Saturday, May 29, 2010

Returning Home Part 1

In the beginning there was your country, and you knew nothing else. When was the first time you began to develop a sense of the World, as a place, and World events as a time, in which your country was located? Perhaps it was from the TV, bringing in news of the industrious Chinese, the technological Americans, the warring Ethiopians, the starving Somalians (everything at this age painted with the brush of broad stereotypes - this was all you needed to know). Or perhaps it was from your parents and the other adults in your life, when they spoke about their travels to lands where it is always cold, and people so rich everyone has a car, and holy lands where prophets and great marabouts had been discovered in days of old.

Yet despite all this your spatial apparatus, that part of your brain which situates you in the World and all in relation to you, was filled with the sense of your country as all there was, and all that there needed to be. One of the poorest countries in the World, the encyclopedia claimed - and how surprised you would have been if someone had told you this. What poverty, when you ate three meals a day and every Juli your father bought you a new mbubi juli, you and all your sisters and all your brothers, and all your aunts and uncles came to your house and you killed and ate a ram and celebrated? You went to school, and your cousin in England sent you Nikes, and you watched pirated copies of the latest DVDs, and you played football on the streets, and you were happy. How could this be poverty?

It was in high school that you first learnt about corruption, and accountability, and transparency. You had seen these things sometimes before, in certain of the opposition newspapers in the country, usually in an interview or essay by an opposition figurehead. But now as the port through which you viewed the world widened and you read about your country in books and magazines, and began to see yourself as others say you, you came across the words more and more often. In studies by toubab universities and think thanks and human rights organizations located in faraway Europe and America. You believed them, of course. You never had reason to doubt their statistics, their human rights and corruption lists. And yet a strange thing - in the government of your country, against which they made such grave accusations, the people who worked were your aunts and uncles, and the aunts and uncles of your friends and neighbors. People well known, regular people who showed no outward sign of being evil, or dishonest, in the execution of their duties. A quandary then - how could these same people be the ones in the studies, their primary cause, people who ought to be punished for their excesses, made to change their ways - how could these same people be the people you knew.*

And then you got a chance to travel, to leave your country and go to another one, that by all accounts was more developed, that had its own problems but nothing like the ones your country was reputed to have. You thought leaving - leaving your family and your friends and the country you had lived in all your life - would break your heart. You swore to yourself you would come back as soon as possible, you comforted yourself with this thought of eventual return, and it could not come fast enough. For the first few months in this new country all your thoughts were filled with your own country and your life there, all your speech about what you left behind. You called every opportunity you got, and though already people and the trajectory of their lives had begun to drift away from that of yours still you firmly held on to your memories.

A country is more than the land of its placing, more than the people of its inhabitation. These are all important parts of a country's definition. But there is something else, something intangible, which is necessary - the dream of the country, a quasi-mystical thing created by both citizens and, mysteriously, the very land of the country itself. The dream of your country, the one you had left behind, was a dream of everlasting peace, of a place so blessed by God there were proud recountings of Marabouts who had travelled across Africa to come there to pray. A place where evil was so foreign to the kind souls who inhabited it that the general agreement whenever a violent crime had been committed was that it had been done by a foreigner. A dream in which everyone helped everyone else, and all the doors to all the houses were open all day and all night, and food was everyone's food, and home happened to be wherever you were visiting at the moment. No matter how bad it is in a country under the gaze of external eyes still those within the country, the ones who have to live out their lives there, the ones who have the most stake in the country - these are the ones protected by the dream of the country, for that is its primary purpose: protection. (This is what people mean when they say they are more patriotic than others - they mean they are farther along in the adaptation of the dream, have embraced it more fully. And the ones they accuse of being unpatriotic, these are the ones who have not subscribed wholly to the dream, the ones ready to point out its flaws and just how much it deviates from reality.)

