Friday, September 3, 2010

The Gambian Dream

Lately I have been thinking quite a bit about home. What it is, what it means. Of what materials it is constructed, how to go about building it. First start with an empty space, a place where your heart is at peace, and your mind is at rest. Add a comfortable bed, a warm interior. A living room, a TV. Portraits on the walls - your mother, your father. Dead relatives, pictures of your Serign on calendars. And then the people: a wife (or husband) who believes in you, children who give you pride. The rituals of adult life - the visits to the in-laws, the slaughtering of rams at Tobaski. All what is expected of a husband, and a father (or a wife, and a mother). And from all this, somehow, arising a feeling of contentment, greater than the sum of its parts. Going home sometimes in the car driving and listening to the radio you will imagine your wife waiting to eat lunch with you, your kids home from school, watching cartoons on TV before they go to sleep. And though it may only be fleeting still for a moment you will feel yourself and your place in the world, and the Creation and the part God wrote you to play in it - and all will be well. Is that definition true? And if it is, what of location? Does it matter, really, then? Could you not as well build this in Antarctica as in Timbooktoo?

Today was a long day at school. Ramadan and Calculus 3: two things that do not go well together. The old teacher dodders around the class - his voice seems to come from the past, muffled by layers of age, cobwebs and dusty rooms, grandchildren and world wars. He takes his time talking - his breathing measured and slow, the way everything he says begins as an almost tangible thought, slowly turning before our impatient eyes into his words, the mathematical concepts he wishes to convey. He chuckles at his own jokes, and we laugh politely (his jokes are of this kind: even the funniest ones can only be laughed at politely). What does he want from life, I wonder. Is it the same as what he wanted, once upon a time, when he was young and the road of his possibilities still stretched out before him, billboards on every side, advertising everything he could be. The richest man in the world, the cleverest, the one who discovered the cure for cancer, the one who found world peace at last. All the accolades that awaited him, the praise and envy of his peers. Ah you young people and your energy, a friend of mine told me recently. I had just finished excitedly explaining yet another idea that would change everything, and this was not the answer I expected. Yet it was a sobering answer, and the one, I realized later, that I needed to hear. In a way it was the answer that led to this writing.

The malls, I tell another friend of mine, the highways and the cars and the jobs and the money - all these things are a mask, that hide the true form of this land, that disguises from us the final fact: that we are not made for, cannot let down our roots, here. For us hotter climes, for us the "third world" (our home), for us the electric power cuts and the indifferent fire of the Sun, the thunderstorms and the lack of privacy. I say these things and I sound sad, even to myself. Why sad? Why not a rejoicing, in knowing where I aim to be, where I belong? The truth is I say these things and I do not know what they mean. The words are not of my making - they issue through me only, the aftereffects of an emotion which lies heavy in my heart. A strange thing: an aspiration, the beginnings of a hope, and yet at the same tinged with melancholy and not the soaring joy - I would imagine - of the true salvation. Where are the certainty and confidence that is supposed to accompany the epiphanies, the thoughts that burn bright and incandescent, and light the path into our future. My friend is silent, and does not reply, and I trail off in mid-sentence, and sit there helplessly looking at my hands. My thoughts are intense but nascent still, and I cannot quite articulate them to someone else, not just yet.

