This is not a memoir. I’m only 17, so I don’t know if I’ve lived enough to be able to call this work that. I prefer to call what you’re about to read “a collection of memories.” The beginning is as good a place to start as any. And for my beginning I guess the right place to start is in Africa (I mean, technically all of our beginnings are in Africa, but you know what I mean). What do you know about the Gambia? Have you ever heard of it before? If you tried to look for it on a map, your eyes might easily gloss over it in the Western section of the Motherland. It’s completely swallowed up by its larger and more glamorous sister, Senegal.
Here’s the chronological history of the Gambia according to Wikipedia:
It’s called the Smiling Coast, although its people haven’t had that much to smile about for a while. First the devastation of the slave trade, British colonization, and more recently a corrupt and despotic government: the tragic story replicated all throughout Africa.
From these roots came a man and a woman: Haddijatou Darboe (HA-DEE-JAH-TOO * DAH-BOW)and Ibrahima Kuyateh (EE-BRA-HEE-MA * KOO-YAH-TAY). Got the names? Make sure you do, because they’ll be pretty important. In 1962, Haddijatou was born in Banjul, the capital city of the Gambia. Earlier in 1958, Ibrahima Kuyateh was born in Basse, one of the rural cities. Haddijatou came from slightly wealthier means: she was a descendant of the warrior King Musa Molloh*, who ruled over a substantial part of West Africa in the late 1800s, playing the British and French against each other to gain power. She was a jula, royalty, first class. Ibrahima was a jalo, a griot, an oral historian. The jalos and the julas depend on each other. The jalos make their living from the julas and the julas need the memories and voices of the jalos to remember who they are.
The vastness of my parents’ lives before my existence are reduced to hazy anecdotes in my mind. Neither of them are inclined to sit me down and tell me their whole life stories, neither of them are my griots. What I’m writing now is carefully reveried* and reconstructed and rendered together and finally presented to you. My parents’ stories are like fireflies in the dark. They’re all around me, they’re all I can think about, yet I can only catch a few. The ones I have caught, though, I’ve stored carefully in the jar of my brain and sealed them shut. Because in capturing them, I capture a little bit more of myself. The stitching together of this story is physical proof of the blood which runs through me: my inherited blood which compels me to retell and pass down the memories as my ancestors did, to never forget.
Haddijatou and Ibrahima were both born in pre-independence Gambia. They and my grandparents witnessed the making of history that would change the course of their lives: the removal of British rule and the installation of President Jawara. My father still has the scar from how the Red Cross used to give vaccinations in the 60s, a huge half-dollar size scar remains on his upper arm, and he told me how scared he was standing in line to get it. In fact, there’s a picture of my father’s whole kunda, or compound, from 1970. I’ve only seen it once and I don’t think I’ll ever get to see it again, although I wonder if he’d let me put it in here. Probably not, and I wouldn’t force him to. I was young and I adored my father, and so necessarily I was annoying him in way some when I saw the picture poking out from his address book. I pulled it out, and the back said something like Kuyateh family photo 1970. I spotted my tiny father, right in the front, mostly unclothed.
“Is this you, daddy?” (It was clearly him. I asked as a formality.)
“No, I went to fetch firewood then. I wasn’t in the picture.”
He put it away quickly, a little embarrassed. I wondered why daddy didn’t want to talk about the picture.
Dad tells me stories about his childhood all the time. I don’t think he knows that I am carefully tucking them away. That they are beautiful. He tells me rememberings of lakes that no longer exist, of farming, of gathering around a radio to hear the news, tales that seemed and seem and will seem ancient, fading along with him. I think he, too, is sometimes overcome with the need to release his stories, to know that I will remember them even though I am like a toubab. Sometimes he’ll tell me stories for 10 minutes, just speaking and going on tangents. At these times, he is possessed. He doesn’t hear my questions, he just speaks. And I listen. Maybe it’s about big snakes, climbing trees, my now-buried grandmother, or swimming and fishing, or huts. I never care what it’s about, I listen to history.
My mother is not like Ibrahima and I. She doesn’t need to tell me her history because that is the job of the jalos: she’s always had many people to do that for her. Both of their pasts are painful, but my mother’s is painful in a different way. Painful in only the way a woman’s life can be. All that I know is that her father was the love of her life, the one who always had her back, the way my dad is with me. But he wasn’t with her for long, Alieu Darboe died when she was 13. And he left many wives with many many more children. She was the oldest because her mother, Adam Mambouray, was the first wife. My mother has half-brothers and sisters scattered all over the place --Tennessee, Atlanta, Seattle, Germany, London, Paris, wherever. And the way she tells it, she took care of all of them. They had to eat, they had to go to school, they need clothes, and she did it all.
My mother has always worked. She has always fought fiercely, sometimes to my embarrassment and when I became older, to my pride. Haddijatou was outgoing, a hard worker, passionate. She had it all. But the one thing my mother did not have was luck. I don’t think either of my parents had much luck*. They were born at the wrong time in the wrong place and then they had to make the best of it. Doesn’t that sum up the story of everyone’s life, though? Well, by the time she was not much older than me, Haddijatou was married to Touray. I don’t know his first name, I just know him as Touray. I might have heard his voice once. He is the father of Asiatou (Asie) and Babucarr, my half brother and sister. But like her mother, my mother was also not the only wife, so he had a lot of other children too.
