Friday, January 23, 2009

The Internet just got a million times kewler - check out leebone, a Senegalese site containing audio of stories narrated (mostly) in Wolof - 451 of them at last count. Beautiful, beautiful stuff - this is why the web was invented.

[Thanks to my friend Amy on facebook]

Adventures of Samba in America #4

For the first time in his life the weather has taken on character. It is like a person with moods - and what moods. He knew a girl once, whose behavior was unpredictable and often cold. One moment she would be smiling and talking happily - then of a sudden she would withdraw behind a cloud of gloom, frigid and impenetrable. They had gone to school together and she had had no friends, gaining a reputation on the playground as being too much like a toubab, too withdrawn into herself. Under the unrelenting heat of the Sun at midday she had seemed a strange thing, a pillar of ice un-melting, self-contained and refusing to join the great deluge of melted waters about her. Now he feels like the opposite of her, transplanted from the great communal warmth and heat which now seems unbelievably comfortable to this place where the weather is a person and goes into wild moods of hostile silence. The cold gets past his every attempt to hold it back, seeming at times to have found a secret way into his body so it seems its source is internal and emanates from within him, from his very bones. To the point where the thought of a warm room fills him with craving. At night when he has trouble sleeping he draws the blankets tighter around him, and feeling the warmth all about him beginning at his toes is comforted and grateful. Thankful for small mercies. Back home after a while the heat had receded into the landscape, barely noticed except when it was brought up to save a dying conversation. Here when he is outside the cold stands out sharp and at the center of his attention, making everything else become blurry and unimportant. It makes him sad and miserable, the useless sun in the sky seeming but a poorly-wrought imitation of the one at home, producing a weak light and no heat, failing to blind the eyes of irreverent gazers who would look directly upon it. How unlike the Sun back home, King of all it looked down upon, merciless Tyrant around whom days were formed.

He had called his mother, in the first week. One day after work, coming back from the Senegalese man's shop, his place of employ. Past one-dollar stores and stores with Touba in their name, joining then leaving crowds of people spontaneously formed, waiting at roadsides for a light to change and give them leave to cross. Then dispersing as the great host of cars (here he saw more cars than he had ever seen in his life in one place) coming to a stop, powerful things of metal seeming to be barely controlled by the fragile men and women who sat within them. His eyes meeting theirs as he crossed as quickly as possible, still not trusting that the line which held them back would not break and have them roll with a great crunching onto the mass of people walking across the road. At home he had retrieved the phone card where he had left it in a jeans pocket, and dialed the number. The first time it had not gone through, before he read the back of the card and saw that the dialing codes changed here. You entered different digits, before you entered the country code. Then her number. Mobile phones had been introduced about five years earlier, and by the end of the year everyone had one, carrying them around clutched in their sweaty palms like life support systems. He had never called his mother, though he had memorized her number. He had never had occasion to, the distance between them never expanded enough to warrant the service of telephone lines and network antennas.

When she picked up her voice sounded distant, and as if originating from a hollow place in the Earth.

"Hello... hello... hello"



The trick was to speak then let the other person speak, to resolve the delay created by the distance. He had been told that the voices which travelled across continents over phone lines had at one point to go under the Sea, in giant cables each bigger than a Man which lay on the Sea floor. He had imagined them as he imagined all machines, tools of metalic architecture, man-made and lacking in emotion and warmth - in fact the very opposite of these things. Deep beneath the Sea, with curious fishes swimming by them. It is this image that had come to him as he listened to her speak then, trying to figure out who the call was from. Except as he imagined her voice traversing the undersea cables they became of a sudden imbued with life, cold steel springing into action. The surprised fishes. Life lines linking continents, the only connection between this cold country in which he felt so lost and the warmer lands of his origin, where he had belonged so well he had never noticed the fact of his belonging, coming to take it for granted, coming to cheapen and think it of no value, when he thought of it at all...

"Who is it? Samba?"

He thought he could detect a rise in the inflection of her voice as she spoke his name.

"Yes - Ya it is I" he tried to say past a suddenly-blocked throat he had to clear before he could speak.

"Samba!", she exclaimed and even in spite of the imperfect job of transference carried out by the deep sea cables he heard the happiness in her voice, and his heart leapt. The skin of his face suddenly become heavier, his brows bunching together, his eyes narrowing - what was this liquid that filled them? This drasted cold, that made eyes watery...

She was calling out behind her to his sister, to come to the phone.

"Hurry! Maybe his card will finish - it is Samba!", then back to him again: "Samba! How are you doing? You are there? You have arrived?"

A torrent of questions. He said nothing about the things that had run through his mind, of the trials he had lived through - what makes a Man but his lack of complaint? What other way can he earn title as head of a family without a father. And so he replied that all was well, to all her questions, and told his sister that he was doing OK, that he had started work.

"And prayer - do you pray?", his mother asked, taking the telephone back (he could hear his sister complain in the background, and their bickering made him smile past the wetness in his eyes). He lied without hesitating.

"Good", she said, "it is the only thing that will save you" - and once more she commended him to God. "You have been my good and only son", she had said, when the one-minute warning on the card came on and he informed her, "God will not abandon us". And as his sister took the phone to say goodbye there was a click.

This had been the first phone call. He had called many more times after that, trying to at least once every two weeks, but none had ever been like that one, the opener. Back home his mother and sister had formed a female circle from which he was excluded. A domestic companionship he could not even begin to understand the rules of. Doing the household tasks together everyday, surrounded by a layer of conversation they had built and refined over the years, so it covered them lightly but did not hinder their movement through the house's backyard. A comfortable blanket which protected them from boredom and brought them together under its folds. A blanket invisible to men. And so they had always seemed to him to form one unit, as if their family after his father had died was of two: himself, and his mother-sister unit. Since his arrival this unit had become even more mysterious, even more obscure. The telephone such an imperfect device, providing the means of conversation yet at the same time accentuating the conversations' defects, in ways eyes and faces had been hiding for centuries. The long silences filled with Ocean noise. The conversation become a series of questions and answers, not even having the comfort of being linked by a narrative. Back home the fact of his living with them had been enough, so they could go days without a proper conversation. Now here he saw for the first time clearly how disattached they had become from him, how almost nothing existed between them save for the fact of their being related, and even this barely sufficient. It made him dread calling (though he would not admit this even to himself, pretending tiredness or using the different timezones as an excuse to put it off). It made him sad.