Once, when I first came to this country, I went to Washington, D.C., to visit a monument. In the morning, after eating a delicious breakfast cooked by a Senegalese man, who we teased half-seriously about opening his own restaurant chain. I do not remember the name of the place exactly - only that it contained a giant statue of Lincoln. And something else: on all the walls were plaques, and on the plaques there were inscriptions. I followed them from wall to wall, reading what they said. And as I read one after the other, it occurred to me that though they all spoke of different events still they were all part of a larger narrative. The story of America, and how great it was, and remains. The story of the heroic men and women who fought every single step of the way for this privilege. And I found myself carried away by it, this narrative, how inspiring it was, how it made you want to be a part of it. And then later thinking about it I saw past the rhetoric, and beneath it I saw just how profoundly powerful this narrative was, how effective, how it had linked men and women across the vast distances of this land and even across time, so though they worked individually and each in their own time and place still their minds were bent to a single purpose. And in my time here this has been the thing I have noticed most: how this narrative, this story - this idea - of the greatness of America is what lies at the heart of the nation. So central is it that every person who wishes to be successful politically - from Obama with his change campaign, to people like Glenn Beck and Palin with their hate-mongering - deploys it to their own advantage. And it all began with a colony determined to shake off the yoke of their colonial masters, the oppressive British - and ended after much hard work with the land of the brave, the home of the free, the greatest nation on earth. This is the story they tell themselves. And though there are dissenting voices, though it does not correlate exactly with history, no matter - it is sufficient for its purposes. The day of the presidential inauguration I watched Obama speak, and heard how he took this narrative and extended it, showing how it could be further refined, toward creating a "more perfect Union". I watched and for the duration of the speech, and many days afterward I thought, what can I not achieve in this country, under this President? The power of story, what it feels like to be part of a grander design, all in harmony, you and everyone else doing their part towards achieving a common goal, a noble goal.

Some - the lucky few - get to create their own narrative. To sit down and in collusion write the story of their nation, a collective dream, a way of being in the World as a people. Not so for us. "Undeveloped", "Third World", "Rampant Corruption", "Despotic Rule", "Tyranny", "Demagogues". Whether you agree with their descriptive veracity or not still you must realize: these are labels others have bestowed on us, and not ones of our own choosing. The personality of a person is an emergent phenomenon, built from the person's dreams, and the narratives the person has created to explain himself and his presence in the World. A country is no different, except in scale: it is built from the consensual narrative created by its citizens. On my last day in Gambia I went around visiting elders, to say goodbye, to have them pray for me. And without exception every single one of them told me the same thing. Torg fa deh! Bull jegeh waat fee yaip. Do not come back, when you have been fortunate enough to escape. They did not speak with bitterness - no one is bitter. We have learnt to joke about NAWEC, and the price of sugar, and how much faster your passport is processed if you buy "attaya" for the officer in charge. We shake our heads wryly, and chuckle at the state of things, and go on with our lives. This is the story of Gambia, we seem to be saying - what can we do but shrug and move on? And if somehow we manage to escape, who would be foolish enough to come back? Would that not be madness?

During the summer I met with people, and started work on a couple of projects. The digitization of government departments, the re-integration of the youth. I spoke with people about my ideas, and everywhere I was met with support and excitement - from the CEOs of tech companies to sunye boy yi sitting drinking attaya, of an evening. I was greatly moved, and filled with a sense of purpose. The first glimmerings of a destiny in waiting - the re-imagination of my country. Out with Gambia the poor, Gambia the corrupt. In with Jollof, richly cultured, filled with a people whose largesse and kindness of heart knew no bounds, who were willing to work hard for the greater good, for a time when our youth would watch the TV, and see on the news how desperate African youth from other countries tried (and died on) the back-way, and say Alhamdulillah, that I am content in my own country. Thank God, that neither I nor any of my friends would give up the comfort of our homes in order to break into our neighbor's houses, where we are greeted with neither friendliness nor welcoming. It will work, I said over and over about my plans. It will work and the youth will be saved, the country will prosper. Repeating this over and over to people I had already convinced, people who would vehemently agree with me. As if I myself needed convincing, and sought it in the faith of others.

In time our narratives come to represent the truth, until the two are indistinguishable. And then how hard it is to change them. The truth, after all, cannot be changed, but only escaped from. And so once our narratives have assumed this air of truth - because, perhaps, we have heard them so many times repeated we have lost all certainty as to their falsehood, we are filled with doubt - we give up on ever changing them. We settle into them, and define ourselves using them. And there lies the great and the sad and the true danger. For it is our narratives which define our actions, and in what ways we will attempt to leave our mark on the world.

