The Refugee And The Mosquitoes
The PenPen Africa project featured twelve writers from nine African countries for a residency. The project, held in both Nigeria and Kenya, ran from July 1, 2019 till June 30, 2020. It was implemented by the African Writers’ Development Trust in partnership with the Writers’ Guild Kenya and was co-funded by Culture at Work Africa and the European Union.
The title PenPen Africa uses the word “Pen” in its duality to symbolise the process of writing but also to refer to the small enclosure in which a person or group of persons can be confined. The anthology, TWAWEZA, (a Swahili word that means “we can”) is the result of the PenPen Africa writers’ residency, with 24 non-fiction stories authored by the writers who took part in it. The book is not for sale but can be downloaded for free by clicking https://www.writerstrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/twaweza.pdf.
The president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari has received a personal copy from one of the writers. “We hope that reading the book will positively influence government policies for cultural preservation and to eradicate cultural stereotypes” said Anthony Onugba, Executive Director of African Writers’ Development Trust.
PENPEN AFRICA WRITERS RESIDENCY PARTICIPANTS
Nigeria (November 2019)
Edem Azah – Ghana
Maryam Boyi – Nigeria
Ngang God’swill N – Cameroon
Sakina Traoré – Cote D’Ivoire
Tega Oghenechovwen – Nigeria
Modou Lamin Age-Almusaf Sowe – The Gambia
Kenya (March 2020)
Dismas Okombo – Kenya
Fiske Serah Nyirongo – Zambia
Hassan Kassim – Kenya
Patrick Nzabonimpa – Rwanda
Esther Musembi – Kenya
Rachael Twinomugisha – Uganda
About Modou Lamin Age-Almusaf Sowe
Modou Lamin Age-Almusaf Sowe (1990) was born in Bakau Newtown, The Gambia, West Africa. He’s an emerging West African writer and a scholar. He’s a renowned playwright, a poet, novelist, short story writer, blogger, and teacher-librarian. Sowe is the founder of the Young Writers’ Association of the Gambia (YWAG) and former Secretary General of the Writers’ Association of the Gambia (WAG).
Author of Don’t Judge The Book By The Cover, AfriKa Not AfriCa, The Throne of The Ghost and The Memories of Reflection (approved by MoBSE in 2014). Modou started writing at the age of 14, and won the prize for Best Young Gambian Writer of The Year 2019 and is the WAG Laureate for Children’s Literature 2019. Modou was featured in TWAWEZA, an anthology of 24 African Non-Fiction Stories published by the African Writers Development Trust (AWDT) during the PenPen Africa Writers Residency.
Title of Story: THE REFUGEE AND THE MOSQUITOES
Category: An Anthology of 24 Non-Fiction African Stories published by the African Writers Development Trust (AWDT)
Author: Modou Lamin Age-Almusaf Sowe – The Gambia
I had made sure I didn’t inform anyone about my going – if it’s heard from your mouth, let it be found on your mouth. Over the years, The Gambia has witnessed various forms of crises in our social system, including the persecution of writers, and the disappearance of journalists. We were shocked by the silence of Gambian writers to the situation. We wanted to provide a responsive and responsible leadership that can fearlessly address our challenges in a society governed by dictatorship. In my search for that, I left The Gambia on May15th, 2016 for Senegal. As destined to happen in my life, I chose to live peacefully in a more democratic society where I could write without the fear of being imprisoned. The taste of fresh sour milk from the she-camel, the eye-catching Muslim style of dressing and way of life of the Sahelian countries could not stop me. The tersely virgin sandy soils, the dry wind of the Sahara Desert could not make me change my decision. I went through Niger.
There, I heard that culture is a virtue and art is the natural resource freely available to be tapped by anyone. Senegal At a bus-stop, I waved eagerly at an entourage of smiling travelers returning to their various countries. I found the service center nearby and where I would place an order for my travel ticket. Once there, I yelled at a gorgeous Senegalese lady who tried to sell me a ticket at an outrageous price. What did she take me for? I shook my head and spoke Wolof to her glibly, taking off my Gambian sun-glasses and drawing my ears nearer to be sure I had heard what she said – 60,000 CFA for my trip!
’Lo wakh’, I stressed, stamping my foot in a bid to resist the urge to kick her head like the last goal I scored two years ago at Masroor Senior Secondary School football ground. She gave a loud laugh and smiled at my smartness. “Balma‘’ Sorry. She looked me in the eye and said “the business is no longer working for us.” With a romantic smile on her face, she handed me my ticket – ‘Seat 7’. She had wanted to cheat me but upon recognizing my Gambian heritage, she changed her mind. I couldn’t help but wonder, could this be the first sorrow of my exile? Why are custom officers everywhere so corrupt? No wonder, corruption is rampant in Africa. I chose to conduct a final check to ensure that my porous brain wouldn’t forget any vital thing I’d need for this adventurous journey. The bus was loaded to capacity, its happy engine willingly bid a prolonged farewell to Senegalese soil as we journeyed across the country excitedly. As we drove on, I effortlessly pulled down the handle of my window to get a look at the Monument de la Renaissance Africaine, which reads in English as the African Renaissance Monument. It stands on the height of Dakar towards a round-about on an island, which is not far from my home at Quest Foire, Yoff, Dakar, close to the Aeroport Leopold Sedar Senghor.
