By Amran Gaye
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.
To be continued….