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I Remember Syl

Part i

By Valentine Ukachukwu Umelo

Author Notes: Valentine Ukachukwu Umelo is a Pharmacist. He was trained at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. Apart from short stories, Mr Umelo writes radio plays. In 2003, his radio play, ‘Knight in Shining Armour’, was joint third place winner of the BBC’s yearly playwright’s competition, ‘African Performance.’ Mr Umelo also writes for young people. Some of his novels for young people are presently under consideration for publication by a major publishing company in the U.K. Mr Umelo kicked off his writing career in 1998 by sending weekly contributions (about 300 words) to ‘Last Word’, a BBC’s three minutes commentary read at the end of the weekends ‘Focus on Africa’ news bulletin.Mr Umelo who considers his wife his greatest asset as a writer (she is his in-house critic and editor) has two lovely children.

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Banjul, The Gambia.

October 24, 200-.

3:07 p.m.


My dear Joe,

Ol’ boy, how you dey? How bodi? You well? Long time no see. Na wa O!

Unbelievable, my dear Joe! Your letter and the accompanying package came as a complete surprise, a bolt from the blue to say the least. Christ, the power of the Internet is truly immense. It is mammoth. My junior brothers sent that ‘namedatabase’ thing to my inbox, urging me to register. It took me several days gravitating, ‘should I register? Should I not register?’ Even as I sat before the screen contemplating, I saw the number of people registering rising: 7, 876, 765; 7, 876, 766; 7, 876, 767; …and, at last, I was compelled to, after all, if you can’t beat them, join them!

How was I to know that you would search that website some day and find my name and address listed? Ahhh, I thank God for your letter, and especially for you, my dear friend. Your letter meant so much to me, and the things you sent …I love and appreciate them sooooo much. Thank you.

Joe, tell me, do you miss The Gambia, even slightly? Do you (though, as you once put it, they lack our culinary expertise and variety) miss their dishes? That jollof rice -benachin- of the Wolofs, which is prepared with chicken, beef or fish, seasoned with salt, black pepper, garlic, vinegar and then fried with onions; domodah, of the Mandinkas, which is tasty, pasty light brown groundnut sauce, with which boiled rice is eaten; sowe, of the Fulas, which is fresh cow milk, made sour and curdly after being left overnight in calabashes to beautifully ferment, becoming Chakri when mixed and eaten with couscous (millet flour).

You used to enjoy fufu of the Akus, which is cassava cooked and pounded after it had been soaked in water and allowed to ferment and soften for three or four days, and then eaten with super kanja, palm oil sauce made from fresh okra and cooked with fresh or smoked fish. What of Plasas, that vegetable sauce of potato or cassava or krin-krin leaves. Ahhh, your mouth is watering I know, I know. And ogiri, locust bean upon fermentation, offensive smelling, yet unbeatable, without which pepper soup; would lose its wonderful aroma, and tantalizing flavour? Do you recollect it all?

Do you miss the people? The unassuming boys and men, skin, shiny black, tall; and the beautiful girls and women, with their heavy drooping backsides, like …like what now… fully ripe pumpkins, brown, on their way slowing, as if to kiss the earth; their sparkling, even teeth accentuated even more by their coarse, ebony black skins, which you could write white chalk on. Ha, ha, ha …you once told me you would lay down your life, for one of these Gambian women, have you forgotten?

Do you miss the sweet music from such varied traditional instruments as the Riti, Balafon, Halam, Tama, Balonbata, and especially from the fabulous but simple string instrument, the kora, of the Mandinkas? Do you, my dear friend, miss the heady tunes from the rusted, but eloquent saxophones of the Jolla’s; the energetic dancing of the Manjangos?

Do you recall the beautiful hairdos of the Wolofs; and their feet and hands, always dyed deep black with henna?

What of the gay laughter of all and sundry in spite of the cramps in empty stomachs, from hunger; pain from diseases; and sorrow from death?

Do you miss the gleaming white sands of The Gambia’s beaches?

Do you miss the shining sun? It is blazing fit to roast outside, as I write, seated astride a long, broad wooden bench in my parlour, facing the un-gauzed window. I am trying to look out, but like an albino, I can only squint. The sun’s rays, millions and millions of dazzling brilliance, can you imagine, as they are reflected back to the heavens, hauling and shattering themselves, as if in a great penance, upon the corrugated zinc sheets of bungalows? Of course you can, you spent several years here and know the weather as well as I do.

