Wednesday, December 22, 2010


4. Attached to her mother, she follows the woman everywhere. She understands two rules: being with her is good, being away from her is not. These are the only rules she needs to know.

16. Her first boyfriend, high school classmate. He is on the football team. They walk together, after class, and he tells her about what team they will be playing next, what their chances are. She comes to school one morning and there is something wrong. She notices as soon as she enters the school gates. Everyone is standing outside, in little gatherings, murmuring to each other. She is told: the captain of the football team has died. The eyes of the boy she dates are red, and he turns away from her. She feels she ought to cry, as some of the other girls are doing, but the truth is she did not know the boy, feels nothing at his passing. And so she goes with the rest of the school to the funeral, and maintains the necessary decorum. But her thoughts are elsewhere, as they all sit outside listening to the wails of the boy's mother. She thinks of death, of what form it takes. In the final moments filled with knowing, what is it like - imagining it fills her with a delicious thrill, the thrill of one who still feel themselves far from a future danger, safe behind many layers of time. She thinks, where will I be when it happens. She thinks, will I know, at the last moment.

18. Her aunty dies. She is woken from sleep by her mother, who is in tears. They dress quickly and go to the morgue to see the body. She thinks of her aunty's journey, from the main hospital, to haar yaala, to dead house. Her face deteriorating at each stage, her body become weaker and unable to support her any longer, so she had to be carried. In the end she recognized no one, would start screaming about witches if anyone touched her. It is the closest she has ever come to death, and it shocks her, seeing where her aunty lies dressed in white, her face pasty, the line of viewers walking past in a muffled sorrow. And her mother shouts her aunty's name over and over, and cries out to God, and has to be led away by one of the men. She does not cry. She stands outside the morgue and thinks of her own death, and what it will be like. She runs through the many possibilities in her head. Death by drowning, water-filled lungs. Death by falling, from a great height, the body shattering on impact, the head exploding as it meets hard concrete. Death by fire, a terrible burning, the stench of one's own flesh accompanied by a pain she cannot even begin to imagine. Death by gun, a shot in the back of the head as she stands facing a wall. Death by sleep, a dream in which she falls from an airplane, but this time does not wake up from before she lands. And all the women are told to leave the morgue, to go back to the house while the men carry the body to the mosque, to perform the last rites on it. And as she sits in the back of the car with her weeping mother she thinks not me, not yet.

24. Marriage. A nice man she meets at college, one who makes her laugh and feel good about herself. When she is with him she feels complete - this is what she says to all her friends. The ceremony is a small affair - she has never been one for lavishness. A few relatives, her proud parents. As he holds her and they dance at the reception she catches a glimpse of her father where he sits, hunched over his walking stick, his breathing laborious, even as he puts on a brave smile. And she thinks he cannot have much left. And she feels a sudden sadness, and her husband must feel it, too, because he draws her closer in the dance, as the griots walk about them speaking of the deeds of their grandparents, picking up dalasi notes from the floor.

27. Divorce. She cannot produce babies - they have tried everything imaginable. Visits to serigns and doctors, the advice of friends and family. The mothers on both sides are exasperated, each blaming the other's child, a continuous battle which tires her. And she finds out, too, that he is not what she truly wanted, the doubts that entered her mind after the first week of marriage have hardened and become the driving thoughts of her days with him. She finds fault in everything he does. And he in his turn is irritable and given to bouts of moodiness. They will go whole nights without speaking, lying there in the dark, each waiting for the intake of breath that will mean the other is about to apologize, and that never comes. Their fights grow more bitter by the day. One day in a fit of rage he tells her that perhaps if she had not lost her virginity before they married none of this would have happened. He apologizes immediately - all the air is deflated out of her and she has to sit down. And after that he is extra polite, but both of them know this is it. They have crossed a line drawn long ago, even as they promised each other there would be no lines. They no longer love each other, they carry on a pretense only for old times' sake, and for the sake of their parents. Her father dies, and briefly they are brought back together, under an umbrella of grief. But it does not last, the flame that existed has dwindled to a mere flicker, and then is finally put out altogether. One day he returns home from work to find her sitting in the living room, eyes red, a tissue in her hand. We need to talk, she says.

42. In her apartment. The world has changed, it seems, while she has stood stagnant in it. She lies half-awake - perhaps she is only dreaming this. But death is with her, its presence fills the room, makes the air frigid so her thick blanket provides no protection. Death is here with her, and it is everywhere - she can no more escape from it than she can escape from herself, from her body and pestering thoughts. She is filled with fear, that constricts her throat and makes her gasp. She is in bed alone - over the years a succession of men have entered it and left, each leaving no great or lasting impression. She wishes now for a person, for someone, anyone - she cannot face this alone. She runs into the bathroom - it is there, waiting. She goes to the living room, turns on the TV volume - damn the neighbors - it is there too. And she lies on the sofa and curls herself up and tears stream from her eyes. She recites a vaguely remembered prayer again and again. And at last the presence leaves - a subtle shift in the temperature of the room, a dulling of her fear. But she has been in its presence, been marked by it. She knows it is only a matter of time.

47. The day of her graduation. She has gone back to school, to get a new degree. She wishes to make something of her life, has stopped smoking, and drinking. Her mother is there, shuffling on arthritic legs, a smile on her weatherworn face. She begins a new job at one of the local NGOs. This is how she spends her days, staying at work until late, even on weekends. She has no other life, no interest in men, despite the gentle prodding of her mother. And death follows her still, the more she runs from it the closer she can feel its hot breath on her back. Sometimes at night she lies awake crying, though she suffers from no disease, and her life is as comfortable as it has ever been. She cannot talk about it with anyone - she knows the answers they will give her, about gratitude, about God. She lies awake and wishes it would happen now, be over and done with. A dullness fills her heart, the world is flattened into a place without hope or emotion. And it gets worse. In the mornings she cannot get out of bed except with a massive effort. And death is there, and some nights she rails against it, and some nights she pleads with it, but death is silent, death knows what it knows, and is patient. And in desperation she begins to think, I have only one thing left, and that is my choice. And the thought enters her mind and will not leave it, and she can feel death stir, where it waits in the wings of her life. She thinks I can choose the place and the time, she is filled with defiance.

49. Her mother is the only one who cries for her. Everyone else speaks only about how a person without faith could have done such a thing. No last rites are performed, no Imam presides over her.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Gambian English

(A Post using words of not more than three syllables)

Recently there was a very lively discussion on a friend's wall. The said friend posted that he hated African journalists and assorted writing types who used big words in an attempt to sound smart. Someone saw this status update and posted a very bitter reply saying, in effect, that he was disgusted with this friend of mine for saying this and, not stopping there, also calling him a bunch of very personal names and attacking his facebook presence, the kind of music he listened to, etc.

I am not going to post the link to that discussion here - you can find it if you look for it. The person in question got what was coming to him (though sadly instead of learning a lesson he resorted to self-pity and playing the part of the victim), and he is too easy a target: arrogant, sure of himself, one of those people who believe they are martyrs (a word he himself chose to describe himself) and working for a great cause, when in fact they are just jerks. But I think it is important to talk about the larger issue at hand here.

English is not our language. It never was, it never will be. Anyone who fools themselves into believing that it is, is - well, a fool. However it is the closest thing we have to a world language, and so we must use it in order to be a part of the world: to do business with and talk to people from other countries, to read, to write. But to be honest I would be much prouder to be a master of Wolof, or Sosseh, or Bambara, than to be a person who speaks perfect English. But learning only these languages and not English - though a noble cause - is not practical in the world we live in, and won't take you very far.

The Gambian student faces two obstacles. First he must learn the English language. And then, using it, he learns what is contained in his school books. Learning the English language itself is hard, and is made even harder by the quality of teaching in our schools. And so many people stumble at the first obstacle, and because they do, because it is so hard, they assume that anyone who got past it must be very smart. Or, in other words: "Nim clever yeh - su laakeh English rek nga contaan".

In one of my classes in high school the teacher told us how there were people in England who could not read, and were uneducated. Nonsense, the boys said, laughing and jeering at him, everyone in England can speak English, how can they not read. This is a common error: because we must first learn English before we can learn almost anything else, we come to confuse the language with actual knowledge.

And this leads to some pervasive and harmful problems. First we assume, almost on an unconscious level, that a toubab will always be better at a task than his fellow Gambian. I cannot count the number of times, working in the IT field, when we lost a contract because the client preferred to fly in toubabs from England, put them up in an expensive hotel, and pay them way more than we charged, not because they were better at the task, but simply because of the aura we attach to the toubab and his ways. Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying Gambians should be given a free pass just because they are Gambian. What I'm saying is that the toubab should not be given a free pass either, simply by virtue of the language he speaks, and the color of his skin.

And second, we build class systems: people who can speak English (even better if they can fake an accent) at a higher level, people who cannot beneath them. And the funny thing is we are willing to excuse imperfect English when it is spoken by French people, or Russians, or any of the other tribes of Europe. But our fellow countryman, no matter how smart he/she is, we will subject to all kinds of ridicule because he gets his verb tenses wrong, or cannot pronounce "sh" and says "fiss" instead of "fish", or "chee" instead of "key". We have come to idolize the medium, and ignore the message. We worship the form, and take no notice of the content.

