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.