Saturday, December 17, 2011

A "Homegoing" - Part 5a: Neocolonialism and Juffureh

I'd initially included "neo-colonialism" in the title for this piece but, with all the current examples of European and American, wink-and-a-nod R2P policies (encompassing regime change, to include out and out murder - and bragging about it {smdh}); the continued land-grabbing in Africa; and The shadow war in Syria (all which have transpired since Part 4!), I figured belaboring that point would've been moot.

So instead, I thought I'd do a Part 5(a), sharing some more "being there" and then, closing with my trip to Juffureh.  And then - because this post is already wa-a-ay long (Yeah, you might want to read it in shifts or something.  If nothing else, do, at least watch the slide show at the end!), I'll do a retrospective of The Center in Part 5(b).

Again, my apologies for leaving you hanging.  But as I said before, "Life just keeps happening!"


Leaving the LAICO

I made a beeline to the shower after my day at the rice farm and got ready for dinner.  Since Gerald had called, saying they'd be picking me up at check-out time the next day, I figured I'd pack my stuff, and spend the evening saying my goodbyes to those who'd made my introduction to The Gambia such a meaningful experience during my short stay at the LAICO Atlantic.

Stopping by Ibrahim, the sand-painter's table after eating, I got a huge hug and a promise to make me something "beau-ti-ful" on my next trip.  Laughing, I told him there'd definitely be a "next trip," so I was holding him to that (and expecting a  second-timer's discount!).

Heading toward my room, I saw Bintou ("but everybody calls me Mama") setting up the lobby bar.  I couldn't just say goodbye to this young sister, because for the short time I was there, she was - in so many delightful ways - one of those "archetypal dreams" of that "temple of my familiar."  So instead, I decided to sit and have a drink and talk.

One drink became two, then two became three as we talked and laughed about our families; our birth order (Bintou is the name given the youngest daughter and I'm the youngest daughter too); foods we liked (I already told ya'll, I love me some rice!  But I also like boiled peanuts and sweet potatoes - both of which my Grandmama grew in South Carolina and, are locally grown in The Gambia; what we each wanted to be when we grew up (What? I still have dreams!) and music - the rhythms of which we both agreed came first, then the words.  For all that "distance created, created deliberately" which continues to render our circumstances decidedly different - it was apparent that we were the ones, "more alike than we were unalike."

Then - I heard the music start in the club next to the bar.  Mama and I looked toward the door, then back at each other - and burst out laughing!  Draining my glass, I said,  "Hell, check-out's not 'til noon!  I think a little leg-shakin's in order!  Flashing that beautiful smile, she said, "I'm on til midnight or I'd go wit you!"  We hugged, promised to stay in touch and in I went.

I walked through the doors, surveyed the landscape and immediately spotted Ansumana dancing.  I'd met this young brother working the evening shift the day I arrived.  He'd said then - "Just remember 'handsome' and you'll remember my name!"  Crackin' the hell up, I asked, "Has that line ever worked for you??  Smiling broadly, he just slowly shook his head up and down like my youngest does - when the answer is absolute.  Witnessing the veritable stream of European women offering to buy him drinks and pulling him to the dance floor - I had no reason to doubt him.

He'd been a font of information since I got there, suggesting places in Banjul I should see; telling me how other parts of the country compared to the capital; schooling me about local reactions to, and interactions with, foreigners - especially foreign women (priceless, dead-on info, I promise you!).

I went over and plopped down on a stool at the bar and ordered a Guinness (thought I'd switch from the drinks I'd been having so I could be sure to get my old ass up in the morning - bad idea).  When Ansumana came off the dance floor, he took the stool next to me. I knew he'd worked earlier that day, so I asked why he was still there.  He said whenever he had the breakfast shift the next day, he'd just stay over in Banjul rather than going home to his village.  "Tonight though, my job is lookin' out for you my Sistah, he said laughing.  "Cuz trust - dese guys in here watchin' you!"

To throes of laughter from the bartender, I shot back, "Hell, no need for them to be watchin' me!  I'm old enough to be all their Mamas!  And besides, there's plenty women in here!"  Then Ansumana said, "But Sistah, you different from dem, You Black - and American!"

