Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Buck by M.K. Asante

Talk about books that transform language. M.K. Asante's coming of age memoir, Buck, tells of come up. The locale: the gritty streets of Killadelphia. The cast of characters: family, friends, and troublemakers. How can the son of an esteemed professor go through such wretchedness, you ask? It bees like that sometimes. Brimming with poetic slang, Buck masters the art of the ghetto simile, brings the dozens to the next level while orbiting everything-- dialogue, common wisdom, general consciousness--around Hip-Hop. It grants ink to every facet of Black life from the block to the barbershop, to the basketball court to (unfortunately) the jail cell. Asante reminds us what we loved about Down These Mean Streets and Manchild in the Promised Land, adding a squirt of prose blood fresh enough to snuggle a place into the Afro-American literary canon.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Residue Years by Mitchell S. Jackson

About a boy and his mom struggling through crack and poverty. A must cop.


Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Day Fourteen Sierra Leone: Fin

Day Fourteen Sierra Leone

As I write this last entry from the States, I can't help but think of Richard Pryor's quote about Africa. He has this famous bit from Live on the Sunset Strip where he's talking about the Motherland. He says, "When I was in Africa, this voice came to me and said, 'Richard, what do you see?' I said, I see all types of people.' The voice said, 'But do you see any niggers?' I said, "No." It said, 'Do you know why?' 'Cause there aren't any.'"

Now I'm not gonna go ahead and say I didn't say the n-word my whole time in Africa (it seems to be my default word for some reason jk), but my use of it did vastly diminish. I probably only said it less than a handful of times.

The point is, man, what an empowering trip it was.

I didn't realize it until when in Brussels waiting for our connecting flight, I see all these white people in the terminal and I think, man, I just came from two countries run entirely for and by black people. Amazing.  Except you know the mining, the newspaper, and other hidden powers, but still.

The biggest lesson I learned is that Africa fits whatever narrative you give it. If you say it's poor, devastated, war torn, you're gonna find evidence for that no doubt. But if you say it's on the come up, it's resourceful, it's beautiful, you would find lots of evidence for that too. I think back to the first day in Gambia and how scared I was of the soldiers on the road. Then, I think back to the last day in Gambia and the big smile the soldier at the gate to the airport had. "Have a safe trip!" he offered.

The trip is over. Our last day, Lindsay discovers that someone in our pops' house stole her costume jewelry, but we just shrug it off. We're happy to be heading back home. My pops, Umar Shariff, and Pa Foday accompany us on the ferry to the airport. We get to see, from the second floor, all the people and cars going to Lungi Airport. We take one last look at a beautiful, hilly countryside.

The trip is over and we are back to reality. Back to the comforts of the first world. Somehow they seem sweeter, like things not to be taken for granted.

The implications of the trip are already coming to be. My pops is already bragging to my mom about how we gave money to Aunty Sallay. My moms is already chastising my pops for the sideways schemes he subjected us to. I find out pop's land in Sussex was financed by our house in Boston. Seree is excited we're back. I tell her when she goes to bring her camera. New developments are rumbling under the surface.

But I don't care. I'm still waking up from a dream.

I never did find out what my last name means. My pops and my grandpa both just said that it is a popular Mandingo last name. But it is only now that I realize that this whole trip was never about the last name. It was about the people with it. The cousins, the aunties, the grandpas, the uncles, the distant brothers, the fellow countrymen. The people I never knew existed until now.

But enough of this philosophical shit.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Day Thirteen Sierra Leone: Parting

Day Thirteen Sierra Leone:

During the day I draft a letter to leave for the family. It goes like this.

Our time in Sierra Leone has truly been an unforgettable experience. Thanks so much for your kindness and hospitality. We will be back very soon. In the meantime please parcel this cash to the following people.

Pops 250,000 Leones (~$57)
Aunty Salamatu 300,000 Leones (~$69)
Yebu 10,000 Leones (~$2.25)
Kemoh 10,000 Leones (~$2.25)
Fatima 20,000 Leones (~$4.50)
Mohammed 10,000 Leones (~$2.25)
Tolo $10,000 Leones (~$2.25)
Umarr Shariff 100,000 Leones (~$23)
Alhagi Mami 50,000 Leones (~$11)
Fatmata 100,000 Leones (~$23)
Aminata 100,000 Leones (~$23)
Aunty Fanta 150,000 Leones (~$34)
Pa Foday 50,000 Leones (~$11)

As we compose the list, we start to realize how much of a racket this has all been. Even though we are glad to leave this token of our appreciation, we can't help but think we have been weaseled into this. All the plantains, the fish, the couscous, the African clothes, the bathroom cleaning, the fresh rainwater, the showing of report cards, the Achilles massages, the general stopping by and saying hi.