"Toubab jinay lenye" we say in Wolof. To me this is the worst legacy the toubab left us: not the enslavement of our bodies - which we fought off with great fanfare and little result - but the enslavement of our minds, the magical veil they put over our eyes so we cannot see them clearly but only with a mystique attached to them, that makes them seem capable of anything, and we ourselves capable of nothing. Perhaps this could be excused, in the generation before us: our grandmother and grandfathers who did not travel, and did not understand the toubab's machines and his ways. But what excuse is there for us, who are taught in school the same math, and physics, and chemistry, who go on the Internet and see what the toubab sees, who go to college abroad and see the toubab in all his lazy/clever/stupid/informed/well-dressed/smelly/HUMAN glory.

Our initial enslavement was a thing of sweat and blood. It took many actions by many brave men and women to rid us of it. It is widely believed that the reason the struggles for liberty began was that Africans fought alongside toubabs in the world wars. For the first time the Africans saw there was nothing mystical about the toubab: he bled and cried for his mother and fell down dead when caught in the path of a bullet just like them. So when they got back home and the toubab still attempted to continue the master-slave system they decided, enough of this, they are not gods after all, capable of anything. They are mere people, like us. How ironic then that, only a few decades later, we now judge each other, not on our merits, but rather on how good we are at speaking the language of the toubab, and have gone right back to placing the toubab on a pedestal, down below which we look up at him.

In high school during one exam I slacked off and did not study. The questions were about Shakespeare plays - I had not read the books, and knew none of the answers. So I faked it: using as many big words as I could I wrote long essay answers that had no meaning, but that sounded like they had been written by a very smart person. I did not think I could get away with it - when the results came out I was top of the class with a perfect score, while almost the whole class failed woefully. The principal suspected something - she asked the teacher for my paper, re-marked it and I got a much lower score, closer to what my classmates had.

What we have now in the Gambia is many Amran Gayes, who attempt to fool us in the same way, using words we do not understand, their arguments lacking substance. And what we lack is principals who will call bullshit (to use a polite term) - we praise the Amran Gayes and look up to them, much to our detriment and the detriment of our country.

So next time you hear a Gambian speak, even if their English is terrible, judge them based on what they are saying. And next time you read a Gambian writer and don't understand anything he writes, don't just assume that you are dumb and he/she is clever. Read it again - you'd be surprised how much of a lot of this kind of writing is just a big ball of hot air.

And if all else fails: use dictionary dot com. ;)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Choosing of the Paths

Path 1

She speaks in hushed tones, she is a beauty to behold.

When she feels pleasure - perhaps physical, perhaps of a mental kind - her face relaxes, it glows, from the top, downward, a waxing that spreads and engulfs every sorrow in its path, and turns it gold, and makes it glow.

And that at last reaches her mouth.

Oh and that smile. How it fills you, with sighs.

How it makes you whole and complete, when you behold it, how in that moment you are of a complete surrender.

It is only women who love like this, everyone will assume. For no, men's love is gruff, it cannot consist of such images of pure thought.

And how wrong they are, and how you are proof of it.

A beauty to behold, and you cannot survive her, and you do not know how you survived, before her.

She soothes your soul.

Your time is of two kinds: that spent being with her, and that spent waiting for her to call.

And you have never felt this way before, for anyone, not even for yourself.

You speak to her on the phone.

Nights that are the cure to your days, filled with worry, filled with toil, tired to the bone.

How was your day today, she asks, and you cannot see her and only hear her voice.

But from her voice alone you can reconstruct her, magical particle by magical particle, choice by choice.

That whiteness of teeth, that darkness of gum.

That skin that shines with a dark fire that burns through your body, and thrums at your heart strings.

That shapely body, those graceful hands and feet.

And then you wake up one morning and she is not there anymore, she is gone.

Just like that, with no explanation, so you can scarcely believe it at first, anxiously await her call, will not put your phone down for a moment.

Filled with an anxiety and a dread that will not let you sit, or stand, or stay in one place, or move about.

And now, dear reader, we come to a parting of the ways, a deciding.

If you wish to find out why, if she is worth it to you and you wish to find out where she has gone, and go to retrieve her, at whatever peril, go to Path 2.

If you wish to assume the worst, to seize yourself about you now rather than later, and shrug it off and move on, go to Path 3.

Path 2

She spoke, once, in hushed tones, she was a beauty to behold.

When she felt pleasure - perhaps physical, perhaps of a mental kind - her face would relax, it would glow

and then it will disappear, for it is only a memory, and memories do not suffice.

You think, the Jinays have taken her, the jealous bastards. You visit Serigns, you give out sacrifices.

You believe fervently in things you once laughed at.

And every day you grow more bereft of hope.

And then you think, perhaps not, perhaps not the Jinays then.

Another man, you think. Another man has stolen in, in the dead of night, while I thought she slept, and crept away again with her.

And so you go about the land, looking for this other man, your eyes shaded under your outstretched palm. And as you go about and speak slyly to people, and attempt to hear rumor of him, or of his whereabout, or of his ways.

And you see nothing, and you hear nothing.

Then you remember how full of faith she was, in you, You remember her eyes, and how they looked at you.

You remember her smile, and how it forgave you.

You remember the way she would turn away, when you set an intense gaze on her and said something nice. Stooop. As if she could not bear it, how much she loved you.

And you think no, it is not another man, could not possibly be.

And you think, but no, and you think, but no, and you think, she cannot be.


The most dreadful of words, and of thoughts.

The end of words, and of thoughts.

And your heart is wrenched from your breast, it is flung out into space, and you are filled with a hollowness that will not let breath past it, that constricts your chest and sinks you to the floor, your eyes closed, gasping.

You tear your hair out, with such force it tears out too your sanity, strands of white that trail from your brain, you are left crazy, reality a gold too richly hued, the Sun too bright, people about you all behaving in strange ways, ways that seem to follow rules, and laws, and a predictable order.

And in the moment of your deepest despair you turn back, you leave yourself there and return, an empty husk.

And, dear reader, you attempt to start again.

Proceed on to Path 3.

Path 3

She speaks in a hushed tone, she is a beauty to behold.

When she feels pleasure - perhaps physical, perhaps of a mental kind - her face relaxes, it glows, from the top, downward, a waxing that spreads and engulfs every sorrow in its path, and turns it gold, and makes it glow.

And that at last reaches her mouth.

Oh and that smile. How it fills you, with sighs.

The same, then. A woman is a woman is a woman, and every woman contains an angel within them, and if it is loved and cared for and teh-teh-ed it will open itself, to be seen and held, to be beholden.

And yet.

There are beauties and there are beauties, there are hushed tones and hushed tones.

Her voice is short by just a whisper's height, deficient by just a sigh's width.

She is in love with you, deeply. You can feel it, can feel your power over her. What you give, and how she receives it, with such fervent want, such gratifying need.

And yet.

When you lie with her at night it is not she in your arms, in the moment before you drift off into sleep.

The woman whose weight you feel then is a more perfect fit in your arms than she ever could be.

A whiteness of teeth, a darkness of gum.

And it is this lack you carry, through your life, until at last you are old, that exhibits itself as a certain holding back, in your manner of expression, that in the end drives women crazy and makes them leave you, until others of them seek you out.

And it is this lack you die with, wishing even at the last that you could be with her.


Monday, November 29, 2010

Deconstruction of a Gambian Marriage [FICTION]

The Nouns

Meeting. Infatuation. Surrender. Retreat. Advance. Ending. Beginning. Ending. Beginning. Progress. Regress.


Honey. Baby. Boyfriend. Introductions. Best friend. Cousin. Darling. Sugar. Neh-nehhhh.

Fights. Make-ups. Dinners. Break-ups. Silences. Words. Patchings-up.




Kola Nuts. Uncles. Mosque. Hew. Griots. Histories. Lavishness. Gifts. Friends. Smiles. Pride. Mothers. Fathers. Joy.

Vans. Buckets. Taasu. Paans. Lockets. Tama-kats. Guewels. Woyaan-kats. Imams.

Work friends. School friends. Old friends. New friends. Felicitations.


Old Women.

White Sheets.


Ceiling Fan.




Inside. Outside. Blood.



Announcement. Celebration. Drums. Singing.


Morning. Stiffness. Limping. Phone conversations.

Nijaaye. Baby. Babes. Love. Chapali Bon Bon. Honey. Big daddy. Mandingo Warrior.

Kitchen. Domoda. Super. Benachin. Meatballs. Dinner Table. Conversation. Bills. Visits. In-laws. Njaykays.

Period. No period. Vomiting. Roundness. Day-sleep. Insomnia. Mood swings.

Pregnancy kit. Confirmation. Joy. Announcement. Phone calls. Congratulations.


Big belly. Kicks. His Names. Her Names. Discussion. Argument. Resolution.


Car ride. Hospital. Midwives. Hospital Bed. Pain. Strength. Pain. Firmness. Pain. Pain. Pain.


Liquids. Solids. Semi-liquid solids.

Incubator. Tears. Assurance.


Prayer. God. Trust. Serign Sallah. Alms. Sowe. Mbuuru. Maalor.



Fever. Trembling. Weight Loss.



Blamings. Shoutings. Fights. Crashings.

