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]


  1. Really this was a spectacular piece of writing. To take something that would appear so common place as eating out of a bowl; and break it down into a complex science with deep insights into the Gambian culture, it's way of life, it's people, and the stories of who they were and what their lives meant. I can't say enough about this one, it is really such a thought-provoking and inspiring article.