for the subsidies, the best way to do this would be to tax food producers more or tax consumers. Both of these have effects, the first would raise food prices and the latter would decrease the welfare of consumers. In The Gambia, the subsidies would affect producers of clothing negatively but all consumers of clothing positively. Cheaper imports of clothing would put Gambia clothiers out of business but the cheaper clothes for consumers means that they can use the money saved from cheaper clothing to buy more food (and maybe even more clothing). From this it can be seen that producers’ welfare has decreased whilst the welfare of consumers has increased. As mentioned earlier we cannot compare welfare gains and losses of different people, but from the above example it is clear that dumping is not totally bad for a country, as in most things there are gainers and losers.

Market Access

This argument is seriously flawed, in that tariffs are lower now than they were in the 50s, 60s and 70s yet Asian countries like Japan, China, Singapore and South Korea were able to move from exporting agricultural products to exporting consumer electronics and cars (they had a better educated population than African countries). The Asians succeeded in moving up the ladder with the decks also stacked against them. The issue of exporting primary produce permanently goes beyond just having market access. As I’ll explain in more detail on the next point, the reason for the success of the Asian tigers and the failure of other developing countries was due to the policies that these countries set up in their pursuit of development immediately after gaining independence.

Countries like The Gambia have been given increased market access for their products into the US market with lower tariffs than most countries, yet since then little improvement has occurred in Gambia’s groundnut industry. The problems in developing countries with regards trade is more complicated and the reasons for the problem more domestic than Western.

Forced Liberalization

The Oxfam piece argues that farmers (producers in developing countries) are forced to lift tariffs and other forms of trade barriers and liberalize their markets. Their argument is that developing countries are forced to liberalize whilst Western nations do not. This, the piece states will lead to domestic firms in developing countries being overrun by big multinational corporations, and the most vulnerable of these firms are the infant industries in these developing countries. Infant industries are industries that are fairly recently established. These industries usually requirement some form of protection until the firms in that industry can compete internationally. The argument says that these firms will not grow without protection and thus protecting these industries will create jobs now and in the future and improve exports and/ reduce imports.

As most of the arguments in the piece it seems on the surface to be convincing, what the article fails to mention is that developing countries have already tried to protect their industries at a great cost. Let me just digress a bit for it is necessary to go back in order to have a more complete understanding of this point. After independence (round the 1950s) developing countries were faced with the task of trying to develop their respective countries. This was around the time that Development Economics rose to prominence (some would argue over this but it’s beside the point), and development economists had theories as to the most efficient way a developing country could be developed. There were two main schools of thought, the first believed the import substitution and the second export promotion. These two schools can be termed as a nation looking inwards and looking outwards respectively. The first school believed that for developing countries to develop, they needed to protect their domestic infant industries, from international competition. These countries need to create industries that dealt in the production of capital intensive goods (goods whose production requires machinery, a good example would be Sankung Sillah type businesses), shield them from competition until they were matured then lift the shield. One doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist (or a programmer) to see that this method raises a lot of questions, for example who will determine what industries are worth protecting since not all industries will be protected? What will be the determinant of ‘maturity’ of an industry? Shielding industries from competition has consequences, as in the dumping case, protecting industries means that goods will be produced at a higher cost and consumers have to bare that cost. Is it right for a few business men in society, who are neither farmers nor poor, to benefit from protection at the expense of the rest of society? This was tried by countries like India, Brazil, Nigeria and Ghana and needless to say it failed. The problem with this theory was that it failed to take into account the tendency of producers to take advantage of protection by government. In most of the countries above, businessmen, knowing that they were being protected used their surplus profits to lobby for continued protection (both internationally and domestically) instead of innovating and cutting costs. By the 80s, these firms were seriously inefficient, using technologies that were decades old and producing at costs there way above their international competitors. Removal of protections meant that these companies eventually went out of business.

The second theory says that the fastest way to develop is to promote exports. Countries should start by exporting primary products and as time goes on they can use the excess money from trade to move into exporting new products that require more capital intensive methods of production. This was the route taken by the Southeast Asian countries (Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea) China also followed this method. More than fifty years later, history has shown us that the second theory was more accurate.

Back to the Oxfam piece, forcing countries to liberalize can be very destabilizing, this is because countries that are forced to liberalize are in so much trouble. The trouble is brought about mostly by anti market policies and liberalization when it occurs causes a shock that has effects that last for decades. The Gambia had a Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) in the mid eighties the result was a steep decline in output and income for the country. Incomes did not return to their pre SAP level for another 7 years. The reasons why countries have to (or are forced to) liberalize are numerous and complicated and going into them would just end up making this paper too long.

