You shouldn’t have scoffed, when they told you about the doma of Banjul. You shouldn’t have gone out alone late in the night, with no musluwai on your body for protection.
You shouldn’t have walked up to the old woman who beckoned at you, sitting in the shadows at the Haddington junction. You shouldn’t have touched her hand, when she held it out.
And then maybe you would have been saved.
But you didn’t listen, and you made contact. And that is how she placed the curse of juduwaat on you, trapping you, in a cycle of death and rebirth…
You come back as a mosquito, the hated yore, your eggs needing blood to hatch. What would a mother not do, for the ones she brought into this world?
So you don’t understand why they seem to take it so personally, contorting themselves into awkward positions, waiting for you to land; slapping themselves raw when they imagine you have.
Tonight the prey you have found – a potbellied, middle-aged man in wife-beaters – lies in the dark, the power gone, hot and sweating. Windows open for some relief – and that is how you enter.
He hears you, and tenses up in the bed. You cannot see each other in the dark. But you have an advantage: you can sense his breath: a trail you follow, each exhalation a micro-correction in your course…
And then you’re on his arm, his arm hair rising around you like towers of grass, as his skin reacts to you, a ripple of goosebumps away from your position… He shivers involuntarily, becomes aware of your presence – and the countdown begins…
Four milliseconds. He feels the itch as you find a spot and insert your needle, a mound of flesh erupting around it, a sac of blood.
Three milliseconds. The reaction travels into his brain down his other arm, and he raises it as you start to suck, efficiently drawing in his blood and storing it away.
Two milliseconds. The mound is a pimple now, a rash of flesh creating a trench around you, the skin reacting, irritating him further and increasing the urgency of his movement…
One millisecond. His palm almost on top of you now, its enlarging shadow a heavier shade of black.
But his blood is so rich it is intoxicating… Just one more sip, you think… One more egg fed, one less hunt necessary…
Your death almost here now, but still you don’t panic: you’ve always had time, expertly dodging their large and heavy hands at the last moment. But not tonight – his hand arrives as you rise, bloated with blood: too slow, too late…
His palm compresses you into a bloody, red mess, the last thing you hear his yelp of victory…
You come back as a woman on the back way. A character in a hundred stories, none of them told by you.
Invisible except to the people immediately around you, for the first time you feel the absence of a safety net you never even realized was there, protecting and shepherding you through your life. Neighbors you recognize, friends and family within reach. A place in which you have roots, in which you are known. A place to call home.
Here you have almost nothing – but you have Allah. You pray on time, and hold Him close. And in His mercy He strews little kindnesses across your path, easing the way, helping you progress even when you think you cannot anymore…
In Mauritanie a Malian man lends you his phone. The voice notes you leave your loved ones are stoic and restrained, as you struggle to project calm so they don’t worry. In Libya a Guinean woman gives you half of her meal, the first food you’ve tasted in days. In Greece a toubab policeman, seeing you off to the side as the men madly scramble to mount a fence, offers you his hand and lifts you up and over.
But the truth is you have never felt so alone. There is no map for this journey, no one to stop and ask for directions. And so you live from waypoint to waypoint, each one filled with grim possibility.
No one will ever be certain of your passing. There is no trail of tickets and boarding passes that will show where you have been, and where you’re headed.
And no headstone will mark your grave. For years your mother will hope – even as she grows old and infirm – that one day you will appear over the horizon, her only daughter come home at last.
But you never will. You will die needlessly at Sea, a waste of a life, a cap on all the things you could have been and done…
You come back as a semester, your first time back in Gambia in ten years.
Nawec, the mosquitoes, the heat, the crazy traffic, filled with furious drivers and drivers who’ve never taken a driving test in their lives; all the things that used to drive you crazy – but you can bear it all now, because you have a way back.
It waits in a document holder, amongst your clothes, in a bag you’ve never completely unpacked since you arrived. A slip of paper that gives you safe passage back into Babylon: one of the anointed, the visa-granted.
You sit at the vous with boy yi, telling them about Germany. Attaya brewing, a joint making the rounds.
– Listen to me… let me tell you – let me tell you – if there is one thing I am sure about it is that you can definitely tehki in this country, ma nyaaka suma!, you say animatedly. – You can definitely make it here. It just takes hard work and believing in yourself.
But you have a way back – this is no longer your home. You visit it like a tourist; you have antiquated notions of what life is like here now. In your mind it is as you left it, frozen in time, awaiting your return… But the kotor you ask about are all dead now; the children who ran around half-naked playing in the streets all grown, gone on to colleges and marriages.