It doesn't register until the requests start coming in. "Can you send me back a phone?" "Can you buy me an iPad?"

It starts with my father. He knew what he was doing when he brought us from the hotel to his house. He knew he was saving me over a thousand dollars. He def took advantage of that fact by making me foot the bill for meals and having me buy fuel for the generator. Still, we really can't blame him or any of them for having that mentality.

What is alarming though, is despite his setting up national social security, despite his being on the board of a security company, despite starting a school in his hometown Waridala, I get the overwhelming feeling that my father is completely broke. He tells us he's coming to the States a month after us and will collect his American social security during that stay. But his American social security is not much. He only held down a job two full years when he was with our family.

The more disturbing thing is that his ticket to America is one way. He hasn't told anyone when he would be back to Sierra Leone. I get a bad feeling in my gut. I get the feeling that he is about to do to this family in Sierra Leone, this wife, these kids that depend on him, what he did to us many years ago. My heart goes out to Aunty Sallay and the kids. I feel bad for her. This woman who was the enemy for all these years. Life is funny.

She knows it, too. Before the day is over she surreptitiously corners Lindsay. "Can you send me an American cell phone so I can keep track of Fode? The Chinese ones here don’t work well. I don't want a fancy one. Just a small one." Lindsay tells me about the exchange. We are happy to oblige her one request.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Day Twelve Sierra Leone: Sights & Sounds

Freetown is a city of electric generators. At night, during the day, you can hear them pumping, pumping. The toppled telephone wires are relics of the past. Good reliable power comes from the ta-keta, ta-keta you hear in the distance.

Step outside. See the scenery. Take a chance. Take the poda-poda. But you have to be quick! Once that public van stops everyone will rush in. They will scratch. They will knock each other over. Four or five to a seat. Fifteen in a vehicle, handing their one thousand Leones for a chance to get to Forah Bay, to Aberdeen, to Lumley, to Town, to Free Street, to Patton Street, to Savage Square, to Hill Station, to the Clock Tower, to Upgun, to Shell.

"No me the driver, me say no dey go Shell. Me say last stop Upgun. Last stop Upgun. Everybody come out!"

And like that everybody exits.

"Na me the driver again. Now who say he want for go Shell?"


"One thousand more Leones!"

But once you get back in beware the hooligans. Beware the city thugs who ride the poda-poda just to sift through your pockets during a crowded ride. Please.

Beware of the cops. They want bribes.

"You would like the right of way? Give me fifty thousand. Your neighbor owes you money? We will go get him. But we don't have enough money to feed the prisoners. You know how the government is. That's gonna have to come from your pocket."

"Good news, we have your man in custody. Come back tomorrow to write a statement."

To the prisoner: "Tomorrow he's coming by to write a statement. Call someone to give us bail money before he gets here!"

Oh the town, the town. Anything can happen. How free it is! How free is it? You are stuck in traffic. Damn. It has been thirty minutes and you haven't moved. Only main road to town. But look at the town! Look at it! Look at the people selling wares. On the curbs, under tin fixtures, under wooden fixtures. In their hands, on their heads, in a wheelbarrow. What do you want? Slippers? Biscuits? Coconuts? Vimto? Fanta? Radio? Soccer boots? Wigs? Bleaching creams? Toothpaste? Tires? Gum? Bags? Dashikis? Lappas? Belts? Steering wheel covers? Windshield wipers? Chargers? Toys? China? Beads? Legal documents? Human blood?

People are arguing then laughing. People are haggling. A bullhorn screams British terms "Top up, top up!" pleading for cell phones to add call minutes to. People are exchanging currency. People are out and about. Bumping, strolling, trying to survive another day in Freetown.

This is my home and I only have two days left to embrace it.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Day Eleven Sierra Leone: Passports

Once my Uncle Alhagi in the States told me a beautiful story about my last name. He told me that the Sarawa people from which the name derives lived in a place in West Africa all to themselves. There lived a special species of snake. The snake was only known to the Sarawa. Eventually when creating surnames, they wanted one that reflected the originality of that creature. They didn't want to just dub someone "Saadique Snake". So instead, they named themselves after the sound the snake makes. The sound of that snake, according to them, was "Fofana".

It's an amazing story. Except for one thing. It's completely false. My Uncle Alhagi is jobless, homeless, and above all, a well-known pathological liar. No one has ever come close to corroborating the above story.

But it is the creativity of his story that I've been yearning for on this trip. I'm searching for one just as mythical. I've realized that I have formed this abstract notion of what this vacation, this peace mission, this homecoming is supposed to mean to me.  