Well to sum things up, protecting domestic industries does not help developing countries, it’s been tried before and it has failed. Arguing that developing countries should be allowed to protect their domestic industries because Western countries are doing the same is equivalent to arguing that one should fall off a cliff because all of one’s friends are doing so. The reason they might be doing so is because they have parachutes.

Labor Rights

There is a book by a well known Economist called Jeffery Sachs called ‘The end of poverty’, his argument against NGOs like Oxfam that lobby for companies like Nike to raise their wage rates in developing countries is perhaps the best I have seen. His argument is that the women working in the sweat shops work there because they have no other better place to work, if they had they would move jobs. Multinational companies open factories in developing countries because labor is cheap (high unemployment and low education levels) and the workers require minimum training to be able to do the work. Most of the sweat shop workers are women and children, the women use the money from their work to pay for their kids’ schooling, health matters and to take care of the family. Working gives these women independence that they would not have had had the multinational not offered them work.

Arguing that multinationals should raise wage rates would reduce the incentive of these firms to operate in these countries by increasing their labor costs. The result would be less employment opportunities for women in developing countries. The aim of these NGOs to help these women leads to these women being losing their live hoods and dropping further down the social ladder.

Another argument related to the point above, deals with working conditions. The women in these sweat shops are mistreated because they are poor. As cruel as it may sound, this occurs everywhere, businesses have been known to take advantage of people, a good example is in Florida where orchards that grow orange take illegal immigrants from Mexico and pay them below minimum wage and deny them any other benefits that the average American worker gets. This is because the orchard owners know that these people have no choice. The problem can only be solved by the governments of the countries where these sweat shops are located, only they can enforce these policies to make workers environments safer. Workers being taken advantage of is not something new, it has always been the case. This has mostly been solved with legislature from the domestic government demanding better treatment of workers, and not by some foreign government passing some law against it.

Regional Trade Agreements

To some extent this point is true, but given that the WTO negotiations are not yet done and that developing countries are taking it upon themselves to devise agreements between themselves that would benefit them, I think I’ll leave this point until the matter has been fully resolved.

Didn’t think this piece would be so long; hope you’ll find it a bit more enlightening. When it comes to trade, issues are a bit blurred and emotions tend to dominate. It’s a pity because countries could gain so much from trade only if people could realize this.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Doomi Golo: Nettali

Doomi Golo: Nettali is the title of the book, which I found by the happiest coincidence. I read a short story by Joob in "Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing" and wanted to find out more, his biography on wikipedia claimed this book was the only novel ever written in Wolof.

Unfortunately I could not find anywhere online that still had it in stock. Finally I was able to land a copy at our school library, using the magic of inter library loan. I was hooked from the first line:

Addina: dund, dee. Leneen newu fi, Badu.

[Existence: to live, to die. There is nothing else here, Badu].

The book is written by a dying grandfather to his grandson who is abroad, and has not come home in a long time. It is the grandfather's attempt to explain his life, and the grandson's life to him, and leave something for his return. I am only twenty pages in, but I'd highly recommend it. Review forthcoming once I finish it, but if you can lay your hands on this and are a Wolof speaker it's already one of the best books I have read all year.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Three Hands & a Bowl

There is fish (only a little left) and there is rang-ha (to the side there, the green stuff). You can't see his hand because by some process of continuous trial they found out that the most comfortable number of hands in the bowl at a time was three. And so, without ever discussing it, everyone - even the kids - have reached a synchronicity: the dipping of their hands into the bowl would be a complex mathematical function if it were plotted as a graph, of the type that zig zag all over the place in apparent chaos, when suddenly the pattern shows itself and there becomes evident a simplicity which leaves the owner of the trained eye gasping at its beauty.

There are many stories that could be told about these hands, connected here now by this bowl (of course - our stories are many and varied and inter-connected). I could tell you about the woman, the big hand in the picture with the fishbone caught in her hand-roll of rice (she will pick it out as she chews with her teeth, moving it to the front of her mouth and then daintily removing it with two fingers - that is if she does not chew down into it first, soft gum re-opening the mouth in protest). Or I could tell you about the children, out playing all day and called in at lunch time ("We will not wait - you better come home at lunch time - lunch is for those it finds here", their mother tells them as they leave in the morning, and they carry this statement around in their heads the whole day long, as they pirimisoe and kick a ball and play njam - this statement is the mental alarm which will make them stop and come running back home to the bowl), now sitting around the bowl, all their attention on it as the rice runs down (rice as an economy, fish as a scarce resource, the parents the state planners, handing each child an equal share of their fish. You thinking my next sentence will include the word "socialism" and the inevitable Halifah mention, but though it does it is not quite that here...)

