Walking through Banjul, you’d be excused for thinking attaya was the national drink. On every street, every few meters you walk, there is the telltale kettle on a small charcoal stove, its accompanying glass tasses arranged on a plate near it. There is the attaya maker, who lifts the lid of the kettle to check whether the green tea is done, when to add sugar, when to make it foam, how much longer to wait before serving. Seated around the attaya maker are a group of young men, dressed in jeans and shirts, lounging in the shade of a building. Sometimes there is music playing, but mostly it’s their voices which you hear, now down to a murmur, now rising and loud again, as they discuss football, and women, and the government. They tease each other, and laugh so hard they get up and bend over. They talk about famous street fights that have happened, about the winners and the losers, and afterwards when someone has finished narrating a story about just how crazy a particular “Banjul boy” was, after the laughter has died down someone else will ask “whatever happened to them?”. And the reply will come (in your time here, you have counted only three possible replies): they are in prison, finishing off their sentence. Or they have flown, they have made it - they are in Europe (Swiss, Germany, Austria), sending money home, coming back every summer with a new car to dazzle those left behind. Or they are living in Banjul still, grown old and cynical (which means they’ve turned forty, and almost given up on ever going to Europe), and they spend the remainder of their days as they have spent all their days, eking out the meanest existence in this dying city, dreaming of the mansion they will build one day, and how they will honor their parents by sending them to Mecca.
On TV last night, you watched the leaders give a press conference. When the issue of the youth of the country came up, of what advice they had for them, of what could be done about them, they said what they have always said: that they are lazy, that they refuse to work, that they sit at street corners all day long and never do anything but drink attaya. Foreigners, the leaders said, are the people who come here and do all the country’s hard work, work which could be done by our youth. But they sit and drink attaya all day, and then they complain about our government, they complain about the state of the country. There was heartfelt applause from the people present at the interview, the Ministers and the other higher members of Government - they couldn’t agree more. You watched this televised event at a friend’s house. This friend - and his other ‘boys’ present in the room where you watched - are all of the ‘lazy youth’ category mentioned in the speech, and when you turned around to look at them there was an ugly sneer on their faces, to a man. You looked at the TV again, and were surprised: it was the same look - of animosity, of the inability to ever understand or accept each other’s positions as valid, of contempt and complete lack of communication - that you saw on both sets of faces: the Ministers’ on TV, and the youth’s in the room. In that moment, the TV became like a mirror, reflecting the youth in the room, but warping them in the process, making them better dressed and older, yet with the expressions on their faces unchanged. You felt strange, when this realization dawned on you. You felt as if everyone in the room you sat in had been replaced with a complete stranger. These people you joked and chatted with only that afternoon suddenly seemed not so real, not so close and friendly, in the night.
This afternoon as you sat at the vous, the street corner, with your new friends, the youth of so much contention, a young man passed selling sunglasses. One of the boys called him over, and as soon as he came, before he had said a single word, they were all talking to him in faux Senegalese accents, teasing him in the way they teased each other. “Mais, you are Senegalese.”, someone said. “Mais, you have to sell us these sunglasses cheap”. The man played along, showing his wares, patiently telling and re-telling them the price of each item they asked for, even though they only handed it back and moved on to another one. In the end no one bought anything, but his patience paid off - they served him attaya (he had come right in time for the first serving), and gave him cold water to drink. The teasing relented, and they spoke - in their normal Gambian accents - to him, asking him which part of Senegal he came from, how long he had been around. Finally, when he got up to go, he thanked them, and they told him it was no problem, graciously. No one had asked him how he got started in the sunglass business.
There are horror stories. When people from here go abroad - to Europe and the US - they say they do all sorts of menial jobs. Not having papers and therefore not legal enough to even demand minimum wage, they do the jobs everyone else will not do, from cleaning toilets to bathing old white people. When they come home, of course, they are none too keen to discuss exactly how they make their hard-earned cash. These stories are instead bogey-man props, used by adults to try to scare the youth still at home into not going. Stay in your country, they tell them, at least here you will retain your dignity and respect, even if you only have a scrap of a job. The youth’s response? I would rather go to Europe, even if all I do there is change some old toubab’s nappies. The first time you heard this, you were shocked. Why?, you asked the person who had uttered these words, Why would you not stay in your country, with your family and friends, and get a job instead, in your own country, with the people you know and love around you? That was not the last time you asked that question. Always you get the same reply: the vague accusations against the Government (corruption, nepotism, they are there only for themselves), against Aunts and Uncles who have done nothing, or have not done enough to help out, against Society in general, the way it does not care about the youth. In every single one of these youth’s minds a dichotomy has been set up, between us (the poor, hapless, innocent youth), and a revolving cast of them (at various times the Government, the extended family of the youth, Society, even Babylan, the land of the white people). Underlying this is Reggae music, the soundtrack of their lives and the myths they create: Bob Marley, Sizzla, Capleton, Luciano, singing of a time when Babylan shall fall, and “the people” shall once more rule the Earth. (To be continued next week).