The Bronx, Summer 2016
Famoro has two daughters. Fatimata, who is nineteen, lives in Conakry, the capital of Guinea. She hasn’t seen her father for seventeen years. Yet, they remain close through phone calls. Lately on Facebook, Fatimata posts photos of herself in skinny jeans and tanks, long braids flowing down her back, her boyfriend leaning on her shoulder. Last time I saw her she was seven. Through her recent posted images, both Famoro and I have raised our eyebrows. Famoro does his best to impart his wisdom on her life from afar. He urges me to write to her as well. Then there is Sona, sixteen, born to Famoro and a Guinean jelimuso mother, in the United States. She is American, polylingual, bicultural, and a top-notch student. No boyfriends, yet.
Famoro and I take the 4 train all the way from 125th street to Bedford Park Boulevard in the Bronx to visit Sona at her aunt’s house where she lives. Just before leaving, Famoro has a prise de conscience. He asks me whether he should put a white tank under his vest that lays over his shoulders, open on the sides. It is hot today, but we agree, modesty in front of the kids. He puts the tank on, lays the vest over it, and we are off.
We hear a lot of Spanish on the train, and a lot of panhandling. Famoro makes a noise of disapproval, like a click. I ask him what? He nods over to a woman who just boarded the train in a skin-tight, short mini-dress. “That’s not good,” he tells me. “She is not modest.” He explains that a woman has to cover her legs a little or she is purposely attracting men’s attention. If she is walking around flaunting her privates, then men are going to look at her and think about sex, no way around it. Famoro says, “You have to keep some things private, only for your man.” I look down at my white linen baggy shorts and blue tank top. I’m not exactly modest, but I certainly don’t flaunt my body either. I tend toward the non-revealing, at least in my cultural milieu. As far as New York City is concerned, I am dressed in an unremarkable way. If I were in the Gambia, however, things would be different.
The first time that I went to West Africa in 2000, I spent two months in the Gambia, a smaller and comparatively more conservative country than neighboring Guinea and Senegal, yet equally Muslim. The American well-seasoned couple who accompanied me explained some guidelines on dressing modestly. No, I didn’t have to cover my hair with a scarf, but it meant that men would think I was available. Like wearing a wedding ring, covering the head happens after marriage. More importantly, I should cover the bifurcation of the legs. In other words, don’t wear tighter pants, or pants at all. Longer skirts are preferred. Modesty says skirts to the ankle, just like the olden days when a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. Be reasonable. Blend in.
I certainly did not want to be a bad influence on my host family’s children, and I found that once I got the gist, it was quite easy to recognize and follow suit on acceptable dress for a woman my age. I did not find it difficult. In fact, I learned that the rare occasions that I did venture from the family compound alone, it was quite helpful to wrap a scarf around my head. Men did not approach me when I did this. If I went without the scarf, I was constantly accompanied, and if I lost one guy following me, another would come within seconds or minutes. It was easier just to choose a companion for the errands I had to make, but often I opted for the headscarf and was left alone.
Conakry, however, is altogether different, much to my surprise when I visited in 2004. Some women are much more modern in the capital city of Guinea, wearing tight jeans and no headscarves. I likened it to Casablanca where you might find a wide degree of difference. Famoro’s new wife, Jelimuso Missia Saran, for example, isn’t a modest dresser at all, neither in Conakry nor in New York, unless she is taking part in a religious event. She wears tight pants, shirts, and no head wrap on a regular basis.
Finally Famoro and I get off the train and walk to 199th Street to visit his daughter, Sona. By the time we arrive it is high noon and the sun is hot. Sona, Miriam, and Fantabe are there, as well as Fantabe’s mother who is carrying an eight-month-old baby on her waste. Miriam is about ten and is Sona’s cousin. Fantabe, twelve, is Sona’s half sister and lives in Paris. She speaks French and Malinké. Aziz, six, is still sleeping. All the kids but Fantabe are Guinean-American. A mom appears from the bedroom with a baby. Malinké is the common language, but often the American kids speak English to each other and to Famoro and me.