But why don't we instead talk about the missing hand, the one hanging like a ghost's just out of the frame of the picture, not quite captured but there nevertheless. There - look at the hole of rice it has dug in the bowl, between the hands of the two kids. A professional rice reader could take one look at it and tell us much about this person - their height, say, or whether they smoked or not, what they did in the evenings, what their first thought was on waking, and then again even things they themselves did not know: what kind of rice they preferred (reflected in their moods after lunch: sadam leaving them happy and burping, maalo bu dija leaving them feeling faintly dyspeptic, blaming it on the weather, never knowing it all came down to the lunch, it always came down to the lunch)... But I am no professional, my modest skills at rice reading cannot quite achieve the magic tricks performed by some of my more well known colleagues, and so I shall limit myself to what I am able, take it or leave it... and besides I dislike the mystification of my science, and so I shall attempt to explain to you my reasoning...

The way he sits in between the two kids, the three of them forming a diametric opposite to the older woman on the other side of the bowl (lines of power, lines of force): he lives at home, she is not his wife (the lines would be reversed in that case, the lone father the typical Gambian father, the world and his family against him, the only difference being that he carries the former on his back too and must come up against the latter with it in this position). Perhaps they are related by family, perhaps he is her brother. He is most certainly the kids' uncle. But no, not related to her directly: he may be instead the brother of their dead father, living with them now unemployed, eating at their bowl all that she brings (lines of tension, lines of wearing out his welcome: she says, every day, "do not even think about moving. yow kanye we need you here - the kids need a papa in the house" but in the time when the afternoon has just died and the evening has not yet quite replaced it and they are sitting outside, she with opu-kaaye, he with cigarette, and there is silence all about them (even the birds in their trees seeming dead in the fierce heat) he feels the weakness of the ties binding them: a dead man neither knew very well, children who are out half the day at school or playing on the streets. Perhaps, maybe, I should leave.. but then the Sun turns red and the heat begins to dissipate, and the kids run in for their evening bath and the birds once more take to the skies, and he thinks perhaps he is mistaken, that here there is happiness, settled in his ways). But the feeling never quite leaves him, nags at his pride in the back of his mind always, especially at the end of the month, when she gets paid at her cleaning job and buys rice (yes, the bowl they are eating now out of a sack a baana-baana from the mangasin brought in at the beginning of the month under her direction), especially when she gives one of the kids money and says go buy cigarettes for your uncle, especially when he is in his room one day and he overhears her telling the neighbor about buying him mbubi juli for the koriteh (and what was his shame withered and he withered with it on the bed, his hands unconsciously clenched where he lay, but a pit within him he felt powerless to ever fill up, frustratingly, saddeningly), and the neighbor's indignation. Yow tam! He is a grown man. You must not let him drag you down, and the children too! He must find a job. He should be giving you money. Later he had gone to her and tried to decline the new kaftaan, but it was too late, the tailor had already started work on it, and so come juli day he wore it and walked about with a dark look on his face, so he seemed small in it and it flapped about as he walked (or at least this is how he felt, what he thought other people saw when they looked at him).

So all this by way of explanation. (I am not a story teller and this is not a story - I merely wished to set the scene so you would understand. And let me be the first to admit that there is much that is supposition in this, and blind old guessing - the photo reconstructs only one event, one moment within time - all other moments around it, preceding and succeeding, we must imagine ourselves, and your theories concerning these are no more valid than mine. Save those about the moment itself.)

And now I must ask you to look at the picture even more closely. The science of rice reading is all in the details. The pit he has dug, of rice: notice how all the other places are adorned - with rang-ha, with fish, all collected from the center and put there by their owner's roving hands - while his is merely rice, with flecks of oil staining its whiteness. The place of a person whose attention is not on the rice, who thinks of other weightier matters and eats mechanically, without any pleasure in it. You see it? Perhaps you should consider this field - you seem to have the gift. But what does he think? Surely you can guess by now: last night in bed with the mosquitoes whining around him all but invisible in the dark he came to a decision. This was many months after the neighbor's overheard comment, and had nothing to do with it. Had this been fiction, of course, we would contract the timespan so this meal would happen right after - but it is not, and in fact nothing in particular happened to bring his feeling of discomfort to a head - she had received a promotion to head cleaner, and had begun to slip him money sometimes, always through the kids, and she had been kind and cared for him so he never felt as if he were not loved. And the kids respect him, and do what he wants, and call him Papa - and when they misbehave and he smacks them they know not to go running to her, for she will only shrug her shoulders and say well it's your papa - he has every right to discipline you.

