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.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Kiss Diary of Aja Dr Mariam Sabally (Former First Lady, wife to the first President of the Republic)

[Editor's Note: this was delivered to us in the mail, a tattered excercise book. There was a note with it: "publish it - his memory deserves better than the current vitriol being circulated. Please do not contact me. (Aja Mariam)". Though we have taken pains to ensure that the so-called diary is authentic, we have respected the author's wish and have not contacted her, though we are as full of questions as you doubtless will be after you read it.]


The first time is a softness. Yes, in his lips, on his mouth. But also in the way he holds me - in his embrace there is desire, barely tamed, making his hands shiver.

He begins with his hands on my waist, their pressure barely felt through my blouse, his mouth come in quest of mine. And we find each other the first time, despite the dark behind our closed eyes, and as we ease into the kiss his hands increase their pressure on my waist, and he is holding me properly now, and he is becoming more confident.

It is a selfless kiss - all his attention is on me, and it passes warm shocks through my chest that make my stomach tingle. And I know this is him, this is the man I want to be kissing, every night, how could I have survived without having been kissed like this before, this is the man whose attention I want. And I can't help it, I sigh, and it ends the kiss - he pulls his mouth away, and holds my head to his chest, and rubs my head.

I feel like some music, dear kiss diary. And perhaps some warm milk, before I sleep.


If you wish to know a man, dear kiss diary, then kiss him. Their words lie, but their kisses cannot - I believe this. My mouth is all smiles. I can't hide my teeth, dear kiss diary, I am in such a playful mood today.

When he arrived last night he found me sitting alone in the room.

- What is it?

- Nothing, I said.

He took me in his arms, and flicked at my nose with his finger, gently.

- Ow, I said, softly.

- Tell me, he said, flicking at it again, or I will not stop.

I shook my head unh-unh. He bent, toward me, the shadow of his face darkening mine... The smell of a person, dear kiss diary, contains a mini-history of them, of all they have done during the day: a whiff of the spray they touched here, a whaff of the domoda they ate for lunch...

Tonight's is a different kiss, from the kiss of the first night - it is full of an experienced tenderness, the beginnings of a maturity, a setting down of roots, and when he is done my dark mood is all dissipated, I want only to lie in his arms and listen to the rumble of his voice, the rise and fall of his chest.


There are sly ways into a man's heart, ways of shamelessness, ways of seduction.

Yet better than these is his own way, when he holds your hand and takes you in past the walls of brick he has constructed, the dungeons of his manliness.

This is what his kisses do, tonight: they let me in. I am his lover, and also, paradoxically, I am his mother.

Tonight our roles are reversed - I am the giver, and he receives, with gratitude, as I have received before, and there is no greater sign of how much I mean to him. I wonder what happened, what changed.

What is it tonight?, I ask his presence in the dark, my hand rubbing his chest, caressing his answer out. What do you mean? he asks, and I realize my mistake: there are to be no sounds here. Sounds ruin the moment, speech is too much. So I lay my fingers gently on his lips, and he takes them into his mouth, and begins to suck on them, and past that point, dear kiss diary, I am not willing to explain...


Tonight he is not there, he is in another place and the kiss is a horrible one: glugging, liquid, fumbling lips.

I pull away soon after it begins, pushing back at his chest.

He runs his hand distractedly over my hair, down to my shoulders. His eyes gaze off into the distance, another place reflected in them, a longing... He notices me watching and looks down into my upturned face. He gives me a peck, a dab of wetness lacking in emotion.

- What is it my love? I scratch his head, his receding hairline.

- I'm sorry - I am not myself today.

- Hmmm, I say. Perhaps we can remedy that.

I pull him toward me and into the bed, I sit in his lap and put my arms around his neck and do a little jiggling dance. And he puts his hands to either side of me and brings them together. He draws me close, and he holds me still, my heart beating against his.

But he is not there still - he does not embrace me, he holds me like a man holding a sack, stiff, unfeeling. After a time he climbs into bed - an unentangling of limbs - and pulls me to him, and lays me down on his chest, his hand on my back, the slightest of touches.

And he begins to talk, and I can hear the rumblings in his voicebox before the words come out of his mouth, and my breathing slows.

- It is this bloody repatriation attempt, he says. That is what they do not like.

His voice is a flatness, without hope in sight. I throw my arm around him, bringing it up behind him, drawing him closer in a hug. He turns to face me, and our breath falls on each others' faces: his warm and tinged with peppermint, cigarette smoke, chuyi kong...

- The toubab, he says, they are the ones behind all this. That is why it is impossible to win. And he sounds sad, so sad I squeeze him tighter, and he is not holding me anymore, his arms have gone slack. He is completely in my embrace. I kiss his forehead, and tell him he'll be fine.

He lies there while his breath slows, and turns into snores that start in his stomach and rattle around in his throat.


I have not seen him in two weeks. When he comes tonight the kiss is urgent, a brief thing, a momentary brushing of lips - and I wish to lock onto his mouth, and close my eyes, and hold on to him that way. But he will not engage, he draws back, and stands at a distance, his arms stretched out, his hands on my shoulders. He looks tired, and he looks happy, and it gladdens my heart, but it saddens me too, for he is not mine tonight, there is a distance between us. He seems overworked and exhausted, his face newly gaunt, his baldness seeming to have advanced even further.