I started missing the scent of Senegal as the journey began. I sat in the middle seat of the bus and happily squeezed the sweet Senegalese orange in my hand I had been sucking passionately like a woman. For some reason I think: how can contemporary African leaders choose to send people to exile? On the bus, I see a bevy of ladies and a group of gentlemen sitting in front of me, all of them, chatting in many different African languages. ‘i ni ce, i ka kεnε wa? i tɔgɔ?’An old woman says to me in Bambara ‘hello, how are you? What’s your name?’ I barely understand the language, so I simply reply with a thank you. Elsewhere on the bus, a nice-looking lady, probably in her 20’s, winds down her window and spits so much uncivilized saliva from her soft lips and African mouth. I look at her and my African lineage with great disgust. Does she really understand what it means to be an asylum seeker? My heart contests answers to explain her act of pregnancy. I realize I am staring and look away. Someone on the bus recognizes me. I squeeze my orange while she looks at me and she smiles. I look at her from the corner of my eye and I smile because that’s what you do when people smile at you. I turn my eyes back to the window. After a while, I notice she is still smiling at me. “Hi, do I know you?” she asks.
“You are an acquaintance; I don’t think I am seeing you for the first time. Um… what..was it … the writers retreat in Ethiopia? You were there and there was another lady from Zimbabwe. What’s her name?”
“Emelda?” “Yeah. Emelda.”
“Right.” “Yeah…You don’t remember me? Clara.”
Last year, I went to a writers retreat. There were motivational seminars and a weekend of conferences and lectures. I remember her.
“I admired your eloquence and have been following you on social media. At the Young African Thinkers Convention held at the African Union headquarters in Ethiopia, I was there too. So was Nadia from Ghana and a few other people. There was another lady. She was a speaker at one of the seminars and might have been there, I think. I didn’t remember her name.
“I know… Benita, right? She held a hand around the microphone and sang into it like a singer.”
I look at her and after a while I nod. She laughs at this. I didn’t know why. She must think it is funny.
“Oh man, you were so great. You were the highlight of the conference. That thing you did off the stage…”
During the breakdown, I had managed to slide off the stage on my knees. I was nervous and sang all the way to the podium. Clara looks at me and smiles again, and drinks some palm wine.
“So, how’s life?”
“Okay. Good. Good.” We are silent for a while and then she asks, “Do you care for some wine?”
“Sorry, I am Muslim and I do not drink wine.”
“Is it good?” I ignore her question.
“I beg your pardon. I don’t smoke either.”
She laughs at this. Before we can continue the conversation, we arrive at her destination and we part ways.
“Goodbye, it was nice to meet you.” she says.
I think to myself while stealing a few good looks at her face and laughing in my heart: Sir, honestly, God can create. I was told Gambian women are beautiful, but as long as we are still in Senegal I will hold my tongue until I arrive at my final destination. I decide to ignore her unavoidable beauty and murdering smiles which could massacre a full battalion of soldiers. I insert my earpiece into my ears and increase the volume to its maximum. I am listening to famous Gambian singer and cultural ambassador, Jaliba Kuyateh.
The song is titled ‘Mumeni-Bayo.’ I do this despite the fact that our bus is filled with cool traditional music of the early 70’s which are foreign to my ears and my generation. The singer with his ugly voice sounds like a Gambian comedian who has been hired in a traditional Mandingo wedding to lie to the bride. The bus has a television affixed above the bus-driver’s seat where everyone can see. It is presently showing shots of love scenes. I realize this is why everyone on the bus is so silent, instantly cautious, watching the scenes as the kissing gets longer – and sweeter. Pants are now down; they are now rolling on the bed, eyes closed… ouch! The man has just scored a romantic goal for Chelsea.
“This is so blue!” I say into the silent air. Looking behind me, I see unenthusiastically veiled women eating and chatting happily to their satisfaction. As the bus speeds away on the comfortable new road towards the last Senegalese police-check at Kedougou, I notice another unexpected silence. Gendarmerie they are called in French. One of them looks at me for a long time and eventually asks me to hand him my national identity card to which I very much oblige. Will he demand for something else? I hold my passport in my hand firmly, in case corruption should erupt in his greedy mind like a volcano and he should demand for something else. Corruption is the soil on which our crops grow in Africa. Our bus-driver, a Malian, possibly a Bambara, looks exactly like a decorated masquerade paraded during the Atlantic Slave Trade to scare the arrivals of western ships that had landed on the shores of West Africa. He is drunk to drunkenness and has been drinking all day long.