Yet he had decided to go, despite all this. We base our decisions on our emotions, far more than we are willing to admit, and our emotions are complex, and cannot be explained by rice and how we eat it. He had decided to go, and sitting before the bowl of rice now, his hand withdrawn, lost in thought, he is only thinking about how he will break the news to her. Not where he will go, not what he will do - though these things are as much a mystery to him as they are to us - but what he will say to her to explain his going.

Yow you are not eating d, she says, shovelling the last half of fish in the bowl towards his place. You never eat much anymore. (It is the cigarette, she is thinking, and look how bony he has become, never eating but chuffing at the rice, like a little bird.)

He looks up startled, as if caught, at this sudden attention from someone who had a moment before occupied his thoughts, her voice now seeming a transference, as if she had stepped out of his thought stream into broad daylight. His movement making him tumble back out of his jonkon, unsteady (- bring your uncle a chair, - no I will jonkon, and then he had sat on his haunches), his arms reaching back to break a possible fall. She looking at him, her hand hovering over the bowl, alarmed at the look on his face - and then is when the picture is taken.

And now we must enter wholly the realm of supposition - the vision given to us ends within the confines of the bowl of rice portrayed in the image. Perhaps had other pictures been taking of the subsequent moments we could use them to predict the conversation and how it went. What happened, what he said, what she said. But we have one picture, one moment. Did he broach the topic, after all? Did he regain his balance and have his decision unbalanced off its thin pole of resolve by the look on her face as he began to fall, seeing in that expression a reason to never leave, to stay on and keep hunting for a job and come home - home - every night? Or was he angry at her concern, and decide to move away? Did she agree to it, relieved? Did she get angry? Did they miss each other? (A fiction writer would have worked into the story a certain theme concerning the way in which he had come to replace her husband, though their relationship was certainly only platonic).

We do not know. We cannot know. This has merely been a demonstration - the science of rice reading is a developing but very interesting one, and may be our best way at looking at certain cultures and their inner workings, but still only a limited science. Yet its applications are without limit, and what I have shown you here is only a brief demonstration. Next time you look at a bowl of rice with people sitting around it I ask that you too stop for a moment, and perhaps attempt to read what the rice is saying to you.

[This piece was inspired by the very talented Marc Walton of the Gambia Project, one of my favorite photo blogs - the opening photo is from the Gambia Project website. Check it out for more like it]

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Longing For Home is An Absence, Felt Deep Within You

It started with the kabaa. I woke up this morning and there was the taste of kabaa just eaten in the back of my throat - the sugar coating of the yellow seeds making me salivate, the salt (and just a hint of pepper, just a dab of jumbo) out at the sides, toward the back of my mouth. It disappeared after I had eaten breakfast, then came back again while I stood in a line on campus. And this time when it came it was not so much a taste in my mouth as the absence of one, a tiny hole in my tasting where the sweet-souriness of kabaa would have resided, if I was still at home and could walk to the old merr sitting at the gates of Gambia High to buy one. (Ya Jaarai was her name, and she - like a physical landmark - is present in my school memories right from the beginning. Through primary school and beyond the common entrance exam into middle school, and then beyond that into high school, she is always there: selling whatever was the season's fruit, and guron-soup, and solom-solom, and the other little sweet and sour things which any Gambian school-goer is intimately familiar with. The school kids here have their dispensing machines - we have the old women we give our coins to after school. Ya Jaarai was one of these. Over time we came to develop a friendship of sorts - she would charge me less, or I would pay her more, and always choose her over the other old women who sat outside Gambia High. I do not doubt she is there still, the shawl over her shoulder, the basket of whatever is in season set out before her).

It didn't end with the kabaa. I had stayed up half the night, unable to sleep - perhaps because of the bottle of coke I drank with dinner. And so in the afternoon I went back home and climbed into bed, and let my mind drift and tried not to think of sleep so I could fall into it... a river running before me... my thoughts all a-whirl and a-swirl... and then I was awake again, and it was not so hot anymore, and I sat up in bed feeling very sad. I had had a dream, but the only thing that remained of it was a longing, as of when we have just said farewell to someone we are convinced we are going to miss very much, even though we do not remember who it is. And one other thing: there had been rice.