- The Independence documents are all signed, he tells me over dinner (for while on other nights he has rushed straight to the bed tonight he insists that we sit down for a meal).

- Very good, I say, and I try to smile. But he knows me too well. He drinks the last of his water, he wipes off his mouth with a napkin. Then he comes to stand behind me. He puts his arms around my chair, and kisses my cheek. His beard is a five-day stubble, and it tickles - I can't help but smile.

- See, he says, that's better. Now let's see what the full one will do...

And he turns my chair around and... well, kiss diary, let us just say that night the Independence of the country was not the foremost thing on his mind.


Tonight he holds me tight - in his embrace there is possession, a hint of violence.

Many things happen, but this is a kiss diary, and I am already being immodest enough. But the kisses - there are too many to recount.

Only, dear kiss diary, he has never kissed me like this. Each is a climax, a new record, and yet the next somehow manages to improve on it.

He seems to be scaling mountains, he seems to be sailing seas. The warring parts in him, the violence and the sensuality, have come together in perfect union, and the results... Even thinking of them makes me breathless. He takes me to peaks I have never been to, and we come down again and I cry, and I am the happiest person in the world, and I am the saddest person in the world, for I shall never feel like this again, yet again he takes my hand and runs back up with me, now slow, now fast...

Afterward I go to sleep in the warm hollows of his chest, and dream I am at home with my mother, and there is a look of approval in her eyes. When the dream ends my eyes open, and he is lying there, his face slack with sleep, his arm bent awkwardly under me. I shift, bring it around to wrap around me again, snuggle into him, and let myself wander back into sleep...


He has not showered. I can smell him as soon as he comes in, from the door. I rush to him.

A rubbing of lips. His mouth is dry, his lips are chapped.

- Where, I say, you could not even send a message. All I hear I hear on the rad...

- Shhh, he says, holding his hand up to my lips. We don't have time. I have to go.

- To go? Where?

- The toubab have armed a rebel group... I cannot stay here - it is too risky - I must retreat back into the lower river, and re-assemble.

His eyes dart about the room as he speaks. He keeps looking behind himself. He does not look at me, cannot see how stiffly I stand, the frostiness of my expression. Finally I can't take it any longer.

- And me?, I said.

- What?, he said. Oh - well you'll be fine. Of course you'll be fine, he says, putting his hand on my shoulders. - Separate plans have been made... you will be given enough money... you will live well all your life.

A notion for violence comes over me then, dear kiss diary. He sees the look in my face, and misreading it comes up to me. He stoops forward and lays his lips on mine.

I don't know what comes over me - I bite down on his lower lip. He gives a start, but then tries to relax, to indulge me. I can feel his impatience.

I bite down harder. The bitter taste of blood in my mouth. He pushes me away roughly, his hand coming up to feel his lip.

- What is wrong with you he shouts. I stand there and watch him, and do not say a word. He keeps touching his lip, and looking at the blood disbelievingly. Then the look of rage on his face turns to one of disgust, and he turns and leaves the room.

- Behave yourself, he shouts behind hihim, now is not the time for all these your theatrics.

And then he is gone.

Time: A Story of Love

The problem is one of time, the old soothsayer says, casting her cowries with a flick to the left.

What do you mean?, he asks her.

You are trapped in her past, the old soothsayer says, and she in your future. And sometimes the other way round.

He is silent, mulls over this.

How can that be possible?

In the night he holds her and she cries. Like a baby, a little baby in the arms of its mother. Once she calls him "Mama!". Once she reaches for his breast, as if to suckle. A child, her past. And he here now, in the now. He holds her tight as she sleeps, and his heart is filled with sorrow that they cannot be together.

Time is but an illusion, the old soothsayer says, casting her cowries with a flick to the right. And it is the mind that lies under the illusion. Free it and the illusion will be gone - poof! The soothsayer lifts her clenched fist in the air and opens it to release an empty hand. And then a minute later a cowrie appears in its center, and drops to the floor, turning over and over in the candlelight.

At the table at dinner. She is hunched forward over her plate, the air around her filled with age.

Pass me the salt, grandchild, she says to him. Her voice is drawled, her eyes are lazy.

He is filled with a sadness, that obstructs his throat. A grandmother, her future. And he in her past, trapped here now…

I could tell you to take life, the old soothsayer says, casting her cowries with a flick forward. I could tell you to kill calfs, or goats, or chicken. But if time is an illusion, then what do you suppose life is? And so then what is death?

Honey, he says, a box of chocolates in his hands, a hope in his eyes, I brought you a gift.

Why thank you, she says, and her smile forms the beginnings of a sob in his breast - could it be true? Could she be here in his now?

...but Babucarr Mbye, she continues, and his heart sinks, Babucarr Mbye I told you that I do not date.

Her high school days. Her past. And he in the future now, trapped in her now.

He reaches to hug her but she steps back, rolls her eyes and cheepus, and sidesteps him.

Time is an illusion, but a necessary one, the old soothsayer says, casting her cowries with a flick toward herself. We must move forward through it. It is the basis of all our promises, our hopes and dreams.