I can only see a couple of goats and rams as everyone is inside sheltering, no one wants to get baked, and one of the goats is bleating now, others have joined in, including the rams …mhhheeee… mhhheeee… …baaaa, baaaaa, mhhheeee… Joe, the sun is just too hot, too hot. Four or five years ago, it didn’t use to be as hot as this. All this talk about the ozone layer and green house effect and climate change, desertification and Kyoto protocol. It is all gobbledygook to me. I wish Syl were here to explain it all to me! Do you remember Syl?

And the wind is conspiring with the blazing sun. It is still: like a corpse, like a dead man’s secret. Can you hear it? No, of course, you can’t, but the waves of the Atlantic are booming, roaring, and crashing thunderously as they rush to shore (as if to deliver an urgent message), and yet there is no wind to fan and cool my face, clean-shaven. Whatever happened to sea breeze, or is it land breeze? You should see the brown sweat dripping down my back, down my sides, tickling my armpits, down my face, into my mouth. I taste it …salty, like seawater …ughhhhhhh.

** **

Yes, my dear friend, I am still here, in The Gambia. To be precise Banjul. If someone had told me that I would be here after ten years, I would have called that person a liar. A big liar! But here I am after ten whole years. Have I made any progress, you would ask? Decide for yourself after reading my letter. It is rather long, an epistle you would say. But I know you are not afraid to read. You always loved reading. What better attestation than those fine Wole Soyinka’s1 plays and Chinua Achebe’s2 novels on your dusty bamboo shelf in our then base, the provincial town of Farafenni, which used to be a whole day’s journey from Banjul?

When we …I left Nigeria, the idea then was to use The Gambia as, how did we normally put it, ‘A stepping-stone’. Those who were here before us, swearing to the gods, the small gods they worshipped, had told us with certainty that, ‘The Gambia is only a stone throw, a whistle, a shout, to Europe. And to bliss, and heaven.’ They told us: ‘From The Gambia, one can clearly see the yellow and white streetlights burning in Madrid and Brussels. And Luxemburg and Paris. In The Gambia, one can easily feel the vibrations, the tremor of the earth (of the subways) in Oslo and Stockholm and Copenhagen.’

It sounded unbelievable, but we believed, didn’t we, and many others? Remember what they told us? ‘There is this place in The Gambia called ‘German’. From this ‘German’, one can board a vehicle going to Germany: to Berlin and to Frankfurt. And there is this other place called ‘London’. From this ‘London’, one can get a one-way bus ticket to that great city, London, the capital of the world.’

Well, we found out the truth for ourselves, didn’t we? And ten years later, ten whole years after hearing and swallowing hook, line and sinker, those ill intended lies, yours truly is still in The Gambia.

Broken? Wrecked? Frustrated?

I leave you to draw your own conclusion.

What really hurts me, is that I can’t go back home to Nigeria. Tell me, why should I go back, why? The shame will kill me faster than an incurable disease. Can I bear the embarrassment? The insults:

‘That’s him, a first born, that spent ten years in The Gambia and came back with nothing. He is now searching for a job. His mates are all established. All the while he was away, he couldn’t send a pin home to his poor mother. His sisters got married and he was not in attendance at any of their weddings, his brothers went through the university without a single help from him …a complete failure.’

I can hear it all, even now!

I’ll not go back, definitely not NOW! Maybe later. You see, even if I wanted to go back, for a short visit, I changed my mind when I remember Syl. Yes, Syl. You know Syl, don’t you? Ahhh, there is so much about Syl to tell you, so much.

So how are you, my dear friend? I miss you so much that my heart aches. Your dimpled cheeks, and infectious smile, which brightens the surrounding, like a 100 watts bulb, suddenly switched on. Your ringing laughter, which made chickens cackle; donkeys and horses grazing in the fields exchange quick glances. I miss your jokes, never could tell one myself, unlike you, who like a griot, had such fine jokes and fables.

I miss your brilliantly forged palm-wine drinkers’ songs too …especially that one about Caro, the pretty, fair complexioned maiden - ‘yellow Sisi’ - who squandered a loving suitor’s hard earned money and eloped with a white man -‘Oyibo’- only to have her heart broken:

‘…Caro O, yellow sisi,

Cara O, na my yellow sisi O,

Caro chop my money follow Oyibo,

Oyibo run away Caro begin cry:

Ajambene aja, ajambene aja.’

Ahhhh, my dear friend! You had such fine, easy ways. I miss them so much. The children of Farafenni miss you. They always ask me:

"Where is your fat friend, Jobe?"