That's why I'm upset about this whole passport business. For the last couple of days, Pops has been trying to procure Sierra Leonean passports for me and Linds. When he first proposed the idea to us, he made it sound like all he had to do was make a couple phone calls and, wham, we'd have them in our laps. So I was like, cool, that'd be useful to have so we don't have to apply for these expensive visas the next time we come. What I wasn't aware of was the subterfuge that would be involved. The making up of Freetown birth places. The changing of names. The creation of false birth certificates. We still went along with everything until we got to the actual passport application which said something like "lying to procure a Sierra Leonean passport is a crime punishable by death".

Then cousin Umar Sharif solidified the concern later that night. "Oh, Sierra Leone passports. You know you have to sign an affidavit?" That was it for us. We weren't gonna lie on a federal document.

Deciding that is one thing. Telling my father is another.

We tell him we are uncomfortable with the idea. He then confesses that he was having trouble doing it the deceptive way anyway. I'm seething because it's only now he's admitting the criminality of everything. He then tells us what he needs is our American passports. More red flags. Skeptical looks from us. Then he makes another confession. It won't work for Lindsay because she hasn't legally changed her surname yet. He turns to me. "But you can be a citizen and have a national ID card because your parents are Sierra Leonean." But I know the law. An America child whose parents were born in Sierra Leone has dual citizenship until eighteen when he can choose one nationality. Pops is lying to me. Insulting my intelligence. The same thing he did when he left all those years ago and said he was coming back. All those years he hid his second wife.

"Do you want to apply for a national ID?" he asks me.
"No," I say.
"Why not?" he asks sternly.
"Because I'm never gonna live in this country," I say.

He knows what that means. He has chosen to live in this country and I have accepted it.
But as many times as I may come to visit, I will never do the same. Being in Sierra Leone has been an amazing experience, but I would never choose it over America.

He huffs and puffs. He alludes to my birthright. I'm angry that just after four days in this country he is making me choose.

Today is our one rest day. We're doing much of nothing. The day consists of eating potato leaf stew and watching this Nigerian comedian named AY tell jokes with references that go over our heads. At night, we watch a ten year old Mr. Bean movie with the kids. It's the first time I've watched a first world movie and marveled at the luxury portrayed. The buildings are huge. Look at the vehicles, shiny. Mr. Bean is eating sushi off a conveyor belt at a fancy restaurant. I look at the kids glued to the television set and I wonder how they perceive this world. Their world is a totally different universe. It is a world of blackouts and potholes. It is a world of rotten tires and third hand radios. It is a world of mosquito bites and over-crowded poda-poda vans. It is a world where small lizards crawl into your room at night.

I wonder what they think of this marvelous other world across the sea. Do they think they have been cheated? Do they think, alas, there are always other better worlds? Or do they just think, alas, this is just the way things are?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Day Ten Sierra Leone: Who's Your Daddy?


Today I wake up with an extreme case of diarrhea. I go to the bathroom like five times in the span of thirty minutes. I'm praying it's not dysentery.

Linds and I are doing some covert spying. There are several children living in the house with us and we are trying to figure out if any belong to my father. It's highly possible considering we had to pry to find out about his second wife. It's also suspicious because  everybody has been introduced with an explanation except the kids.

We've done some narrowing down. It can't be Tolo because he's the servant and is almost a grown man. It can't be Fatmata because she's almost a grown woman and has been introduced as Aunt Sallay's daughter, "his adopted daughter". For a little while, we considered Yebu, this sweet dark-skinned seven year old (who by the way came up to Lindsay, pointed to me, and said, "He's your husband in the States. He's my husband over here.") but pops introduced her as Aunt Sallay's granddaughter and her real name is Salamatu Yebu Carew like her grandmother.

Which leaves Kemoh. He doesn't look terribly like my father, but he's dark skinned and about like nine years old. My pops took a while to introduce him and didn't say anything about his parents. He did say that his name means "old man" in Mandingo, and is often given to a child who bears the name of his father. But who is the old man?

This stay has been great, but it has also been very irritating. I remember how controlling my pops can be. He has all but co-opted my camera phone, asking me to take it out whenever he wants to take pictures. He is dragging us all around town bringing us to events and to relatives' homes. For the last two days, we've left his house in the early afternoon and didn't come back until after nine. We are tired. We are drained. It doesn't feel like a vacation. It feels like a stressful homecoming. On top of that, there's an agenda. My pops wants to show everyone here that he has things under control in America. That he's on good terms with his family abroad. That's not true. While I, as the eldest, am tolerant of my father, Abdul and Seree, my younger siblings don't speak to him, don't answer his calls. This is a charade.

