It’s June 2009. Some eighteen years since landing at JFK International Airport in New York, fourteen years since my last visit back to Guinea, I am on my way to see my mother some nine years since I saw her last. Just as I promised I would, as soon as I got my green card.
Earlier in the day, I drove to the Humphrey Terminal (before it became Terminal 2) to check my bags for my Iceland Air flight bound for Reykjavik, then Paris to spend five days with my sister (and visit Amsterdam with one of my best friends because I have always been curious about that city), before finally heading to Guinea—three days in Conakry, then off to Kankan to see my mother. She is sick—what we believe to be Alzheimer’s slowing eating at her humanity—and my Maninka Kan is bad. Guinea is falling apart, and I am used to glass towers in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. America messes with an immigrant’s sensibility; you’re always a snob when you go back home to visit.
Back in town, I pick up my daughter from school, my son from the babysitter’s, and my wife from downtown. We have dinner at Noodles and Company before jumping back on Hiawatha Avenue on our way back to the airport.
My son doesn’t care or understand what is going on. Besides, Daddy has been saying bye-bye ever since he was born. Bye-bye at the babysitter’s; bye-bye, Daddy is going to work, Daddy is going to a meeting, Daddy is going to an open mic, Daddy is going to a friend’s, bye-bye, bye-bye. This is just another one of those. My daughter, on the other hand, is nine and fast approaching teen. She understands this “bye-bye” is not see you in a couple of hours, or when you wake up in the morning. So she starts to cry. But tears come to her easily. Just like her mother. I don’t like tears. Just like my mother. They make me uncomfortable. Maybe because I don’t know the right words to say to stop them from falling. Maybe I’ve grown too cynical and practical—tears don’t make it feel better, so why bother. “C’mon, stop that,” I say to her. “I will be back soon.”
I’m driving, trying not to look up in the rearview mirror. She is in the back seat, trying not to let me hear her sobbing. But I can feel her. “I’m going to see my mother…”
“You have a mommy?” my son chimes in.
“Of course. Your grandma.”
“We are going back to grandma’s?”
No, Khalil, your babysitter is not your grandma. She is White; both your parents are Black and so are you. She is your pretend grandma, because your parents are too African to have you call an old woman by her first name. But I don’t tell him this. “Not that one,” I say to him, “your other grandma, my mommy.” But his attention is already outside the window.
“Daddy?” he comes back.
“Why is the sky up?”
“Because we are down,” I answer without missing a beat.
He asks lots of questions, like “Is God real? Is the president the smartest person in the world?” I try my best to answer them, but more often I have no real answers. Still, I always try to say something. Because “I don’t know” is not an answer I want him to grow up befriending. But he pushes my language skills, and forces me to provide answers to questions I assume I know but have never had the wisdom to ask myself and thereby force myself to articulate. At least not in everyday language, let alone one a three-year-old can understand. I mean, what do you answer when a three-year-old asks, “Why do we have trees?” So I say to give us food and shade. But I know there is more to it than that. Then I wonder if he is really looking for an answer, actively acknowledging his surroundings, or just making small talk with his father. Knowing him, maybe he just likes to talk. Maybe he likes to think. And a thoughtful adult is a child every parent wants to raise. My children’s future is something I think about a lot. I don’t mean college tuition and career; I mean, what sort of adults are they going to become? Will it be enough for the world they inherit? What will keep them going when they come face-to-face with a mountain? Because there are too many mountains in this world, and I’m afraid they are only getting taller.
America tells me it’s important to engage my children; as a father, be active in their lives, especially my son’s. And I agree, because he who teaches a son molds the son. And they are clay too important to be left alone to chance and strangers.
But I have no training in this school. In this regard I have more in common with children of single-mother homes. Though my upbringing was hardly done by a single pair of hands.
My father (Elhaji Sanasa Maadi) died when I was my son’s age, barely three. They say I look like him, and that is all I know. Upon his death, his brother, Baba Sekou, took over his house—children, wives, and all belongings. (Baba Sekou died in October 2008.) In essence, he was my first real father. He had tens of children in three homes in three cities in two countries.” Needless to say, he was there more than here. When I grew up to remember, I remembered his name more than his face. He spent most of his time reading the Qur’an and going to mosque, taking naps and attending life’s three main ceremonies with his friends: new birth, marriage, and death.
When I was six, my mother (Hadja Djankanagbeh) gave me to her sister (Majaka). Believe it or not, I remember the day and the morning after. It was a rainy late August evening, and we were living in Bonfe, a suburb of Conakry. Something was warming on the charcoal stove on the back porch, and most of us were sitting around our small teevee set watching black and white images of Miriam Makeba performing for some dignitaries. The Guinean president Ahmed Sékou Touré was in the audience. Seemingly out of the blue, my mother told me I would be going with Majaka the next morning.
“Going” is one of those Maninka words that means very little when you think about it. It’s confusing at best, and downright misleading at worst. It can mean going to the well to fetch water, to the market to buy cassava, a day trip to Kindia, two months’ vacation to Kankan…or to Koindu to live with your auntie indefinitely.
