It's Not Easy

Originally sent March 8, 2012

“It’s not easy, man,” Paboy says suddenly, without any context. “It’s not easy. It’s not easy, man,” he repeats, as if I didn’t believe him the first time.

I know better than to ask the obvious question, but I ask it anyways. “What’s not easy, Paboy?”

“Africa, man. It’s not easy. The black man is having nothing. No money, no nothing. If you looked in my Trust accounts—if I had one—it would be having no more than seventy dalasis;”—that’s just over two dollars—“a man can’t live off that. I want a wife and a big family, you know. It’s not easy.” He falls back onto the straw mattress and stretches out.

The bed belongs to Sankung Saidykhan, and the 25-year-old cousin of my host father is sitting on a simple wooden bench kitty-corner to my own. Aside from the bed and our two benches, there is a broken chair buried in a pile of folded laundry and a simple wooden nightstand with an ashtray, a candle holder, a borrada (tea kettle), and a cell phone on it. And that’s it. The floor is dirt and the walls are made of mud, and plastered in it, too. The only thing on the walls is a hooded jacket hanging on a nail.

But, oddly, laying on the floor, completely out of place, is a shiny, pink fashion magazine, written in some strange language. I pick it up and start flipping through it; it’s a Finnish magazine, I finally deduce. It falls open to a glossy two-page ad featuring four gorgeous women—two blondes, a brunette, and a dark-haired Asian—in bikinis on the beach. It is an ad for Dove body soap. I hold up the magazine and tell Sankung not to look; his religion frowns upon such blatant attempts to illicit impure thoughts. But he looks anyways and starts to laugh.

I tell him it is an ad selling soap, and that if you use Dove soap, you’ll be beautiful like the women in the picture. He looks at me intently then says, “You see. We can’t get that here. The black man isn’t having Dove soap. Only in Babylon.”

“In paradise you have everything.” Paboy tells me. “Everyone is having too much of money. That’s why I’m going to go. You just wait and see. I’m going to be having lots of money. Then I’m gonna come back here and build a big compound and get a wife and a big family. But it’s not easy, man. Having a visa is too difficult—a koleeyata la backe. It’s not easy;”—Paboy, a twenty-four-year-old Si Kunda native, applied for a U.S. Visa two years ago but the application was rejected—“but I’ve asked the almighty Jah to help, and, you know, Jah is good. Jah is great. He will make it happen. Inshalla. Maybe not America yet, maybe like Spain or Sweden or Italy. You know, all of Tubabado is sweet.”

“No man,” Sankung says, “you can step up in America.”

Payboy laughs and says, “Yea man. I’m going to step up in there. And when I do, you know I’m gonna be unstoppable. Aint nobody gonna stop me. Not the cops, not nobody. I got talents, man—I can weld, I can do carpentry; I could sell drugs and be a gangsta like 50 Cent and make mad money.” He laughs again, a full-bodied, joyous laugh.

I don’t tell him that life probably wouldn’t be that sweet in America. That he would be poor and miss his family; that if he tried to be a gangsta he would end up in jail. Such sobering remarks are futile. I have heard his story, whether from his mouth or countless others’, more times than I can say, and any effort to dispel their fairytale notions of America—of Babylon—has fallen on deaf ears.  They want to believe that America is a paradise; a place where everyone is rich; a place that, God willing, will make life better for them and their families. (Which it most likely would.)  And while the odds are against Paboy ever reaching America, there is nevertheless a sizable population of Gambians living in the States, and even healthier populations throughout Europe, to which visas are easier to acquire.  But these men abroad aren’t just helping themselves—they consistently send money home to The Gambia, providing a vital input to the national economy.

Among the very poorest of nations, The Gambia is extremely reliant on these remittances.  Even here in Si Kunda, the effects of this money are plainly evident: a handful of quality-built houses (with tile floors, stuccoed walls, glass windows, electric wiring and personal pit latrines) tell everyone which families have a relative abroad.  But there are more subtle indicators, too: the quality of the food bowl—if there’s meat, someone is likely helping out—and the possession of a generator both tell the story.  Even Baa Sidat, my host father, is getting help from a “brother” in Sweden—together they have established a cashew orchard and built three compounds in Soma, which they rent out.  Without this help, regardless of his ambition and good business sense, Baa would have never possessed the capital to make it happen.  Paboy was right: The Gambia simply doesn’t have any money, except that which is given to it.

Remittances aren’t the only way international money makes it into The Gambia, though.  When the weather is fine, the international community, i.e. Europeans, are happy to bring it here themselves.  Decades of relative peace and stability, and a genuinely friendly populace, has earned The Gambia the nickname “The Smiling Coast of Africa,” and during the “cold” months—December through March—a vibrant tourist industry flourishes along the urbanized coast.  Luxurious beach resorts that have sat empty throughout the long, hot summer are suddenly filled with families and young adventurers looking for some fun in the sun. But there is also a unique class of tourist that seeks out The Gambia for reasons less wholesome, giving rise to a special class of Gambian men: the bumster.

The bumster’s natural environment is the beach, and he can be observed here in great numbers. When identifying a bumster, one should ask themselves two key questions: one, Does he look like a wanna-be Rasta?; and two, Does he have a ripped, muscular exterior. If the answer to either of these is yes, and especially if he is doing push-ups in the sand, odds are he’s a bumster. But beware, the bumster, while technically harmless, is irresistibly drawn to tourists and is a tremendously obnoxious pest, one that is notoriously difficult to get rid of.  Like bed bugs.

It’s not till the sun sets, though, that the bumster really goes to work.  His primary office is Senegambia—a kilometer-long strip of bars, restaurants, casinos, and night clubs running perpendicular to the resort-strewn beach. It is the epicenter of the Gambian tourist industry and is, at least for those of us that live here, a surreal, mildly outrageous bubble of opulence unlike anything else in the country.  A place where the white faces outnumber the black ones, and where the money (and booze) flows freely.

Looking around at the faces, though, one will notice there is an unusually high number of old, fat, unattractive white women. And it is these women—boss ladies—that the young, sculpted bumsters are looking to provide services to.  All over Senegambia one can catch glimpses of this grotesque courtship, whether it is seeing a sagging Swedish spinster holding hands with her toned twenty-year-old Rasta with dreadlocks, or witnessing an absolute whale of a woman grinding up on her tall African-statue-of-a-man on the dance floor. So unfortunate-looking are some of these women, it’s a miracle that, when the time comes, the bumsters can get it up at all; but thus is the power and allure of money.

It is sometimes humorous, sometimes disgusting, watching these lustful interactions between the horny old women and their Gambian sex toys, but mostly it is just sad.  Sad for the women, who seem tothink the bumsters really care for them, and sad for the bumsters, who literally sell their bodies for a little money and a chance at Babylon. And sad for The Gambia, which has so little to offer to its people that bumstering is often the best and only chance many men have at getting ahead.

As Paboy would say: “It’s not easy.”