By Amran Gaye
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 unself-consciously, 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 someone 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.
The trips to Spain get mentioned, sometimes. Before you came here, you imagined a place where frustrated youth sat together in clumps, scheming and plotting, thinking about how they could make enough money to pay a boat owner to take them. So you were surprised, the first time you raised the topic, to find that these people – the “affected demographic”, the disaffected youth – treated it just like every other item on the news: with a shrug, a nod, moving on to other things. It’s not a big item of discussion – nowhere as big as football, for example. The destination is more important than the journey. Getting there, and not letting anything stand in your way. Focus on the positive, and ignore the negative, because it will get you nowhere. You could write a book, about their philosophy and the way they take life. How happy they look, beyond all your expectations. (You came here expecting a sadness underlying every action and every word).
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.