Happy Returns

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 the coin.

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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