I majored in psychology, but soon lost interest
and took up journalism, realizing my interest and fascination
with people was less to judge and analyze but to observe, to revel
in our similarities and differences, our quirks, foibles and strengths.
My brief trip back in San Francisco was an inspiring one, happy
to be back amongst my tribe of artists and thinkers, hopers and
dreamers and doers, making me wonder why I’ve chosen to
live in such a chaotic, prosaic place as Africa. But the duality
keeps me truly in appreciation and awareness for life’s
fleeting beauty. And how to direct it while paradoxically letting
it roll by like a movie; to revel in its highs and weep at its
lows while not holding on to its illusions of permanence…
The contrast between my two homes are stark. I try to experience
them as a Buddha, sheer awareness of their different textures
without judgment – muddy, meandering flashlit paths versus
the orderly slap of pavement, flooded with streetlight. The throttle
of drums versus your neighbor’s booming bass. The hard angles
of a suit and tie versus the silky flow of a peach bobo gown,
freshly laundered for the Friday mosque.
People and bags pile into cars on crowded roads so pocked you
can’t veer into a smooth spot, but plow right over the bumps.
I ride on my hard-seated bike with the stuttering brakes, careful
not to veer off the pavement meandering along a waste-tainted
canal of rain, passing women snoozing over cauldrons of rice,
mildewing buildings with rusty roofs and peeling paint, demolition
derby cars packing passengers by the half-dozen.
Life here takes place on the outside: I open my gate to a soccer
game in the street, uprooted grass patches for goals, the wooden-keyed
balafon serenading a prenuptual party in the road, funeral processions
stopping traffic with their prayers. Everything is shared here:
plates, taxis, salaries, joys, and sorrows.
A locked gate and 24-hour guardians seem to do nothing to stem
this stream of visitors chez moi. The refugee woman who cleans
for my neighbor, come to look through my magazines and chat in
creole English: “How da body? How da time?” All the
friends without phones who have to come visit every time they
have a message or a problem. My neighbor’s girl Hala, a
cute, bratty three-year old with dimples and a black braid down
her back, who pushes her way into my house and screams after my
cat, even though I don’t answer her knocks. I’m going
to have to put out a do not disturb sign.
The boxers have just left for the all-African games now going
on in Nigeria, the qualifier for the Olympics. Unfortunately my
buddy the Capitain got left behind, as they asked him to box in
a category below his normal weight, which required going days
eating nothing but watered down milk and bread while still training
hard several hours a day. He eventually decided it was the match
or his life, and there was no question which he would choose.
Meanwhile, I’ve had to seek out social stimulation wherever
I can in this sleepy place, bringing me to unlikely places like
the US Marine House. Every Friday night they have free movie nights,
with pimply-faced cadets selling hamburgers, beers and chocolate-chip
cookies while kids play Foozball and shuffleboard and beer-bellied
guys court svelte Guinean hookers.
Unlike in the States, where we often require high levels of stimulation
to keep from being bored or down, people here seem to find amusement
in every moment. I’m constantly caught off-guard by passersby
who greet me with quips I never see coming. At times a child will
look at me with such presence in her clear brown eyes that it
jars me out of my ruminations about the next this and that and
right back into this instant.
Happily, I returned to find my basil, papaya, tomatoes and ginger
had shot up like the August monsoon had rained down steroids;
ditto for my pas-plus-petit cat Kéké, who has been
living large with my neighbors on soapy baths and steak in my
absence. The monsoons have slowed to the occasional thunderstorm,
allowing me to supplement my garden with everything from sweetpea
to kale. We’ll see what actually takes to the thick clay
soil in my yard.
Coming home also to find my evil landlord and my neighbor (his
cousin) have been at war over her share of the building investment.
My house reeked of rotten fish, as he had cut off our electricity
and water to punish her; she showed me her black and blue arms
-- he went crazy kicking screaming and punching her, in front
of her three children no less. Yet several weeks later they’ve
worked it out, even talking about opening a restaurant together,
and seem to have possibly fallen in love with each other. This
country brings out the strangest behavior…
Everyone was ravi with the gifts I brought back –
Boubacar ecstatic with the profits we made on our African exports,
money he’s investing in more chickens and cages for his
poultry farm. Most of it got siphoned off, however, when the 16-year-oldwas
accused of taking the rearview mirror from a car, sent to jail
overnight and made to pay $100 for a crime there was no proof
he committed. Viva the African justice system. My gardener planted
the seeds I brought back for him right away – what a surprise
he will have in store when yellow-fleshed watermelons, rainbow
chard and fragrant lacy dill starts sprouting up. They both cascaded
blessings on me that would make a Southern Baptist holler amen
– that God protect me, recompense me, bring me eternal happiness…
I’ve also put to work another generous donation I received
at home, getting computer training for a friend, passports for
the dance troupe who have been invited to Spain, money for my
friend’s mother to restart her small business selling cloth
to her neighbors on a sort of layaway plan and more.
I can look on the bright side and be thankful for the chance to
brighten a few lives, but on the other side, but I also lament
living in a world where money rules our lives so – It decides
who will eat and who will learn, who will die young and who will
live long. Guineans are definitely living on the wrong side of
I saw a poor guy selling cheap Chinese wallets in the street the
other day. The bitter irony of plastic money folders shuffled
thousands of miles from one poor hand to another in hopes of having
a little something for them to fill their own empty pockets. Those
pieces of paper that drive people to my doorstep so desperately.
Even I who has need for no more hesitate to let go of any of it,
afraid that one request will lead to ten, afraid of something
that I can’t even name. To lose that sense of security and
freedom, both true and false, that having a fat bank account seems
to bring us all. I feel better when I can give something tangible
or at least spiritual – seeds to put in the ground, encouragement
to pursue the possibilities.
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