They keep calling you Jobe. You always shouted and told them your name wasn’t Jobe, but Joe. With your effeminate (no offence meant) fingers, you even had to spell it on the hard, dusty, Farafenni earth, while they watched, dressed in tattered shorts, bare-chested and exposing black gums with several missing teeth or crater-ridden from excess sugar in their breakfasts of Churagerthe and their much-loved Chinese green tea, ataya, brewed on locally made coal pots and drank round the clock!

"Joe, my name is Joe. J …O …E," you spelt, "Joe! Not Jobe."

"Joe?" they cried, their eyes sparkling as if in sudden possession of a sacred knowledge.

"Yes, JOE, JOE, not JOBE."

But for all your efforts, my dear friend, you achieved nothing because the village children continue to call you Jobe. To them, you would always remain, ‘That fat Jobe’. The kids …Ahhh, my dear friend, they are no longer kids. They are now all in their late teens. The youngest among them is about sixteen. Graduates from Farafenni Primary and Middle School, they all attend Farafenni Senior Secondary School where we once taught. You know what they told me last time I was in Farafenni?

"We wish you and Jobe and the others were here to teach us. You were such good teachers."

"Really?" I cried, tears coming to my eyes. "We never knew."

"Yes, you were such good teachers, all of you."

Ahhh Joe, victory! The kids recognized our efforts as builders. As role models. How did they know we were such good teachers? I guess their brothers and sisters whom we taught spread the words. Those folks …our students. The determined ones amongst them are now gainfully employed. In the police force, army, government departments, private companies and so on. I see them often in and around the capital, Banjul, and the commercial towns of Serrekunda and Brikama. Am always so proud of them, especially when they call me:


It sounds so sweet and soothing in my ears …teacher; that several minutes after departing from them, the name, ‘teacher’, continues to ring and run around in my brain. We downtrodden teachers. Unsung heroes! Undecorated soldiers! Teachers! They say our reward is in heaven, but somehow, I am reaping my reward here on earth… Some of them even pay my fares in buses and taxis.

"Teacher don’t worry?"

"What do you mean Pa Kemo?"

"I’ve already paid your fare."


"Yes, I’ve paid."

"Ahhhh, thank you."

Their success is my success, our success, wouldn’t you say?

** **

Recall Farafenni, Joe, recall it! Farafenni, that open, flat border town, much hotter than Banjul, especially in the months of March, April and May when we normally took safety jabs against meningitis. Farafenni, that busy town with the muddy smell of the River Gambia. Farafenni, with its assortment of brilliantly plumaged birds and thick-waisted baobab trees, naked of leaves, laden with pendulous, green fruits, inundated with black, brown and red metamorphic rocks, crushable with bare feet. Farafenni holds bittersweet memories for all of us. It was from Farafenni you left: Woke up one morning and said you were tired. You must move on. Can’t waste your life teaching. That wasn’t what you bargained for when you left Nigeria.

Yes, it wasn’t what you bargained for. You bargained for Europe: To make big money.

Me too. What I bargained for when I left Nigeria was not ten years in The Gambia. It wasn’t even one year!

And you never told anybody where in Europe you were heading. Only:

"I am off to Europe".

You didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket, you never had a visa. Joe …headstrong, that’s what you were. How could you have taken such a risk? You could have died! Going to Europe by road. You could have died crossing the great Sahara desert on foot!

You are writing from Malta you say. How did you manage? How did you make it to Malta? Malta! You know, I was always praying for you. Whenever I switched on my short wave radio and listened to the BBC in spite of the terrible static, you came to my mind. All those stories of African migrants drowning in the Mediterranean as rickety boats in which they were travelling capsized; of migrants stranded at the tiny Italian Island of Lampedusa; of migrants being buried alive by sand storms in the Sahara; of migrants being shot at sight by European coast guards as they tried to cross to the ‘other side of the river’, where the grass seemed greener, in order to make fortunes for themselves and their families!

I thank God and praise Him that you reached your Europe safe and sound, hale and hearty.

** **

Ahhh, the ever-changing Gambian weather. You won’t believe it, but now the sun has receded, like the waters of the River Gambia at low tide. A stranger would never believe it almost roasted Banjulians two hours or so ago. And it has left behind a fine, gentle breeze, now blowing lightly, caressing my face lovingly and tickling the leaves of baobab and mango, neem, coconut and orange trees. The muezzin’s shrill invitation for the 5 o’clock evening prayer, with what I think is a megaphone that had known better days has got adults teeming outside. I’ll have to lock my windows in a while …the mosquitoes would be stealing in soon. Only just recovered from malaria last week. Did you hear that again …of course not, but it is the waves crashing at the beach, so loud, so clear, like a mighty explosion. I can hear voices outside my window.