Silences. Bed walls. Kitchen walls. Dining Table walls. Wall walls. Word walls. Walls of silence. Walls of stone.


Absence. Ache. Numbness.


The Verbs

Meet. Speak. Discover. To be demur. To be forward. Part. Leave.

Re-meet. Speak. Call. Speak. Text. To brush against. Reply. Flirt. Advance. Retreat.


Hesitate. Convince. To be scared. To be assured.

Withdraw. Advance. Withdraw.


Imagine. Wonder. Call. Fight. Make up. Fight.

Imagine. Remember. Daydream. Night-dream. Fight. Make up. Fight.

Talk. Worship. Fight. Hate.

Make up. Worship. Irritate.



Possess. To be possessed by.

Miss. Call.

To feel bad. Call. To feel better.

Dine. Propose. Cry. Agree. Announce. Call. Buy. Visit. Plan. Buy. Hire. Arrange.

Pack. Cry. Depart.




To cry out. Inspect. To be satisfied. To announce. To celebrate.

To feel stiff. To walk slowly.

Make breakfast. Talk. Make lunch. Talk. Make dinner. Talk. Hold. To be held. Snuggle. Canoodle.

To mess up bed. To change sheets. Remake bed. Repeat.

To miss period. Pee. Look. Read. Call. Surprise. Return. Hug. Cry.

Push! Push! Puuuuush! Scream!

To be happy.

To be worried.

To be sad.

To be numb.

Depart. Forget.


The Adjectives


Attractive. Well-spoken. Well-dressed. Sexy. Curvy. Smart.

Perfect. Flawed.

Crazy. Moody. Temperamental.

Vivid. Vicarious. Various.

Poetic. Burning. Intense.


Gentle. Tender.

Soft. Curvaceous.


Beautiful. Nice. Fragrant.

Masculine. Deep-voiced. Lispy.

Jet-black. White. Dark.

Happy. Sad. Happy. Irritating.

Needy. Needful.

Slow. Fast. Painful.

Peaceful. Delicious. Happy. Chatty. Fulfilled. Fulfilling.

Lush. Filling. Inspiring.


Agonizing. Sad. Devastating.


Friday, November 19, 2010


She is one of the most successful business women in Gambia. Her name is known far and wide, she is a patron of many celebrations.

Come with me to the Serign, her mother says, Chat baahut Ida. Come with me, that he can protect you from wagging jaws and wandering tongues.

But she does not listen. If she is not too busy traveling she is too busy meeting, with important men, for lunch.

One day something bad happens. A deal gone wrong, a trust betrayed. She is shocked, to the core. She loses some money. Nothing irrepairable, you understand - after the initial shock she gathers herself again, and past a slight hardening within her, she is herself once more.

If you had come with me to Serign Mbaakeh, her mother begins, but she snaps at her, and gets in her car, and leaves again for the office.

A plane is delayed, a flight is cancelled, and she catches the ferry to Barra the next day, for her reconnection through Dakar. A flight attendant recognizes her at the airport.

Ida Sosseh deye morm, the attendant says to her friends that night as they sit together, she has lost her money deh - she has to take the ferry now. The girls laugh, and high-five each other. And there the rumor is born.

And by the next day the rumor has grown, has assumed magnificent proportions. It travels through the country, covered with a web to which each teller adds their own sticky strand. And it is covered with filth, heavy with it.

That she had tried a business deal, with some mafia members. That she had lost much money, and disappointed them. That she fled, then, into Senegal, filled with shame. Did you see what she wore at the airport - did you see how plain it was? Did you see how she hurried, so no one would see her - as if Banjul dang fi muna nobu! Where is all her class now, is what I'd like to know? She will be arrested if she ever steps foot inside this country again.

All while she sits on a plane, looking out at a Sun that scatters its light across the fluffy surfaces of clouds, and thinks about her meeting in New York.

And now the rumor, fat, pregnant with itself, begins to enter into reality, it begins to assume a tangible form.

And those charged with listening to the mutterings of the people, in order to discern any dissent, come into contact with the rumor. And from the ruptured belly of the rumor they gathered hardened pus, which they call cold hard fact, and run sniggering to present to their superiors.

Ida Sosseh is in Brussels, awaiting her connecting flight. She flips lazily through a magazine. She thinks to call her mum. Then she thinks No, ah, let me wait until I get there, merr bi dafa Barry wah, I am tired...

And the facts (that are in fact only the hardened pus of the rumor) are polished until they glisten, and presented at last to the ones who make the decrees. And the ones who make the decrees think on them, and then present their decisions. Guards are posted at the airport, a holding cell is cleared, an interviewer is put on alert.

And they all wait, for Ida Sosseh.

And her mother hears, in the way mothers have of hearing, and her mother is gripped with terror, and sits by the telephone, waiting for Ida to call.

When Ida Sosseh finally checks into her hotel in New York she is so tired she thinks she will call her mother the next day. Probably asleep anyway, she thinks, as she drifts off to sleep herself, in a haze of jet fatigue, no point in waking the merr…

In the morning she wakes late and has to rush to her meeting. It runs late, and when she finally gets home she has to pack and rush to the airport for her flight home. She does not call her mother. She boards, and has her layover in Brussels. But the plane lands late, and it lasts a mere three minutes, the flight attendant politely hurrying her along.

When she lands at the airport back home she is accosted by a strange man, shorter than her, with a tight haircut. The man takes her arms and asks her to follow him. There is an arrogance in his tone, a hint of violence.

She thinks there must be a mistake. Yow Baaye ma! She pulls away. And when he will not let go of her arm she gets angry, she shouts at him. And then she is terrified - she shouts at the spectators for help, but they will not move, refuse to meet her eye. Then other men come, and she is a limp presence at their center, as they surround her, and walk her away.

I told you many times, Serign Mbaakeh tells Ida Sosseh's mother, to bring her here. Chatt baaxut!

Ndaham I told her... You know these children... You know what they are like nowadays... they believe nothing... nothing...

The old woman's shoulders are slumped, and she looks down at the ground.

She is not beyond saving, Serign Mbaakeh says, in a gentler tone, Now - you must do exactly as I tell you....

She does, of course. She carries out the Serign's instructions to great precision, she gives out each sarah twice. She does more than is asked of her, and she prays, and she fasts, every single day.

And a decree comes, from above, and one day, just like that, Ida Sosseh is freed.

Her mother is given notice, and she travels to the jail in a taxi, and waits for her outside. When she walks out under the Sun, when the glare has stopped burning her eyes, Ida Sosseh sees her mother, where she stands waiting, a kaala draped hurriedly over one shoulder. And Ida Sosseh bursts into tears.

Later, in the evening. They sit in their living room, the news on the television, that they both ignore. They look off into space, they do not look at each other. They have not spoken much all day, and when they speak they skirt around the topic of the imprisoning.

The Serigns can see things, her mother begins, that we cannot. And they can protect us against these things. That is all - whatever it is they take from us.

Ya, a Serign could not have prevented this! It is only these hypocrites and liars, and how they will speak against someone in the jealousy that eats at their rotten hearts. That will not mind their business!

She is filled with emotion as she speaks. Her mother sits with expression unchanged, staring deep into the arm of a chair.

You have always been stubborn, Ida. I had no one else, to set against you - this is why I spoilt you. The neighbors talk - the way you will not greet them when you pass. The smoking. One day you came home and said you did not want to go to daara anymore. There was something in your eyes - a fear, a holding back, I did not understand. So I let you stay home.

These things - chatt, gaymaynye, they are merely self-fulfilling prophecies. She uses the English phrase, and it sounds crude, in the midst of the Wolof. They succeed because people believe in them. The antidote to them is to have people shut their dirty lying mouths up. Not giving money to Serigns.

Her mother says nothing after this, and they sit watching the television in silence, where now there is a report of a public ceremony, screaming people and raised dust, red shirts and waving flags, until the night comes in and they each retire to their own bed.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Against a Gambian Monarchy: An Essay

Lately I have been hearing rumors that have left me feeling greatly disturbed, concerning the current system of government in Gambia, and a possible change to it. I religiously stay away from politics in my writing. But this is a big enough change that I feel I cannot in all good conscience hold my peace, as a writer, and as a Gambian.

There are problems, with the method of discourse we have chosen. It is polarizing - a fake distinction has been set up, for every issue: for and against, good and evil. Yet it occurs to me that we must first try to understand our problems, before we attempt to solve them. Insults are free - any idiot can utter them. They change nothing, engender nothing - they are the worst kind of masturbation. Despite all the resources and talent we have in the country, of all the chances at a discourse that will change the nation for the better and at the same time be respectful of each other and bent always toward a useful purpose, we choose Freedom newspaper as our flag bearer? There is something deeply wrong with our body politic, if truly this is the best representative we can find: a half-educated journalist who cannot separate fact from fiction, who delights in the gleeful exposure of the misfortunes of others, in their public embarrassments and humiliations, taking a word that contains hope, and a promise of a future liberty, and twisting it to his own perverted use.

Our so-called "Opposition" is an almost useless entity. They resort to hyperbole, the last refuge of the desperate, on and off the Internet. They bicker with each other, like little ganaar chicks over mere scatterings of rice seeds. They fight, over who amongst them will lead. And our "intellectuals" spend all their time trying to impress us, with how sharp their thought is, how they must be genuises far smarter than the common Gambian man, too caught up in their collective navel-gazing to see reality, or recognize it.

