"The body is the harp of the soul. It is yours to bring forth from it sweet music or confused sounds" Kahlil Gibran

Monday, April 4, 2011

My Rebellion Against Cool, and the Part You Don’t Want to Hear

It is sad, I believe that Wolof is actually losing words due to its emersion into French and English word such as excited seems to have been replaced by the French word bik and I can’t get a good approximation for the word enjoy.   The best I can do is say that when I do it makes me happy.  Any word I would want to use would probably be the English word enjoy itself, which is where many descriptive are being taken over by English and French.  I think it is the excitement of taking new and replacing it with old, but it is sad that what I am learning is more or a French/Wolof hybrid then anything. 

Which is where I get to my rebellion against “Cool”

The  family that lives across from me in my "renters compound"
Isatu and Omar, it was incredible to see how terrified he was of
me at first having never seen a person of white skin before
In the city, formal greetings like how are you?, Do you have peace?, how are the home people (family)? Are replaced with Nakam which is a slang that essentially is “how are you having?” probably similar to how’s it going in English, the worst part is that the response is “Mangi cool” which is literally “I am cool” Everyone uses this in the city. If you are under 40 you say Nakam and mangi cool, and while I am through trying to stop people from calling me hey “tubob” (hey white skin) as a horrible ignorance.  I am refusing to say “cool” and am going as far as to have long conversations in Wolof about how in America it is not as culturally interesting to call something "cool" as you may think, it seems like the cultural mimicry is off the charts and no one understands my war against cool.

It is like a  symbol to me of all the culture that is being lost.  As the city speeds things up and distorts culture, the loss of beautiful and unique greetings in place of essentially “yo dude you cool?” “Yeah man I’m cool.” Is the saddest thing I have found here. 

Conversations with people are often started by my refusal to say cool, I often respond with more classic culturally sensitive responses even mangi fine (I am fine) I will use sometimes if forced to, but it is like they are bent on using it they’ll respond yangi coo (you cool) if I don’t say it, to which I’ll say a different  non cool based response… and thus the standoffs in the cultural greeting battleground are sometimes long.

Ok, now the part you do not want to hear.

There is not much wildlife left in the Gambia.  There are not many trees left in the Gambia.  That is most of the reason why I am here.  There are very high rates of population density and all the trees get cut down for field clearing or firewood.  Aside from the cultivation of fruit trees, there is now nothing to protect against dust storms, floods, and erosion because the once thick forest no longer holds the earth in place.  Because there is no habitat and a strong desire to kill things, there is no longer elephants, lions, giraffes, or the symbolic creatures of Africa here (I mean, we get a couple species of monkey hyenas and a few hippos, but in the scope of what once was the loss is immense). 

This is the view when you first walk into my new place, my
house is that open door on the right. I have three small rooms
in there. More pictures soon.
The city is not a city.  It is a bizarre melting pot where traditional African culture that we think of as still existing in huts gets blended with the globalized culture and soap opera cinema.  In the market clothes from America meant to be given away as free are often resold by street vendors.  In the streets chuck Norris, Steven Segal, Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan movies are everywhere.  This means the conceptions of Americans are that we all have money and guns, and that we love fornication more than anyone on this planet and as a side note the children will yell at people of Asian descent, “hey show us kung fu!” It is like a virgin culture is opening its eyes to the horrors of globalized culture and it is not realizing that it is getting swept away.  Everything new has one if not 20 symbols of our local shoe brands on them and there is one traffic light.  There are no addresses, to get somewhere you say to a cab driver Africell building or traffic light.
In the villages there is lack of education, lack of medicine, lack of nutrition, and hunger.  I am still traveling to the villages, and it is something that I wish everyone in America could see to believe because it would change your life.

This is right out in front of my house. On trash day (anyday), the trash man
comes in his garbage truck (this donkey cart) and takes trash away on the back
of it. The trash service may be subject to number of flies bothering said donkey.
Enough of that for now, I will end on a relatively light note.

20 Experiences of Traffic and Gambian Life in the city.

20 will come at the very end

19. Men and women are not really friends here.  It is strange school yard rules that if you associate with the opposite sex it must mean you are out for a romantic encounter.  I have learned this cultural miscommunication the hard way.

18. I have seen a boy with one leg ride a bike.  It was a humbling experience to see him struggle in the sand trying to get started at first while trying to balance a crutch

17. To them America is the place where money grows on trees.  One man was visibly angry when I told him I was from America.  He said in all seriousness that if he was in America he wouldn’t waste it and would get rich selling drugs.  I was also pushed in the back yesterday by a man who then started screaming “Where’s the money?” in my face as loud as he could. To the credit of everyone, some people came and apologized to me on his behalf who saw this happen on the street.

16.  People own large vans that are falling apart.  They are the heart of Gambian transpiration.  We call these Gellys.  They can take you anywhere, but if a Gelly is full people ride on the roof.

