Lonkaan Séen!

We didn’t have to go far down the dusty, red road to hear the sound of my father’s name, the three familiar syllables that rolled so easily off of Gambian tongues. His Wolof name always persisted in sounding strange to me; the first part sounded like an insult (“lunkhead” or something), and the last part always reminded me of a recently vanquished Iraqi dictator.

Lonkaan Séen, ah, Lonkaan Séen, do you have peace?

Ah, Modu Bah, peace only…

I had heard these greetings at least a million times. My mind easily wandered, like the baby goats that fought for dominance over the termite mound beside the road, the distraction distancing them from their mother in her dogged search for green things in the sub-Saharan topsoil. I tried to surreptitiously scratch the tight fastening of my bright-colored cotton skirt around my waist. The multiple layers of fabric caught and held the heat as effectively as the insulating fiberglass we’d put on our house’s drop-ceiling last year—it felt just about as comfortable, too.

The ritual greetings were over, and part of the roadside conversation caught my attention, as it seemed to concern me. I couldn’t recognize many—or any—of the words, but both men would glance at me from time to time, and their tone seemed to take on that bantering lilt characteristic of good friends teasing each other… I tried to scratch my skirt fastenings when both weren’t looking.

A sudden jolt of fear shot adrenaline through my body, and I looked down at my skirt as quickly as I dared, suppressing horror… But no, it was tied the right direction. I let out my breath slowly; the rush had made me all cold at first, but as soon as the cold went away the heat returned in full force. Bother it all.

One time, when I was about eight (I think), my mother and I had made it a long ways down this same road—a little farther than where we stood now, perhaps—before she’d realized that I’d tied my skirt the wrong way (right: the skirt wraps counter-clockwise around your waist; wrong: well, it wraps the other way… big deal?), and we had to fix it in an abandoned building by the side of the road. At age eight, I was quite worried that some annoying Gambian boys would see us and bug us. My mom was less worried about the annoying boys; the village would have had a good laugh at our expense, had I trotted through town wearing my skirt the wrong direction. Shudder.

But I had learned my lesson, and today my skirt—and my Gambian pride—seemed to be in order, even resisting the playful prodding of the desert winds in their attempts to whisk it immodestly this way and that.

And at last the conversation was wrapping up. I was beginning to understand words again, the typical leave-taking phrases and sounds… Each did the other the proper honors, and added the extra verbal phrases and physical handshakes that told each other and the community that they were good friends, then my father and I went on our way. Finally, thought my twelve-year-old mind.

As we resumed walking, my dad turned his head toward me with a small grin. “He asked me if he could marry you,” he said.

I felt my eyebrows go up. “He did? What did you say?”

“Well, I told him that when you’re old enough to understand what he’s saying, and when you say ‘yes,’ then maybe I’ll consider it.”

My mind was reeling from the close call that I’d unwittingly avoided, but I still managed to register my father’s use of the cultural convention—Wolof people never said an outright “no” in response to a question, they dodged around with statements like “maybe later,” or “some other time.”

“They marry girls your age,” my dad went on, “even the old men. And most of the time it’s their second or third wife.”

I nodded; I was friends with a few of those individuals, young girls whose “marriage” to men of wealth and status typically became indentured servitude.

I suppose, I thought as we walked along, I am a part of this African culture. I’ve memorized it, I’ve learned it, and in small ways I’ve come to call it my own. Yes, perhaps I am even proud of it, or at least, I’m proud of the small pieces of me that are irrefutably Gambian, the pieces that no amount of time in America or any other country will completely purge from my memory or my identity.

I glanced over my shoulder to glimpse the satin, royal-blue back of 50-year-old Modu Bah’s kahftan. Perhaps pieces of me were Gambian forever… But this road’s conversation had reminded me that there were parts of this country that I could do without.

And, with that thought, I found myself holding on to a different sort of pride, a pride attached with dreams. One day perhaps, I would fall in love—with a location, a career, a soulmate, a dream. America, the world of my future dreams, would open its arms to receive my individuality, and I would embrace my birth country with that different sort of pride.

Pride. Maybe that was it. I was made up of lots of little pieces of pride, stuck together like a jigsaw puzzle, with patterns and designs drawn by hands not my own.

I scuffed the dirt of the red road, my flip-flop dislodging a lumpy rock and sending it bouncing along the path in front of me. And I secretly prayed that God liked doing puzzles.

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