Early the next day when I woke up, my bags were already packed. I was giddy with excitement because I have loved road trips for as long as I can remember. At the depot, they loaded our bags on the hood, and Majaka, her two youngest children, and I took our seats in the old bus loaded down with over fifty passengers and their belongings. Some forty hours later, we arrived in Koindu, Sierra Leone: the place I think about whenever I think of home.
In a six-bedroom house with no living or family rooms, Majaka occupied one room with her three children and her youngest sister. Her husband’s two other wives each occupied their own rooms with their children and little sisters. Those were the three rooms rented by Majaka’s husband to house his family. The remaining rooms where occupied by the landlord, his two wives, and their children. The house was one in a compound of four located down the hill and across the river from a sprawling Assembly of God’s church grounds on the way to the Guinean border. There were wives and children everywhere!
Majaka’s husband, Uncle Sanasi, became my father. (Uncle Sanasi died in 2007.) He was a passenger car driver before my arrival in Koindu, and a legendary one as a small town would have it. Most of the then current drivers at one point or another worked and trained as his apprentice. Now that they had their own cars, they showered him with gifts and appreciation. They treated him like royalty and he walked around town like everybody owed him tax for being one of the first Maninka settlers in this originally Kissi town. For as long as I knew him, he didn’t have a stable job, but he was rarely home. When he was, he was in his room (napping for all we knew) or out on the veranda passing out sentences for minor infractions kids do when they are not paying attention. He was a chronic smoker and quick with the belt, a strong man with bloodshot eyes that didn’t know the impact of his blows until after the broken bones and open skin. If alcohol had not been forbidden and hardly anywhere to be found in that mostly Muslim town, he could easily have been an alcoholic. He was that explosive. I still carry his fingerprints on my body. And most of his children have similar tattoos.
I stayed with Majaka and her family from that house on Badala Road to their new house further up the street…until 1987, when my mother saw the whip scars on my body and changed her mind about who she wanted me to live with.
My mother sent word to Majaba, one of her younger sisters who also lived in Koindu, to tell Majaka to let her son go live in his father’s house. And so Majaka helped me lift my small steel chest containing all my belongings and led the way across Badala Road and another road…to the home of my “small mother” (Elhaji Sanasa Maadi’s youngest wife).
Nna Kadia lived in Koindu with her children and Baba Sekou’s youngest wife (before he inherited his brother’s wives) and her children in a house Elhaji Sanasa Maadi built. This is perhaps the closest I came to living in a single-mother household. But Nna Kadia had the whole Maninka community in Koindu to help her. And they acted like it, especially when it came to discipline.
Then on a March morning in 1991, we woke up to murderous children with guns aimed at their parents. I don’t know why we call it “civil” war when there is nothing civil about it. We’d heard the horror stories from Liberia, and we were not going to wait to see how this one was going to play out. We ran across the border to Guinea and spent the first night on rocky grounds listening to sounds of AK-47s and bazookas coming from our homes across the Mano River. The next day we drove deeper into Guinea, eventually to Kankan, then back to Conakry.
Then I came with a cousin to Evanston, Illinois, to live with our uncle Lansine, the professor. He was a quiet and moody man. Away from the classroom, he spent most of his time in his home library in the company of his books. He would occasionally fill the chronic silence between us with philosophical questions such as “Is an accident truly an accident?” He didn’t like TV, and we were mostly forbidden to watch it. As his children, any school grade less than an A was not good enough for his reputation. The same way America would raise you is the same way American would kill you—“Stop writing those silly stories” he told me. “Do something practical.” Like computers.
Though it has been four years since I talked to him (five years prior to that five-minutes conversation), I understand him better today than I did the three years I lived with him and his family.
One thing I didn’t learn from Baba Sekou, Uncle Senasi, and Uncle Lansine was how to relate to children, how to satisfy their curiosities with clever answers. Growing up I never asked questions, not of my fathers. Back where I come from, children listen more and seldom ask questions. At least not of our fathers. I was interrogated by them. I learned that. When my answers didn’t come quickly, or if they were not satisfactory, a lash, slap, or stern warning was not far behind. I learned that. The questions why is the sky blue, leaves green, I am black, he is white…school gave me the technical answers. How to translate those answers in a language a three-year-old can understand is like learning to shoot on a battle field—I’m just trying to survive long enough to learn how to pull the trigger.
But I have seen the excuses experts give for failed children. I say “excuses” because I consider myself a product of a so-called undesirable upbringing. And I am not a failure. Even when my spiritual tides are low, I know I am well equipped to deal with the drought and pull the moon back to my corner. But I suspect I could be better. It’s a great feat to jump twenty feet from the ground, but what if you started on a platform twenty feet above ground? I could be forty feet in the air by now. Even if I jumped only ten feet, I could still be ten feet above my present altitude. I want my children to start from as high as I can get them, so they don’t have to work twice as hard for half the gain.
“The sky is up because we are down” may not be the right answer, but hopefully it’s a better answer than the one I got.