In July 1973 I was appointed to an Individual Placement Position with the U.S. Peace Corps as the Resident Ethnomusicologist to the Cultural Archives of the Republic of the Gambia, West Africa, which is hard to say in one breath. My job was to travel throughout the country and interview musicians, collect artifacts, and generally help to preserve the rich cultural heritage of this region of West Africa. Thus began a lifelong love for the culture, cuisine, art, dance, and music of Africa. I completed my own dissertation research on a small guitar-like instrument (in above picture) in Gambia and a couple of years later in Senegal. I have remained friends with one family, the Jaitehs, to whom I am now an honorary uncle, and some of my ashes will some day be scattered in their compound. Here is a group photo of some of them, standing around a taxi I helped them purchase.
The music and people of Africa have been a deeply important part of my life. I seek out the music in times of joy and sorrow, and I treasure the friendships I have had for almost half my life. I have performed, danced to, listened to and recorded African musicians, and since all humans descend from common African ancestors, I consider Africa my home at a deep level. I have also been privileged to have a younger brother, Pat, who also is “an old Africa hand,” having visited me and also served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ghana. Sometimes, we are the only people who really understand our love for Africa.
I have written several stories and poems about my time in Africa. Here is one poem, published by the Clementine Review, reflecting a profound experience in Dakar, Senegal. The photos were taken from the balcony of my apartment.
Boy on a Skateboard
Boy on a Skateboard
I watched him from the crumbling balcony of my filthy apartment,
my toilet and sink so covered with dried shit I needed to use
a hammer and screw driver to chip it off.
A $400/month shitty apartment I could barely afford in Dakar, Senegal,
“The Paris of West Africa.”
I watched him from a shitty apartment whose tap water was so foul
I would boil it for 30 minutes to kill every parasite and bacteria
Before pouring it into bottles I would store overnight
So that two inches of brown sludge could settle to the bottom.
I watched him from an apartment that was out of the rain,
had a toilet,
had running water,
had electricity, and,
looking out at his world from my balcony every day,
a shitty apartment I knew I was very lucky to have found.
I watched the boy from that crumbling concrete balcony
Pushing his noisy skateboard down the sidewalk using fingerless hands
Wrapped in cloth the color of hopelessness,
His jaundiced eyes searching for someone to see him,
offer him enough money
to buy a piece of bread. A cigarette.
His body is so ravaged by polio that his shriveled legs
disappear beneath his shirt.
He is a torso attached to a skateboard.
He looks up at me.
He lifts his chin. I see you.
I lift my chin. I see you.
I grab a baguette and a handful of cigarettes, walk downstairs
and squat on the sidewalk, waiting for him to work his way to me.
“Jama ngam,” he says in Wolof. “Are you at peace?”
“Jama rek,” I reply. “Peace only. Are you at peace?”
“Jama rek,” he responds.
We begin the traditional back and forth greetings.
“I hope your family has no trouble?”
“Is your father at peace? Your mother? All of your family?
I hope there is no trouble and that everyone is at peace.”
“I am called Hayib,” he says in Wolof.
“I am called Michael,” I reply in Wolof.
I drop the baguette, cigarettes, and a few coins into a small basket
he has attached to the front of his skateboard.
I light up two cigarettes. He takes one between his cupped wrists.
“Jerejef,” he replies. “Thank you.”
We sit quietly amidst the cacophony of a busy street
filled with shouting vendors, music blasting from storefronts,
and noisy speeding cars and taxis.
We watch an ambulance careen down the street
30 minutes too late to be of any help.
They are always too late.
“They never see me,” he says quietly, in French.
“The rich tourists and all the rich people never see me.
But they fear me. I can smell their fear, and their contempt.”
When we part, I watch him push his skateboard across the street,
dodging taxis like some NFL halfback.
He scoots over to the old man lying in a gutter,
the old man who is always lying in that gutter,
the old man with testicles the size of a basketball,
his face always twisted in agony.
They greet each other.
Together they tear the baguette in half.
Hayib gestures to the basket with his chin.
The old man takes a few coins and cigarettes.
I have strolled amongst the fancy shops and restaurants
and looked up at embassies and hotels
with bullet-proof opaque-glass views of the world beneath them.
I have sipped beer in cafés on the Boulevard de la République.
I have watched the rich and well-dressed and well-spoken
and well-thought-of avert their eyes from the omnipresent Hayibs.
The old man lights two cigarettes.
He and Hayib sit together quietly, smoking, observing their world.
Eventually, Hayib pushes off on his daily quest to be seen and not feared.
Dakar, Senegal, 1976