My father had two wives, Musukebba and I can’t remember the name of the other one. My father and Musukebba had a son, Mamudou. When my brother came to the U.S., he gave me more of my father:
“My mother told me that when I was born, my father didn’t tell anyone in the family that he was having a culio. You know he’s that type of person who likes to be certain he can do something before he does it. So he waited until the day before he was going to do it and then invited everyone and said ‘Come, I’m going to have a christening for Mamudou.’ Fan’ding (Musukebba’s father, and their matchmaker) became very upset and said ‘None of us are coming. Why would you tell us this the day before? We needed time to prepare for this.’ So no one came. It was just me, him, and my mother. She said that on that day, he was very upset and he was crying a lot because there was no one to bear witness to the naming of his first son. He slaughtered a ram, as you are supposed to do, and they named me.”
There isn’t much economic opportunity in the Gambia. There just isn’t. So my country suffers from what you would call a “brain drain.” The best minds who want any chance at a better life leave --they leave for Germany or France or the ultimate dream: The United States of America.
And my parents left too. They’ve always wanted more, that’s why they left everything they knew behind for this ugly-beautiful land. I have a deep respect for people who are able to pick up and go --to make a decision about what’s best for them and go after it fully. That’s the way I want to live my life, and I’m able to know that at 17 because of my parents.
I don’t know much about my mother’s leaving because she doesn’t tell me about her old life. The most personal things I know about my mother are the things she shares by accident. Things I steal and hoard away, sometimes without wanting to. I remember her getting into a fight with my dad one day and she said that Adam had told her not to come to America, that her life had just been pain since then. I remember fighting with her once too, because I hated her but wanted her love all at the same time, like all teenagers.
“I never even see you anymore, mom,” I was crying, something I rarely do.
“If anyone should be crying, it’s Asie. She didn’t see me in over 20 years, but I had to leave because I couldn’t stay in that marriage like that anymore.”
I heard the pain in her voice. The most pain I’d ever heard in my mother’s voice in my entire life. What did she mean? Maybe that’s why she left. The refusal to not just accept good enough, to escape. My mother had that fire and she passed it down to me.
Now, I know a little bit more about my father’s way here. The story my father always likes to tell is the day after he got here and he saw snow for the first time. He thought maybe it was sugar. “What’s that stuff outside?” he asked the people around him. They laughed at him and said it was snow. “In Gambia, I had only seen that stuff in pictures,” he told me.
But he never told me about the hard months before then. I only know two things about his coming to America. The first is another story my brother told me when he came:
“My mother told me that he tried very hard to come to America. At first, he had an uncle here that said he was going to bring him, and a week before the time, dad was ready to go. He had all his things packed up, but suddenly the uncle called and told him ‘I can’t do it anymore.’ By this time I was only a few months old. My mother said that after that moment all he could do was sleep and cry, he was sleeping and crying for a long time.”
I put myself in my father’s place, a man who had a new family and no economic opportunity. And here comes the promise of America, that land where the streets are paved with gold. But then all that gold was taken away from him.
Obviously, my father did get here, or I wouldn’t be writing this right now. Here’s the second thing I know, what he told me about the journey:
“You can’t let people discourage you. People will see that you’re doing well and they’ll try to pull you down, that’s what they want to see, to see you fail. Even when I was trying to get a Visa to come to America, all of my friends said ‘You can’t do it. You’ve tried 3 times already and you still didn’t get it. Why go back again?’ But I kept trying, and see, I got it the 4th time, and I came here. You can’t listen to what people say.” I nodded.
So they both took that modern Middle Passage to the United States, the way some of our relatives did centuries earlier, to be separated from us forever. They took a plane for the first time and they got here, to the land of the free.
“Everyone thinks they’re going back when they first come here. You think you’ll just go to school, make some money, and go back home.”
“So why didn’t you go back?”
“Well, one year turns into five, and five turns into ten, and then suddenly you’re stuck.”
“So what are you gonna do now?” My heart ached. At 14, I thought that making him answer this one question would undo the last 25 years of his life.
My father laughed. “I wish I knew.”
I was beginning to discover that life wasn’t so simple.
But in the beginning, they didn’t know that life would turn out that way, to become an inescapable labyrinth made of their mistakes. Mom and Dad were both young immigrants, staying with friends and trying to figure out life in a new country where they were both black and non-native: double-strike. But a double-strike is not fatal, and they made their way. I have pictures of them back then, both young and lean with sparkling eyes that were filled to the brim with possibility. And anything must’ve seemed possible then, in a pre-9/11 world with a booming economy. My mother first landed in Atlanta, but the first place my father came to was the Bronx and that’s where he stayed.
It’s hard to imagine either of my parents being in love or anything like that. I guess it’s hard for any kid to picture, but my family is not one to hug each other or give kisses or anything like that. I think I can count the times both of my parents have hugged me on one hand. And I’ve never resented them for it, because I’ve had to learn that life is not a warm embrace, but that’s for later. Right now is about Haddijatou and Ibrahima.
After Atlanta, my mother moved to a small town in Pennsylvania named Wilkes-Barre, working at some warehouse. I never asked her exactly where that was. At that time, I think my dad was working 2 hours away at an African Market. I even have a picture of the place, if I can put it in somewhere. I asked my father how he and my mother met, embarrassed at the question. He said that he was working at an African market in Manhattan, and they met and started talking. He didn’t elaborate, so I was left to fill in the details for myself. I never really considered the hilarity of them traveling almost 4000 miles away from a tiny country to end up meeting and marrying each other in the U.S. until someone mentioned it to me.
It had to have been God or fate or conjecture or whatever you believe in. Maybe it was all of them at once. Who knows?
I’m wondering now what it must’ve been like for them. They had whole lives and families back home, but in being with each other they chose the New World over the Old. My parents getting married was more than just two lovers about to spend their lives together, it was a conscious release of all that had happened before. It was the affirmation that despite all that had held them back: lack of opportunity, poverty, race, or whatever it might’ve been, they believed in the sanctity of a new future. They believed that maybe luck would live with the brave. And for that I admire them endlessly.