We visit my grandmother's house in Tengbeh Town and my Aunty Sanaa. Apparently she raised my mother and all my uncles and aunts. "You mama, you uncle dem, all suck this one boby," she tell us. (Your mother and your uncles all sucked from this one breast.) She pleads with me to coax my mother to resume sending her money. "Whatever I did, tell her I'm sorry," she says. Later on my mom tells me she stopped sending Aunty Sanaa money because she drinks.

At night, my cousin Aminata surprises Lindsay with a full African dress. It's purple and has everything, the head wrap, the shirt, the lappa (skirt), shoes, and a purse.  Linds looks stunning in it. But my dad messes it up. "Good," he says. "Tomorrow you will wear that at an Islamic event."

No input from us.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Day Nine Sierra Leone: 1,000 Introductions

Today is the first day waking up at my Pops' crib. I'm awakened by the town call to prayer and a rooster crowing. Not the coloring book cockadoodledoo.  But a piercing screech. It's nature's alarm clock. It's also nature's snooze button because the crows happen every five minutes!

There is no water. There is no electricity. No indoor plumbing. The bathing routine goes like this. My stepmother comes in with bucket of literally fire hot water. It's been heated by flame. Then there's a bigger bucket of water filled with harvested rain water. The method is, with the calabash, you scoop the rain water out of the bigger bucket and scoop some of the fire hot water out of the smaller bucket and give yourself a bath. Lindsay goes first. Thank god, because she's able to show me in a way I can understand. I keep thinking my wife's a g! She's never experienced anything like this in her American life and here she is just blending in.

With a bath in I feel good. The night before, my cousin Umar gave me this crazy dope achilles massage, so my leg is feeling as good as it has felt since my injury. Then my pops comes in and jets down the itinerary. A visit to my Aunty Fanta and then to a funeral and then passport pictures. I nod cooperatively, but I know it's gonna be a long day.

We go to Aunty Fanta. She's one of the few people whom I remember from my visit when I was five. She looks exactly how I remember her. Dark skinned. Distinguished gold tooth. Proud cheek bones. She, her daughters, and her daughters' children live in the unfinished house that my father is building. There are no doors. The floors are all concrete.  The rooms are scarcely furnished. This is the home they fled to during the war. We take pictures. An imam says prayers for us. We leave to go to the funeral.

The funeral is for an eight year old girl who succumbed to high blood pressure. My father tells us that, unfortunately, in a country like Sierra Leone these things are not rare. It is held in the bereaved mother's tiny backyard. There are plastic chairs strewn about. The women are on one side in festive African garb and the men are on the other side in street clothes. There is a makeshift tarp overhead protecting everyone from the rain. Big communal plates of potato leaf stew and white rice are being passed. Five to a plate. Some eat with the spoon, but most eat with their hands. Linds thinks the food smells like vomit, but the African in me has no idea what she is talking about. Some women pass us a plate and two pocket waters, but me and Linds can only eat a few spoons. We've been gorged with food all day.

Pops is introducing me to all these people. Cousins, aunties, sets of twins. I'm losing track of all the names. I'm forgetting people. On top of that, people are speaking to me in Mandingo and Creole and I can't speak back. Mandingo is a totally foreign dialect to me. I can understand Creole, but I can't speak much. Lindsay says she feels weird being the only one who can't understand. I tell her I feel worse because I understand Creole, but am still unable to communicate. I've spent all of my life becoming American and now I can't fit in with my own kin. I feel like a traitor. I want to learn Creole so bad. I'm confused. Who am I?

Over my shoulders, I can hear women making fun of my Westernness.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Day Eight Sierra Leone: Above the Law

I returned to the United States on July 14th. These are the entries I couldn't post due to lack of Internet.

Day Eight Sierra Leone: Above the Law

Today commences the ultimate deviation from the beaten path. We are moving from the hotel to spend the rest of the week at my father's house in the eastern most part of Freetown. Our hotel was very European. Air-conditioning. Gourmet meals. Room service. Guests who were in the natural resources industry. Now we are venturing to the ghetto, Freetown's equivalent of the South Bronx. No electricity. No running water.

Pops picks us up at noon. It's another full sightseeing day before we finally lodge at his house. The first stop is to the American Embassy, not to register, but just to see. Amongst shanties and dilapidated houses, it is the only first world looking building. "Here, you and Lindsay take a picture in front of the emblem." Linds and I are standing ready for the photo when, BAM! A soldier comes running up the hill. "Hey! You no for snap picture dey!" (You're not supposed to take pictures there!) He's rude and aggressive.

He attempts to snag Linds' iPad from my father's hand. Naturally, my father takes offense. In a not-so-polite voice, my father explains that although he was attempting to take a picture, he pressed the wrong button and no picture was taken. The soldier doesn't listen. He's loud. He's in my pops' face. He takes the iPad.  It's getting scary. It's also getting pretty funny.