And yet all these groups expect to be taken seriously, they tell us that what we have is bad and they are our last and only hope.on and off the Internet. They tell us we should replace it, and when we ask with what they fumble and mumble and with a fake humility propose themselves.

This is why I do not write about politics, will not be drawn into that fray. Oh I love my country alright - everyone who knows me knows this: I love it with a deepness that follows me around everywhere I go and informs all my future plans, and is the source of all my writing. But our politics (and perhaps politics everywhere) seems of necessity to be a worship of the self, a setting oneself up as the best option at the expense of others. And this requires certain compromises with oneself, that I would rather not make. There are other people who think like this, youths like me, people who are assets to the nation, ready to sweat and toil for it with a pure motive, filled with talent and a generous cleverness.

I did not vote, in the last election, though I got the chance for the first time. Aha!, the overeager reader will yell, how can you then even talk about a democracy? Failing to vote meant you gave up your right to being involved in democratic discourse - if you don't vote you can't complain!

I disagree. Putting colored beads in a box once every five years does not constitute participation in the democracy and development of my country any more than going around chanting party slogans into a loudspeaker does. These are the rituals we have built up, serving nothing more than the egos of the people who ask for our votes, a temporary (and expensive) derailment every five years that does little more than create a tension in the air, an anomie in a previously peaceful people.

The online forums, of course, are going wild. All the "brave" men and women who sit behind their keyboards and trade fiery insults online, and speak with great passion about how The Gambia is being ruined, filled with a self-righteous outrage that infects the people who read their comments and spreads through their websites and mailing lists like wildfire. The language they speak is the worst kind of language: a language whose speaker is not ready to do anything himself, but wishes to rile up others, to drive them to commit violent deeds. It is the language of jahaseh, the language of the coward. It is an unworthy language, of our country and our culture, so full of respect and love for each other. And on the other side of the divide, too, we have the same set of problems: the name calling, the casting of aspersions on people's integrity, the use of force as an enforcer of silence, a remover of sounds that make us uncomfortable.

It makes me wonder what kind of country we the youth will inherit, when the time comes. What will be left to us, by these adults, who we look up to but who insist on debasing themselves, on placing themselves on the ground?

A failure of imagination on both sides, this has been one of our central problems. A failure of empathy. Some see the wish to stay on and interpret it as a love of power, a reluctance to let go of it, and the many luxuries it affords. Myself, I prefer a more romantic interpretation, a more forgiving one.

Put yourself, for a moment, in the position of President: you are working hard, night and day, to do what you believe the best for the country. Of all the people in the country you believe you are the only one who sees the big picture, the whole picture, and you see there are things that need to be done that go against popular opinion, that will risk raising the ire of the citizenry. But that in the end these things are the only hope, if the country is to be saved - you do sincerely believe this. And so you work at them, you risk unpopularity, you risk being not liked by anyone. You are insulted, you are called names and accused of all manner of things. Your family is subject to ridicule and public humiliation. Anyone who genuinely loves you and wishes to be friends with you is accused of sycophancy, of seeking only after his own selfish need - in this way society casts you apart, and all associated with you. Your loyalty to the nation - this nation that you have risked your life for - is called into question, again and again your attempts at goodwill are dismissed.

It must be the loneliest job, in the country.

Yet you put up with it, it is a sacrifice you willingly make, because you have a vision, and you wish to see it to its realization. And then, in the cruel and unfair way of democracy (as you see it), the very people you are trying to save, the ones you have given up so much for and who have hated you in return, these people are given the chance to choose or not to choose you, to renew your term or send you packing. A growing fear, that they will at the last betray you (for you see it as a betrayal, after everything you have done for them, and it hurts you deeply, and fills you with an indignant anger).

How could this not be a nuisance? Who would not attempt to remove themselves from such manner of judgement, if they possibly could? Did you see pictures of Obama, after the recent defeat at the polls? Did you see the look on his face, the weariness in his voice and manner? You think if he had had a chance to change that, to make it go away, he would not have?

But what would be easy for us is not always the right thing to do. In fact I have come to harbor a suspicion of facile-ness, a distrust of ready-made solutions.

If you are of the strong opinion that Gambia would be better served with a monarchy, well there is nothing wrong with that. You have every right to your opinions, after all. But you must also be willing to let myself and others disagree with you, without rancor, without casting us as enemies. We all love our little Gambia, in our different ways. We all want the best for it. And no one knows what this "best" consists of. But if we talk, if we join our thoughts, then we can all discover it together. This is the practical value of democracy: that it gives us all voices, that it says - we do not, cannot, bequeath the future of the nation into the hands of one man. Not because we hold anything against the man, but because a country - the land and its people - is not a trivial thing, to be left to the whims and caprices of one person, no matter how kind the person is, no matter how wise.

The state is not a glove, that fits neatly over our people. It is more like an undersized blanket, a saangu that is too small and needs to be stretched out, in order to cover the whole bed. There will always be people dissatisfied with it, discontent with the system. Democracy gives these people a voice, their vote gives them a choice, a means of catharsis. A way to express their opinions in a non-violent manner. A monarchy will take this away, trap us within a system that confines us and takes away the ultimate choice even the least of Gambians has a right to: who we wish to be ruled by. I do not even speak about now. Yes, perhaps we have the leader we need, perhaps you are right and if he were only to stay for the rest of his life we would become a great nation. And then, when he is gone? When the next leader comes, his replacement, and is not to our liking, is selfish and corrupt and misuses the resouces of the country and runs it like his own personal fiefdom? You think a system of government is like a change of clothes: a dagit in the morning, a kaba in the evening, a malaan and T-shirt at night?

Ruling over a land is not a gift, to be handed out. It is a terrible burden.

If we choose this route and later decide we have made a mistake, there will be only one way to undo the mistake, and it is a way that, save for a brief and frightening period of anarchy in '81, our country has never experienced. A way none of us wish, for we are, and have always been, a peaceful people. But peace is not preserved only by an aversion to guns, and a submission to faith - no, the decisions we make now may perhaps not infringe on our own peace, but they will, on the peace of the future.

We suffer, as a people, from a queer amnesia. We do not seem to remember the past, and when we do we think of it only as a collection of ancient relics, not in any way related to our present. Perhaps this is necessary, a philosophy of life well suited to the hand-to-mouth existence that most Gambians live. It is even, perhaps, useful - for we are a forgiving people, who hold no grudges, and the greater part of forgiving is willfully forgetting, letting bygones be gone, never to be mentioned again, in polite conversation or remembering.

Yet it is a damaging philosophy, sometimes. It was not the toubab, after all, who brought us democracy. Why would the shepherd promote representation, amongst the sheep? No - history tells a different story: of a growing anger at a power that fed off the land and the people yet did not acknowledge them, left them powerless and like little children needing to be directed and decided for. Of a country that grew agitated as it came into an increasing self-realization, of men and women who made many sacrifices, for the future, for us, so we could be free of the yoke of monarchy.

And the end result of this sacrifice, the democratic government, is not just a toubab ideal that does not fit into our culture, but was shoved down our unwilling throats. To dismiss it as such shows a deep (and, I suspect, disingenuous) misunderstanding of the state, and the exchange we enter into when we all decide to live in it together, as one people.

Some of my friends speak of self-exile. They throw their hands up in frustration, at every setback in our national project, and make plans to move to another country, to attempt to set roots down in another land. But though this may be a solution for some, it does not work, for many. Gambia is our country, it is the land of our birth, and that of our forefathers'. It is the only place in the world we can truly call ours - where would we go, how could we be ourselves, realize our full potentials, in the bosom of a land not our own? This is not a true solution, then.

And so to conclude I wish to say, we are in this together, mu neh mu nahari. I apologize, if this essay has offended you in any way - that was not my intention. I wished only to bring the issues at play to the foreground, so we can think about them, and discuss them and do what is best for our country, and our future.

Now is our chance. I hope, whatever we end up deciding, we do not live to regret it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Love of the Poles

Two poles stand on the street, a distance from each other.

Each outside a Peul shop, each bearing the weight of wires that crisscross the street and head in different directions. Wires that are their only connections to each other.

They have discovered each other gradually, the poles. They have explored each other's thoughts from a distance, rough gems that held up to the sunlight have perfect smoothness.

How one prefers the twilight hour, when the birds that perched on it during the day now fly home. How it warms it with a satisfaction that cools its cold metal. How the other dreams, of going for walks, of meeting and conversing with other poles. How it yearns for legs, that would carry it, instead of a stump trapped in hard Earth.

And placing each other under such scrutiny, the two poles have fallen in love.

Over the years, over time, there has grown in each of them a space that only the other can fill.

And so each pole abandons itself, to the care of the other, becomes dependent on the other for its complete survival.

After a while they yearn to touch. They reach out for each other.

And fall just short - they fail, at the last.

And each withdraws, for a space of time, but it is too painful, and once more signals are sent, across the wires that connect them. Conversations are refilled, with the sweet warmth that makes the nights not so lonely, the stars not so distant.

And once more they reach forward.

And once more they fall short, these poles, once more metal will not budge, from hard Earth, nor the laws of physics be disobeyed.

And again they retire. And again they return.