It was not only your country that had a dream, of course. This new country you went to, it had its own version too. A dream which in time came to thrill you, a dream much larger than the one you had left at home, grander and more majestic. A dream, after all, is a magical mirror we hold up to our reality, in order to distort it to our satisfaction. And what reality you came into contact with in this new country: fast-paced, ruthlessly efficient, larger than any life you had become accustomed to. A reality in which it took more money to create a movie - a work of fiction - than the entire GDP of your country in a given year, where the wheels turned with such energy, and people worked with such enthusiasm verve, even to the lowliest of janitors.

You met other people from your country who had fallen in love with this new country, who wanted nothing to do with going back home, and in the beginning you felt a weird pity mixed with contempt for them. How could they have been so brainwashed, you wondered. How could someone give up the rich self-contained-ness of mbahal bu tilim for the shapeless lump of fat that is the American burger, the largesse of our people for the tight-lipped smiles of the toubab stranger on the street, the sense of belonging that followed you around everywhere you went in your country, filling you with warmth and direction, as if the very land had been made for you and others like you. You thought of home as the ultimate destination, to which all roads led no matter how crooked they ran, no matter at what way stations they detoured - and you thought of these people as poor lost wanderers who had lost their paths, who would never fit in anywhere else and yet did not know it. You looked on them and you thought I will never turn into that, I will never become that.

And then an opportunity presented itself for you to go home. An unexpected one, that seemed to come out of nowhere. You became greatly excited. All your memories of home had in truth begun to fade with time, replaced by the harsh reality of your experiences of life in this new country. You had in effect begun to settle in, without ever noticing it, slowly like sediment into a riverbed, while the soft gentle watery flow of life in this new country washed over you. Things that were not in the immediate centre of your attention, but got picked up by your subconscious anyway. The way there were no soldiers walking about town, exercising their powers to arrest and intimidate. The way there was such a greater variety of food, from every culture you could imagine. How even with only a low-level job at one of the supermarkets you could still live a life that back home only higher-level government officials could live, own a car and go full-cart supermarket shopping every week. So even while a part of you pined for home, always at work in the background, your memories of it they became dimmer, as the light of the compelling new experiences you faced became even brighter.

And so while you were excited at the journey you were about to make back, tiny little slivers of doubt began to creep into your excitement. One morning you woke up and the thought occured to you - what if there is a problem with my visa and they do not let me come back, at the end of my trip. And here was an indication of how much you had changed - while in the beginning, immediately after your arrival this thought would have filled you with relief - you could go back, and you could stay home, where you belonged - now it filled you with alarm. You found though you wanted to go back still, you did not want to stay. This was the simple matter of it, despite the excuses you came up with in your head: that you only wanted to come back because there was still a degree waiting for you, that you would go back eventually, eventually, when everything was through and done with, that you would never abandon home. And this reluctance was the truth, and it was perhaps to keep denying it to yourself that you fought with such ferocity over the reputation of your country, deriding toubabs who did not understand it yet spoke up against it, filled with a righteous anger that threatened to choke you with indignation - what country after all did not have its problems.

But your innocence had been lost. Whether you were in the end able to shrug off this new dream that this new country you were in had thrown over your shoulders and over your head so it filled your sight and obscured the dream you had left behind, whether in the end you were able to return or not one thing had changed: you would never be able to look at your country the same again, as when you were a child and it was the only country in the world, or at least the only one that mattered, and its dream filled your head so there was no room for reality, that country-dream-robbing bastard, in collusion with age and experience to work its dark magic against you.


* This is one of the current problems of political thought in Gambia - from the inside, where we see the human face of all the charges made against us, and see that this face is indeed human and not diabolical, we come to the choice many Gambians are forced to make - and they choose either: a) to diabolize everyone who has anything even remotely to do with the government (which is the path sites like Freedom have taken) or b) to ignore everything wrong with the current system and pretend nothing could be better. And yet what we truly need is people who are willing to walk the middle path.