There is silence in the room. Dogs howl outside, distant yells of "Serr-Kunda Nyaari Palaas!".

He has not spoken for so long when his voice finally comes out of the dark it is broken, and it takes a couple of coughs to start it.

And also our sorrow, he says.

Yes, the old soothsayer says, gathering her cowries to her, a circled hollow before her tattered malaan. But without time all become compressed, into one single spot. And how unbearable that is.

He looks at her, and her eyes are a mirror, and he sees himself reflected in them. He sighs, and bows his head, and puts his face in his hands.

He stands before the casket, where she lies, her skin pale.

Every now she looks as if she could get up and spring back into her soul and her life, back into his arms.

Every then she looks as if she never possessed life, had never felt warm against his body, had always been a thing of coldness and white garments.

And he understands, and her now, and his now, and past and present and possible future intertwine and explode and he is filled with grief and his chest cannot hold it anymore and he is only a man and it comes exploding out of him, a violent catch of breath, a bending over, a wail of sorrow.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Excerpt from A Gambian Action Movie [An Attempt at a Movie Scene]

The people who stand outside on the road are like a soundtrack. When Jaiteh Kabaa passes they cheer loudly, in their tattered clothes and oppressed hairstyles. And then they see the police approach, and they all fall silent. Close-ups of a few of their faces showing the change from excitement into a hardness. Inside the cars the faces of the police filled with a stern determination.

The police cars race, Jaiteh Kabaa leading them.

Inside of Jaiteh Kabaa's car.

Gear change. One, to Two.

Close up of Jaiteh Kabaa's face. Dashingly handsome, like those action movie stars. A toothpick clenched between his front teeth, a carefree smile on his face. He seems to be positively enjoying himself.

A drum beat, deep, resonating, in the background.

Gear Change. Two to Three. The roar of an engine discovering its power.

Close up, of Jaiteh Kabaa's face. A look of slight concentration now, though he still looks like he doesn't have a care in the world.

Outside of the car. The police cars are in hot pursuit, though there is still distance between them and the criminal's car.

At the traffic lights. Cars head from the north, cars head from the east. A close-up of the light, changing from yellow to green. The northern cars stopping, the eastern cars beginning to roll forward. And headed for a collision with the line of cars is Jaiteh Kabaa.

Pounding music, quick and clean shots establishing the truth: line of cars, traffic lights, the steel body of Jaiteh Kabaa's car gleaming under the Sun. Then an overhead shot showing us the whole scene, Jaiteh Kabaa headed toward his doom. Pulse-pounding music.

Switch to inside of car. Break pressed down on with foot, clad in ragged leather shoe. Hand switching gear fluidly, leg on break lightly letting up while that on accelerator matches its rise with a descent.

Close up of Jaiteh Kabaa's grim face.

A screeching of tires, a screaming of drivers.

The northern light switching to yellow, the eastern light switching to red.

A gap between the line of cars opening, so small, so tiny…

A sliding, of Jaiteh Kabaa's car. A close-up of his foot on the brake, the car beginning to drift. Its tires emit smoke, for a moment he looks almost about to lose control over it.

And then clean as a barber's shave his car squeezes into the tiny gap formed in the line of cars, spinning into it, a 360-degree twirl that leaves it emerging on the other side still headed in the same direction.

A last shot of the scene behind him, a confused contortion of cars, horns beeping wildly, drivers arguing furiously over whose fault it is.

Close up of Jaiteh Kabaa's face, hand patting his hair down, the sweat on his brow, the relief and self-congratulation on his face.

Two of the police cars arrive at that instant

and brake just in time to prevent an accident. Close up of the police faces, angry, mouths moving in random insults and threats.

The two following police cars manage to make it

quickly dipping in through the Shell and dipping out again on the other side.

Jaiteh Kabaa taking the turn into Bakau. A shot of Timbooktoo, an orange seller with his wheelbarrow in front of it.

One police car racing past the junction, its driver not wised up in time.

One police car taking the turn, narrowly missing a lame man crossing the road, who abandons his crutches and runs for dear life.

The race down the empty highway.

Close up of the Marina signboard racing past. Close up of a beaureaux de change. Yellow fences and blue compound gates, red Peul shops stamped all over with the coca cola sign.

Almost at the junction that leads right to the stadium.

Close up of Jaiteh Kabaa's face, lips pursed up, eyes a slit of concentration.

Police car racing behind, siren on at full blast. People stopping on the street to see what is going on, snatching back their children.

Gear Change. Three to Two. A light touch of the brakes, a foot hovering over them.

Jaiteh Kabaa's hands, a gentle pressure on the wheel

An outside shot, showing both cars, rushing down the road at breakneck speed.

A drum roll.

And then Jaiteh Kabaa's car, slippery as a fish, elusive as love, takes the right turn that we did not even know was there, sliding gently off the road and, almost as an afterthought, changing its direction.

The police attempting to take it too, but not so fast, not in so old a car.

Close up of the police man's face, his widening eyes, his mouth an O of surprise.

A man riding a bicycle appearing in front of him, wobbling in fright.