They reach, they fail, they try again.

And again.

And yet again.

Again and again, over many years, over a decade, over two.

Time does not go past, but accumulates, a heavy weight of sadness that hangs between them.

Because the poles cannot leave each other, because their fates are as one. They cannot be apart.

And yet they cannot be together. It is an effort that will always be frustrated. I am not ready, each thinks. It is an effort that is always doomed to fail.

Houses are torn down in stages around them, each thing that is torn replaced. A metal koriget fence become a stone wall with gates in the center, a small hut become a boys' quarters.

The street level rises as the water level does, a new pavement is built, the drainage system running under it.

Still the poles stand, regarding each other across a distance.

A new Peul shop is opened at the base of the first pole. A new Peul shop is opened at the base of the second pole.

The rain rules the skies for weeks, every cloud containing enough potential for a storm. And then just like that it is gone.

Harmattans depart, Harmattans return.

The poles stand as the baby being named today becomes the bride whose name is being changed, tomorrow.

The poles are more patient, than you and I. The poles are more patient, than chereh, and laalore.

But the poles are not more patient, than trees. And the poles are not more patient, than time.

And so their patience slowly runs out, their strength is sapped, they become irritable, with each other.

They take out their grievances on each other, their conversation is turned sour, the black wires that run between them thick and heavy with obdurate thought.

And the atmosphere about them becomes tense.

A child hold the first pole. An exposed wire, a rainy day.

The child is flung, propelled forward by a great shock. She is dead before she hits the water of the street gutter.

And the first pole is filled with a grief that makes the second pole breathlessly turn its attention toward it, a feeling that scares it. The second pole cannot bear to see the first pole like this.

And so the second pole reaches, once more, for the first pole.

But this time there is a difference, the nature of the desperation in its reach has changed.

For while before it was an angry desperation, a fierce desperation filled with need, a selfish desperation, now it is a firm but quiet desperation.

One that gives itself completely, to reach for the other pole. And that has accepted that it will fail, and yet still it does not matter. For it would rather perish in the attempt, than not have tried, at all.

That night a storm comes. You know it, dear reader, as the famous storm of '96. A storm filled with fury, and a cold rage.

It raises rooves, and uproots trees. It drowns livestock, and floods rice plains. It excites the Sea, makes it overflow its banks.

And the next morning all about the poles there is all manner of destruction.

And a falling coconut tree has crashed down on the second pole's back, and bent it at a violent angle.

And the second pole leans forward, looking almost graceful.

And the head of the second pole rests on the head of the first pole, and they are joined together as if one.

Can poles dream, can poles sigh?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Land

These are the varieties of love he has known.

Love of mother. Love of sister.

Love of woman, not related to him by blood.

Love of father, and of brother. Love of friend.

Love of country.

It is this last that occupies him, tonight.

Packets of chuura gerrteh, sent across many lands and many seas. A boiling of water, salted first, the pure white crystals settling to the bottom. And then an opening, and a pouring-in, of material created by loving hands in yards next to kitchens, in gaynas worn and hardened by years of use.

Pounded by hands whose hearts are connected to ours, in a parallel world where distance and time do not exist, or if they do they have no effect.

He eats the chuura, and he thinks of Gambia.

A land with a fate tied to a river, tied so tightly that when it came time to decide the shape and size of the land, the deciders used the river, as their starting point, borders rushing away from it on either shore, cannot shot distances away.

He thinks how even now this river is the thread running through the land's center, its heart and its soul, feeding and nurturing its body, on which its people live.

The chuura is a trickling of pink water, that lies in the bowl, with tiny lumps in it. He adds sugar and stirs it. He pours milk on it. He mouths a spoonful.

It is hot.

And when he looks at it where it lies in its bowl, a small cloud of steam rising from it, he thinks of his connection to the country of its origin.

The way the river pulls him back to it, draws him back by a subtle pressure on his dreams, an influence on the direction of their flow, a heaviness in his heart, that is only eased, when he is at home.

To decide to give a life to his country, then, that is the only solution.

A life given to its reforming, its remolding into a finer shape, less coarse. Into a land not only of peace, but of a plenitude.

And to what end? What, then, would such a life have achieved?

He sits over his bowl of chuura, he chews ruminatively, and he sees.

He sees the engines of development, as they traverse the land.

He sees the dirt paths open themselves up to reveal roads, sunlight on shiny tar, barefoot children putting on sandals and getting into school buses that travel the kilometres now free of dust, passing farm women who smile as they turn the handles on taps, their feet no longer torn, or worn.

He sees hospitals spring up where once there were only rocks, and sand, and trees, and children who died, stocked up on sickness, run out of time.

A man and his family, sitting in the living room. The brother from school, his head filled with pictures of falling apples and bewigged men, his first adventures with gravity. The sister thinking about her school trip the next morning, and whether Baboucarr will sit next to her. The mother what to cook for dinner, the fourth meal of the day, from the stuffed fridge.

On the television programs that are of the culture, and promote it, and spread it across the land, bringing the people together.

It is tobaski, and in all the houses there is a bleating of rams. All the children of the land wear new mbubi juli.

Across the land there is a stability of rice, an availability of meat.

The stink of desperation, the odour of need, that has hung in the air so long, has disappeared. And with it has also gone the gnawing in the hearts of the youth, that makes them seek to escape the land in droves, believing there is nothing here for them.

And he sees the beginning of a final goal, one worthy of a life. A social re-engineering, a re-imagining. A rebuilding, from the ground up.

And he finishes his chuura, and getting up puts the bowl in the sink.

And he thinks he knows, what he wants to do with his life.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Three Gambian Women: Prose Poems

*The Peul*


How could a surname be more beautiful. A melody, running from the J to the w, that dip at the a, and then the delicious double rise of the two ll, that pleasant surprise in the middle of the name, waiting to be discovered, as you call her and she turns, her eyes wide, suddenly attentive...

Soft skin, varying hues of brown.

The places exposed to the envious Sun, tanned a darker shade.

And the places not exposed. The shoulders. The thighs. The breasts, that end in a sudden and dark explosion of sensitive flesh.

Her hair so soft, her teeth a milky white. Her smile like fehneh, formed on top of sowe, encouraged to grow into its creamy richness by assiduous merr, who will sell it, out of lehkehts, some dewy mornings.

How she grows, from an adolescent, into a woman - a gradual blooming, into fruition, a process as natural as sunrise, that shines all through the day and spends all its efforts toward one purpose: to make a beautiful sunset, at end of day.

*The Serahule*

Did you ever doubt that the Serahule could be beautiful? Then come - I wish to show you something.

A whiteness of teeth, a blackness of gum.

A smile that sparkles and glimmers under the gentle light of the dying Sun, or else under the pale light of a bulb in a room.

Or even, sometimes, in a darkness so complete you can see nothing else. As if it were the source of its own light, and needed no other.

From the hardness of enamel somehow arising a softness that warms the heart, and whispers to it of a time without pain, a future without sorrow...

You make fun of the language of the Serahule. Yet issuing from her mouth, a mellifluous flow, it sounds better than any language of your comprehension, makes you think of Babel, and a time before the great babbling, when all spoke the same words and reached the same understanding and worshiped the same God, and the sin of borkaleh, of Shirk, still lay undiscovered…

And yet how coy she is, possessed of a self-reservation that covers her behavior like a kaala, concealing much, revealing just enough, to leave you wanting to know more...

*The Wolof*

Njaaye. The good that cannot be bought or sold, that is beyond an estimation of price or worth.

The pride of the Wolof, their unwavering self-confidence. She has her hair done in braids, and at the ends of the braids hang peh-taawe, weighing down the hair, gripping it in its fine teeth. Glimpses of bin-bin as she moves about, circles encircling curves that are the repeating motif of a body that leaves you breathless with desire.

You have seen pictures of her - they do not come close to doing her justice.

Some days you think it is her cheeks, that draw you to her. How when she grins they become suddenly full, buoyant and unmindful of gravity, tugging at your heart strings and the strings connected to the corners of your own mouth, so you cannot help but feel a gladdening, a lessening of your own life's burdens.

And then on others you think it is her eyes, that recall Baol, and Kajorr, and Waalor - names less historical kingdoms than places that your heart dreams about visiting, in its eternal search for a peace and a resting, worlds that will be created by your imagination and given the breath of life by the vitality that fills her every gaze.

And then there is the other aspect of Njaaye: the lion, that conquers, and possesses. This last you have seen in her, too, and it thrills you.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Gayna

In a corner of the kitchen the gayna sits.

It came with the bride, a gift from an Aunty. It is a small wooden gayna, its bark chipped and chiseled, and the woman sets to using it at once, the day after the night of the jaybaleh.

She uses the gayna everyday. It is her first gayna - she is its first woman. They discover each other gradually - she uses it for only a few minutes a day, while the oil hisses over the fire and the Sun is hot in the sky and the children chorus verses in the local daara. Her grip slippery at first, but growing firmer with time, as the gayna and her hand learn each other.

After a while the gayna begins to be able to tell what mood she is in, from the way she pounds it. When she is in a hurry, when she is irritated. When she is angry. When she is distracted, her mind on other things than the cooking.

