This is The Gambia, one of the smallest countries in Africa.
It’s a peaceful place where most of the locals have never even seen a gun. No wars, no uprisings. I think they had some soldiers helping the Brits during World War II, but that’s it.
My guide is a man named Samba, and it’s getting hard to shake him. He waited outside while I toured a museum, and now he wants to go to a bar.
OK, I’ll buy him a beer. Samba’s a hustler, but he’s got chutzpah and patience. Instead of complaining about my throwing him out of the museum, he took a walk. Somehow his radar told him I was leaving, and here he is. Besides, it’s a bar he’s taking me to. That means beer. How bad could it be?
I follow him back toward the market, around the corner, into the old part of the city. It reminds me of the Medina in Tangier. Narrow winding streets, colonial buildings, locals only.
After more than a few twists and turns we come to a bar. I forget the name, but it was neither a Mc or an O. There’s a small GUINNESS sign painted on the front. I guess that makes it Irish.
Inside are a few tables. The bar is tended by a middle-aged woman with straight black hair. She has the kind of permanent ironic-yet-sympathetic look that melts my heart no matter who wears it. Nice.
The only other person in the bar is an older man sitting in the back with a glass of what looks like water with a lime in it. Besides the drink, on the table in front of him is an assortment of shiny rings and bracelets.
“Hi Samba,” she says as we walk in. “You’re not working until later.”
“I’m the bouncer here,” Samba tells me. “I brought a friend for a drink.” he tells her.
“Beer please,” I say as we both sit down.
The bartendress opens two bottles of JULBREW, the local stuff. She sets one in front of me and one in front of Samba.
“Hey,” he says, “I’m a Muslim. I can’t drink that.”
“I opened two bottles,” she says. “I can’t close them again. O ce they’re opened, I can’t close them up again.”
The older guy with the jewelry says, “Tomorrow’s my birthday.”
I take Samba’s open bottle and bring it to him. “Happy birthday,” I say, putting it on the table in front of him.
He salutes me, raising the bottle.
“Thanks,” he says. “Where you from? And when’s you’re birthday?”
“New York,” I tell him. “And the last day of January.”
“American,” he says. “We used to have a lot of Americans here in the 1980s. There was some TV show—ROOTS—you know it? Every black American with enough cash for a plane ticket was comin’ over to Senegal and The Gambia. Pourin’ in here. Pourin’ dollars in here. You’d see ‘em all over, especially at the slave house. We got one too, like in Senegal, ‘cept it’s smaller. You seen it? Those black Americans, you count to six and the tears come. The money comes at 10.”
“No,” I tell him, answering his question about the slave house. “I saw the one in Senegal, on Goree Island, but I didn’t know there was one here.”
This is my friend “Zimba” from the museum.
“Yep,” he says, “smaller, but just as much history. Now where was I? Oh yeah, Americans, you could see ‘em all over, in libraries, in the market, turning over rocks on the beach. I guess they were lookin’ for some ancestor under ‘em.”
“Your birthday is the last day of January?” asks the bartendress. “January thirty-first?”
“Yep,” I say.
“That’s MY birthday,” she says.
“Maybe we’re related,” I say. “My long lost sister, stowed away on a boat to The Gambia.”
Samba clears his throat.
“Sorry,” I tell him. “Bring that boy a Fanta,” I say to the bartendress.
In the seat on the other side of me is a very scary-looking guy. During this African trip I have felt the gamut of emotions: annoyance, anger, lust, friendship, amusement, confusion, rage, joy–a thesaurus full—but not FEAR. Not once on this trip do I feel fear. The one emotion a white American EXPECTS in Africa, and I don’t feel it. Never. But right now I’m close. Let’s say I’m in a state of UNEASE.
The guy next to me has a shaved head. A scar runs from the left tip of his left eyebrow to the middle of his forehead. Another from the edge of his right nostril directly south, through his upper lip. His face is scruffy with a few days’ growth. His narrow eyes look upward at me from beneath a supraorbital process that’d look right on Frankenstein.