It is now 9 pm and we are finally getting closer to Mali. It registers that with all the 15 police check-points we passed on our way, not once did I pay a single amount of money on the journey through Senegal. We disembark from the bus to present our papers and rest up for dinner at a nearby restaurant in a village on the outskirts of Mali. I can’t recall nor pronounce the name of this place. The name is so obsolete that hearing it could probably reduce your life expectancy rate.
I can sense the smell of misfortune from my Fulani nose. I smell trouble around me. What will I eat or drink? I keep asking myself. Immediately I arrive in a foreign country situated on the arms of Africa, one of the poorest countries on planet earth, with an exact eighty-seven point seven percent of her citizens living in extreme hunger and poverty. My discomfort is heightened by my pain for refuge from the presence of the different kinds of heartless African mosquitoes that have given me a warm welcome. Is this why Africa will never develop? This is real—an entourage of happily rude children mosquitoes, the first to test my patience. Pensive and helpless, carrying my school bag on my shoulder containing all my documents, I try to locate the UNHCR office. Everyone I meet knows at once that I’m a foreigner- my looks give me away. I continuously keep flapping myself, an attempt to kill at least one mosquito out of the tens of thousands of rude children mosquitoes disturbing my arrival. Before I can ask a native to address my concern of locating the UNHCR office, I hear my stomach announce for the fourth time its incipient interest in food. ‘’Do you speak English?’’ I hastily ask a nice-looking passerby glancing at my shoe. Instead of giving me a direct answer, he responds with a question “Tu comprend Française?’’ ‘’Thank you’’, I say to him at once and head towards the market, hoping to meet someone else, not this boy who dares desire my three-month-old Gambian boots. Wonders shall never end in Africa. This is what Africans do in reality. Before I could catch my breath from the harsh climatic condition I find myself in, blood starts oozing from my nose. Could this be the hot sun? It’s extremely hot for a stranger like me. I look tired and hungry in the blue tracksuit I was given at the National Youth Conference and Festival (NAYCONF) of The Gambia in 2014, coupled with a blue and black long sleeve. I still cannot understand how the mosquitoes managed to bite me. I begin to think of how to spend the last penny I have on me.
Exactly 250 CFA. Can you believe this? Less than one dollar. God loves us so much so that He sometimes denies us even food and strikes us with pain to see if we’re true believers. Is he testing to see if misfortune will make us fail? Anyone who knows me cannot deny that I’m highly talented— even if their lips deny it, their hearts cannot. Some people were happy that my film was condemned and wasn’t launched. But that’s really okay. I’m too honest and clean-hearted a man to suffer. God will provide, I told myself. If you help people privately, God will always help you in difficulties. Nobody prays to land in adversity like mine at this young age. I am not married and have no child. Who will remember me when I am gone? Maybe they will only remember my books. I finally decide to give something to the stomach which has been asking for food. Turning to my right, I see a little boy probably less than seven years carrying a plate of water on his head and shouting in Zjarma, ‘Hari Yeeno’ and adding in English, “pure water.” “How much is one?” I ask. He replies “Waa ranka” and I realise ‘pure water is as far as his English-speaking ability goes. He continued shouting in his local language, “Hari Yeeno“.
I hand him my 250 CFA expecting some change from it. Instead, he boldly crosses the road to the other side and attends to other buyers. “Should I follow him? I am fast losing my patience. What will I eat?” I ask myself desperately. It is twelve noon and I can see physically fit African mosquitoes everywhere idling about mid-flight. I imagine a happy-looking child-mosquito shouting “Hmmm! Fresh blood” cheerfully to her friends after tasting my blood and escaping the hand that comes beating. To at least, still kill one. There are mosquitoes everywhere in this country because the country is so clean; so clean that they dispose of waste everywhere around them. Some of them have the courage to urinate and defecate in the middle of the road and everywhere else. As if on cue, I see a boy about 17 years old, jump in the middle of the road, avoiding crossing vehicles; he squats down 143 comfortably, pulls down his trousers and starts releasing fresh faeces from his shameless anus. Everyone I stop and ask of the location of the UNHCR office speaks French to me or Hausa, Djarma, Arab, or Tuareg. I can’t believe I am in the capital city of a country— its name sounds a bit Nigerian but is not Nigeria. I thought it’s a nice place to live in and because The Gambia doesn’t have an embassy here, a plus for an asylum seeker who thought former Gambian president Yahya AJJ Jammeh will win the past election of December 2016 as usual. I have been roaming about for the last one hour now.
I eventually decide to turn back and return to the market close to the garage where the bus landed me upon arrival. I spend the night there battling the cold and an empty stomach. Around 3 am, I still find my eyes unwillingly open. I am listening to the continuous complain of my belly. I fight gallantly to at least kill one mosquito. As I turn to my left to enable me sleep comfortably, I discover I can’t find my plastic bag containing my gifts from friends, loved ones and family. While searching for it, I notice an energetic looking young man carrying my bag in a marathon flight. Why does he not represent his country in the past Olympic Games? I nod to my sorry self as I decide I can’t sleep anymore.