Over many hard winters abroad your memory of Gambia has changed, become tinged with nostalgia, all the rough patches sanded away….
– See, you say to them, – it’s not so bad over here. Life is simpler and you have less worries. You don’t pay bills, you don’t pay rent. You can eat in any compound you go to. I wish, you say, I could come back for good, billahi! Out bi stress rek!
But you all know you never will. Because your way back never expires, because it is too easy to escape. Because the little annoyances eventually add up, until you can’t take it anymore, until you have to burst out or burst open.
And, when you are ready to leave, your journey back will be an easy one.
No back way for you, no rescue boats, no Libyan prisons. You will wait in an airport, bored and scrolling through your smartphone. Your greatest worry whether to get a bottle of water now or ask for one on the plane.
When you land you will press a button on your phone, and a stranger will arrive in a car and take you home. You will return to electricity you can forget is on, to central cooling and heating. You will turn a knob, and hot water will come out of the shower; and when you are done press another button on your phone to have food delivered to your door, from any one of hundreds of restaurants from all around the world.
You have been so long in the out, you have come to take being away for granted. You have forgotten what it means, to live in constant desperation; to want, and know you’ll never have, and yet be unable to stop wanting. You have forgotten what it is like to live your whole life as if under a thick-glass ceiling with a trapdoor in it, one wielded shut so people like you can never ascend, even though you can see everyone above you who has.
But, it turns out, you won’t be going back. It happens at the junction of Lancaster and Mosque Road. A taxi driver: looking down at his MP3 player as he changes tracks; you: with your head down, laughing at something on your phone. At the last moment you both look up, and your eyes meet. You can see the shock and fear in his, as your heart thunders in your ears fit to bursting…
The last things you experience are the screech of brakes that cannot hold; the smell of scorched rubber; the sound of someone invoking Allah…
You come back as a Goarr. Jigain, they will append to that – but that comes much later, in the wilderness of the teenage years, as you discover yourself…
The events that lead you to the top floor of the office building happen in quick succession: each bearing down on you, each completely out of your control.
On Thursday a foreign ambassador gives a speech condemning “human rights violations against homosexuals by the current Government”, and threatening to end funding programs.
On Friday the Imam Ratib gives a khutba on the “scourge of homosexuality”, and its invitation of Allah’s wrath. With great emotion he speaks of the Prophet Lut’s message, and how it was ignored, and the destruction that followed. You think you get dirty looks afterward, from the other men you prayed with. You quickly fold your sajaada and go home.
On Saturday the President appears on GRTS to give his own speech. Homosexuality will never be condoned in this country, he says, jabbing his finger on the table for emphasis. – And if you think any white man can save you just try me. These bloody colonizers think they can impose their haraam ways on us – they can go to hell!
On Sunday they come for you.
They have received a tip about you, they say. They have heard tale of your ways, and need you to come with them to the station for questioning. They put you in handcuffs and walk you out, your mother screaming as one of them holds her back.
It seems like the whole gohh is out on the street, watching as you walk past: your eyes downcast, your cheeks burning. They take you to a pickup, in the back of which there are four other men waiting, cuffed, all of you avoiding each others’ eyes.
At the station they take you all into a concrete room, and close its iron door. They pick you first, and make you bend over a table, and pull your pants and boxers down. Then a man picks up a rod, and approaches you.
How far it goes in, he explains, laughing, will determine how much jigain is in you, as the men holding you down tight crack up. You gasp in fear and start to struggle – Is that how you do it with your boyfriend when he’s on top, he asks, still chuckling, – Today you will learn.
He puts it in, a sudden, violent motion; and you scream. He holds it there for a moment as you writhe and beg on the table. And then he pulls it out, to a final scream, satisfied – and turning to the others says: this one definitely has more jigain than goarr. Did you hear those screams? He is one of them. He was loving it.
And they all hold their stomachs laughing. They pick up and throw you on the ground against the wall, where you sit wincing, angry and terrified tears running down your face.
They approach the others where they sit, eyes wide with fear. The next one they grab starts to wail as they pull him up and to the table for his turn, begging and negotiating, saying whatever he thinks will make them stop.
But of course they don’t.
When they are done the room smells like blood and excrement. You all limp as you are led out, eyes red, causing the officers to crack up even more, as they call you virgins after your wedding nights.
