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?


  1. "Is it real son, is it really real son
    Let me know it's real son, if it's really real..."

  2. Hey man, this is a great entry. I'm thinking about using it in our Family History unit at African School for Excellence. Did you ever end up getting your grandfather to tell you those oral stories? I'd be interested to hear them.