Wednesday, December 22, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 17, 2010

Gambian English

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Choosing of the Paths

Path 1

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

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

And that at last reaches her mouth.

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

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

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

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

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

She soothes your soul.

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

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

You speak to her on the phone.

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

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

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

That whiteness of teeth, that darkness of gum.

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

That shapely body, those graceful hands and feet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Path 2

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

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

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

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

You believe fervently in things you once laughed at.

And every day you grow more bereft of hope.

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

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

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

And you see nothing, and you hear nothing.

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

You remember her smile, and how it forgave you.

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

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

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


The most dreadful of words, and of thoughts.

The end of words, and of thoughts.

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

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

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

And, dear reader, you attempt to start again.

Proceed on to Path 3.

Path 3

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

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

And that at last reaches her mouth.

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

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

And yet.

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

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

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

And yet.

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

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

A whiteness of teeth, a darkness of gum.

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

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