And then they drive you to GRTS, so you can appear on the news, to set an example. To show that the President is not joking, and will follow up on his word, toubab money be damned.
– If you try to hide your face in any way you will face the consequence, the rod inserter warns you all before you start, do you all understand me?
But he did not need to ask. Brutality has taught you all quick lessons in obedience. So you do not turn away – the most you can do is avert your eyes, and look anywhere but straight into the camera.
Afterwards they drop you all off at Denton Bridge, to find your own ways home. You part without a word, or any acknowledgment, the thing binding you unspeakable.
When you get home your mother is sitting at the gate waiting. She pulls you into a hug, cradles your head in her bosom and holds you tight as you try not to cry. She kisses the top of your head.
– Now go to the Sea, she says, – and wash your body. Wash all the prison off it. Then come back – the domoda I am making you will be ready by then – I got you findi too. Don’t worry about anything, OK? Everything will be fine inshallah. Allah has not abandoned us.
But everything will not – you have known this for a while now. All you can ever bring her is gaacheh, and shame before her nawwleh; all her attachment to you will ever bring her is pain.
And yourself: too poor to leave, never welcome to stay. You will never be safe here, your existence itself an invitation to others to commit violence against you.
So it is not to the beach that you head, but to the heart of the city: the tall buildings at its centre. To the highest one, upstairs that wind and are too narrow.
The people you pass are polite but distant – and you imagine what it would be like, to live in a world of perpetual strangers, never seen enough to be recognized, or known…
On the top floor you enter the first office you find empty. You lock the door behind you, open the window, and climb out onto the ledge. You look down, and a shiver runs through you, and you look away.
Now that you have decided, you feel free, freer than you have felt since primary school, since before the confusion of adolescence and everything else after…
A breeze blows past, on its way somewhere else, for a brief moment caressing your face. Banjul lies before you, plated in a sunny gold: the maarseh, the Arch, the minarets of King Fahd, the cars threading their way through Independence Drive.
You close your eyes, and take a step forward – your cheeks are wet now, though you do not remember crying… You take a deep breath.
And you jump.
You come back as a nawett thunderstorm. But you are not just a part of the water cycle, the beginning and end of a natural process.
You are the worshipers who pray for your arrival, at mosque and at mass…
You are the farms beneath you, thirsting for your waters, their old enemy the Sun reduced them to hard, flinty ground…
You are the housewives who run to weri their laundry hung out to dry, before the rain destroys hours of labour and the clothes become hejem…
You are the youth who sangu taww, playing beneath roof gutters your waters have temporarily turned into outdoor showers…
And more: you are all the nawett storms that have gone before you.
The ones that rained on peace and the ones that rained on strife. On successful Sang Maries and ruined eids; on slave ships departing and slave ships turned back… You have seen all of it, remember all of their history as if it all happened only last nawett…
You cannot act or intervene, of course. All you can do is rain, spring into being when the conditions are just right, shake the korigett and clap thunder and lightning across the skies. And then wilt away again, before the glare of the returning sun.
And so you watch them, over the course of countless nawett. You watch them grow old, you watch them die. And you watch their children spring up after them, and live and die in their turn… For decades, for centuries. For such a long time you start to see their underlying patterns…
And, in time, you grow fond of them, or as close to it as a storm can get. Some seasons, sensing their need, you come early… And more than once have prevented a flood by coming late… In this way you attempt a synergy, with them.
But it cannot last – for what does, even for storms?
You can feel your end coming. The winds of destruction are gathering now – you can feel them all about you. The land beneath them is in rebellion – though they do not realize it yet – even as they exhaust its resources. It is a threat greater than anything they have yet faced, greater than even first contact with the toubab.
The vacuum you leave will be filled quickly, of course. And the storm that will come after you has no time for fondness or sentimentality. It will be a raging gale, an indiscriminate musiba… It will decimate their buildings and wash away their possessions. It will claim their lives and inflame their passions, so that they level all that they have built, and fight over the ruins. And it is already too late, to stop its arrival.
This is how you end.
And you come back as you.
You sit up in shock, in your own bed. It was just a dream then, you think.
But you know, deep down, that it was more. Their lives still echo within you, and will follow you all your life, in a way no dream ever could.
You get up, and wash your face in the bathroom. As you leave, you walk past the tayray your mother gave you, on the side table. You pause for a moment, think about it, then picking it up slip your wrist into it, and tighten the rope.
And then you leave.