I miss my mother, and my family. I miss my boys at T Road, and my Kombo crew, and my Lancaster youth. I miss walking down the street feeling, if not pride, at least a contentment at who I am, and how I am perceived. We like your writing, people tell me, and I smile and I feel rewarded, and I am encouraged to write more. He knows so much about computers, people say, and though this is an exaggeration still it is one I wish to grow into, to fill, and so I learn new technologies, and give lectures at our local youth computer club. Yet all these, on closer inspection, are not enough of a reason to return, when it comes right down to it. The people I miss I could see as many times as I can afford to come on holidays - many Gambians are "based" in Europe, returning every December to all-white parties and with new cars, and perhaps some more progress on the house they are building, to stand empty and as a promise of home, a placeholder for themselves in their absence. And - note that I do not say this in any mean-spirited way, or as a put-down - it is easy to be the best in Gambia at something. We are small, and have had neither the opportunities nor the experience of other nations. And so to excel in a field - whether it be writing or computers or football - one would be served much better living abroad, where good writers - to take one instance - are a dime a dozen, and the people considered emasters are truly dazzling in their virtuosity. Why come home then? I do not know what I would do in Jollof, is a common - and valid - excuse. Where would I work? Where would I live? And then there is the bigger problem, the unnameable one: our political system, and how rotten it is, and how it has somehow managed to infect every arena of our lives. So there is no such thing as staying apolitical - one must swear allegiances, or suffer the consequences. Silence is opposition, and opposition is bad. People are persecuted day and night for their beliefs. At least this is what sites like Freedom Newspaper would have you believe. The situation is irrecoverably bad, their lurid headlines scream at anyone who cares to read them. Yet this constant fear-mongering and doom-saying about our prospects is more a reflection of the minds of the people who write the articles on those websites than of reality which, as usual, is much more nuanced.

In our heads we are all writing the story of our lives, composing and editing it, imagining ourselves in the way we would like to be imagined by other people. Imagine a para and one of the boys fighting, at a Nawetaan match. The same reality for the both of them: two men struggling with each other, a shirt pulled until it ripped, an increasingly hostile crowd, tear gas, match flames under noses. And yet how differently each writes down the story in the book of himself, in his mind. The Banjul Boy: I am a citizen of Banjul, I have my rights, how dare they bring some uneducated fool from up-country and give him power over me? The Para: These Banjul boys have no discipline, they look down on us, spoilt brats the lot of them; bring one to live with me for a month and see how he fares. And both men feel persecuted, and both men feel great indignation. In the narratives you write of yourself you are always the hero, even your bad actions justified, at increasing levels of sophistication. I saw a news article once that spoke of a society in the American south, which was printing leaflets "proving" that contrary to popular belief the owners of slaves had in fact benefited the men and women under their bondage greatly, causing them to begin to get educations and become a bit more civilized. Our narratives do not start and end with us. They stretch back into the past, running over into the narratives of our ancestors, and all that they did. Or did not do. And at the same time our own role changes, we move into the position of ancestor for a new generation, our actions defining them. Our children, and their children after them, inheriting what we have left behind. Sunye maam yi denye baayorn sehn lohor deh, we say, nunye feheh beh toubab yi nah lehn?

What will be said about us, by the generations yet unborn?