My pops says, "If you no for dey na uniform, I been for teach you a lesson."
(If you weren't in uniform, I would have taught you a lesson.)

Again, Sierra Leoneans. Argumentative. Another security guard intervenes. Lindsay's iPad is handed back to her. In the car, my pops goes, "But I did manage to snap a picture of you two."

He takes us past the city limit to a village called Sussex in the rain belt. As soon as we get there, it just starts pouring. It's extremely fertile. It's home to the country's only water pipeline. These communities are very secluded. The roads are non-existent. Stray dogs and roosters. Families squatting in abandoned fixtures. Kids in the grass and dirt streets "repair" potholes, make fake toll gates with string, and ask cars for tips. The whole place is a wonderland of wet greenery.

It is also here where father's purchased plot of land is. Up until now, it was just a rumor. In the States, we had heard about this plot of land my pops had in addition to his house.   Now here we are looking upon it. There is lots of tall wet grass and large black stones. It is also a very modest size, probably large enough for one small house. But there's one very cool thing about it.

It is by the water!

It's overlooking its own private beach. The view: the sand, the water, is breathtaking. Pops says he plans to build a couple of guest rooms there for when Sierra Leone's tourist economy rebuilds. It's smart. A rush to an untapped resource. In America, only rich people own beach front property.

Anyways, we go to the beach. There, we have lunch with one of pops' childhood friends,  Mr. B. He's a funny potbellied Creole who lives by the water. We all order the Barracuda. Me and Mr. B order ours with fries. Pops and Linds order theirs with rice. The Barracuda tastes like it was plucked out of the sea five minutes ago. That's how fresh it tastes.

By now, it's evening. We stop by my grandfather's house and the only highlight there is when they bring a live goat into the living room.

And then off to my pops' house to stay for the next week and to finally meet my stepmother.

We get here. Now mind you, I'm in part doing reconnaissance for my mother. I'm ready to report to her and say, "Dad's wife is ugly! She's nowhere as pretty as you." I'm ready to do reconnaissance on the house. Ready to say that it was the ratchetest thing I ever did see!

We meet his wife. Aunty Sallay they call her. She is round and homely. But she's sweet and funny.
She's in the living room with kids watching a thirty year old Bollywood film. The house is actually a house. Not like the temporary houses around it. It's relatively spacious and we get to sleep in the master bedroom. What a sojourn it's been. We're finally here.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Day Seven Sierra Leone: Mr. Fofana from NASSIT

I returned to the United States on July 14th. These are the entries I couldn't post due to lack of Internet.

Day Seven Sierra Leone.

I understand.

I understand now why Pops left the States.

Now I don't think I would escape my kids and the comforts of the first world for a diminished quality of life, but I still understand. I understand when a man calls my father this morning to complain that he is being evicted. My father just makes one call and, like that, the man is granted a three month extension. I understand when my father drives to the central business district of Freetown, passes my phone through the window, and it comes back in ten minutes unlocked with a new local number. I understand when my father nods at an armed soldier and, like that, he can pass through to the State House. I understand when all around town people wave to him and say, "Hey, it's Mr. Fofana from NASSIT", Sierra Leone's Social Security office. In America, my father lived in one of Boston's blackest ghettos and worked at Radio Shack. He didn't feel like a man. Here, he does. I understand.

Anyway, me and Lindsay come back from eating lunch in the hotel restaurant and the reception lady is like, "Your grandfather is here." And he is! My grandfather is waiting in the lobby. My grandfather who I haven't seen in twenty-five years! Just chilling. We embrace. We take pictures. We share memories. He scolds me for not converting Lindsay to Islam. He lectures. We just listen and nod. But it's great to reconnect. I promise to him that we will sit down before the end of the week and record a video of him telling our family oral history. Linds and I also promise him babies before he dies.

By the way, Lindsay had gotten her iPhone stolen at the airport. We're not in happy Gambia anymore. Here, people are struggling to make a buck. She checked her small case which had the phone tucked in. Someone had gone through it right when we got off the plane.

Yeah, people here are hustling all around.

Just some quick mathematics to drive the point home. In Gambia, 1 US Dollar = 30 Dalasis. In Sierra Leone 1 US Dollar = 4,500 Leones. It's a fact that my brother and I used to make fun of growing up. We'd go up to our mother and be like, "Would you like to buy a stick of gum? That will be 4,237,623 Leones, please."

So yeah, people are hustling. It's crowded. In the Central part of town, people are walking with their merchandise.  Towels, cloth, belts, watches on their heads. Soca music is blasting. Women selling coconut juice. It's amazing. Pops is leaving no stone unturned. I'm overstimulated in a good way.

