Saturday, June 23, 2012

Going Backwards and Forward [Part 4]

Author: Kombeh Jobe

This is a serial, fictional narrative by Kombeh Jobe. This is the last installment in this series. To read Part 1, click here. To read Part 2, click here. To read Part 3, click here.

My father was sometimes afraid of the prospect of my sister and I living in America. He was nervous about us growing up here, fearing what would become of us if we “strayed” and followed the customs of this country. He had known and seen too many men and women who had lost everything and went mad pursuing money and the innumerable pleasures this country had to offer.

And so he and my mother wielded a strong defense to make sure we wouldn't fall under the beautiful temptations of the country, tightly guarding us from what my mother says is the “pathlessness” of America; its moral and social vacuity. She believed the country preyed most on children, stealing their souls, separating them from their parents with promises of a life of abundance and independence, which, to my mother, always meant promiscuity.

My sister and I tried our best to defuse some of their anxieties. Like all teenagers, we hid certain parts of our lives from them; when we were home, we were completely Gambians, speaking Mandinka with them, eating benachen and domoda and yassa and, sometimes, even monoh. My sister helped with the cooking, sometimes even making entire meals for the whole family. We went to a madrasa, fasted and prayed every night, or at least lied that we did. And when my father called home every Sunday we would speak to almost all of our relatives, embarrassed and shy, faking our way through the ordeal of speaking our native language. There would be so much laughter and screaming in the background, which seemed to get even louder whenever I got to the phone. I would hear them yelling my name:


“Amadou! Give the phone to me! I want to speak to Amadou.” They all wanted to speak to me, and when I got a chance to speak to them they were usually surprised that I still spoke the language, though they always mocked the way I pronounce certain words. The kids I had only a few years ago played with were already fading from my memory, already becoming a blur to me as the distance between us expanded more and more.

Then the day came when my dad became an American citizen. After months of studying with him--frustrating, funny and exhausting months explaining to him the three branches of government and why Franklin, Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt are so important--he finally passed and became an American. He was overjoyed and ebullient on the day of his naturalization ceremony, and yet so tense and nervous; it was all, I think, a bit surreal for him, unbelievable.

After two decades in America my father became what he never thought he would be. But he didn’t come here to be an American; he came so he could be a larger, richer, respected man in his home country. Everything he did was with his vision to Gambia. This country was always a temporary place, a strange land with a language too difficult for him, a history too long and complicated, and its ideas too strange and perplexing for him to comprehend. He could never settle here, and unlike me, he never did. Since he was now too old and too tired to keep hankering after the goldmines of America and feeling that it had failed him, he returned back home. He returned to a country that had gotten worse since he left it over twenty years ago. And it kept getting worse. The man who took over the presidency eighteen years ago was still in charge; the roads had gotten worse; most of the national wealth was being sold to well-connected Gambians and foreigners, a class living opulent lives beyond the wildest imaginations of most Gambians. And people like my father, natives coming home after decades abroad, were looking to fork a new empire.

He built a house, a huge two-story mansion with indoor plumbing, in a part of the country designed for tourists and surrounded with the fake lush foliage that successful people who had lived abroad like him preferred. The house was always full of people--my cousins, aunts, and every member of my stepmother’s family--who had all left their small houses for the opulence of her husband’s home. The house had its fill of “artists” as well, as griots—local singers—came every week to sing the praises of my father in return for some money.

I’ve been to my father’s house only twice since he returned back home. When I go back to Gambia I can’t help but think of all those children, the boys and girls with whom I used to play, and who are now strangers to me; the silly, reckless boys who turned into stern, praying men with so many responsibilities; and the quiet, bashful girls, who are now aged and deft mothers. I think about how they could have done so much with the opportunity I’ve been given, that instead of wasting it all away and forever regretting it, how much they would have achieved with all of it, instead they are languishing in the drudgery of the city, continuing the cyclical force of poverty and ignorance.

I was relieved when my father left, glad that his presence would no longer loom over me. I can now live a life that does not configure with his idea of what I should be, I can aspire to be nothing, and live in this beautiful American illusion. I used to think that he could still get so much out of this country, that he would finally have that store and business and house that he was working so hard to acquire.

There’s a part of me that feels responsible for his leaving, which worries incessantly that I had not become what he wanted me to be—an established young man. It worries that if I had enough to support him and my mother and the whole family, he would have probably stayed. I know he’s disappointed in me. I feel his disappointment and hurt at the life I’ve decided to lead—that me, that one person who was meant to continue what he started, abandoned it all for the independent American life.

Kombeh Jobe is a fiction writer currently living in Brooklyn, New York. Originally from Gambia, Ms. Jobe is a naturalized American citizen. She is a graduate of Hunter College, where she received her Bachelors of Art degree in English Literature. She loves food, good movies, books, and speaking “GooMoo” with her three-month old nephew.

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