A man is ugly and stupid, and shames himself every time he opens his mouth in public. He thinks, I must dress better, I have too little hair, my hands are too big, if only God had made me more handsome. I must listen to the popular ones speak and parrot them. Yet no matter how long he does this for he cannot ever seem to become happy about himself and his place in the world. He is filled with a resigned envy, at everyone who is more "perfect" than him. He lives out his days like this. Until one day he realizes: it is I who decide whether I am ugly and stupid and uninteresting, and not anyone else. Such a little thing, this discovery. Yet it changes the tenor of his life. It is OK if, sometimes, he says things that people laugh at. He laughs with them, and learns. It is OK if he is not the prettiest person in the room, or the most well dressed. He is himself, and he is imperfect and unfinished, and he realizes this and he works at improving himself. He lives happily after that, knowing no envy and no jealousy. And he notices too, that all that he admired in others he himself possesses, more or less, but that he lacked the most important thing: a confidence in himself, a belief, a narrative of his own making that cast him in the light he wanted to be seen in.

Once I used to be scared of my insomnia. The way it stretched on into the night, a flat and empty road, dull and dreary, filled with despair. Like a metaphor for life -and how heavy the rest of my days would seem, as I lay in bed and stared into the black caverns above me. I would drink sleeping pills, and surrender to merciful dreamless sleep before it was midnight. I studied, I read, I went to class. To what end? I did not ever ask myself this seriously, but only had vague ideas of what I would do. A relaxed daydream of one day opening a tech company in Gambia with Serign. All in the future, all to be approached lazily and at leisure. Sometimes what we lack is a sense of direction, of what we ought to do, now that we are here. There are Gambians abroad who have lived in the exact same apartment for ten years, worked at the same low-level job, slept on the same bed, and never aspired for anything. They may know a peace I do not know. But rather I think it is that they lack a dream, have become stuck in their situation, while time carries them along as they stand still. Living out lives of apathy, an undercurrent of desperation. Sometimes I feel that this is the way Gambia is too. Daf kor nampa, people will say, of behaviors. Might as well say chi kow suuf sim judoe la... We inherit our religion from our parents. And we inherit too their dreams of us, whether these become our guiding light or the thing we struggle against becoming all our lives. And from our country, our homeland, what do we inherit?

Ham sa borpa chi jaamu yaala la borka, our Oustasses say. We as a nation are imperfect and unfinished. How mean that sounds, how jaded. Yet look around you and tell me what nation is perfect and finished. Tell me what nation does not have its problems, qualities that its citizens do not like about it. Everyone who leaves the country to go to Europe or America comes back with the same story. How hard it is there, how difficult life is, unlike anything they were ever trained to expect, by TV, or by the common dream of America. For it goes both ways. People create narratives of us, not as detailed as the one they create for themselves. But still having the power to affect our own self-narratives. Ku nyayp tufli nga torye. If everyone you know believes you are a bad person for long enough, you WILL become one. If your fellow nations see you as poor and corrupt and beyond saving for long enough... And so we admire other nations, and look down upon ourselves.

I do not wish to suggest there is no hope. Far from it. We live in a good time, our country full of more promise than at any previous time. There are more Gambian college graduates - and even PhDs - than ever before. And that is only speaking of the educational side of things. Then there are all the Gambians who have traveled abroad and come back - even if not with new skills - at least with an expanded view of the world. Then there are the skilled and educated within the country, who have never traveled. The only Gambian I know who I would call a genius without reservation went to the University of the Gambia, and could do advanced Math problems which I couldn't solve even with the help of a computer. And then there is our greatest untapped resource: all the fine minds, sharp as whips, that have been labelled part of the illiterate majority, their lack of command of the English language a layer of ice frozen and concealing them and their talents. What if, for a whole year, all these different categories of people came together, and set aside their differences, and subscribed wholly to a new narrative of Jollof, one which traced its lineage back to our proud roots, our empires of old, and from thence made its way into the future, our present. A story of self-belief. A reclaiming of the language used to describe us: "forming" instead of "undeveloped", "sutura" instead of "baadorla", "saaku kaatan" instead of "naywe dorleh"? What if we believed this for more than a year, for five years, for a decade, what if we let this become our national dream, our common vision, convincing the people abroad to come home at last, and the ones here to stay - or leave to acquire what skills and knowledge they could, and then return.