And so from these two things my waking self re-created my dream: the longing was for home, for my mother, for Friday afternoons after Jumaa (a voice inside me reminded me it was not Friday; I ignored it), for lazy lunches and even lazier conversations under the shade of a mango tree in my front yard, waiting for the Sun to set, for newspapers scattered about the ground as they were read and re-read and their contents discussed, for men and women dressed modestly and speaking to each other with great courtesy, enjoying each others' company. Let us be clear: I do not remember dreaming any of this, but the longing I felt - a deep gaping hole which sent echoes back to its surface, as if it contained something long lost and forgotten - needed a story commensurate with it. And so my waking self provided the details. The rice, I decided, was supa kanja, ratakh [slippery, the English word, so unbefitting of our supas, with its connotations of eels and slime and cunning criminals in back alleys; ratakh so much better, left in the end resting in your throat, like the supa which was so good you wished you did not have to swallow, only to hold it there forever, tasting it again and again all your waking moments, and then in your dreams...], the art of supa as practised by the akus, who have mastered it and left nothing more to be said on the subject - this was what I "remembered" eating in my dream reconstruction.

Memory is a hole, and sentimentality a spade with which we dig ourselves only into deeper and deeper trouble, making the hole so big and so wide we cannot escape from it in the end, the sides become too ratakh (and how the word becomes menacing now, beginning so solid yet at the last evading us, leaving us grasping for nothing while we imagine we can hear laughter in the distance). I lay back in bed and felt sick. As I do in these situations I tried (and failed) to make a deal with whoever was out there: let me, I thought as hard as I could, go home this once, let me sit next to my mother with my head on her shoulder, my stomach so filled with supa I can scarcely swat away the fly which hovers to my left, buzzing away in the fading evening light, my father and his friends speaking to each other of the World, I with no opinions and no decisions to make, only sitting there listening to them. Let me, I beamed out the thought as hard as I could to whoever was out there listening, get this and I will come to meet whatever terms of exchange you wish to set.

Nothing happened. Chinese Food, I thought, getting up, that is the answer. I was broke. In the fridge was a banana, and some bread - the practical thing would have been to save the little money I had left, to eat these and drink water and forget my dreams of rice. The Chinese cook rice, but it is not our rice, it is different - fried rice and broccoli would not fill up the hole my dream had created, but would only fail halfway, leaving me even more bereft and empty. Yet even as I stood considering this I knew already that I would leave, I would go to the restaurant and order some fried rice with the last of the money I had, in the service of a dream.

And so I left, walking to the Golden Gate restaurant. I ordered rice and chicken with broccoli, then sat inside eating it off a plastic plate with a plastic fork. In place of our nyang-katang I had fried rice; in place of okra I had broccoli, and as I chewed on the little stalks and their feathery heads I thought how broccoli was nothing like okra, how furry it felt against my tongue and palate in the moment before I champed down on it, like a little baby animal instead of the firm plant-ness of okra. And the atmosphere of the restaurant - sterilized and impersonal, as even the bathrooms here are - fans whirring overhead and chairs set around tables each forming its own little individual section, alone in the World even though they were all in one large room with no partitions between them. I chewed sadly on my chicken, opening the packets of soy sauce and liberally pouring them over the rice (back home I had liked my supa with lots of maggi sauce). A middle-aged African woman stepped in with her daughter to pick up her order. The daughter gave me strange looks and held on to her mother's arm. They stood waiting at the counter while their order was brought from the back room.

Then the woman turned to me.

- Where are you from?, she asked.

- Gambia, I replied.

- Oh - I'm from Senegal. And she smiled. I couldn't help smiling back. Her daughter ignored us both and returned to the door, where she stood impatiently hopping from foot to foot.

- Good - kon deg nga Wolof?, I asked.

- Wawe - deg nga bu bax yow?

I nodded and she smiled once more and turned to go. I asked her her name in Wolof, feeling desperate, as if I had to prove myself and my mastery of the language. She told me, and asked mine. Finally her order arrived and she left, wishing me good luck.

After my meal I sat outside the restaurant, out in the parking lot which served the mall of which the restaurant was a part, drinking a coke and looking at the passing cars and people. I thought of this blog post, of these words I would write later when I got home about the experience, the feeling within me I was still trying to name: the taste of kabaa, and missing supa kanja, and the buzzing of the fly as I sat with my mother. I thought how I would write all this, and it would all come together in a final paragraph which would show the reader how all these things added up to equal my longing, which was more than the sum of them combined.

But the important things within us are beyond language (the Great Reality Impostor), beyond attempts to be encapsulated in neat blog posts. As I sat outside I noticed there was a Shell gas station on the opposite side of the road, like the one we have in Banjul on Independence Drive. Sitting outside the one in Banjul in the gloaming you can hear the sounds of the muezzin from the mosque up the street, even though you cannot see the mosque. As I sat there looking at the gas station the noise of the passing cars seemed in my hearing to acquire a rhythm, a continuity brought on by the increase in traffic as I watched, melding the now-rising-now-falling noises of the separate car engines into one noise, rising and falling yet continuous, like a plaintive voice calling out, broadcast over the bad sound system of a nearby small mosque.