** **

My wife and children! I’m married now Joe! Yes, remind me, go on, remind me …that I swore I would never marry a Gambian. But one of those backsides you said you would lay down your life for nailed me at last. I know you are laughing at me now. I can see your face breaking out in deep creases. I can hear your voice ringing out like a virgin gong. Yes, have fun at my expense, but I’ll tell you something: I’ve learnt one or two things since I sojourned here in The Gambia. One of them is: ‘Never say never’. Yes, ‘Never ever say never’.

She is very, very pretty and sweet. Brilliant too! She has agreed to follow me to Nigeria and you’ll meet her someday. And I’ve three lovely kids too. Ahhh, you are saying that I may never be able to get to Europe now that I’m married, now that I’ve responsibilities. No, you are wrong, Joe, you are very wrong. I’ll make it to Europe. I have that hunger still, that will! And where there is a will, there is a way. I know this to be true. I’ll make it to Europe, and in style. Joe, in style! You want to bet? Don’t forget, you’ve never won a bet with me.

Let me ask you, how old are we now, eh, how old? Nearly forty? Early forty? …Yes, somewhere there! Joe, do you know that most of our countrymen out here have refused to marry?

"We want to make it before thinking of getting married," they say. "We want to get married ONLY after we’ve come back from Europe with big bucks."

But what if they never make it to Europe? What if they never make the big bucks they dream of? What if… By the time they realise their mistakes and start ‘thinking’ of getting married, they would be chasing what, fifty, maybe sixty who knows. Tell me, are you married in Malta?

What really are you doing in Malta? I mean, what kind of job are you doing there? Yes, I know you are a qualified Mechanical Engineer, but are you practicing your profession? Or are you on the streets? I hear guys make it more on the streets doing such things as credit card, advanced fee, mobile cards, drugs, and what have you. You have never been one for the streets, Joe. Oh, you always tried to prove that you were street wise, but you and I know the truth. If there is one thing you are, it is not street wise. So how come you were able to send me such expensive mobile phones and CD players and a brand new laptop computer (with which I’m writing this letter), complete with accessories? Your letter didn’t mention your source of livelihood. I’m anxious to know. Please tell me.

Joe, I know that you’ve a very large heart, but if you are doing what I think you are doing, then think deeply again. You are not doing it for us- your friends and relatives back in Africa- whom you think are stranded, for we are not THAT stranded, really. Let me tell you a story about a new friend I made after you had gone off on your trek.

One day, this new friend got this well crafted letter from his mother. This letter was oozing pain. It dripped agony. This letter asked my friend a lot of difficult questions: Was he cursed? Was he tied to The Gambia? How they were suffering in Nigeria and he was in The Gambia doing nothing, absolutely nothing about it. How his father was sick and she, his mother, could hardly walk and was almost going blind from cataract. How his only brother and sister were dying of starvation. Heartbroken from his family’s troubles, this my new friend cried:

"I must change the situation back home …by hook or by crook."

You should have seen him after reading this hot masterpiece. A tall smiling fellow, now he scowled and was doubly bent as if, like Atlas, the troubles of the whole world were squarely dumped on his frail shoulders. A heavy drapery of grief was now wrapped tightly round him, like a wet rag, so much so that with his aquiline nose, he looked like a drenched vulture if you mentally shaved his head clean. And like you, he set out for Europe by foot. He was lucky. He got to Europe. To Germany to be specific.

He must change his family’s lot.

At first, he did a little of credit cards. And then, he did a little of mobile phone cards. But these routes were too slow. The dry winds from Africa carried renewed complaints from his family to him all the way to Germany: "…You are not sending enough money home, your mates are already moulding blocks, building skyscrapers, buying big cars. You must send more money if you are not to make yourself and us, your family, a laughing stock."

And so this my friend changed to a faster lane: DRUGS!

And then one day, the anti-drug squad nabbed him. He got ten years for drug trafficking. Do you get the gist now? Don’t say you were trying to help us your friends and relatives back home live a better life and then get yourself in trouble.

Part ii



1 Nigeria’s most distinguished poet. Winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature.

2 Nigeria’s most celebrated novelist. Author of Things Fall Apart.




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