He swerves to avoid him

And crashes into a cartoon of mayonnaise lying by the side of the road. It softens the crash, and he is covered in exploding mayonnaise.

He gets out of the car, shaking his fist at the sky.

Close up of Jaiteh Kabaa's face, a smile on it.

Transcript of a Parliamentary Session on the New Laws Concerning Youth Delinquency [FICTION]

- Weed is not the problem you see. It is an answer, a proposed solution from a set of available solutions. The youth smoke it becomes of the place it takes them to, a world that lays itself over this one, a transparent film that blurs the edges of experience, that roughens out the sharp corners. So they are not such failures, after all, as they are told they are. They use it because they seek to escape their hard reality.

- Hey Alaji Mbacke you sympathize too much with these fools. The problem is one of laziness. Our reality was harder, yet we bore it, we rose even with the heavy load on our shoulders, we sought out jobs, we sought out educations and families and responsibilities. If we could do it in a harder time what is to stop them doing it now? It is only laziness. Throw all users of drugs into jails. Clean out the dregs of the gutter, let us start fresh, with youth who are ready to work hard…

- But as long as we prosecute them only and do not try to fix the problem at its root our prisons will only fill up, our judges will only be overworked.

- Then let them be Alaji Mbacke. It is of no consequence. We will have no compromise with this - we have compromised too much with them already as it is.

- The youth in my municipality ask for new stadium, they complain the old one for their Nawetaans has grown ragged with misuse.

- Yes, Alaji Jobe. You have brought this up before. There will be no more concessions, unless they change their attitude.

- I agree, Mr Chairman. But a death penalty, against the sellers of weed, perhaps a bit too harsh…

- In the countries of Arabia, Mr Johnson, all who peddle in illegal drugs are put to death, without exception. And in the countries of Arabia the name of Allah is spoken out loud, and the land is prosperous, and all are content. In the countries of Europe drug peddlers are thrown into jail and then freed - a small price to pay for the profits in their trade. In the countries of Europe the prisons are full, and the youth are wayward, and all manners of liecentiousness and God-disrespecting goes on. Mr Johnson, I ask you, which of these would you want us to be?

- I understand, Mr Chairman, but it is only that there may sometimes be mistakes…

- Then Allah will forgive them, Mr Johnson, for they are for a just cause.

- An overeager purge can only lead to disastrous results. The question is do we wish to reform the youth, or do we wish to merely exterminate them? Are they our future, needy of nurturing, or are they are our foes, pests to be removed.

- Your flowery rhetoric, Alaji Mbacke, strikes a chord even in my heart. But we here in the world of lesser words depend on facts, for this is a serious business, and not a scene in one of your novels. Now, shall we have the voting?

- I forward the motion regarding the new measures for the curtailment of youth delinquency.

- I second it.

- All in favor - a show of hands. Good. And all not? Good. Very well, the motion is passed. I congratulate you on what you have achieved today, against vice in our great country. We shall now adjourn for a fifteen minute break.

The Day the Spirits of the Country Departed: A Fable

You have your Jinay, Old Man Time says, and you have your Religion. Will you not hold on to these?

No, Mother Gambia says, and the word falls like a hammer, thundering through the frail air. I am tired of having only these, and nothing else. I am tired of watching my children… And there is a block in her voice, that stops the sound, and her eyes that are cast down on the ground are filled with a wetness, and she cannot continue, she trails off…

Old Man Time looks at the ground, and strokes his beard. There is a grave frown on his forehead. When he finally speaks the clearing falls silent, the babble of the brook is muted, the birds no longer sing.

Very Well, he says to Mother Gambia. Depart this place now, and go back home. In forty days you will begin to see the changes you desire.

Thank you Father, Mother Gambia says (for that is what he was to her, and she his last daughter, his chaat). And Mother Gambia turned around and limped her way out of that place, on arthritic knees, her kaala falling back down to her ample behind, bent over almost like a hunchback, on her shoulders a great load. And Father Time watched her go, and there was a sadness in his eyes, a pity almost.

The Doma were the first to leave. They met at Haddington on a night when a darkness descended on the country, all the streetlights off, everyone blaming NAWEC, whose generators had mysteriously stopped working (there was talk of sabotage, wires cut in the dead of night - but no one knew the truth). A quiet night, with everyone indoors, as if everyone had reached an unspoken consensus. All was silent until midnight. Then a wind sprang up. Dogs barked. A parliament of owls gathered outside, the night air thick with dread. Troubling dreams visited the sleep of the people, inside the houses: dreams filled with blood and misplaced hearts hanging from trees under the dark aegis of the moon, coal no protection, jahatu no protection, a final reckoning… and then just like that the Doma were gone, and the Sun rose.