Asking what that had to do with anything, he said, "First of all, cuz we don't have a lot of Black Americans come here - at least not until the Roots FestivalAnd second, you Blacks in America, you know how to fight for your rights - and win!"  I felt an uneasy sense of shame at his first observation, and while deeply humbled by the second, all I could think was, "Yeah, we used to."
I got this email from Mariatou after I'd returned, confirming his first observation:
Hi Deborah how are you doing, greetings from Gerald to you and my how is the weather there? say hi to your husband an your boys for me, i miss you so much...the festival have started since last Sunday and a lot of black Americans are around, Luciano and some musician from Senegal, i wish you are around to witness a real roots festival. i will keep in touch with you thanks a lot bye for now...(She also told me they'd renamed James Island, now calling it, "Kunta Kinteh Island" during the festival)
Ansumana's, "...we don't have a lot of Black Americans come here" hit me somewhere deeply.  Silent for a moment, I mulled over why I'd taken more than 50 years to finally get there. In the spirit of Baldwin's "do your first works over" - I had to own that, growing up, and for a very long time after, I'd not only believed a lot of the stories fed me by my country about this continent, I'd also internalized the negative thoughts and feelings that had come along with them (divide-and-conquer seeds, perfectly sown).

My reverie was interrupted by the sound of bottles hitting the bar in front of me.  The bartender had given us another round and they were waiting on me for a toast.  Clicking our bottles, we toasted my "coming home" - and I have to say, it felt pretty damned good.  The three of us talked and laughed the night away over quite a few more bottles of Guinness.  And as the DJ put on the last song of the night, Ansumana jumped off his stool with a smile and a sweeping, "Madame...?"

A sucker for that "Madame" thing since I first heard it in the Banjul airport, I hopped off my stool and went out on the dance floor to Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean.  I remember saying aloud (to no one in  particular), "Yes, a little leg-shakin is always good for the soul - especially to Mike!"  I'm old-er, what can I say?!

When the music stopped and the lights came on, he walked me to the hallway leading to my room, saying to call him once I got to the new hotel - so he could show me the nightlife in Senegambia (which according to him, was way better than Banjul).  I put his number in my phone and promised I would.  Once I started exploring though, I never got a chance to call, nor sample the Senegambia nightlife!

On to Bakau

The three Sidekicks were there on the dot at check-out to pick me up the next day.  I'd totally slept through my 10 a.m. wake-up call (like I said - switching to beer was a bad idea!).  Instead, it was the annoying and incessant ring I'd assigned to Gerald on my cell phone that woke me.  He was saying something about being just around the corner.  Figuring they'd arrive before I could shower and get dressed, I ran into the bathroom, made the sign-of-the-cross, brushed my teeth and threw on a sun-dress.

On the drive from Banjul to Bakau, I kept asking Gerald questions about the hotel.  Finally, he said, "Oh Deborah, don't worry, you will love this hotel!"  And he was right.  From the time we pulled up to the Ocean Bay Hotel Resort (located directly across the street from the U.N. building), to the day that I left - I not only loved this hotel - but I loved the people who worked there as well!

As we piled out of the car, the bellman greeted Gerald as if he were an old friend (which he indeed was, having stayed there for many months on end, for a few years).  Following him in, I noticed an enlarged replica of the photo on the right, prominently displayed on an easel outside the front door.  Curious, I asked what it was and what it meant.

He explained the statue stood on the island of Juffureh (made famous by Alex Haley's 1976 book - "Roots: The saga of an American Family").  The "Never Again!" he said, referred to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, its complete meaning - "Never Again in Chains."  I made a mental note to ask Mariatou how soon we could go there.

The lobby was a veritable Babel - abuzz with people from all corners of the world.  Some were checking in, while others - at tables and sofas spread around the lobby - were having drinks and/or food from the lobby bar, or hanging around the flat screen watching "football" (soccer to me).  When we reached the busy front desk, Gerald asked for "The Director" and we were sent down a short hall to his office.

He was a big man in stature - bespectacled, with coal-black skin, a booming voice and a ready smile.  Following the introductions, I asked if they were always so busy. He said, "Yes usually, especially with Christmas approaching."   But the reason they were so busy this time, was because of Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to abdicate the Cote d'Ivoire presidency.  As it turns out, the U.N. had evacuated all of its "essential personnel" from Abidjan - to The Gambia.

Let me interrupt the story and be clear here.  What I knew about Cote d'Ivoire previously, could fit on the flat side of a cocoa bean - literally.  And at first, I had the typical, colonized-mind, knee-jerk, American reaction: "He LOST the election!  What do you mean he REFUSES to step down?!"  But as I continued to follow the brewing conflict on the local and BBC news (most of the TV programming available aside from a couple movie channels), and interacted with some of the U.N.'s "essential personnel" -  my Spidey-senses started tingling.

