True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance, As those move easiest who have learned to dance. - Alexander Pope
True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance, As those move easiest who have learned to dance. - Alexander Pope
Walking through Banjul, you'd be excused for thinking attaya was the national drink. On every street, every few meters you walk, there is the telltale kettle on a small charcoal stove, its accompanying glass tasses arranged on a plate near it. There is the attaya maker, who lifts the lid of the kettle to check whether the green tea is done, when to add sugar, when to make it foam, how much longer to wait before serving. Seated around the attaya maker are a group of young men, dressed in jeans and shirts, lounging in the shade of a building. Sometimes there is music playing, but mostly it's their voices which you hear, now down to a murmur, now rising and loud again, as they discuss football, and women, and the government. They tease each other, and laugh so hard they get up and bend over. They talk about famous street fights that have happened, about the winners and the losers, and afterwards when someone has finished narrating a story about just how crazy a particular "Banjul boy" was, after the laughter has died down someone else will ask "whatever happened to them?". And the reply will come (in your time here, you have counted only three possible replies): they are in prison, finishing off their sentence. Or they have flown, they have made it - they are in Europe (Swiss, Germany, Austria), sending money home, coming back every summer with a new car to dazzle those left behind. Or they are living in Banjul still, grown old and cynical (which means they've turned forty, and almost given up on ever going to Europe), and they spend the remainder of their days as they have spent all their days, eking out the meanest existence in this dying city, dreaming of the mansion they will build one day, and how they will honor their parents by sending them to Mecca.
On TV last night, you watched the President give a press conference. When the issue of the youth of the country came up, of what advice he had for them, of what could be done about them, he said what he has always said: that they are lazy, that they refuse to work, that they sit at street corners all day long and never do anything but drink attaya. Foreigners, the President said, are the people who come here and do all the country's hard work, work which could be done by our youth. But they sit and drink attaya all day, and then they complain about my government, they complain about the state of the country. There was heartfelt applause from the people present at the interview, the Ministers and the other higher members of Government - they couldn't agree more. You watched this televised event at a friend's house. This friend - and his other 'boys' present in the room where you watched - are all of the 'lazy youth' category mentioned in the speech, and when you turned around to look at them there was an ugly sneer on their faces, to a man. You looked at the TV again, and were surprised: it was the same look - of animosity, of the inability to ever understand or accept each other's positions as valid, of contempt and complete lack of communication - that you saw on both sets of faces: the Ministers' on TV, and the youth's in the room. In that moment, the TV became like a mirror, reflecting the youth in the room, but warping them in the process, making them better dressed and older, yet with the expressions on their faces unchanged. You felt strange, when this realization dawned on you. You felt as if everyone in the room you sat in had been replaced with a complete stranger. These people you joked and chatted with only that afternoon suddenly seemed not so real, not so close and friendly, in the night.
This afternoon as you sat at the vous, the street corner, with your new friends, the youth of so much contention, a young man passed selling sunglasses. One of the boys called him over, and as soon as he came, before he had said a single word, they were all talking to him in faux Senegalese accents, teasing him in the way they teased each other. "Mais, you are Senegalese.", someone said. "Mais, you have to sell us these sunglasses cheap". The man played along, showing his wares, patiently telling and re-telling them the price of each item they asked for, even though they only handed it back and moved on to another one. In the end no one bought anything, but his patience paid off - they served him attaya (he had come right in time for the first serving), and gave him cold water to drink. The teasing relented, and they spoke - in their normal Gambian accents - to him, asking him which part of Senegal he came from, how long he had been around. Finally, when he got up to go, he thanked them, and they told him it was no problem, graciously. No one had asked him how he got started in the sunglass business.