15. If you need to transport a goat you can hog tie it to the roof and strap it down.  This is not an uncommon sight.

14. Gellys will break down in the middle of the country.  Sometimes they do not have matching wheels, suspension, or sometimes they have a tree branch tied together to hold together a broken axel.  I cringe because I can hear the dying, out of tune engines asking to be put out of their misery.

13.  To navigate the streets, drivers (mostly taxis here) use a complex system of echo communication with their horn for there are no traffic signs, signals, or laws (besides the one traffic light of course).

12. 1 short beep is “hey I’m here and I will hit you”

11. 1 long beep is “I am in the process of hitting your car and/or donkey cart… sorry”

10. 2 short beeps is “Need a ride? I am free.” 

9. Progressive short beeps is, “I am crossing the intersection.”  There are no traffic signs, so cars inch out until they are so much into the intersection that other cars must stop.

8. 2 short beeps can also mean “I will stop for you go ahead and cross”

7. Do not say “Taxi” because they will charge you a “town trip” which means you tell them where you want to go and then negotiate the price. This takes awhile and if you do not agree either you walk away or he will drive off.  Everyone gets around using “five fives” which means taxi drivers drive in large circles and you get on with others.  Every road is 5 dalasi so every time he makes a turn it goes up 5 dalasi.  Using this method you can get from one end of town to the other for roughly 25 cents.

6. I have the same conversation 1000 times a day in wolof.  After greeting my fellow taxi riders they are fascinated I can speak Wolof, I proceed to say the following usually in some order and sometimes before they ask the question.  My name is Momodu Ngom.  Yes I know it is a Seerer last name but I cannot speak Seerer.  I came here 3 months ago and have been studying Wolof every day.  I live in Manjai Kunda.  No I do not hear Mandinka.  No I do not have a wife.  I do not want a wife here.  I do not want two wives here (ok this one is made up).  I want to plant cashews for the people of the Gambia.  I will live here two years.  What did you say, I only hear slow Wolof not fast Wolof.  I cannot understand Wolof slang.  Oh that’s Mandinka, I told you I only speak Wolof.  I know you are Mandinka and I will study it as soon as I am done learning Wolof. 

5. Sadly I am learning Wolof slang to help me navigate the city.  Some I do not fully understand.  The most mystifying and complex slang is the greeting “naka sedugeda” naka is how are …. But sedugida is still a mystery to me.  It has been explained to me as an inside joke in the Gambia but no one can explain it in English to me.  It was hinted that it is possibly asking someone how their man parts are functioning but not in an obscene way.  You cannot use this greeting with someone older than you or women of course, and the appropriate response is “mungay dala” which is “it is floating” This comes off to me as funny, obscene, and bizarre and another example of the large cultural gap I fail to grasp on a daily basis. (I have since confirmed that this is asking someone about their private parts, I had to insult a few people on accident before I learned this is not an appropriate greeting, it must have been very funny to the person who taught it to me, didn’t explain what it meant, and then chuckled to know I would insult people with it). 

4. Sometimes, I feel worse here for the dogs than I do the people.  Often mangy, flee ridden, and three legged, they are all of one breed now a mutt mix of continual street breeding.  Their ears are torn away and missing from fighting, they are a skinny, scared, and tired brown bags of fur and bones.  They look very unhappy and occasionally rabid.  I cannot pet them either to show my sorrow for obvious reasons.

3. I am tired of bargaining.  Everything is marked up for bargaining, even the “fixed price things.” I just want to pay the sticker price… I go up to the register and to save my Peace Corps living allowance I must explain in Wolof every time that I would like a “poor tubob” discount and then offer them… and counter offer them.  I am very tired of it.

2. To be positive I will finish it off with some good things.  Here, you greet everyone still (once I get to know a family or a person the “cool” greeting is done away with.  As much as possible you ask them how they are and how their family, wife, and kids are doing. This gives a sense of lingering community that is hard to translate to American individualism.

1. Life moves slower.  People love to sit in each other’s presence for hours in silence and drink dark green tea and sugar concoctions called ataya.  It makes me ok with relaxing and letting everything slowly fall into place.


20. the number of dollars needed to feed a starving family of perhaps 10 for 3 months and is 1/3 the price of the pair of new shoes, jacket, video game, or sunglasses you were about to buy.

I will write much on my job next post as I am just getting the hang of it.


  1. Xander, glad to hear you are getting some down time with tea and spending time with people. It can be exhausting to be in such a strange place and not be able to fully understand or articulate what you're experiencing. I appreciate you resisting the slang and opting for more traditional greetings. Hope you continue to have many rich experiences and look forward to hearing more about the job. Much love from Chicago, Tim

  2. Xander, having spent several months in India and Nepal, I can so relate to much of what you say. I particularly agree that I wish everyone in this country could spend some time in the villages to see how 'the rest of the world' lives. It would, indeed, change lives. Your heart is being kneaded and your soul nourished, and you will be so much stronger, and wealthier for this time. I love reading your blog, and look forward to hearing much more of your journey.