So, I decided to talk with, and listen to - some damned West Africans (to include calling my Ivorian, Senegalese-twistin' sister-friend back home, leaving a rambling message asking after her family in her village - and peppered with plenty of "What the hells??")!

I was grateful for the opportunity to be there, getting my own bird's eye view of that whole, "two sides to every story, and then the truth" thing vis-à-vis neo-colonialists in modern-day Africa and this UN-monitored, "election."  And after kicking it around in my head for awhile, it began to make a a whole lot more sense to me.  My conclusion by the end of my stay?  There's never a dearth of those like the Changeling, willing to help feed those "I'm king of the world" beasts.

The Sidekicks, going back to the Center, said they'd come back for me the next day.  With a kiss on each cheek, Gerald assured me he was leaving me in good hands - and he was.  As I waited, half-listening as "The Director" handled a billing problem with one of the front-desk staff, I perused the pictures he had on a wall.  I didn't know any of the people with whom he was smiling and shaking hands, but I could tell they were African dignitaries of some sort.

Once he was convinced of the error, he firmly directed its correction and then turned his attention to me asking, "So where are you from?" When I said America, he asked puzzled, "So how do you know Pinedo?!"  I related the whole, met-in-Florida-ten-years-ago-when-I'd-interviewed-him-for-a-piece-in-the-local-newspaper-and-we'd-kept-in-touch-ever-since story. He asked if this was my first time in Africa, and again, I felt that creeping shame, hot on the back of my neck.  I answered, "Yes - but I'm sure it won't be my last."  We also talked  about the crumbs I'd been trying to follow, tracing my Sea-Island family roots back to West Africa.  With a hearty laugh, he said, "If anybody can help you with that - it's Pinedo!"

After signing everything, I got my "hotel passport" and the same bellman I'd met earlier escorted me to my room.  As we walked past the library toward my room, there was an old man on his hands and knees - plugging bald spots on the lawn (Oh I know - we're so evolved now, with our riding lawn mowers and/or gardeners!).  But in a strange and beautifully reaffirming way, it reminded me of how we've always been able to brilliantly do more - with less!  One thing's for sure, it made me appreciate the lushness all around me even more!

Aside from no in-room WiFi, I had no complaints about the LAICO during the few days I spent there.  But I have to say that this hotel, definitely helped ease my transition from those oh, so evolved, Western expectations - to the total reality that is The Gambia.

Once inside, the bellman showed me how to use my key-card to work the lights, explained the mini-bar/fridge thing, showed me how to operate the armoire safe and connect to the WiFi.  He opened the balcony curtains, to reveal a partial view of the pool through a rainbow of bouganvilleas (probably my most favorite flowering plant because they're a deceivingly, sturdy beauty with protective thorns - kind of like me!) - and I was mighty glad I'd trusted Gerald and his "arrangements."

For a damned-near germophobe, the room was perfect!  Deciding to take that shower I'd missed, I checked the grout (some things are harder to unlearn than others!), and then, bolstered by my few days of practice at the LAICO, I jumped into the small shower stall with my Butterfly Flower, a steady stream of  hot water - and found myself,  languishing!

After Skyping the husband to let him know I was safe and sound, I headed to dinner, but first - I stopped at the lobby bar for a Guinness and a chat (best source of information, I found).  The bartender gave me the lay of the land, suggested some dishes I should try and was again, surprised to find out I was from America.

An Australian couple came and sat on the two stools next to me.  We had some interesting conversations about Australia  (about which I know little), America (about which they knew even less)  and I don't know why, but we ended up talking about knowing different languages (well - more like our apparent unwillingness to embrace different languages).

It may have had more to do with me than them, because so far, I'd been pleasantly surprised to find, that even though each tribal group still maintained their own, distinct, cultural traditions and languages - many, if not most, were not only able to communicate with each other in English (the official language of the country) and some French, but in each other's tribal languages as well (unless that's a recent development, it kinda dispels that whole, "we couldn't talk to each other while chained together in the belly of a slave ship" thing - No?).

Having missed breakfast after over-sleeping, my stomach began to complain - loudly.  So, saying goodbye to everybody, I grabbed my unfinished Guinness and headed outside to the dining area around the pool.  After ordering, I just sat there, people-watching.  And aside from all the different accents I could hear, what I noticed most - from folk dressing formally for dinner, to "afternoon tea," to the way some guests treated the wait-staff - was the degree to which Europe's colonial influences were still so deeply embedded in the country. 

