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 are three of them, reflecting a wide range of experiences there.
A Little Night Music
Night Descends on my village in Africa
Open windows flicker with candlelight
Ancestral music played on the kora flows from ancient radios,
merging with the sounds of laughter and conversation and
jalibas singing tales of past wonders
Three large mango trees in my back yard fill with hundreds of
large straw-colored fruit bats.
Eidolon Helvum Chiroptera, the hand that’s also a wing.
Njuga bi, as they are called in Wolof,
Tanoolu as they are called in Mandinka.
The air around my hut resounds with their interlocking
chirruping, their beautiful polyphonic sounds creating a
Their performance enchants me every night and
I begin to wonder if this was the first music humans heart
And marveled at
And told stories to
And danced to
And…I am home.
Serrakunda, The Gambia, West Africa, 1974
Thousands of stones
Thousands of sizes
Thousands of sites
A thousand times larger than Stonehenge.
ancestors both long gone and long forgotten.
ancestors both good and less good.
Laterite monuments rising from the African dust,
anonymous cemeteries marking
the graves of those laid to rest here a millennium and more, ago.
Erected by ancestors of the beautiful African people
who continue to create great art, great music, great thought.
I walk from one stone to another through waves of 118 degree heat,
Tapping many with a rock to hear as well as see them.
Feeling homesick for a place I have never been.
A time I have never lived in.
My long arms are too short to embrace the circumference.
My vivid imagination too small to embrace the centuries.
Tears and sweat blur my vision, but I do not wipe them away.
With each embrace I am humbled.
And strangely comforted.
Wassau, Niani District, The Gambia, West Africa, 1974
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.
The old man lights two cigarettes.
They sit together quietly, smoking, observing their world.
Eventually, Hayib pushes off on his daily quest to be seen and not feared.
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 who endure a much different existence in “The Paris of West Africa.”
As I return to the shitty apartment I am so lucky to have, I recall an old African proverb
I learned from my first Wolof language instructor.
”Civilization is not measured by what people possess but by how they treat each other.”
Dakar, Senegal, January 1976