Then a strange thing happened. The world of my imaginary being - the one I have carried around in my head all this time I have been here, so finely remembered in its every detail that I still tell people I have only been here three months because my capacity for memory is still so taken up by Banjul - this World came at last to the fore, and by some trick of the declining light became super-imposed on the real world in which I sat looking at traffic. Once more I sat on Independence Drive, and people passed - familiar, Gambian - and the voice I heard transported through the heat and humidity was the voice from the mosque calling out for the timis prayer, and the taste of kabaa in my throat was not a hole waiting to be filled, but one that had just been made because I had just finished eating it. And all the people I had known - my family, my friends - were just around the corner, and as long as I did not get up to go check there they would remain, waiting for my return.

I sat there a while until a policeman walked up to me.

- Hello, he said.

- Hello.

- Just stretching my bones, he said, and and I nodded and he turned and walked away again.

Then I got up and left.

Monday, June 15, 2009

New Baaba Maal Album - Television

There's a new Baaba Maal album out, and they have a clip and an interview from it on the bbc. The title track is really good - it's one of the best video clips I have ever seen. Check it out here.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Binda Gambia

I set up a new blog where I am hoping to promote Gambian writing, and give Gambian writers a platform to publish their work without having to go through all the troubles involved in doing this at home. The address is Some very interesting pieces up there right now, including an appreciation of Lenrie Peters's work, an excerpt from the memoir of a Gambian living abroad, and various short stories. Check it out.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Review of "Borom Sarret" [Cart Driver] by Ousmane Sembene

Borom Sarret Review

I saw Borom Sarret by Ousmane Sembene last night. According to wikipedia it is considered "the first film ever made in Africa by a black African". It takes place in Dakar, Senegal, and is about a horse-and-cart driver trying to eke out a living. It is a short film, barely 20 minutes long, yet in that time it manages to pack in quite a lot of themes.

A black and white film, it opens with a stark view of a shining white mosque building, its profile cutting into the skyline (a beautiful, beautiful shot - and this is Ousmane pre-color). A prayer has just ended, and the cart driver of the film's title gets off his prayer mat, puts on his many jujus and hat, and leaves (his wife coming up first to wish him God's fortune, and give him another juju to wear)1 , leading his horse out onto the dirt road.

He goes off to a busy day at work, transporting an old woman and a pregnant one, an "idiot" who "goes into town every day looking for a job that is never there", mostly not being paid enough for his troubles (if paid at all). But he seems to have gotten used to it all - he speaks of the situation with a resigned air and no bitterness. The film itself is old (it was made in 1966) and while the lack of color subtracts from the full impact of the slums through which the cart driver move with his horse2 and cart, it also fills us with the same tiredness and ennui he must feel, the environment around him becoming part of the background of his thoughts, yet still there (even as the b&w environment comes to fade for us, not distracting but filled with a heavy presence).

Yet he still dreams, despite all this. After he has decided to forego lunch ("I will just eat these kola nuts") he meets a griot in the centre of town. With a crowd gathered about them the griot praises him, reminding him of his ancestors who "were Noble and Kings". The cart driver for a moment is caught up in this narrative, forgetting his hunger and his current station, forgetting the poverty all about him, breathlessly listening to the griot, a wide grin on his face. To keep the griot singing he must give him money - he ends up giving him all the money he has made that day. There is, here, some biting social commentary on how people, even when extremely poor, will spend beyond their means for ostentatious reasons - this is a much-discussed issue back home, but one which is also very prevalent. This cynical reading of the scene is only one interpretation however - what struck me was the commentary it also makes on dreams and the artists who create them (in this case the griot), and this second reading casts Ousmane as anything but cynical. Here we find a man who is so poor he cannot afford to buy food for lunch, yet he will pay money to be given access, if only for a brief time, to the dream world created by the artist. He thinks "look at me now, and what I am - yet how great my ancestors were", and this buoys him up. The griot sings a simple song, keeping to a basic rhythm, sometimes ascending into a high register, then descending into a low one. Much has been written and said about the low literacy rates in West Africa, and the lack of "a reading culture". Yet if books are taken to be a way of conjuring up a dreamspace for readers, there are also other media3 , including the griot oral traditions (which go back a long way) and which are perhaps even more effective.