The Jinay left after that, on a Saturday. Theirs was a midday departure, from the beach - the wind whipped through the trees, sharp as a knife (young people on the beach playing football ran home with blood on their arms, swearing the wind had cut clean through their clothes). The Jinay arrived in a great host, and their approach could be heard from very far away, and all who heard it ran back indoors and locked themselves into their rooms, for it was a terrible sound (one young man who had been chatting up a girl ran past her into the girl's own house, and was later found under the girl's bed quaking in fear, the edges of his shirt in his mouth). And at the head of the host of Jinay were a thousand Ifrit, their eyes glinting with lightning, and they sang the Jinay marching song, and their voices were full of thunder, and their tone was mournful, for they had grown to love this country, the country of their descent into the World Shaytaan had condemned them to inhabit, and they would rather not have left it. And they all arrived on the beach, and at the hour of the tisbaar there was a great gathering of clouds, and it went dark as if it was timis, and people readied themselves for the coming thunderstorm, which was sure to be big. But the clouds merely dissipated, and the wind stopped cutting, and the heavy presence that had hung from the sky lifted and everyone came out of their rooms and onto the street once more.

Then the kondorong left, and their cousins the coos. The ninki-nanka left; then the ghosts of the streets, the half-people, the sewer-men (who live under the pot-holes in Banjul - sometimes the smoke from their fires rises through the vents in the pot holes at night - people mistake this for steam). And then the beings of the air: the spirits that torment people suffering from the disease of the soul the toubabs mistakenly call epillepsy; the spirits that live in trees, and are the reason why certain leaves will cure certain diseases, if the essence of the spirit is first extracted with fire and water; the spirits that make women unable to bear children for their husbands, leading to much shame and unhappiness; the spirits that poison wells; the spirits that steal away children, in the dead of night, while their parents sleep and the little ones walk the streets as if lost, with no shoes on their feet; the spirits that guard the timis, the gateway between the world of the living and the world of the not-quite-alive (which is why the merr say: do not go out at timis, for these spirits are most powerful then); the spirits that enter into the bodies of girls who wear clothes too exposing, in order to become their lovers (these are the spirits of lust, whose favorite places of dwelling are the nightclubs of the country); these and many other spirits too numerous to recount left, in that time.

And the people did not realize at first what had happened, though in the streets and the back alleys, in the marches and the bantabas, under the shade of the baobab trees, and in the places where the youth gathered to drink attaya, there was a lessening of dread. The darkness seemed less dark, somehow, at night; now when people heard stories of Jinay and old women who transformed at night into fantastic shapes of haunting presence they only laughed, and paid no heed to them.

Old people say much, and the young people of the country had learnt to ignore them, to have their babblings recede into a background they paid no attention to, as they walked the ancient but newly-discovered paths that their lives revealed, rediscovering love, and enmity, and friendship. And the old people have invented a proverb, which they use to warn the young. An old person, they say (always when it is too late, when their advice has fallen on deaf ears and the calamity not been avoided), will lie on the ground and see what a younger one will not see from the tree tops. And this proverb, too, the young have learnt to ignore, for it makes sense only in retrospect, when we evaluate it against our memories.

In any case it was the old people who noticed something wrong first, before anyone else. Nightmares had become a thing of the past, and after a while dreams followed them. People who slept inhabited a space of blankness, and all about them was nothing, not the dreamspace that sleep gives us access to, not even time. And though at first it was peaceful ("Oh how well I sleep these days", one light-mouthed Serahule insomniac was overheard saying over her breakfast of ruye), over time it began to fill people with an unease they could neither explain nor shake off, that followed them like a shadow through the day, a frown on their brows, an impatience, a yearning, like a smoker's need for a cigarette, a fist stuck irrecoverably in a clench.... and from there it progressed. Children stopped crying (and no longer able to cry they lost too the ability to laugh, their eyes filled with an emptiness that made their frustrated parents lash out at them in anger, at their wits' end how to recover some emotion in them, to make them react to something, anything... And they suffered the blows and did not cry, and more than one parent was driven to madness). In the morning the cocks would not crow, but sat hunched as if from the cold, a sickness in their beady eyes...

And then the suicides began. The less said about the suicides the better, for they were a painful time in history. Many were lost: unexpectedly, without warning. Children orphaned, mothers left without their chaats, fathers coming home to fire and blood, to water, to rocks and ropes and, in at least one case, a stake of wood sharpened to a fine, accurate point (and how devastatingly well it did its job).

Mother Gambia is old, Mother Gambia is sick. She has spent her whole life working to ensure a good future for her children. Yet she has never felt as powerless as this, not even that time long ago, when she allowed the toubab to alight onto her shores, thinking them generous and kind, thinking them friends and perhaps even, in time, kinsfolk to her children, joint inhabitants of the given World: peers, equal... Mother Gambia watches her children die, and she weeps, for she is filled with guilt. And so one morning she travels once more to the dwelling of her father.

She wears a red kaala today, embroidered with a pattern of gold that glints when the sunlight falls on it. Her feet are even worse than usual - every step is an effort. She settles on the stump of a tree, opposite where he sits. He has been expecting her - he shows no surprise at her visit. He knows what she has come for.

If it is not too late, her eyes say, and there is a pleading written into her gaze, though she does not get down on her knees her sitting pose is one of supplication, the way her head is bowed speaks of remorse. Old Man Time is not a cruel Father.

It will be lifted, he says, they will all return, if that is what you desire.

And she looks up at him gratefully, and nods her head in relief. She does not dally, after that, for she has not learnt how to spend much time with her father, she is shy of him. She leaves, by the same paths she came. Old Man Time watches her go, and he smiles to himself, and shakes his head. A distance from him she turns and catches him smiling, and there is a quizzical expression on her face. Then she bursts into laughter, and he does too, and the space between them is filled with a lightness.