There are horror stories. When people from here go abroad - to Europe and the US - they say they do all sorts of menial jobs. Not having papers and therefore not legal enough to even demand minimum wage, they do the jobs everyone else will not do, from cleaning toilets to bathing old white people. When they come home, of course, they are none too keen to discuss exactly how they make their hard-earned cash. These stories are instead bogey-man props, used by adults to try to scare the youth still at home into not going. Stay in your country, they tell them, at least here you will retain your dignity and respect, even if you only have a scrap of a job. The youth's response? I would rather go to Europe, even if all I do there is change some old toubab's nappies. The first time you heard this, you were shocked. Why?, you asked the person who had uttered these words, Why would you not stay in your country, with your family and friends, and get a job instead, in your own country, with the people you know and love around you? That was not the last time you asked that question. Always you get the same reply: the vague accusations against the Government (corruption, nepotism, they are there only for themselves), against Aunts and Uncles who have done nothing, or have not done enough to help out, against Society in general, the way it does not care about the youth. In every single one of these youth's minds a dichotomy has been set up, between us (the poor, hapless, innocent youth), and a revolving cast of them (at various times the Government, the extended family of the youth, Society, even Babylan, the land of the white people). Underlying this is Reggae music, the soundtrack of their lives and the myths they create: Bob Marley, Sizzla, Capleton, Luciano, singing of a time when Babylan shall fall, and "the people" shall once more rule the Earth.
At night, the vous is a place of calm. A spliff is passed around, and people take turns to draw tokes from it, passing it on. The darkness descends in the gap between streetlights, enfolding everything in its warm fuzziness. Conversation, if it happens, is unhurried, and not as strenuous as it was in the afternoon. Afterwards, one after the other, people get up to go to the shop or the sandwich seller around the corner, to spend what little dinner money they have on a loaf of bread and some potatoes, or corned beef, or perhaps some cassava and beans. Each dinner may be different, but the ceremony performed is the same: when you bring your dinner, before ever you take a bite out of it yourself, you must first give everyone else a chance to cut off a small piece for themselves. "Here", you say, and hold out the loaf of bread bulging with sauces and meat, "cut some". If they say thank you, you mustn't immediately go off - you must offer it to them a few more times, insisting that you will not finish it, that they should have some, that you wish them to have some. Only after you have done this with everyone can you sit and devour your sandwich. You mused on how unnecessary this was, how redundant, until you realized that everyday there are a few people who don't go buy dinner, there are always a few who sit there, and make conversation, but never get up to go to the shop, or the sandwich seller, for one simple reason: they do not have any money. So in addition to being a kindness, the sharing of bread in the vous is also an insurance deal: feed me today, and I will feed you tomorrow. The revelation is striking, when it first comes to you, and it sets you off on a new train of thought, it makes you start to notice little things that had gone unnoticed before. Slowly you start to work out that there are rules, there is an order, even a hierarchy of sorts. When you look closely, what you see is a forgotten tribe on the streets of Banjul, an ancient clan that has existed since Independence (and perhaps before), with its own myths and rituals, its own way of doing things.
Two O'Clock is lunchtime. After those who have placed all their hopes in God have prayed, at the mosque, Bakary, who is married (and spent two years in Germany - the last three months of this time in prison - before he was deported) has his wife serve lunch in a big bowl, and invites the boys over to eat. Some go. Others politely decline, heading home to their own family lunches, sitting on the ground around a bowl with cousins and aunts. You eat at Bakary's house: domoda, rice and a groundnut paste sauce with fish. There are not enough spoons, and you share one with Mamadou, passing it back and forth as the radio plays Jaliba Kuyateh in the background. "where are you going?" everyone asks when you get up, "you did not eat at all", and you smile and nod, and say you had a late breakfast, and thank you. There is only a little rice left in the bowl, at this point. Afterwards you sit around outside drinking attaya and making conversation, under the shade of Bakary's house. The sun is at its hottest at this point in time, and most people are in their houses, waiting for the taakusaan prayer, when the sun would have gone down, and they can venture forth. The day is divided by prayer times, like the pillars of a house, the spaces in between suited to different forms of activity: sleeping, eating, work, languorous conversation.
When the attaya finishes being made, there is a serving order - the older ones get served first, little foam-covered tasse-fulls. Age has always been an important part of Gambian culture, and it's no different here. Sometimes, in the middle of yet another heated debate on some triviality an older "boy" appears (everyone is called boy here, no matter their age - boy has somehow come to mean "man", or "fellow"). Immediately someone younger will spring up from their seat and offer it to them to sit down. "No, it's OK - I prefer to stand", the older person will say, but the younger one will insist, until at last he yields, and takes the freshly-vacated seat. Only then will the debate continue. You enjoy these debates. In the time you have been here, they have discussed, and almost come to blows over, everything, from whether Arsenal scored the most goals ever of any team in the champions league, to whether Islam was here before the drum, or vice versa. Last week you spent three hours listening to them present increasingly incredible claims supporting both sides of the question: "does romantic love really exist?". Anything goes during these debates - no claims have to be backed up with hard evidence. Mo, a Bai Faal recently started a relationship with one of the neighborhood girls, was the most fierce proponent of the existence of romantic love. "It is something God puts in your heart", he said fervently, the picture of his Serign he wore around his neck swinging wildly, "you cannot stop it", and there was general laughter at his earnestness. "There is no love", another guy, Ablie, declared after the laughter had died down, "there is only increased familiarity, to the point of not being able to do without each other", and this set them off again, coming up with wilder and wilder examples, until someone was comparing the heart to the two-story building with faded paint in the shade of which you all sat, a building which housed a whole regiment of Senegalese, all going off to the market in the morning to sell merchandise, all chipping in to pay the rent at the end of the month.
