By Amran Gaye
The first time Nabou Sowe meets Ousman Jah they are at a party thrown by a mutual friend, in Tobacco Road. He is the one who approaches her, where she sits with an empty seat beside her, recently vacated by a friend who has gotten up to get another bowl of ebeh. He gets straight to the point, introducing himself and asking if he can take her out on a date. She has been asked out before, by guys who have not known the meaning of no, insistent even when she continued to be demure, pushy in their attitude, and finally irritating so she would stop picking up their calls or replying their texts. But there is something different about Ous, something in his eyes and the self-assured way he speaks that makes her want to know more.
– Date where?, she replies with a laugh. – All you Banjul boys know is fuural and huntin.
– Ndeysaan – already you judge me. And you don’t even know me yet, he replies, his tone light and teasing.
– No I don’t, she replies, a smile playing on her lips, – But I have met plenty of Banjul boys in my time…
– And I have met plenty of Peul from Banjul in my time too…, he says, letting the words trail off into a suggestion.
– What are you trying to say?, she asks with a laugh.
– That all your life you’ve lived in Banjul, and been taken out on dates by Banjul boys.
– Mee? she replies. – Nopes – I had rekleh Kombo boys take me out instead.
– See – now you’re discriminating, he replies with a laugh, extending his phone. – Here, give me your digits, let’s arrange something. That is, if you’re interested in a Banjul boy like me, he adds, as she takes the phone from him and types in her number, saving the contact.
They sit in a restaurant at Westfield, on their first date, outside the cries of the aparanti as they compete for passengers, the tooting of impatient horns, the occasional saaga ndey thrown into the wind. Their chawarmas – his chicken, hers shrimp – lie opened but uneaten before them, so absorbed are they in their conversation. About them customers and waiters mill about, entering and leaving again, the waiters cleaning tables as they become free, ready for the next hungry passerby convinced to enter by the rotating chicken grill outside, and the smell of tasty food. They take no notice of these proceedings, such is the hold they have on each other’s attention. Much later, when she thinks back on this day, this is the moment that Nabou will remember as their beginning.
She has never had conversations like this, with anyone. He is full of stories, and a natural story teller, who can turn even the most mundane of happenings from his history into exciting adventures that make her laugh out loud one minute and thoughtful the next.
– In high school we talked about how a girl with bowlegs would be good in bed, he is explaining, – One of my classmates heard this theory from his older brother, and passed it on to us. So for a while the bowlegged girls at school had the highest stock.
– And you went chasing after them?, she asks, a twinkle in her eyes.
– Chase?, he says, looking at her, a mischievous smile on his face, – Of course not – I never chased, until I met you…
– Fool me one more time, she replies, – I fall for it every time….
When she gets back home that evening she dials Jahou’s number.
She had met Jahou in high school, their preference for seats in the centre of the class – away from the back benchers, who trailed the positions list at every exam, but not so close to the front that a teacher seeking a question answerer would set eyes on them first – bringing them together as much as the register separated their names. Of all her friendships this is the oldest, the one she has turned to again and again, through the roughest of times: her father’s death, her heart breaks, her losses of self-confidence.
Of the two of them Jahou is the xione, the one who speaks to a hundred guys at once, deftly juggling them like someone playing with tennis balls, pushing and ordering them around, yet somehow always getting her way. Nabou herself has always been, if not quite shy, more reserved. In high school while Jahou switched between boys, her interest in them waxing and waning as easily as drinking water, Nabou rejected all suitors almost by default, something in her drawing away from them the more they pressed to know her. By graduation she had been in a total of two relationships, going through the motions – the Valentines cards, the Inter-House and after-party dates – but never truly feeling what the other girls claimed they felt, the excitement that made them write a guy’s name all over the back pages of their notebooks, and be ready to fight viciously with any competitors.
– Jang-ha – how was it?, Jahou asks as soon as she picks up.
– It was… different, she replies dreamily. – I don’t think I have ever met anyone like him.
– What was different about him?, Jahou asks, – You and your chaga business.
– No it wasn’t even that. We did not talk about that at all. But something about the way he spoke to me…
– Ah a talker, Jahou replies, – I know the type…
– Yes, but not just that, Nabou says. – There was also the way he listened. Like his whole attention was on me, no matter what I was saying. Not just waiting for me to finish talking, but as if whatever it was that came out of my mouth was worth his time.
– Hmmm…. Sounds like somebody has already fallen…. And on the first date too…., Jahou says, – Now I have to meet this man – how did he get past the Great Wall of China on the first date?
– I don’t know, Nabou says with a smile. – And I have not fallen. I just want to see more, to know more – that is the feeling he left me with.
– You are meeting again? Jahou enquires, her question meaning something besides the words she speaks.
– Yes, Nabou says, understanding, now sounding wary, – He is busy tomorrow, but the day after we are doing dinner. He called after he had dropped me off and he had returned home, and since then we have been texting non-stop. He’s just such a…. fresh breath of air.
There is a pause in the conversation as Jahou thinks of how to be delicate, in what she wants to say next. It does not escape Nabou’s attention.
– What is it? she asks, a note of warning in her voice.
– I don’t know…, Jahou replies, still hesitant…
– What? Say it now – let’s have it all out.
– Are you sure you’re ready? Jahou asks, her words coming out in a rush. – You sound so into him already, more than you have sounded about a guy in a long time. It was good with Lang too, in the beginning…, Jahou trails off.
Nabou retreats, her tone suddenly cold.
– Oh I see, she says, and it sounds as if she were talking to a stranger who had just pointed out that her make-up was on all wrong. – So you think he will leave too, like Lang? I am the one who is always left behind?
Jahou pauses, breathes.