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, seeing as they were once a British colony which, geographically, is way closer to them, than they are to us - but I was.  However, when this local, cultural group performed, I was immediately pleased at how the mere sight of the "Hammer pants," coupled with the rhythm of the dance - instantly narrowed that "distance created, created deliberately" about which Baldwin spoke!  I went to bed early - and slept like a log.

The Sidekicks came for me a little after noon the next day.  When I got in the car, Gerald announced enthusiastically, "We're going to the Spanish man's house where I'm staying.  And I'm cooking!"

Juan and Gerald had become friends over time (since his earlier days of visiting The Gambia and staying at Ocean Bay).  So, since Gerald was in-country and Juan was in Spain, he was able to stay at the little house, not far from the hotel.  I'd later learn, there are quite a few Europeans, Lybians, Lebanese, Chinese  - and even a smattering of Americans - who've bought, and/or developed property in the country, renting them fairly inexpensively.

John's wife and daughter, along with her sister and her husband, visiting from Senegal, were waiting for us when we arrived.  Since they all spoke some English - and French - I thought it'd be the perfect time for me to practice a little.  Trust me, a Bachelor's degree in French does not a Francophone make!  My abysmal efforts gave new meaning to the phrase, "use it or lose it."  But they were all, very patient and gracious with my trying.

After the introductions and some small talk, I went outside on the patio for a cigarette.  Mariatou, John and his brother-in-law joined me, while Gerald and the sisters started dinner.  Soon, the delicious aroma of food coming from the kitchen won out and  I went back inside to see what was cooking.

Né and her daughter, Awa (that's her elbow in the photo on the left) were keeping an eye on the Chicken Yassa and potatoes on the small stove, while Gerald seasoned the freshly caught Ladyfish that he'd just cleaned and filleted.  I thought to myself, "Dinner's definitely gonna be lip-smackin'!" - and it was (do note the huge pot of rice sitting in front of Né in the photo on the right - I felt right at home!).  The best part of the day though - even better than the meal - was being, in community, with folk from the community who all looked like me, slowly working on closing that "distance."


Mariatou, and I made the trip from Bakau to Juffureh with Moussa.  He'd worked for Gerald when he started building the Center. Now, he apparently either drove a taxi, or hung out with the guys who do drive taxis.  He'd arranged our 7:30 a.m. taxi ride to the Banjul ferry, then shepherded us through the crowds in the ferry terminal and onboard.  And when we arrived in Barra, he negotiated the taxi fare from there, to Juffureh and back.
I tell you, if I'd not seen the levelling work being done on the road leading to the village (coating everything in its path with a thick, red sand that reminded me of "the red clay hills of Georgia"), I'd have said that the small fishing village of Juffureh hadn't changed much since Alex Haley traced his ancestral roots there in the late 1970s.

As a matter of fact, the thatched-roof huts of handmade mud bricks; donkeys, goats, cows and actual "macacas" (nod to stupid) freely roaming the tree-lined roads; the mortar-and-pestle sound of "Woman’s Wuck" (as detailed by Judith Carney in Chapter 4 of her wonderfully written, "Black Rice"); with a slew of little kids running around, laughing and playing barefoot in the dirt - all combined to make me feel I'd been transported to a place of little or no change at all.

We came upon this woman winnowing rice outside her compound. Instantly, I recognized the "basket" bridge between this West African village and my Charleston, SC roots. She spoke no English, but she carried on a lively conversation with Moussa, while Mariatou explained this part of the seed-to-table process to my forgotten self.

If you ever visit the Old Slave Market (we called it "Market," they call it "Mart" - go figure) in downtown Charleston, you can still find Black women making and selling beautifully woven, Sweet Grass baskets like the one she's using in the video.

I'm getting a little ahead of myself here.  Rather than just telling the story of my visit to Juffureh, I also wanted to share it in these photos.  I suggest watching it in full-screen, not only so you can see the, tiny, little words - but so you can pause it, and read some of the signs and excerpts.

No folks, I saw no slick Westernized malls, skyscrapers or subway trains in The Gambia (but, whether brought by owners, or sold through auctions or dealers - I did see plenty expensive, late-model Western vehicles!).  And for purely selfish, "Back to the Future" reasons,  I liked it like that.  Seems to me, the only harm in having an, "If I knew then, what I know now" do-over - is not learning a damned thing from it.  Me?  I want to learn...

UPDATE:  Ivory Coast elections bolster French recolonization plans

To be continued - A "Homegoing" - Part 5b:  The Center

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