It is not always so trivial, the conversation. Sometimes you have serious talks, the kind you enjoy, about families and life, about the future and dreams. These happen usually when you are alone with one of them, or at most two or three - it is only then that they are willing to let their guard down enough to talk about themselves un-selfconsciously, without the macho affectations and mannerisms which make one a ndongo Banjul, a man of the City. There is a law you have worked out, which links the number present in the vous to the topic of conversation: two of you means a serious heart-to-heart, three means the same, but with a bit of teasing added, four or five means a conversation that is not so personal, perhaps a bitching session about how bad life is treating them; six and over means raunchiness, attempts to impress each other with tall tales. Obviously you prefer the smaller numbers, though these are rarer, usually only happening early in the evening, before everyone has congregated, or very late at night, when almost everyone has gone off to bed. The last time this happened you found yourself alone with Mamadou, and he spent a cozy half-hour (even though it was a cold night, freezing outside) telling you about everything he had planned. Something about his voice as he spoke - you had never heard him speak this seriously about anything, or with so much heart - kept the cold at bay. My first six months in Europe, he said, the first thing I'm going to do is save up enough money to build a house. Why a house first?, you ask. Because it is the most important thing a man should have, a place for himself and his family. You take this to mean that he is tired of living with two of his uncles' families, in the house that his dead father left, having to share a room with a cousin and an assortment of relatives from up-country. He does not look at you as he talks, but instead down into the gutter, as if amidst the black bilge-water with mosquitoes on it he can see the foundation stone of his new mansion. - After that, he went on, I will get a car. House first, then car. Then afterwards I will send my mother to Mecca. Then perhaps I will get married. There is silence, and a smile on Mamadou's face as he says these things. - And coming home?, you ask, finally, after you have all this will you come home?, and Mamadou waves his hand impatiently, as if this is beside the point. - When I have enough money, he said, maybe I will come and go. There is a power-cut after he says this, and the other boys come pouring out of their houses to sit outside, away from the added heat of the candles being lit in the houses. With everyone there, the mood changes, and Mamadou once more becomes his usual self, making jokes, laughing loudly, spitting through the gap in his teeth into the gutter.
You could substitute Mamadou in the conversation above with any of the other youth, and it would still ring true. They have the same dreams, a group-dream, produced by a group consciousness. There is a certain scent in the air that you could not identify at first, but that you recognize now, and which threatens to choke you sometimes - it gets so powerful. It is not the scent of the head-expanding weed, or the waxing and waning odor of the street gutters. It is only after you spent some time with them, began to empathize with them, feel what they feel, that you realized: it is the musky scent of waiting. Every single one of the youth of the ghetto is waiting to leave the country, by however miracle such a thing may happen. Most of them dabble in religion - there are quite a few who go to the mosque regularly, and a few others who are ardent followers of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, and yet others who are almost completely areligious (to the extent Gambian society allows), but if there is one belief they all share it is the belief that if they wait long enough, and do not allow doubt to overcome them, somehow a way will materialize, a path down which they will walk through golden gates and into the sumptuosity of Babylan. Almost superstitious in nature, this belief is reinforced every time one of the boys gets a visa (tickets are not the problem, or passports, or any of the impedimenta of modern travel - the visa, that much sought-after stamp of approval from Babylan is the only thing which continues to deny the boys entry. Here the visa is a rare animal, almost extinct, and there are less and less sighted every year.). A wave of melancholia descends over the vous every time it is announced that some one has left, or that someone got an elephant (the slang term for visa: the largest land animal for the largest hope) today. - How long?, is always the first question, though it hardly matters - a 24-hour visa would be enough, really, they assure you - they just want to get in, that's all, to arrive and get lost and never get found again by the immigration police. So when the bearer of information says three months, or six, or perhaps a year, or two, they all say how lucky that person is. Then everyone will get lost in their own private little world of moody thought, (for how long depends on how close the lucky visa recipient was to the vous) for a moment everyone is all alone, even though there are all of you here, sitting on this vous-bench. The looks on their faces are like those of condemned men who have learnt that one of their number has been pardoned, you think, and you are almost glad on these nights when you finally break up for the night, each one going back to their house to sleep, much earlier than usual.