We drive by my mother's old high school and I take a picture.

At night, we call my mother from an outdoor restaurant on Lumley Beach, in Aberdeen. I hear her talking to my Uncle Mohammed in the background. She's like, "They're calling us from Freetown!" She has no idea I'm about to text her a picture of a building she hasn't seen in over forty years.

P.S. We are moving from the hotel to stay with my pops. No Internet. So entries for days eight through fourteen probably won't be posted in real time.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Day Six Gambia/Sierra Leone: Reunion

Day Six Gambia/Sierra Leone


Last day in Gambia. It is filled with our promises to come back. Highlights. Being on the River Gambia in a small ass boat. Seeing the village of Juffureh. Only disappointment: not finding out what my last name meant. Bunch of people just kept rehashing what I already knew. That it is a Mandingo surname. But no one could tell me what the word meant.

To the Banjul International Airport to catch a plane to Sierra Leone. Hour fifteen flight and we're in Freetown. The birth place of my parents. My nation of origin.

Okay, difference between Gambians and Sierra Leoneans. Whereas Gambians are cordial, calm, friendly, Sierra Leoneans are insistent, aggressive, short fused. The airport and some other random guy help us get water taxi tickets and the dudes at the booth get angry that we're taking so long.

We get the ticket. The random guy says : I no lek that bobo. He too warm-heart. (I don't like that boy. He's always getting mad at something.)

He's speaking the creole my relatives have spoken in America in secret for all these years. I pause and listen to the language that I heard growing up all my life as it gracefully transforms into the language of the majority.

About the water-taxi. It's bouncy and tumultuous. Almost as scary as the Gambian boat.  It's takes will power for me not to vomit. On the other side of the water, on the mainland, awaiting us is my pops.

Quick Fofana family flashback...

Sometime in '96. Pops gathers my brother, my sister, and me and says, "I'm going back to Sierra Leone. I'll be back in the Fall." He never comes back. Momdukes holds us down. The last seventeen years is a mix of resentment, indifference,  and finally acceptance.

Back to the present. Pops is waiting for Linds and me. Mix feelings. I want to feel like screw you for not being there. But I don't feel that. I feel happy. I want to see my father.

He helps bring our luggage to his car. He goes, "Sidik, you remember this, don't you?" And oh my god, I do. It's the Mercedes Benz my pops bought in 1990. Our family car in the States. He had shipped it to Sierra Leone. Except now it's completely ratchet. The coat has faded into brown rust, the transmission is hanging out, the dashboard barely functions.

It's a huge punch in my gut.

If I could scan a picture of the car for you as I remember it, I would. You would see the glistening Mercedes logo, my brother and I smiling from the back seat, playing with the automatic windows. Now I'm in the middle of Sierra Leone looking at this beat up shell of a third world car, this rotting symbol of our nuclear family gone kaput.  It hurts.   I want to cry. I want ask, "Daddy, this is what you left us for? This, this diminished quality of living?" I want to cry and say, "I don't understand, dad, please explain it to me."

Instead I smile and say, "Yes, I remember."

We're riding through Freetown. Pops is showing us the sites. Lindsay's in the back mum. Lots of shantytown living. Some roads have been remade by the new president. But most are full of heavy potholes. Let's put it this way. Sierra Leone makes Gambia look like Park Avenue. Pops tells us that things are picking up after the civil war and I ask if he remembers the civil war and he says, "Oh yes." I ask, "Did you see anything scary?" He pauses and says, "Yes". "What did you see," I ask?

I am a seven year boy again asking his father questions.

He says, "Amputations. Soldiers cutting off hands and feet."
"Why," I ask.
"The evil of war," he says. "The rebels would cut off hands and say, 'That was the hand that voted for this president. Go back to him and see if he can put it back together'."

Dad drives us to the hotel. The Country Lodge, it's a nice hotel. So much to think about. I feel up and down. My stomach tells me it's from the turbulent speed boat ride. But my heart says something else.

P.S. We are moving from the hotel to stay with my pops. No Internet. So days eight through fourteen probably won't be posted in real time.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Gambia Day Five: The River Gambia

Gambia Day Five: The River Gambia

We finally leave the compound! We go on the Roots tour. Sharif is our tour guide. He's a very spry forty and he tried out for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona (the 400!). We're the only ones on the bus and he talks a lot so it's kinda annoying. During the hour ride from Banjul to the seaport, he tells us about his aspirations to fly a jet and be an accountant. He also tells us about what he would do if he were president. Some scheme about palm tree oil.

The day goes like this. We take a boat to the villages of Albreda and Juffureh (village of Kunte Kinte) then a smaller boat to St. James island where, in the 18th century, slaves awaited transportation to the new world.