And over many months the gayna finds too that it can penetrate deeper than this, to where her first feelings reside. And the gayna finds there a sadness, the gayna finds there a hunger, a need. A space in her that she grows increasingly desperate to fill. And the gayna begins to understand the rhythm of her pounding, sees this need portrayed in the way its pacing slowly begins to go awry, to lose its metronomic tick.

The first crack comes when the woman is pounding a mix of tamateh and kaani bu dija, for a chu. The insides of the gayna are slippery, and the mortar sloshes around, unable to find hold. The woman grows increasingly impatient. The Sun is at its hottest, there is sweat on her brow, that falls into her eyes and stings them. Her hands are dirty, and she cannot wipe her face.

A mispounding, a squirt of red mixture from the gayna jumping to her eyes. She utters a sighing exclamation, and then reacts to the pain by hitting at the contents of the gayna with a sudden stab of anger. The pestle does not make it inside - it hits the side of the gayna.

The gayna falls to the ground. A crack in its surface that has not been there before.

The woman rushes to the tap.

In a moment she will be back, but in her absence the gayna lies on the floor, and it thinks about how now the woman has marked it. And the gayna wishes to spend its life being pounded only by her hands, and the gayna desires no other life but this.

Time passes. Feast days - when the gayna is at constant use, and the kitchen is twice as busy. Days of lack - when barely anything is put in the gayna, wood pounding against almost-bare wood. And the woman begins to grow, her stomach swelling so she has to place the gayna farther away from her, when she pounds, sitting with it in between her legs. The place of her need is filled with a hopefulness.

Then a bad thing happens. There are murmurings of sorrow in the house this week, whisperings of grief. There has been a death - its odor hangs heavy in the kitchen, so thick even the flies move to neighboring houses.

The woman does not come to the gayna, for an anxious week, two weeks. Other women come - girls, old women, even one time a young boy who keeps trying to run off and play. Their poundings are not as firm as the woman's, they do not fill the gayna with such satisfaction, in the woody exploration of its interior.

Each day the gayna waits expectantly - each day the hands that retrieve it from the corner are not those of the woman.

And then she returns, finally, one overcast day with sporadic bursts of sunlight, and a rain that will neither start nor stop.

Her pounding lacks a certain vitality, has gained a certain freneticness. She is filled with a fury, tightly controlled, swallowed and bit down on. She cannot sit - one moment she will stand, and put the gayna up on the stone table, and then the next she will get on her knees on the hard ground and kneel before it.

And the gayna wishes she would return to the woman she was before, but it tries its hardest to yield itself, to be an even more patient gayna, so the pounding is not as hard, on the woman's hands. The gayna makes a rock of itself behind the ingredients, so they are reduced even at the woman's lightest touch.

After that she changes, becomes someone else. There is still a need, there, when the gayna looks, but it is of a different kind. It is a hole, still, but one that has now been filled with sand and rocks, and another feeling the gayna cannot understand.

And then one day, just like that, she is gone, along with everything else in the kitchen. It is two men who come to take the kitchen implements. They are in a hurry and do not see the gayna where it stands, under the stone shelf. And so the chum-waar goes, and the sijehr goes, and all the pots and pans and bowls and spoons.

But the gayna is left behind.

Ages pass, time shuffling her little brood of chicks - the years - past where the gayna sits. People come and go, strange people who remain strange even as they remain and the gayna meets them again and again.

A new gayna has been brought in - a light wood affair, all smooth and finished. The gayna sits in a corner of the new kitchen, and has only its thoughts for company.

It thinks back to when it was a tree in the forest, the taste of rainwater sucked up through deep roots in the earth. And later, being carved out of wood and brought into creation one day at a time, slowly, the gayna-maker an expert at his job, not to be hurried. It thinks of the smooth steel of the knife against its back, it thinks of how much of itself it lost, to become what it is now.

The gayna thinks all these things as it sits under the stone shelf.

And the gayna thinks, too, of the woman. Of where she is now in the world, of what became of her. Does she pound other gaynas? Does she think of them as her gayna? Has the old rhythm of her hands returned, or has she gained a newer, harsher one, molded of time and experience? And the thing she wanted so badly, that carved such a need within her, did she ever get it?

The rainy season and the dry season chase after each other, across the skies, two children at play.

Tobaskis come and go, rams die, the street sewers filled with their insides.

The gayna grows old, even in gayna years.

Two families move in and out of the house, one with eleven women, the second with only two.

And then a third. On the second day two new women come into the kitchen, a young one and an old one. The old one looks about for instruments to use for the meal, and under the table it sees the gayna. She sends the younger one to fetch water, and soap. She washes the gayna carefully, methodically, and dries it out under the Sun.

And then she takes it into the kitchen and puts netehtu in it, and begins to pound.

And the gayna is filled with a trill of excitement, that it has never felt before, a vibration through its wood.

It is the woman!

But a few more pounds and the gayna realizes it is not. The rhythm is almost the same, but not quite: it seems to have developed new themes, pauses where there were no pauses before, hurryings where the woman would have slowed.

And the gayna is filled with a disappointment now, it feels age and how it has filled its darkened hollows, sitting in the kitchen alone night after night, abandoned to cobwebs and dust and the chirping of cockroaches.

And in the depths of its disappointment the gayna notices that there is something else about this new pounding, that is familiar. It is a thing it has seen, in another form, assuming another shape...

And the gayna remembers the woman, and it remembers her need.

And in a flash it realizes what this new pounding is: it is the need of the woman, from so many years before, become flesh - the gayna recognizes it. This new woman is of the old one, her creation, what she wanted all along.

And the gayna is filled with a satisfaction, suddenly the hours under the stone table do not seem so long, the nights do not stretch out so, in the dark. The new woman finishes pounding, and carefully puts the gayna off to a side, leaning the pestle against its wooden body. And it leaves it there, and the gayna waits for the next day, when it will be used again.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Goarr-Jigain [FICTION]

[Goarr-Jigain, n., (Wolof): Male homosexual, queer. Literally: Man-Woman]

Batty boy, they call him. Less than a woman. Gorr-Jigain bileh! Chim! And he does not see the reason for it, does not see how any of them is more man than him. Because they sit all day smoking, their lives filled with violence and a neverending contest of physicality, speaking vulgarly about women? Their idea of love being the breaking of beds, the impregnating of their girlfriends and their wives, their authority over them?

He is different from them, he thinks. When the taunting has grown too loud and threatened to drown out the soft melody of himself he has going in his head, he thinks I am different from them: I love myself. He thinks, I dress good, and I smell nice, while they wear nyamba and walk around with mud on their feet, and do not change their underwear. These thoughts help him through the toughest times.

It is not that he likes men, as such. He has thought about this, when he has thought about the injustice of their attack, late at night when he lies in bed alone. He loves women, is their constant companion. They trust him, they are free around him, will apply lotion to their bodies after showering in his presence, un-self-consciously. Because they know him, they understand more than anyone the sensations they arouse in the men all around them, and they know the ones they raise in him are of a different order. Sensations not of a nature leading to a wish to possess or be possessed by them, to own them, not even to the smallest degree. So women seek him out, and is this his fault? They wish respite from the constant barrage of horny neediness from all their male companions, and he gives it to them, and they can be themselves around him. How could any sensible person not see this?

He walks past a group of the boys on the street, where they sit on a bench. They have been shouting and howling - he heard them from a distance. But as soon as they see him they fall silent. Watching him with stone-dead eyes, the hostility in their gazes casting a heat on his face. Each step he attempts leaden and taking too long - the borpi konye looks so far away. And then he has reached it, and is almost around it, when someone shouts "Assan am na farri toubab - demal uti benehn farr'. It is Laam - he did not even bother disguising his voice. And there is raucous laughter, but he is on the next street and he takes a few steps and he can no longer hear it. There is Ya Fatou, approaching. He remakes his smile, breathes out deeply, and goes to meet her.

He has lain in bed and wondered, what is wrong with me? He has thought, enough of this nonsense, tomorrow I'll wake up and go out and get a girlfriend, to hell with this! And he has felt emboldened, and began to make plans. Random scenes of imagining, the boys in the background of each scene, looking on with envy and admiration in their eyes. He and the girlfriend, walking down the street - she stumbles and catches on to his arm - he saves her, she gives him a quick kiss on the cheek. Thanks baby. Goarr nga nak, with a sly wink. Another one: on the beach (all the boys there) and she comes to sit next to him and places her head on his shoulder, and sighs as if at the memory of great pleasure, provided by the owner of the shoulders, one previous night recently. The boys all girlfriend-less, all filled to bursting with jealousy. And then after these public scenes he tries to imagine private ones, in half-lit rooms in which she undresses. And the memories are detailed to the last degree, of shade of skin, of hair color. But they have no effect - he lies there and watches the girl in his mental image, and she is beautiful beyond words, but he feels no physical attraction to her, does not want to kiss or lay with her, is as indifferent to her breasts and her thighs as to cardboard. And he will lie there and feel defeated until sleep at last takes him, into a land filled with respect, from man and woman alike.