That night the dreams returned, and the children once more kept their parents up all night with their crying. And all was well, or as well as it had ever been.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Tale of Two Wives

The girls who are about to become women sit opposite Merr Sillah, on mats lain on the ground, deep in the forest. It is the Afternoon of the Life Story. She will speak to them, and by the time they leave they will know what it is to be a woman, in the society in which they live. They will be ready for husbands and homes.

- Once there was a woman, Merr Sillah begins, who met and was woo-ed by a man. He loved her, and she loved him, and though he was wont to participate in the indiscretions men are known for, it was only because this was a part of his nature.

A twig snaps in the silence, everyone jumps. But behind them there is nothing. After a while Merr Sillah continues.

- Always after these affairs of hers he came back to her, and always he apologized, and in this way she knew she was the only one he cared about, and in the nights after his latest return she would feed him his favorite foods, and he would call her Mama Biang, and make fond jokes about her stomach.

Merr Sillah pauses to sigh. She is not looking at any of the girls - her gaze is cast off in another direction.

- But then one day, Merr Sillah's voice turns husky, she clears it out with a spit, and rattles her throat with a cough.

- But then one day, she tries again, - His boat finally came to dock - chase kat bi tehral - he fell in love with a witch.

The Sun hides behind a cloud, a chill rises up, the girls draw closer together.

- She was a perfect witch: young and beautiful, and cruel and powerful. She ensnared him, she bewitched him and made him love her. And at last her spells were complete, and he - unable to see, blinded by her dark magic - married him.

Merr Sillah's voice is soft, and the girls have to strain to hear it.

- But the Merr - she was not without her ways. She set out upon certain paths, she visited certain old and wise men her great grandmother had taken her to, when she was still but a child, growing, unsure yet as to her future. Merr Sillah revisited them all. And from this one she got a spell of night-entwining, and from the other she got a spell of never-abandoning, and from a third she got a spell of stomach-enchanting. And she put all these spells together, and she cooked her husband's favorite dakhin mop, and she mixed it in with the dehgeh, and she fed it to him.

One of the girl sniffs - in the quiet it sounds quite loud. All turn to look at her, and she looks embarrassed. Merr Sillah looks up as if startled, and shows her a disapproving frown.

- A woman, she says, should carry a musu-waar. In any case, Merr Sillah says, she fed him the spells. But she had underestimated the power of evil. For her spells were not strong enough to counteract the spells of the witch-harlot. And her husband, caught between the two, his stomach yearning for one thing, his heart another, and his manhood a third, was torn three ways and thus died a slow and painful death.

Several of the girls - who know the meaning of "manhood" - wince.

- And Merr Sillah was filled with grief. But she had one last card, that she had thought not to play. On the night of power, when all prayers are answered, Merr Sillah went to the local mosque. She bore two bags, and they contained all her gold and silver, and all her money that she had withdrawn from the bank. She left it at the mosque door, and was turning to leave when an old man called him back. I know you do not want recognition, the old man said, and that is well. But what you seek you shall find - your enemy shall go insane, before these month-days are over.

Merr Sillah pauses, held captive by her own narrative. Then another twig cracks, and Jahu-doff springs from behind a tree, where she has been hiding all this time. Everyone jumps again. Merr Sillah's sorchu drops to the ground - she picks it up, bites off the part covered with sand and spits it out, then puts it firmly back in her mouth.

- Merr Sillah dayga-dayga, Jahu-doff says, you are a liar. Kee more muna dool!

The Merr turns slowly to look at her, a disdainful expression on her face. She looks as if she is addressing a cow dropping, her right nostril flared, her right upper lip curled upward to allow sounds to escape merely because she has no choice but would rather not be speaking to this human filth, etc.

- What did you say? She pronounces each word singly, apart from the others, dripping acid.

- Hei Merr! You heard me. She - Jahu-doff turns to the assembled girls and points - is a liar! A big liar! Not a small liar sah deh! A big fat one!

- Jahu-doff please stop shouting, one of the girls - whose mother is friends with Merr Sillah - says, a pained expression on her face.

- But do you not want to hear the true story?!, Jahu-doff's eyes are bulging, her neck muscles are strained. Spit flies from the corners of her mouth.

- Yes, yes, the girl says, just sit down and calm down. Then you can tell it.

Merr Sillah looks like she's about to say something, then changes her mind. Jahu-doff sits down, off to Merr Sillah's left, a respectable distance between them. There is a hostility now, in the way Merr Sillah positions her body.

- OK, Jahu-doff says, well then listen to me, and listen bu baah deh.