We get to the seaport where the boat is. Already on board is a motley crew of nerdy Americans, some Black British women of the soul searching blend, and two older Dutch couples. There's also this good-looking young mixed Dutch guy with muscles. He takes off his shirt in Linds' presence and I am immediately peeved. If I were buff, I'd just take my shirt off too, but I'm not. I'm 30. I'm flabby. I have a barely repaired achilles.


Anyhoo, the boat ride is two hours. We get to the village and it is surreal. We hear goats bleating and we see tin roofs. Clothes drying on thin lines. Little children everywhere. One of white Dutch guys opens up a thing of crackers and they all come running to him. He opens up a thing every five minutes. I'm annoyed at his whole "I'm white guy here to save the day with biscuits" shtick. I know I'm overreacting.

We meet the village chief. She's a she! She's like eighty something years old. When one  of the tour guides come forward to greet her, she gives him dap. I swear! She's a g.

After that, we visit the ninth generation of Kunte Kinte's family. One lady subtly or not so subtly hints to the guide that Alex Haley's Roots has been discredited, but the guide ignores her. If he were allowed an unprofessional moment, he would say something like, "Negro, we know that...we just trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cent."

And finally to St. James Island. Now our tour guide had mentioned going there on a smaller boat, but I had no idea he meant a skiff! A shrimp boat! We're like this close to the water! I'm thinking this is the end. I have a weak achilles and this is the end. Some of the locals are helping us on to the boat, giving us very explicit instructions about sitting on alternating sides of the boats as we get on. A couple comes on and sit on the same side and we nearly topple. On the river Gambia. In the Atlantic!

We make it to the island. What an experience. To see those closed quarters and know that they housed thousands of slaves meeting a terrible fate makes me just at a loss for words. The guide has given this tour a thousand times and even he breaks down. Just breathtaking, indelible.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Gambia Day Four: Rain

Gambia Day Four: Rain

We're restless. The Africa mystique is wearing off. We're no longer dazzled by the monkeys, the frogs, the lizards, the butterflies. We're bored. We have to walk to the open reception for Internet. We have not gone to town yet. We're fighting. Something about her staying in the reception area to check an online bank account and me wanting to go back to the villa for the air conditioning. We stay in the reception area only to be welcomed by torrential downpour.

Thank god for books. What do you do when you're villa all day and you have no TV or Internet? You read. Before I left I had budgeted to read two books. One was The Complete Action Philosophers and the other, Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe I finished today. Luckily the resort has a library (more like a book swap) and I was able to snag a diamond in the rough copy of Life of Pi. Lindsay is reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers.

We did go to the pool and I did seize pool time to rehab my achilles. The people at physical therapy in the States did give me some exercises to do abroad, but it's good to supplement them with some mobility in the water. Still I can't stand on my tippy toes and it saddens me.I think about if something were to pop off, I wouldn't even to be able to scamper away.

Today for lunch we had the tiger prawn and it cost 500 dalasis! Okay, that's only 15 dollars, but still. We are at the point where our funds are drying up. Pretty soon, we might have to hit up the one ATM in the town. It's funny how we were so rich a day ago.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Gambia Day Three: The Minister of Defense

Gambia Day Three: The Minister of Defense

Did I mention, we're the only ones here? It's offseason, but it's perfect. We have the entire resort to ourselves.

The currency here is the dalasi. One dollar equals thirty dalasis. Apparently, the average weekly wage in Gambia is one dollar. I notice this fact first hand when we eat a plate of curry at the resort restaurant and tip 120 dalasis (four dollars). The guy's eyes light up. It feels good to be looked upon as rich. In the States, we're just Black.

Linds and I have been arguing. She wants to go out to the town. To the markets, the restaurants. I wanna stay within the comfort of the compound and the nearby beach. It has come to a head today. "You're addicted to 'no,'" she says, then she alludes to my cowardice. I realize that I have no choice. I have to explore. Soon.

Abdoulie, this papa-like guy in his early fifties, makes a pitch to us about tours around Gambia. We sign up for the Roots tour. After his spiel, he goes, "What's that?" to Linds. And Linds is like, "It's a iPad", and he goes, "Is that the latest?" And Linds, goes, "Yeah," and snaps a picture of him. He marvels at the quality of the photo. Again, we feel like rockstars or better still rockstars from the future.

Nothing but guys here. They're ogling Linds. They think they're being slick. Some of more respectful ones look at me like, "What do you do in the States to get a dime like her" and I'm thinking, who this fair-skinned, Jim Crow beaute? Ummm...teach public school.