One can spend all night, of course, speaking about dreams and narratives. But daylight throws our reality into sharp relief. We do not have that much money. We are such a tiny part of the world. And this will only work if we all do it together - I'm not going to sacrifice my happiness while others enjoy their lives with their families. All common excuses, all in some way based on "facts". Those outside dread returning, those inside think only of escape. What a way to perceive one's country: as a prison - a prison containing all the people one loves, but a prison nevertheless, the visa issuers at the various embassies the only ones who can release us from it, the all-powerful gatekeepers, elevated to almost mythical status. Sitting behind reinforced glass partitions, deciding our fates. Subjecting us to all manner of humiliations, starting out with the assumption that we are liars and thieves, who will do anything to get into their countries, and be a great burden on their social systems, that they have worked so hard to build, over the years. And though we are a proud people we take all this and more. It is not so much that we hate our country - no Gambian would choose to live anywhere else if what they sought existed back home. But what they seek - a chance at a better life - seems only achievable abroad.

We are a religious people. If I asked any Gambian, can God not make us prosperous, their answer would be swift and not even requiring thought on their part: Of course He can! Yet Yaala yaala bey sa torl, our elders say - and though it may sound trite sometimes it is all we have. To do our best, and to know we have done our best. To leave the rest to God - that which is not in our hands. It is not as if this is a new way of thinking. It has always been our philosophy as a people. Suma haalis b dama kor nyaha!, people say with great (and deserved) pride, fog mu am Barr-keh. This family has Barr-keh, people say. Meaning all in the family worked hard to achieve all they have achieved. The closest word to barr-keh is "blessing". But blessing, the word, does not cover everything barr-keh is. There will be the fruit of our labors: that is prosperity, naataangeh. But barr-keh we do not work for - it arises naturally as the result of our toil. And if we all nyaha for Jollof, how much Barr-keh will that be? For Barr-keh is not just external, something from God. That is only a part of it. A larger part is what is inside us, the ability to look at what we have done and think, we achieved this, and no one else.

There are sacrifices involved, of course. It would be irresponsible to pretend otherwise. The small conveniences - access to wallmart, and movie theaters, and all the other front-facing products of a capitalistic society. And the big ones - better health care, access to better education. These things seem impossible to live without. Yet it turns out that this is not true. There are people who have returned, with their whole families, and they have survived it. We do not live in trees, after all. And though it is a slow process we are always improving. And as with all sacrifice, soon we come to realize that the things we want are not always the things we need.

A nice paragraph at the end, then, to summarize all I have said. If only it were that easy. If only I could write "let us all go home, and work at developing our country", and pretend that because I am thinking along these lines I am a "better" citizen. But though this is tempting, it is not a position that will in the end achieve anything, except perhaps make me feel better about myself, nor is it a valid one. We all have our own lives, and our reasons for what we do, and who among us has the right to decide for another. There are no easy answers. I cannot say, let us do this and it will save the country - no one can. But I want you, wherever you are, to stop for a moment and imagine Gambia, Jollof, our nation that has given us so much and never complained or asked for anything back. And I want you for a moment to think of her, not as ugly, not as a hopeless case,not as others see her. But also do not think of her as what she is not: rich, or powerful. Here is what want you to imagine instead: Once there was a small country west Africa, home to less than two million people. And this country was a young county, and though she did not possess what other, bigger countries possessed, though she lacked resources, still she held her own, and believed in herself, for one reason: her children, spread all over the world, always had her in mind, and would come back to her, and care for her, and change her into everything she was yet to become.

"Africa dream again", Youssou Ndour sings. All we need to start with is a dream. And then who can stop us.


  1. Your passion is inspiring. Your dreams big, wide and one that needs to be executed.

  2. Tough-now I donno what to think, it's like you've laid it all out. And now to the real battle of convincing myself to actually go back and make things happen.(...hmmmm)

  3. wow nice, a real eye-opener