After the griot scene a man approaches the cart driver with what looks like a dead baby wrapped in a bundle of white cloth, and asks to be taken to the cemetary (one wonders where the baby's mother is, and all the mourners - what is the story of this father who buries his baby alone and without any visible displays of grief?). The cart driver takes him without question. When they arrive at the cemetary they are not allowed inside - the father does not have the correct papers.4 He stands outside with his dead baby (which he placed on the ground when looking for his papers). The cart driver is torn - should he wait? But is it not really his problem now, is it? Should he leave? He is missing valuable custom, and has no money left since he met the griot. Then a man approaches him, and asks to be taken to the "Plateau", the rich part of the City, where cart drivers are not allowed. "I will pay much", the man says, offering a wad of cash. He eyes the cash, and finally agrees to take him, all the while calling on his saints and his God to watch over him.

Everything goes downhill after this - he meets a policeman (who treats him very badly), he loses his cart, the man runs off with his money (driving away in a new car). He walks home cursing his bad fortune, and yet still not able to stop himself from feeling amazement at the high rises in this part of town, the cleanliness, the beautiful paved streets he will never live on. "They are all criminals", he thinks bitterly, "they can read and all they use their reading for is to steal".

The film ends with the cart driver going home, penniless and with nothing to give to his wife. And here we see Ousmane's fascination with women as the silent backbones of West African societies which he is to explore in future films. When the cart driver sits down despondent and utterly defeated, it is his wife who comes to him. "Here, take the baby", she says, "hold it while I go out - for we shall eat today". And she leaves him sitting there wondering how she will pull this off, and the movie cuts to a black screen.

  1. "God be with you", she tells him, "Remember we have nothing ill to speak of".
  2. which, incidentally, is the only living thing in the whole film refered to by name (the rather grand "Al Burah").
  3. One reason Sembene reportedly chose film at the beginning of his career was because he believed it could reach a much wider audience in his homeland.
  4. the sometimes-ridiculous beaureucratic systems that are left over from colonial days have always been a theme in Ousmane's work. See also: the identity paper problems faced by the protagonist in Mandaabi.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Caine Prize Nominees 2009

The nominees for the Caine Prize for African Writing [the biggest African short story prize] are up at Slowly making my way through them - have really liked the ones from past years, including the very beautiful, very haunting "Weight of Whispers" by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

African Hip Hop

A series of podcasts [you can also stream them online] of interviews and shows featuring african artists [including Mam Balla from The Gambia].

[via africanhiphop]

Restored World Films

There are a couple of restored films up at the World Cinema Foundation website, including "Touki Bouki" from Senegal. From the synopsis:

The story of Touki Bouki goes back centuries: men have always set out for new lands where they believe time never stops… Only few adventurers seem to make it, but that has never stopped anyone…

Djibril left his country with the dream of finding success and solace in Europe. He soon discovered, however, the cruelty of life. While his dream fell apart little by little Djibril found he was unable to leave “Europe”, his host country. That was when returning to Africa became the real dream for him. Ending his days in Africa was a dream he would never fulfill.

Sounds interesting.

[via africanhiphop]

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Paradise FM [Gambian Online Radio]

Paradise FM [owned by former GRTS-ite Harona Drammeh] now have online streaming - you can listen by going to

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Wolof word of the day: xapati

xapati, v., to bite into something. Abdou xapati na pomme bi. Abdou bit into the apple.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Watch .Senegalese TV Online

I can't tell you how much brighter this makes my day (and the rest of my time in this cold, cold country): you can watch Senegalese TV [RTS, RTS2, WalfTV, etc.] online at these sites:

[Thanks to my friend Amy Sy on facebook, who also put me on to the Wolof Leeb site].

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tell Tales: The Global Village

[shameless self-promotion]:

I have a short story out in the new Tell Tales, which you can get here.

[end of shameless self-promotion]

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Notes on Ebeh

Every once in a while, my (mostly Gambian) friends over here get together and cook Ebeh. It is usually on a weekend, with no school and no work: the whole day becomes centred around the Ebeh: waking up late, lounging around until the afternoon, going to the International store to get ingredients, arranging rides to where it's going to be cooked. And then the lazing and becoming increasingly hungry as you smell it coming from the kitchen, at various stages of being ready.

Nyaambi (Cassava) is one of the most important ingredients. Ebeh is mostly liquids with small bits of solid (kobo, nyama-nyama[1] things) floating in it - of these bits of solid the most important is the nyaambi. Without it the Ebeh would float too dangerously close to being entirely liquid - the nyaambi anchors it as it were in solid reality.

This image is a bowl of nyaambi peeled and ready to be boiled. The nyaambi is boiled first, laying the foundation, and then the other parts of the ebeh are gradually added.