Miriam tells Famoro that she woke up just five minutes before we came. It’s around noon. I figure that they must stay up late because it is cool in the evenings; that is what we do in Guinea. At this moment, two fans are blowing on us and it is still screaming hot, characteristic of July in the city. Famoro asks her why she just woke up. Miraim retorts that he never tells her what time he is coming. He asks, “Why do I have to tell you the time? I say I’m coming today, I don’t have to say what time.” But Miriam is already thinking American. “If you tell me what time you come, then I can know when to wake up and get ready!” They start a lengthy discussion about who is giving whom a hard time. It is a battle of cultural systems, of mind or heart. It is the perennial discussion I have written about in my thesis that I call Africa Maybe Time (AMT) vs. NYC time, or so my American friends and I call it from our ethnocentric perspective.
Famoro is teaching his Guinean-American children the West African way. You visit people when you feel the inspiration to do so. He goes through his day like a soft breeze. He never rushes. He takes his time with people. He goes where he needs to go when he is ready, and not before. If people miss him, tant pis (too bad). “I come when I want to come, and you know, I always come!” Miriam retorts, “Yeah, but you gotta call us and tell us when!” “I don’t gotta call you,” Famoro teases. “You, be ready!” They are having fun, but the argument is strong too.
Famoro gets up, unannounced, goes to the bathroom, and washes for prayer. He comes back to the living room, chooses his spot, and goes about his business of praying. Everyone is moving around the living room and talking while he does it. He is in his own zone. After Famoro rises from prayer, Sona emerges from the kitchen where she had been making us scrambled eggs and sardines on a loaf. Famoro and I split one and it is tasty. Sona is proud of the culinary abilities she is cultivating.
While we eat, Sona goes into the bedroom in her lapa, a colorful wrap skirt widely worn by women in West Africa, with a non-matching tee on top, typical for house wear. She re-emerges in an all black embroidered full length boubou, a full-length gown, and a black head wrap. Over the wrap she drapes a silky white headscarf with lime green trim. She washes and returns to the living room, unfolds a lime-green and black prayer rug that matches her dress. She bends over, hands on her knees, then kneels down and puts her forehead to the floor. She has a red pearly rosary in front of her. After a few bows, she sits, legs folded to one side, and she picks up the beads. The kids are talking around her, and when it gets loud between Famoro and Aziz, who has now woken up and is playing with Famoro, it is Miriam who shushes them, reprimanding them to pipe down while Sona prays. The room returns to normal conversation level. Sona looks to the right and then to the left. She looks directly at a kid to her left. At first I think that she is distracted but then I realize that she is still praying, and possibly incorporating the image of her half-sister into her prayer; or Sona is looking right through her.
When Sona finishes she pushes the white and green scarf off her head and sits next to me on the couch. We chat about school and then she asks me my religion. Aziz takes an interest, puts a hand on my knee and leans in. “Yeah, are you Christian?” he asks. They are both surprised when I tell them no. “My father is Jewish, but I study Buddhism,” which I liken to their version of Islam. I compare Muslim ways to Buddhist ways of taking moments to meditate, of treating people with dignity and respect, of wishing all people well, of being patient and understanding with people who are suffering. Sona asks me if Buddhism is like worshiping many gods or animals, and she wonders if she is confusing it with Hinduism. I explain that the religions are similar and recall Ganesha with her, the elephant-looking deity and remover of obstacles, and then try to explain the many manifestations of Buddha—the Buddha of compassion, of discriminating wisdom, of purification, and more. I explain that they are all different faces, or intentions, of one being, and we apply the skills of whichever one is relevant to the situation. My own explanation reminds me of jeliya, and the ways in which the musicians can muster up a kind of energy to inspire us to act in appropriate ways. Sona is learning about religion in her school and she is as curious as I am, but in a small apartment with many children, we get distracted.