These two guys in suits come thru the reception area today. One of them, we find out, was the Minister of Defense for Ghana. We're astounded. They immediately come up to us and starting bragging about their wealth.

"I had my holiday here ten years on half this resort."

"I've been to Washington, DC and New York to meet with the President of Liberia."

"I love American stock. I bought one thousand dollars of it. It's so easy!"

Even the white South African guy was sucking up to them.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Gambia Day Two: Attacked by Monkeys

Gambia Day Two: Attacked by Monkeys

I'm extremely jet lagged so I wake up at 12:00 to the most hellacious thunder and lightning. The electricity is cutting in and out. The insects are loud. Cicada loud. I'm jarred to say the least. I turn to Lindsay. "I'm wide awake," I say. Translation: "I'm scared as hell." She goes, "Well, I'm not," and goes right back to bed.

We meet Sally for breakfast. Sally is another American from South Carolina who's been here a week. She's like six-feet tall. One of those Sankofa type Americans all into her roots and what not. She tells us to go on the Roots tour to the birth village of Kunte Kinte. She tells us to go to this seafood restaurant outside of the main compound. She says she's been gorging herself on bananas mangos and cashews. Again the words of passport health ring in my head. Do not stray off the beaten path. Don't drink drinks with ice in them. Don't eat fruits. The words sounded easy enough to heed in New York. Now temptation is everywhere.

We're at lunch and I swear one of the guys working in the clubhouse is named Fofana. I wanna summon him and ask him what our last name means. My one mission. I motion to the waiter. "Is that guy's name Fofana?" He says, "No, his name is Fakemba."

So Lindsay claims she was nearly attacked by monkeys. On some "Interpreter of Maladies" ish. I was asleep in the villa (jet lag is a mfka!) when it happened. She went to the outdoor reception area for Internet and "like twenty monkeys were on the ledge staring me down!" I calm her down and remind myself I've married someone prone to hyperbole. At the same time, I can't help but feeling glad she got that karma for not comforting me during the previous night's storm. But lo and behold, the next time we go for a walk there's like a swarm of monkeys in the grass by the resident's area!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Gambia Day One

Gambia Day 1
Understatement of the Day: "There's black people everywhere!"

For the first time in my life I feel white. Banjul International Airport. All these cats is coming home. Young men with suits on,  mothers with their kids, VIPs with personal vans ready to pick them up. Everybody's got that bounce like, "Yeah, homie, we back!" and we're like, "Where the hell are we?" The plane touches down on a runway amidst dirt roads and weeds. We have to take stairs to get out of the plane.

 We're excited as a mug though.

Hustlers. From the moment we get off the plane. Can we help you with your bag? Can we get a taxi for you? Umm. That's kind. No, thank you. We're going to Kololi Beach Club, just looking for the sign of our driver. One of these guys helps Linds out. Puts all her luggage in Kololi Beach driver's car for her and he goes, "We take tips" and I motion to Linds to give him a dollar or two and she does and dude holds her and whispers, "I got that hashish" and Linds does this nervous nod like, "What am I suppose to say to that?" and like that bam a little ball of aluminum foil ball falls from his hands onto the floor. I'm acting like a bitch already. All I can think of is the words of the passport lady in New York. Don't stray off the beaten path. Is hashish and aluminum foil off the beaten path?

(The local restaurant keeps up with the Premier League, Jude)

First thing I notice about Gambia is there's soldiers everywhere. Full uniform, everything. They're in the cut chilling like it's normal. Unnerving. I tell myself Imma get really scared if I start seeing guns. Two seconds later the driver passes by two soldiers in a military jeep and with their hands on this big ass bazooka. This is our military barracks, the driver says. Gulp.

I figure I'd go ahead and change the topic.

I ask him if there are a lot of people with my last name Fofana around and he says of course.

That's the real reason I'm here. I want to know what my last name means. I'm tired of saying back home in the States, yeah it's like the name song Bonana, Fofana. I've come all the way here to find out the real origin of my surname. I figure this guy will help me with this simple query and Imma keep it moving.

Him: Yes I know that name Fofana. It's from a language called Sarawa (phonetic)
Me (excited): Word! Do you know what it means?
Him: I know what it means.
Me: What does it mean?
Him: I know, but I don't know how to explain it in English.

Dang. Instead, he rolls down the window and there's this fifty year old guy on a bike. He  turns to me and says, "This man's name is Fofana, too."


We get to our room. Beautiful of course. Brown, curtains made of kentei cloth. Me and Linds put our bags on the couch and our first instinct is say every tasteless African joke we can think of.

"Look, there go ya cousins!"

"Welcome to Zamoonda!"

"Get ready to see titties everywhere!"

We laugh for a long time. Then we look at each other ashamed. Then we grin. We are home.