And Jahu-doff tells them a story, of a woman who was married once, to a husband who did not love her, a man who came home every night but did not really come home, left the better part of himself on the streets and in the rooms he shared with other women, his many affairs. And the woman grew old and bitter, knowing she could never own her husband as these other women owned him, that she lacked something - what? - that they all had. (Merr Sillah frowns, and bites down hard on her sorchu. The girls ignore her, captivated by Jahu-doff). And so they lived, Jahu-doff continues, this husband and wife, and it was somehow a marriage - they had a child, and they performed the necessary family rituals. And she, the wife, got used to this way of living, or at least resigned to it. Until one day the husband, the man of many illicit affairs, met a woman he truly loved. (Merr Sillah coughs, and spits savagely into the bush. She draws a deep xaax-tandehku, holds it for a moment, then spits that out too. Then she re-clamps the sorchu in her jaws, and is silent once more). He did not know how it happened. One day he was talking to her, just yet another of his many conquests, to be fought over with his wife and then forgotten, and then the next he was proposing to her. He had never felt so in love with anyone. When he told his wife she sat down in a chair and looked at him. Are you sure marriage, she asked him, the sentence trailing off, and though he did not answer what she saw in his eyes was answer enough, and it broke her heart. She had always loved him, you see, had always harbored a hope that in time he would come to return it too, if only she was patient, if only she waited. And now she saw there was no way, that there had never been a way. (Merr Sillah gives a little sniff, and draws her kaala tighter about her. The girls are still enraptured by Jahu-doff, and scarce notice her movements.)

And so with that hope taken away in its place there came a hardening. She got up, and left him in the room, and she did not say anything to him regarding the matter again: not when he came to announce the marriage ceremony, not when he told her about ayeh duties and the splitting of the nights. She did not pine, she did not sulk. She was filled with a coolness of purpose which should have frightened him, had he only stopped to think about it. But he was too enamored with his new bride, and realized nothing, until it was too late.

For the first wife, the old woman, did not rest. She traveled abroad, she went to find serigns. In dark rooms filled with darker purposes she committed her transactions, and they concerned death, and they concerned madness, and were in exchange for blood. Within two months the husband was complaining about a stomach pain that would not go away, within six he was dead. And I - the new wife, for it was I he had married - I too fell under the spell of Merr Sillah (the girls start, realizing who the older woman in the story is), for I could neither eat nor drink unless first I took off all my clothes and danced naked all down Kairaba Avenue, or I would have no peace all day, it was like a voice in my head.

Merr Sillah snorts.

- A voice in your head, she says. - This woman, she speaks to the girls now, is not well in the head. Do not listen to her, though her voice is laced with honey - a sly doff is still a doff.

The girls look doubtfully between the two women.

- You believe who you want, Jahu-doff says, and her smile turns cunning. She looks off into the distance, a gleam in her eye and, speaking to herself but loudly enough that the others can hear she says, - Chey those days, when it was my turn with Alaji Momodou, my ayeh! Shoo! - she jiggles her head as she says ayeh, her right hand off on an incline.

- Chey when I got a hold of him, what rachah-pachah I showed him. She gives her waist a little slap as she says rachah-pachah, and Merr Sillah's breath quickens.

- Defarr be muh saf!, Jahu-doff says. She smacks her lips together, making kissing sounds, and Merr Sillah shakes with anger.

- And then when we were done, Jahu-doff continues, when we lay on my bed, my Alaji and I, what things he would say to me. God knows, he would say, a woman is to be like this, but that huge stomach - Jahu-doff mimes a stomach - that big lump of geh-ress - Jahu-doff points in the general direction of Merr Sillah's bum - sitting around all day belching and farting…

And before she can complete Merr Sillah gives a wild scream and launches at her, hands reaching for her throat, as Jahu-doff jumps up with a playful laugh and runs off into the forest, Merr Sillah hot on her heels.

The girls are hysterical with laughter. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Attached to a Picture of a Girl in Labor [FICTION]

- Push!, the old matron screams, nostrils flaring, knuckles straining against the bed, - when you were hopening your legs you did not…push, you bastard! The old matron has a thick aku accent.

Outside Amadou Wurry paces, his prayer beads clicking. Ya Ram-mu, he says, for each first step. Ya Takhaa-fu, he says, for each second step.

- You young girls nowadays, the old matron fumes, - always trying to discover what should be hidd.. push, I said! Gis nga yow bull ma d foyantore deh! Man duma sa morom! Push! The old matron lives alone - she has never been married, and has no children.

Amadou Wurry stands at the end of the bench. A small Peul boy comes up to him, bearing a case of DVDs.

- DVDs, the boy says, cheap DVDS, best movie in America. Shaki Chan, Anull, Raam-bow. Lady Kaka, AC Milan.

Amadou Wurry makes sure not to make eye contact. He looks at the sky, and tells his beads. He begins to pace once more. Ya Ram-mu. Step. Ya Takhaa-fu. Step. How these little currs misrepresent the Peul. He feels a flash of anger whenever he sees them: in their corner shops, breeding year after year, standing at the borpi konyes selling oranges, walking around the country hawking DVDs. Suma Peul bi, people say, as if speaking about pets. And Peuls like him, the successful ones, the ones who have worked hard all their lives to have what they have, are conveniently ignored. He cannot stand it anymore! He stamps his foot. He misses a step. Ya Rahmaan, he says, to account for the misstep. He breathes deeply, to calm himself. Then Ya Ram-mu. Step. Ya Takhaa-fu. Step.

- You Peul girls, the matron says, think sex was invented for your thighs. You let your husbands use you, you… pooosal laa wah! Push! Fog nga poos aferr bi pour mu gayna d - ah yow tam! Next time su sa jaykarr bi waheh let's lie down you will say no - haraa rek! Push!