The conversation shifts to Ramadan, and I ask her about fasting during the holiday. Now widely known, Ramadan is a spiritual practice in Islam in which practitioners fast or abstain from food, drink, intimate relations, and smoking between sunrise and sunset during the entire ninth month of the Muslim calendar. I knew that Sona fasted this year because Famoro had told me so. When I asked him why Sona did and the other kids did not, he said “because she loves God and wants to show her respect.” She is also the oldest of the group and kids don’t fast when they are young.
I tell Sona that I am impressed with her reverence. “Was it hard,” I ask? “Did you ever cheat at all?” Not only is Ramadan hard, but it took place this year in the summer months, long days of sunlight, little time to cook and break fast after sunlight hours, and it was hot. “Sometimes, when I brush my teeth I let a little water go down. Sometimes I even drink a few sips, but I can’t help it!” she confides in me. We giggle. But yes, she did it and I tell her I am proud of her. I make comparisons in my head to other practices with which I am familiar: the Yom Kippur fast of twenty-four hours, the eight days of no leavened bread during Passover, and the forty days of partial fasting during Lent. I, myself, spend many an eight-day session in meditation and absolute silence, but fasting the month of Ramadan is hard-core. I am filled with respect and admiration for this young teenager. Any test of determination like that in any culture has got to teach a certain wisdom.
Famoro is surrounded by the four children the entire time he is there. They are draped over him on the two-seater couch. Each one wants his attention and he gives it lavishly. Fantabe walks by, a little somber, and Famoro grabs her and pulls her to him. She laughs and falls onto his lap. Miriam engages him in serious conversation, challenging him at every chance, but there is humor laden in the debates, and Sona offers her dad huge bear hugs on a regular basis. When Famoro decides that it is time to go, all four of the kids from six to sixteen throw themselves around our legs, imploring us not to leave. Aziz asks me again where I live. I tell him, Paris, like Fantabe. “Paris? Why not New York?” I assure him that I will see him again soon. We will go to the beach together next week.
On the train ride home, Famoro tells me that Sona wants to where a hijab once she gets married. The hijab is a Muslim headwrap that covers the hair, neck, and chest, but not the face. We are both a little surprised at her declaration. West African women who are married often choose to wear an African headwrap when they go out of their home to shop, covering the tops of their heads with a colorful piece of wrapped cloth, but they don’t cover their necks or even most of their hair unless, perhaps, during a religious event like a funeral. Elderly women may wrap their hair and necks with a scarf more regularly. But the custom isn’t tightly observed, and many West African women in New York City and in Conakry do not wear headwraps at all. Sona’s mother, a famous singer like Missia, does not wear a headscarf on a regular basis. Her aunt with whom she lives does not wear one either. No one has pushed this on her; it is her own decision.
Sona is strikingly different than Abi’s thirteen-year old bicultural daughter we encountered in the “Manding Baptisme” blog. For one, Sona exudes love and kindness whereas Abi’s daughter has seemingly turned against her Guinean cultural roots of respect toward a crass and flippant American attitude that many teenagers have. What would motivate Sona to wear a hijab in the future? Does she find that wearing one will tie her to values of Guinean culture? To a peaceful, respectful way to be? Does it indicate a stronger reverence to God whereas many have lost their way? Is Sona experimenting with religion as many kids do at her age?
In light of the burkini debates in France, I wonder whether Sona will want to keep her head and neck covered in a few years when she goes to the beach and what other Americans will think of her if she does. Suddenly and unknowingly she may implicate herself in a political situation, although when I am quite sure that her original intentions came naturally around feelings of peace, love, and respect. I want to warn her about these things, to tell her to stay open when people misjudge, to educate people when they seem ignorant. But for now, Sona is only sixteen. She will pray at home and wear her one-piece bathing suit on the beach and think nothing of it.