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