Daily life revolves around this belief of eventual escape. Sometimes, one of the boys gets a low-paying job, which they keep at for a few months, griping about the low salary and how much the boss gets to pocket after work. Sometimes one of them even starts a course - perhaps a computer course at one of the many computer centres in the country, or one of the skills courses offered at GTTI (the Gambia Technical Training Institute). But all of this is done with the understanding that these are just temporary activities - the real living of one's life begins after one has entered Babylan. And it's so simple once you understand it: all those youth you see on all those street benches, they are not being lazy bums, who'd rather die than do an honest day's work. What they are doing - and this is markedly different from doing nothing, from being lazy - what they are doing is waiting.
There is a very large difference, between laziness and waiting. The man who is lazy sits around all day doing nothing. For such a man, one would try various incentives, to tempt him from his sloth and spur him into useful activity. And then, when incentives failed, one would try scorn, and anger, and contempt, hoping that these would make the blood rise in him, and get him onto his feet and working, if nothing but to regain his dignity. The man who waits also sits around doing nothing, but it is a different form of doing nothing altogether, it is an active doing nothing, rather than a passive one. The man who waits is not (necessarily) lazy - he has seen the various available courses of action, and convinced himself that of these courses none available in the present suit him, and he would prefer one which is only available in the future. So he decides to wait for this future course, and shows his dis-interest in all present courses by sitting them out, awaiting their end and the coming of his preferred path. For such a man, the incentives offered the lazy man would not work, unless they outweigh what he has come to believe will be his reward for waiting; scorn, contempt, etc., also will not work, as they only make him firmer in his belief that he knows better, that time will prove him right and show those who doubted him.
Who has answers? Let the government create more employment opportunities. Which of these youth will work for the government, at a starting salary of D700? The ticket to Mecca is D80,000. A new house will cost at least half a million. And we haven't even mentioned cars yet, and marriage to a good wife. Let us make our education system better, train teachers better, concentrate on quality. Ah - but even the educated ones are leaving. Education does not take away your dreams. It gives you grander and more expensive ones. Let us police the waters, capture any illegal human traffickers, give them stiff prison fines. Even if the resources were available to do this, how could you ever close all the points of departure. You will monitor the whole Ocean, inch for inch, for small boats? The desert as well? All the roads and all the ways out? All the time? You might as well build walls, around the whole continent. All these things run through your brain, at night, as you swat at mosquitoes and curse the heat and your useless electric fan. Who has answers?
Soon it is time for you to leave. When you tell them, they are sad to see you go - they ask for your contact details, and promise to keep in touch. They say they will miss you, and you are touched. You smile, and nod, and promise to write. On the TV on the night of your arrival home, there is a news headline: fifty bodies, off the coast of the Canary Islands. A shot of one floating face-down in the water, with the caption "Food for the fish". The Spanish minister, shaking the hand of his African counterpart, both dressed in fine suits and smiling widely for the cameras. More jobs, the newsreader says, more opportunities at home. You switch off the TV, and settle back in your chair. You feel tired, and it is not from the journey home. You close your eyes, and for a moment feel as if you are God, with a perfect understanding of all the arguments from all the sides in all the rows in the world, with perfect understanding of all the characters and all the situations of all the people in the world, understanding beyond stereotypes, and archetypes, which no novel or short story or essay can ever give you, understanding which comes only from living with these people, living as them. You feel like an anchor, slipping down a terrible abyss, taking its hopeful ship along with it, the expectant sailors on board. Mercifully the moment passes, and you are left only with the knowledge of how easy it is to choose simple solutions to problems, because the alternative is to bear such weight, such great weight, that few of us are ever willing to bear.
Watching the news will never be the same for you again.