The Peul boy comes up to Amadou Wurry, and stands at his side. Amadou Wurry ignores him, until it is no longer polite to do so. Then he takes his time, putting his kuruss into a bunch, rubbing it around in a circular motion in his hands, then bringing up the whole prayer in his cupped hands, spitting into it, then rubbing his cheeks, his face. Yes?, he asks the boy finally, in Wolof. What do you want? The boy has lice on his head, and Amadou Wurry takes a step back in disgust. Water, the boy replies, in Peul. I am thirsty. Then why don't you, Amadou Wurry asked, still speaking Wolof, use your money?, indicating the DVDs in the tray. The boy opens a purse he holds, shows Amadou Wurry its internal emptiness. Amadou Wurry's frown deepens.

- Chem!, matron says, sex bu dut jeh rek! Every gudi, every suba. Ham naa sehn taat yi day tire deh. There is sweat on the girl's surface, and her screams of before are small and dying whimpers now, lacking energy. Matron goes up and puts her hand on the girl's forehead. For a moment her eyes twinkle, for a moment the acidity leaves her face, and she is your grandmother, old and kindly. - Just push a little more child, she says, - just a little more.

And Amadou Wurry sees himself coming to the City for the first time, living with an Uncle, high school at Gambia High, friends who made fun of his Wolof, long treks to school in the mornings, when he couldn't get a ride and was saving his money for food. Amadou Wurry sees himsef rising past all this, steeling himself and taking on all the challenges that life had hurled at him, until here he was, and what had it mattered what anyone had said, or believed? He looks at the Peul boy with his almost-white head and something in him melts, water flows in a previously inaccessible part of him. - Here, he says to the boy, in Peul, and he reaches into his wallet and gives the boy a D100 note, - take this and go buy yourself some breakfast.

And inside his first child is born, in a burst of liquids and pulpy solids, and matron receives it in her arms, and she looks at it in her arms and she says, her voice full of sighs - Oh what a beautiful little girl. And she says - You Peul and your many children. But she is smiling, and the new mother is smiling back, and she turns the baby on its back and gives it a sharp pat and it begins to howl and the there's not a dry eye in the room.

Monday, October 4, 2010

A Card Game (or "Aisha Khan & the Jinneh Who Devoured Women")


Sa turn la

Change tu


Hol bu hong-ha

Her heart exploding, a splash of red. Ice, all about her, slippery, yet somehow warm as fire. Say the word, Momodou Kabaa, and I am yours. Has she not said this a thousand times, in her actions alone? Yet Momodou Kabaa says nothing, continues to play these games, refuses to acknowledge his feelings. Is he really that slow?

Ice strong?

Very strong?

Still strong?

Didn't think so. And take two for cheating.

He picks up the four cards sheepishly, looking at her from under his eyelids. What shall I do with you, Aisha Khan? I wish only to save you, yet you still insist on hurling yourself straight at me, and at the death which awaits you in my hands. You do not know me, Aisha Khan. And he sighs.

Jump. Jump. Back to Me. Change to.


Tanki Pitah….

He sighs, she can see him sigh. What kind of man are you, Momodou Kabaa? Why do you carry such a heavy weight, why are you so unconfident? What kind of man are you, Momodou Kabaa, that you lack fit so, that you are so spineless? I am beginning to be impatient.

Play-al! ah!

Anh suma turn la?

Daydayt! Nga banya play rek!

She is impatient, and he knows why. And he is saddened. She doubts his manhood, probably, by now, he who is a stallion, a being of steel. He remembers the last one, how she screamed when he saw him as he truly was. He had changed, he had drunk of the waters of the zam-zam , and changed his name and his form, and spoken the shahaadah and renounced his evil ways. Yet always they made it so tempting to go back, to re-explore one's baser side, to follow shaytaan once more…

Take two. Foral nyaar!


Back to me. Last card.

Ice strong.

Dormi haraam!

Perhaps she was being too subtle. Perhaps she was going about this the wrong way. Many ways to capture a man, after all. She shifted a little where she sat, a loosening of position. Then she - surreptitiously as possible - opened another two buttons of her blouse and, removing her head tie, let her hair fall gently about her shoulders, wiggling her neck for exaggerated effect. Now let's see, she thought, what happens when I really turn the charm on.

Suma turn la darling?


Kon play-al. Y bull ma bomb deh baby.

Ah the fool, the fool! Momodou Kabaa thinks. Her voice - how can he withstand it, when it is like that, a soft breeze gently flowing just above the waters of the Nile, when he had visited long ago... He remembers this from the last girl - he remembers the climax of feeling, the orgasm of emotion. He starts forward, as if startled.

Lu hew baby?

Nothing. Maybe… dara. Play-al.

Day-dayt sa turn la honey. Acha play-al ma holl.

And she uncrosses her legs one way - a flash of thigh - and crosses them another. And she chews her gum slowly, invitingly… And then, when he has held himself in so hard he knows the tiniest of probes will make him explode, she winks at him. His rising and his scream, and his rush toward her, and her horrified woya-yooye are all one. And he is shouting