– Jang-ha – I’m not fighting you, she finally replies, her tone placatory, – You’re my girl – and I don’t even know him yet – I’m just trying to look out for you.
Nabou lets the breath out, tries to calm down.
– Ok, she says finally with a sigh. – I understand what you’re saying. But you have to trust me this time. Lang was an asshole – I just failed to realise it at the beginning, until it was too late. But the signs were all there – I was just dumb rek, and made excuses for him.
– Alright, Jahou says.
– Ous is different, Nabou continues, – He would never hurt me. I don’t even know him well enough yet, but I am already sure of that. I have no proof, but you’ll just have to trust my instincts.
– OK, Jahou says again, – I can’t wait to meet him.
He spends the rest of that holiday with her, his first conversation when he wakes up in the morning, and her last one while she lies in bed at night, spent from the day. All through the day they text and call, involved in each other’s lives. And every day that time permits he takes her out to a different place, sometimes for lunch, sometimes for dinner. Their speech is completely natural, as if they have known each other all their lives. There is no russ between them, no awkwardness. He is plainspoken but considerate and gentlemanly, taking nothing without asking first, and always ready to retreat in the face of a no, with no sulking: from a kiss to her hand to the time she spends with him. And then there are the times when he becomes angry or irritated, never just going off on her but taking his time always to explain why, to resolve it through conversation, never mean, never disrespectful. After a few days she cannot imagine her life without him, and it is a feeling that keeps her going all day long, from the moment she wakes to the moment she climbs into bed at last, ready for sleep.
At the end of two weeks, on what will turn out to be their last date as merely friends, he reveals to her his final cards. A toubab wife, he explains, one that he is married to in name only, in order to get papers… She listens carefully while he speaks, looking at him. He meets her eye, does not look away, or attempt to hide anything. And then when he is done and has trailed off into a silence she asks her questions.
– You both know that this is the arrangement?
– Yes. We both do.
– There is no love involved?
– None at all.
– Then why is she doing it?
– What do you mean?
– You’re getting citizenship – what is she getting?
– Well – she’s a good friend and she wants to help. She knows it is the only way I can stay on, and get better jobs.
– But you live together?
– Yes – we have to do that because they spring surprise visits on us. But everyone has their own room. Listen, Naa – you are, you will be, my wife. Do you know what that means?
– What? she asks, the displeasure in her voice and face barely hidden.
– It means you are, and will always be, the only woman for me. Any sort of arrangement will never change that.
In the morning she gets a call from her mother, informing her that the family has received a delegation from his house bearing guru and asking for her hand. His family has met with the approval of her uncles and grandfather, the head of the family, and their question to her is whether this is what she wants. She does not even have to give it a second thought.
On the Saturday before the wedding Ous takes her to see his mother.
When they arrive the merr is seated in the chair at the head of the saal, her grand mbubu a dark choob, her takai glittering gold. Ous does not knock, walks right in and up to her.
– I am here.
– You are here, the mother says, and there is something in her voice that makes Nabou remember childhood shared beds under a nawet night sky, the rumble of thunder outside and sheets of rain that fell without pause, all the warmth in the house gathered in the bed around you in a great heap of sleep as siblings and parents lay all together in a comfortable huddle…
Then the merr turns to her.
– Nabou, she says, – you came to see me.
There is a welcoming smile on her face, but something in her voice also gives Nabou pause, a slight edge that she does not think Ous can hear, one added specifically for her benefit. A test then, she thinks. One I must pass to satisfy her. And so she proceeds with caution, standing where she is, awaiting an invitation to sit.
– Come – sit, the merr says finally, indicating a chair.
– Ya I must go, Ous says, as Nabou settles herself into it. – I have to get back to take care of some things.
– But you must eat first, the merr says, her tone almost plaintive.
Ous takes a step forward, and leaning over her places an arm on the merr’s shoulder.
– I have to get back Ya – I don’t have much time left, and there are many things to do before the wedding. I already ate lunch, don’t worry.
– Are you sure?
– I did, Ous says, still holding her. – I only drove her – it’s her sehtsi. Now I must go.
– I hope you make him eat, the merr says, turning to Nabou.
– I try, Nabou laughs along.
Then Ous is gone, and she sits with the merr in the living room, the fan above them whirring away in its eternal battle against the Gambian heat. The anj has been served into bowls by one of the mbindaan, and now they sit at the dining table eating it. Or rather, Nabou eats – the merr has not yet begun, is still observing her with questioning eyes.
– Ousman has always been my best friend, the merr is explaining, – I hold none closer. His father died when he was only nineteen. I am sure he has told you.
– He has told me, Nabou affirms, a kudu heaped full halfway to her mouth.
– And after that he took on all the responsibilities of the house, the burden of providing. He is me and I am him, the merr continues, – I love all who love him and wish him good, and all who would harm him must first pass through me.
– Yes, Nabou says, chewing now, her words edging their way out around the maalo, – I figured that out – he talks often about you.
She finishes chewing, sets her spoon down, and looks up at the merr, who is waiting, her clean kudu still untouched by rice, her gaze on Nabou not flinching.
– I love him deeply too, Nabou says, – Even in the short time I have known him. And so I love all he loves, and all who love him. And he loves you more than all the rest of us combined.
Her tone is level, her eyes meeting the merr’s gaze. For a moment the whir of the fan overhead is the loudest sound in the room.
Then the merr smiles, seeming satisfied now, settling back into her position and fanning waves of cooling air over the hot rice with an opokai.
– Well soon he will be gone, and you and I will be left here. So we must be friends. Here – take some more yaapa – I’ve kept you talking all this while – you must eat now…
(To be continued…)