In the evenings sometimes he sits alone in his room, flipping between GRTS and RTS. And bored, his mind will wander, and wandering it will come again to Abu Sarr. He holds his breath then, for as long as possible, as if this physical act could somehow close his heart, and imprison his feelings. But the memories will not leave him, no matter how he numbs himself to them. The way they met, the first day on the beach as he took a walk alone, something he did at dusk to clear his mind. The nice feeling of having someone at last who looked at him with respect, and spoke to him as an equal. It was the fact that Abu Sarr lived in Kotu, and he in Lamin, it was the fact that they had no mutual friends, knew nothing about each other except what they chose to present. He knows this now, is in no doubt about it, yet it has not reduced the weight of his feelings, the frantic fluttering of the butterflies in his stomach. The memories acquire an urgency, after this point. Going to Abu's house to banye lal, meeting his boys. Attaya, reggae music, his first - and last - experience with yaamba. Many weekends, and he is filled with genuine happiness, looks forward to Friday every week. And then the final night, when all the boys had gone to watch a show at the stadium, and he and Abu Sarr alone in the room, the tickets sold out. The darkness, the music - he still does not know what came over him, wants to kick himself or cause himself some harm, for being so stupid. An attempt at a caress, a submitting of himself... And Abu Sarr shouting and jumping to his feet. Hai! boy yow ndehkeh goarr jigain nga! Yow yaa dohaandeyam! Boy yow yaa ma behtah! And many more insults besides, and a few slaps, and knocks to the head, and furniture thrown at him. And he had come home and lain in bed in the NAWEC-caused darkness and wished he would die, wished a darkness even more absolute than this one would swallow him whole and wipe him out of existence.

Yet he goes on. Somehow, though he thinks his reserves of strength are all long gone, he manages to talk to the women - who alone will be his friends - and he laughs and is even, at times, happy.

On the news he hears about a Senegalese man, who gained asylum into America. A picture of him, somewhere in New York, a grin on his face. The escaped. But what kind of escape, he thinks. Into a world not of his belonging, his home gone, all his established rituals and things he is used to gone, to be recreated from start. In a cold, cold country - but was peace of mind not worth it, was not the ability to walk down the street without a face sticky from shame, flung from the eyes of even passing strangers, the Sun singling him out? And he has heard, too, of a man turned back, an asylum seeker attempting to use homosexuality as an excuse, the authorities back home informed. And the teller of the tale chuckled, and said poor bastard, he must be desperate, to use homosexuality as an excuse. He thought, why must it be an excuse, but he held his tongue - he has learnt to hold his tongue - and hid the insincerity of his smile with a bowed head.

He sits in the living room, the TV off. A strange mood has come over him. He is alone, he thinks, he will always be alone. He is settled to this realization, it no longer shakes him as much as it used to. He sees silent and empty rooms of his occupancy, long evenings spent only with the television, while all around him people marry and have children, and are born and die in the homes they have created. He is ready for this. He will take it, he will shuffle through a corridor of his own making, a path across the plain of his life. He will do it alone, and their mockery will not stop him, and their humiliation will not, and their lack of respect will not. He is filled with determination, and even though it is hollow and has no center it will do, it will have to do, for now, and he lays down on the couch and he stretches his legs out and he lays his hands on his stomach, crosswise, and he closes his eyes and the lines of worry on his face unform and it is a sigh that carries a smile to his mouth and leaves it there. And if you didn't look closely you wouldn't even see, the single drop of water that pushes its way past his closed eyelid and makes a small sliding motion to the cushion, where it is absorbed.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Last Diary of Alhaji Modibo Sallah

[to be handed to his wife at the hour of his death]

A toubab sat with us at lunch in the University cafetaria today. The talk turned to religion, and he began to announce loudly that he was an atheist, and a proud one at that, that he saw no use for religious belief. He was in a bad mood, I think, and he did it to provoke some form of reply, but everyone ignored him. I looked at him and was sad, that a heart that God had made could get so hardened by experience it could not see His careful design all around us, His purpose manifest and clearly written in everything: from our foreheads to the leaves on the trees.

And I felt glad, that I had not acquired such a hardening, that my heart was free and soft still, that I could see.

And then tonight as you slept - for I write this in the moments of your slumber, when you are at peace, in that nighty you love that has a small hole over your left thigh - I saw how you lay at rest, the rise and the fall of the pillow next to the mound formed by your now rising, now falling breast. And I looked at you, and I thought what more proof of the existence of God does one need? Those cheeks, how could random chance have formed them? That laugh, how could it find its way into the world unless it were purposely put here?

And now my own breast is filled with a heaviness, and my breath comes slow and labored, and I think I shall put down this pen and come lay my head next to yours, and settle into your sleeping embrace as you shift and make me space without ever waking up, as if you can feel me there, even when you are gone.


I went for more tests today. The disease is far advanced, they tell me. The doctors have a bleakness in their look, their eyes will not meet mine, after they have read my charts. And this gives them away more than the words that they mumble, the shock they feel that they try to hide. I wish to reach across the desk and pat their hands and say, there, there, it's OK. Death is not the end. We say it over and over, yet can we believe it, truly, if we are so distraught over it. No, that is a wrong thought. It is not the death that distresses us - it is the time after. When our departed are gone, and we cannot be with them anymore.

I think of the look on your face, when I had to travel for even only a few days. How lost you seemed, when I came back, like a child set adrift in the world and often disappointed, and now meeting people who could possibly be her long-lost parents. And I think now, of this journey that I am about to embark upon, of no return, and I think what you will feel, and my heart aches, and I can no longer support my shoulders, and they slump…

I am sorry - I am morose, the night of the tests. I just snapped at you, after you asked me for the hundredth time what was wrong, and I could not tell you. I pushed you away, and told you to leave me alone and stop being so meddlesome. And when you climbed into bed and turned toward the wall it….

I am sorry. Sometimes I must stop writing, so powerful are the emotions in me they will not leave my hands be stable, to grip pen and direct it at paper. I am coming to bed now, to climb in behind you and hold your body, stiff with hurt, until you sleep, and I shall know you are asleep because you will relax, you will get warm, your back will settle into my stomach and you will become soft, as if your life were melting into mine, and both become one, and nothing else mattered in the world, beyond our embrace in the night….


It saddens me, that you will never forgive me, for concealing this from you.


Do you remember when I took you to see Orchestre Baobab? How excited you were, that evening. I had bought you gold jewelry on one of my trips abroad, and all that afternoon you showed it off to everyone who came to visit. I walked past again and again, listening in on the conversation, feeling proud at how excited I had made you….

There is a reason we do not know the hour of our deaths, that even to the last we see our futures spread out before us, and though we are aware that they have endings we never think of them as now, they are always before us, in the distance, at some future appointment...

You danced, to the songs that night. Under the tent top in which we sat with the other dignitaries and government officials. It was you who drew me to my feet when the floor was thrown open. Bul Ma Miin, was the song playing, and I still cannot hear it without a smile coming unsummoned to my lips. I, awkward, as you led me to the center. And as you showed me how to move, with your hands, what steps to take, I began to relax, to enjoy myself.

Later in the car when you asked if I had enjoyed myself I pretended I had only gone for you, to see you happy. And you gave me a peck, and said thank you, and were genuinely grateful. You thought I was being selfless, and you did not see: it was quite the opposite. It was watching you smile like that, it was watching you so happy in the world, abandoning yourself to it completely, it was for this that I did all I did. It had taken a carefully planned series of actions: the jewelry, the restaurant dinner, the tickets to the concert. And with each one, and the way it widened your grin, I was filled with a happiness, an enrichment of good humor, a sense of having achieved something worthwhile.

And now I will tell you a secret, that I would never open my mouth and speak: only you were ever able to make me feel like this. You asked me, sometimes, why I loved you. And I blabbered something about how beautiful you were, how intelligent. Even, once, when I was feeling rather poetic, how you were the sorseh to my maalor, the sowe to my dang or some such nonsense.

But it was none of these things - here was the simple reason: it was the way you made me feel, about myself. As if God had written I and my destiny separately, and you were the glue, the thing that brought us together and held us tight so one could be achieved and the other achieve it.


I wish to beg for understanding. I wish to say, look, I did what I did for a reason, did you not have the best three months of your life, did you not have a good time?

Yet I know the answer to that. The illness has filled me with ill dread and an anomie. I am irritable and hard to live with, I know this. I watch myself speak to you, I watch how impatient I am, but it is as a mother watches its wayward child, who has long passed the age of child-training, disgusted yet unable to do anything to stop myself.

I am filled with a dark and dispassionate bile, that turns the smile I feel into a scowl, the affection I feel into anger. I have lain in the dark and listened to you weep silently at my latest cruelty, my latest act of humiliation, when you have thought me asleep. And I have been filled with such a deep sorrow and such a deep shame I have willed the disease to hurry, to run its course and remove me from your life. And a perverseness has grown in me, a thought filled with meanness, that perhaps it is a good thing, that perhaps you may grow to hate me, that perhaps you will leave, even, before the event…

But always I will wake in the morning to find you making me breakfast, and getting the bathroom ready for my morning ablutions, and laying the sajaada and getting your kaala so we can pray, and for a moment I am able to pretend that everything is alright…


I made all the funeral arrangements today. I called Alaji Mbowe, who I can trust to be discreet, and gave him money, and instructions. I also told him about this diary, and where I keep it, so he can give it to you.

I think perhaps this way it will be easier on you - the arrangement of funerals is not a business for women.