“I live right near here,” he tells me. “You do things?”
“Huh?” I say, not at my most clever.
“You do things?” he repeats. “Weed, smack, dust, I got ‘em all. You should come and look. No charge for looking?”
He talks over me, to Samba.
“Hey Samba,” he says. “Bring him over. I’m sure he’ll find something he likes.”
“I gotta get back,” I tell him. “Thanks for the offer.”
“Hey sister,” I say to the bartendress. “Could I have another beer and another Fanta for Samba?”
“Sure, bro,” she answers with a smile, getting the liquids from a small deli-like case in back of the bar.
“Hey American,” pipes up the birthday guy. “You know Seattle? I got a daughter in Seattle. You know her?”
“I been to Seattle,” I tell him, “but I don’t think I saw your daughter. What’s she look like?”
“She’s black,” he says.
“Oh yeah,” I tell him, “she said I should tell you she’s doing great but needs a few extra bucks.”
The guy laughs good-naturedly and begins to pick up the jewelry on the table and stuff it into a large burlap bag.
“I gotta go to work now,” he says. “I sell my rings and necklaces at the market. This isn’t like America. We don’t have money for old people here. You work. You beg on the street or you die. It’s not like America.”
“Don’t worry,” I tell him. “America is on its way to become more like Africa.”
“It won’t though,” he says. “I know America. In America they think being alone is freedom. It’s freedom not to take care about anybody, not to care about anybody else. Freedom is me, me, me. In Africa, if somebody your family, if someone your friend, if somebody help you out, you take care of him. In Africa, that’s how we do it.”
He stands up, slings the burlap bag over one shoulder, and walks toward the door. He has a slight limp.
“That’s right, innit sister?” he asks, more like saying goodbye than asking a question. “If someone helps you, you take care of him.”
“That’s right,” says the bartendress. “You right.”
I use the guy’s departure as a cue. Time to skedaddle.
“I gotta go too,” I say, drinking up the new bottle of beer in front of me. “They’re expecting me back in Sukuta.”
Samba drains his Fanta and stands too.
“OK,” he says, “let’s go.”
Fuck, I can’t shake this guy.
Together we walk out of the bar. When we reach the street—more like a clay path than a street—he slaps his shirt pocket.
“I forgot my cellphone,” he tells me. “Wait a minute, I’ll be right back.”
He runs inside.
I take off…running…just going anywhere…out of the neighborhood. Right turn…then left…then right again….not too many rights or I’ll go in a circle…just a few zigs and a few zags…lose him in the dust…another zig…another zag…whew. He’ll never find—
“What happened to you?” comes the voice in back of me. “You just disappeared. I went back for the phone, and you were gone.”
I turn and face him.
“I need to leave,” I tell him. “Get back to the bus to Sukuta. I don’t want to get there too late. My friend will be worried.”
“I’ll show you the bus,” he says, falling in step with me.
“No!” I say in a tone that I hope is firm enough. “I can find the bus. I want to go by myself.”
“OK,” he says, “but remember you should take care of your friends. I’ve been your friend. I helped you. Took you to the museum and the bar.”
“Did I ask for that?” I say. “You followed me. I didn’t ask you to. I bought you a drink…two drinks. I didn’t ask for your help. Why should I give you anything?”
I can see he’s hurt, but I stand my ground. He turns and walks back to the bar, empty-walleted.
It isn’t until later that I understand a key cultural difference between family/community-oriented West African—maybe Muslim—culture and individualist American culture.
In West Africa, if someone does something for you, whether you want it or not, you should be thankful and show your thanks. If it’s a person, that means giving money or food or something. If it’s Allah, that means praying five times a day.
In American culture, an unwanted gift thrust on you without your permission or acceptance is not something for which to be thankful. If someone offers you something, you reject it, but when that person insists, you do not thank them. You didn’t ask for it. You didn’t want it. You don’t thank the giver, and you certainly don’t owe the giver something (money or prayers) in return.
I hate it when I find something American about myself.
The people at the museum lovingly assembled all the insects in Africa that bit me.