To understand the consistency of Ebeh, think of a line of foods, arranged by solidity. Soups and other watery dishes would be at one end, foods with almost no water in them at the other. Ebeh would lie somewhere in the middle but - and here is the important distinction, and one that I think is the main one that forms the difference between how a Gambian thinks of Ebeh versus how a non-Gambian does - for someone Gambian Ebeh lies closer to the solid foods: it can be used standalone as a meal, complete in itself without the need for a second course. Whilst to a non-Gambian Ebeh appears to be only a thick soup. It is a fine distinction, but one which subtly changes the Ebeh eating experience.

I have never seen Ebeh cooked with meat - even imagining it threatens to make me nauseous. Instead an assortment of seafoods are used - from the venerable kobo (bonga fish; which, alas, we could not get here) chopped into tiny pieces, to paanye (a specie of clam), to shrimps. Oysters, despite their similarity to clams, are not used - these extra bits apparently have to be small, to stick with the general philosophy of the Ebeh. Nothing can be bigger than the nyaambi. Unless, of course, you lay your hands on some crabs.

No one who I have asked knows exactly where Ebeh came from, though most opinion seems to be that it originated in Sierra Leone, before it came down to us. I imagine a Sierra Leonian living in Gambia inviting their Gambian friend over for a meal. The plates are set out, the pot brought from the stove and set on the table. In it a bubbling yellowish fluid, with bits of lumpy solid sticking out. "What is that?", I imagine the Gambian asking with a curious face. "Oh - na Ebeh" (assuming this is what they call it in Sierra Leone). With some trepidation the Gambian dishes some out - "only a little - my stomach is not good today - not that hungry even" - and tries it. Three bowlfuls later, she is gleefully taking down the recipe, and can't wait to cook it at home. The Ebeh sensation begins, and within a month everyone is having Ebeh at parties, cooking it on weekends, using it for picnics on the beach...

Where the International Store we went to lacked in kobo they more than made up for in crabs. They had a whole bucket full of them, live and feebly kicking at each other's shells. Here they are in the sink being washed. They are cooked whole in the Ebeh. When one is eating one leaves them last, for the end, when one has finished consuming everything else in the bowl. Then one picks them up and starts on them. Ebeh crab eaters can be divided into two caegories. The first will attempt to stick to what they imagine is their dignity, picking the crab up in a spoon and sucking on its appendages, taking cracking bites into them. But it is impossible to completely enjoy a crab out of a spoon, which is what the second category of people has realized: when they reach the end of their Ebeh they put the spoon down to one side and slide up their shirt cuffs[2]. Then, with a manner that seems to say to anyone looking that dignity does not lie in the eating of a crab (and even if it did, this crab is worth losing it for) they begin to strip the crab layer by layer of all its shells and juices. By the time the very best are done all that is left is a chewed-up mass lying in a pool of palm oil on the bottom of the bowl.

Sometime during my childhood - I don't remember exactly when - Ebeh became the food of choice for parties. It has all the good qualities of a party food: cheap, easy to make, plentiful when it is done so it can feed many people. Also homogenous: apart from the extras (such as the dahaar sauce) everything goes in one pot - the more pots you have for a food the more the chances increase that you will run out of the contents of one pot before the other when serving, for example. And most important: everyone loves it.

Dahaar (Tamarind) is an optional extra, but a necessary one for any true connoisseur. It is mixed with lemon or lime juice, and served in a side dish. It can be added to the Ebeh as you eat - after you have chewed on the nyaambi and swallowed all the liquid the dahaar seeds are left in your mouth. They have imparted some of their sourness to the Ebeh all this time, giving you a hint of what is to come - now you suck on them to get the full flavor (even the thought of it makes my mouth begin to water as I type this).

After we finish eating we sprawl - some on the ground, some on the sofa. There are foods we eat to stave off our hunger: once we are satisfied we stop. Then there are others which we continue eating and eating (and eating) until we feel we are about to burst - we stop only because we begin to feel vaguely uncomfortable as our stomachs complain at the added baggage. Ebeh, like Mbahal (the "bu tilim" type, with diwtirr on top), are like this. Cooking the Ebeh, with the sounds from the kitchen and the smells wafting through to the living room, we were back in Gambia, someone's house hanging out. Now after it is done we are independent of country or culture - we are a couple of college kids happy in each others' company, just lying there and saying anything, while slowly inside us it digests, our bodies thanking us again and again for the food.

[1] nyama-nyama, one of those beautiful Wolof words whose sound contains its meaning, is used to mean "small-small". So nyama-nyama things is all the little bits and pieces floating around in the Ebeh after it's done.

[2] Ogasu is the Wolof word for this. See note [1] above.