You surprised me vomiting in the bathroom this morning, and the shock on your face and the beginnings of an accusation almost led me to confess everything, to answer your suspicious questions with the final facts, the terminal explanations. But by some good fortune I held my tongue, and insisted on food poisoning as the cause, until at last you took me to bed, and gave me stomach medicines, and made me lie down and not move.

And then, my love, you sat and spoke with me, as the mosquitoes returned, and the lights went on, and off, and on again, and the street grew quieter and the air more damp, and the Sun set, and young children played outside, and I had no mind for these but that you would continue to speak and not stop, and I wished I was your tongue, that lived in your mouth and showed your mind to the world. And then again I wished I was your eyes, that see with such clarity, and such kindness, and are filled with such wisdom. And then again as I drifted off into sleep on the back of your voice (which meandered still, like a lullaby) I thought perhaps what I wanted to be most was your life, to be lived by you, your seconds and your hours, your months and your years, that I would begin with you and end when you ended, and my whole subsumed to your happiness.

And I slept and your voice still found its way into my dreams, and it occurred to me that your voice in fact had originated in my dreams, and only then found its way into my waking life, and not the other way as I had always supposed, and thinking about this I fell satisfied into a deep sleep.

I feel refreshed, tonight. You will forgive me. I know it.


I can feel the beginnings of a delirium, at the edges of my sight, and it is an intense heat, and behind it there is a darkness.

Sometimes when you speak to me this is all I can see, and I do not answer for minutes on end, until you repeat the question and I jump and regain my memory and my location. You give me worried looks, but you are afraid to repeat our fight of the other night, so you hold back and do not ask.

I am so tired.



Can bare write.




The Love of Wolof Njie [FICTION]

Before she was the mother of our wisdom, the inexhaustible source of our proverbs, Wolof Njie was a young woman in love.

How did it happen? But you know that already, dear reader. All our falling-ins are the same, only the details differ: this person here enthralled by a voice, another bewitched by eyelashes. The way his cheeks fall, like softly pressed dumplings; the way hers rise, when she smiles. A whiteness of teeth, a darkness of gum. A disinterested friendliness gradually changing into an indispensability, your memory of the person become white-hot, an urgency that burns inside you and drives you to seek them, for only their presence can put out the fire. Thus you have fallen, and thus Wolof Njie fell.

You are probably thinking: dates. You are thinking Wolof Njie on the beach, you are thinking late-night calls, and rival girls posting on his wall, and changed relationship statuses on facebook.

But no, teylul, defal ndanka - this was a long time ago, and people did things differently back then.

This is how they meet: as he walks into her village, past the well where she stands beside her bucket waiting her turn. It is dawn, and the women are the only ones awake, teasing each other like chattering birds, the Sun not yet risen, the light gentle and the air fresh. She sees him, barely notices him, and turns away again to her bucket. He sees her, and cannot look away - she can feel his gaze as it blows over the back of her neck, airy as a breath.

This is how Wolof Njie remembers it, at least, when their voices are filled with intimacy, as they steal a conversation behind the rice farms. Every evening they come here, trudging through mud and water, away from the village. Why? Because he is a stranger, a Mandinko from another town, and the people of this town do not like them. There have been suggestions of hostilities. He goes about with his gaze lowered, making sure to speak only Wolof. And when people speak up against the Mandinko kingdom she is silent, and she is thoughtful.

And sometimes in the night after she puts her candle out she lies worrying about his safety.

Disaster strikes, of course. What do you think this is, a love story? You think things will end well, for two people so in love with each other? Disaster comes, and it takes the form of a war between their two countries. A disagreement over land, a misfired arrow, the death of a distant relative of the chief. And murder enters into the hearts of the men, and a hardness into the hearts of the women, and both sides bay for blood, no longer human...

And the night of the first attack, the two lovers are to meet. Their favorite place, directly in the path of the attackers. Drums, a chanting, lights in the distance.

He jumps to his feet, she behind him. She holds his shoulders, and trembles.

What is it?, she asks him.

The warriors, he says, the night of the attack must be tonight.

And he takes her hand in his, and he runs off between the trees. They stumble over rocks and twigs. Once she crashes and goes tumbling - he catches her somehow, and they sit in a half-crouch on the sand, his face inches from her, filled with terror, sweating heavily.

Let's go, he says, hauling her once more to her feet. But the delay has cost them - they have been sighted. There are shouts behind them, the approach changes its direction to theirs.

Pounding hearts, legs of jelly, chests threatening to explode, a sudden need to urinate... She holds his hand and it is slippery and her grip slides off, slowly, making her panic, making her reach to re-grip.... but too dangerous to let go, now... She has never run as hard, she has never been as scared.

Then they take a detour and run past the graveyards, stocked in neat lines, a watchman asleep on the stone slab of one. And then onto the beach. The pursuit has fallen a little behind, they can stop running now, though they still it is behind them, they not so much hear it as feel it, a descending dread, a future they do not desire...

And so they stand before the waters. She looks at the moon in the sky watching them, a forlorn lover herself, rejected suitor of the arrogant Sun.

What are we to do? The question in the air, yet they do not speak it. She thinks she can see him shivering in the night chill, though she is not sure. He takes off his shirt and hands it to her.

Here, put this on over yourself, he says, and - pointing in the other direction - run, he says.

She wishes to believe he is only joking. She wishes that he will lose his nerve, and collapse into her arms, and ask her to stay. She wishes to believe this is a nightmare she will wake from, the harsh moonlight a product of her mind, an anticipation of relief...

Go!, he says, giving her a push. Go! They are almost here.

And Wolof Njie turns, and her heart is a molten river that flows too thickly through her frail veins, and seeks to burn through her skin.

And Wolof Njie takes a step from him, and she thinks of pitchforks, and fire.

Wolof Njie takes another step, and she thinks of his brave face in the dark, his handsome lips set as the crowd descend upon him.

She sees him fall, she sees the bodies mount him, she sees him kicked and spat on and dragged, and she thinks her heart has broken, finally, for she can feel nothing, she is a numbness, she is less than air, she is a nothingness that races down the beach and the only things that are alive in her are the tears that stream down her face and are dispensed behind her in a watery spray.

And the moon watches, and the moon is silent.

She was Wolof Njie, of course. We know her through her words, the things she said - such wise words, such words of measured lyricism and depth. She is the greatest writer the Wolof language has ever known, though she never put pen to paper. She is our greatest artist, the one who has had the most effect on our culture.

She never married, she lived alone, she ventured forth only to go to the bitik - and even this no longer, in the end. And though there were angry rumors at first, suspicions that the girl on the beach had been her, they died down, after a while. She lived alone, in her house, and no one knew what she did in there, or what it looked like. She invited no one in, had no friends.

Twenty years passed, all the people who had known her by first name either moved or dead. The village had changed - now there were more Mandinkas than Wolof - in fact so few Wolof she became known as Merr Wolof.

And then one day without warning she opened the gate and came out, blinking in the sunlight. She wore a malaan and on top of it a pullover, a bright and colorful affair made of wool. She carried a lawn chair, which she set down on the pavement near the road.

And there she sat, day after day, a serene expression on her face. And all who passed found themselves drawn to speak with her and then, inexplicably, to tell her their problems. And she would listen carefully, her hands crossed under her chin. And then she would speak, she would advice them, and always the advice she gave was useful, and solved their problems. Her fame spread far and wide, men traveled from faraway lands to visit her, kings and paupers, old men and young girls.

And this is how she lived out the rest of her days, and no one knew anything of her life or her feelings, until one moonlit night she died in her sleep, and was discovered the next morning, and there was widespread mourning.

Bintou Faal: Three Attempts at Misdirection [FICTION]


Daydayt chataleh kor njaykay baby. Then nga poos- y ndanka...

Maneh du hay jay Noe nu. Haara ma forsseh kor rek!

Sore kor forrseh mu dama d!

Ya Amie isil ma marrtoh b!

Small girl runs in.

Am Papa.

He takes it from her.

Tey kor mu daygayr!

She grips the wood pole and he nails it into the ground , while the small girl watches.

There, he says, giving it a final knock.

Laygi am nga fore aj sa boom yi. Ndah nga fiihal sunye ayta b tuuti...


Su juutoe nee, nyun nyayp dinenye muna duga, du tasaaror...

Hay - maneh, man suma duga dafa am dorleh deh!

Pa Borbor defal ndanka - yow mun ngaa mujay duga...

Wawe haara ma dem chi ganawe adjustu...

The men set up the trailer behind the tractor, shifting the canopy so it can take all their weights. Then they jump into the back and sit waiting for Pa Borbor, who has gone into the back to pee.


Baalal maaaaaa? Nyaari marr rek!

Daydayt! Suma yaye muneh bu mah deh baaye ken marr! O-rut - fehbarr yi denye barry.

Maneh Baby Jankeh hanaa maa la wah neh dama fehbarr? OK behna marr rek.

Daydayt! Last time loe Lu nga wah beh pareh nga Dugal sa loho bi!

Hei duma kor dugal ah!

Still looking doubtful, Baby Jankeh hands the ice cream over to little Pa Modou, and as he takes a lick the school bell rings, signaling the end of break, and as he turns to go back into the class Pa Modou sticks out his right finger and wiggles it in the ice cream. Then he laughs evilly and runs off. Baby Jankeh screams and runs after him.