Just like a book should not be judged by its cover, The Internet Café at Kaw Junction should not be rated by its innocent front. Standing opposite a branch of NAWEC, the Electricity Company and giving its back to the bustling Latrikunda market, it is famous for many things but not all of them are good. The Internet Café stands out not only for its name, ‘The Internet Café’, which its owner gave it as a sign of prejudiced distinction, but for the many services it provides to the unsuspecting public.
Before the official ribbon cutting opening in 2002, The Internet Café had a life as a stationery shop in the early nineties, when the owner Lazarus first settled in The Gambia, adding to the ballooning Nigerian community. The stationery shop quickly added photocopying services and by the mid-nineties it had metamorphosed into a tele-centre. As the rise of mobile phones rendered the tele-centre to a public execution, the residents of Fajikunda, Tabokoto, Tallinding and those drifting from Nema Kunku woke up one morning, without warning, to find the most efficiently run telecentre had cinderella’d into an internet café.
True to form, like a roaming madman with a penchant for garbage collection, the Internet Café, with natural ease, nuzzled call centre services and all remnants of its previous lives under its wing. Six desktops, three a side, backsides connected, dominate the centre of the business premise. A thick black wire snakes away from the computers to a generator in the front of the shop. Power is never out even if darkness clouds the area, when NAWEC punishes the people, and that is never a rare occurrence. All of these services of the Café are appreciated by the public. Some of them, however, are not too pleased that you could arrange, undercover, business registration certificates here, hook up with bank officials for fake bank statements in your name, or get the Municipality Council tax receipts, all dated as convenient and officially stamped. They couldn’t help but marvel at Lazarus, who was now almost Gambian in his constant cheerfulness.
But today Lazarus is cross. He is irritated by the late showing of Buba. So unlike him, he thought. As he drank his morning coffee, he flipped through the Daily Observer and The Point newspapers. The headlines and stories increased his irritation. One specific headline was guilty of raising his blood pressure. ‘These Gambians, 6000 dalasis,’ he muttered under his breath before throwing the paper on the table. ‘That’s $200.’
‘What’s $200?’ Buba walked in looking flustered like he had just ran a marathon. He is a tall thin teenager, with long arms that called attention to themselves, like a prominent nose or long ears dominate an average face.
‘Why are you late? I had to get Junior to set up the store.’
‘Aunty Astou was taken ill so I had to go with my mum to the hospital in Banjul.’
‘Oh, is it serious?’
‘We still don’t know. I left them waiting for the Cuban doctor, two hours ago. I would have called you but my battery was down.’
‘Your plea is acknowledged sans prejudice,’ Lazarus declared. He meant every word, for since Buba started working with him two years ago, he has never let him down. Once he completed more than a dozen tasks that made Lazarus proudly pronounced him unGambian and called all present to celebrate the moment.
‘What was that about $200?’ Buba asked as he welcomed a client by programming the mother computer for one hour of browsing.
Lazarus held up the newspaper and read aloud, ‘“Man Arraigned in Court for Stealing D6,000”. Headline, third page of a national newspaper!’ He began to read the story. ‘One Kebba En-njie was yesterday brought to court upon accusation from his employer, Burama Cham that he broke into his safe and stole D6,000”. He broke off, breaking into booming laughter that did nothing to hide the disgust on his round face.
‘I don’t know what is more disheartening, the murder of the Queen’s language by appellation of the numeral one to a proper name, or the fact that a man in desperate need of money, ready to commit one of the cardinal sins, has the audacity to make away with only six thousand dalasis.’
‘Or,’ he continued in dramatic fashion, like a leading man on stage, ‘that a newspaper, a national newspaper for that matter..’ he finished off laughing, ‘is imbecilic enough to deem it newsworthy and thereby pilfer our precious time.’
‘Prof, please pronounce our names right. It is Njie, not en-njie.’ Said Buba as he glanced at the customer to gauge his mood.
‘You are not embarrassed that your national newspaper sullies your reputation, rather you chide me for mispronunciation.’ Lazarus lifted his hands in disgust. Then he covered his face to muffle the laughter. ‘And the poor safe. The poor safe that is busy keeping mere $200. Oh, what humiliation.’ The customer and Buba exchanged smiles and looks as they watched Lazarus’ antics.
‘You can arrange for an I-20 with $200,’ Buba tried again.
‘Do you think the state of the universe gravitates around I-20s?’ Said Lazarus.
‘Prof,’ Lazarus was taken aback that a new customer was calling him Prof at the first meeting. ‘This Kebba Njie is not a thief, most likely he needed D6000 to make ends meet.’
‘And Kebba En-Njie is not also smart’.
‘I couldn’t agree with you more my brother,’ said Buba to the customer, ignoring his boss. ‘And we have no proof that the safe only had 6000. Poor Kebba, in desperation, took what he needed.’
‘OK, can my dear Gambian brothers please enlighten me why this moving story of Kebba, stealing from, let me see..’ he opened the newspaper ‘Bu-ra-ma Cham. Who I assume, is neither poor nor desperate – although he sacrificed his precious time and resources to follow his case to the courts of law – why this missive is circulated on the third page of a national newspaper? Any plausible explanation from you is highly welcomed.’
‘Well D6000 is a lot of money to the average Gambian, it is more than two months’ salary for a qualified teacher’, said the customer.
‘I see,’ hissed Lazarus as he noticed the customer’s face began to harden.
Buba had long alerted him to the dangers for the Café’s finances of angering customers. But Lazarus had brushed aside Buba’s worries with the argument that the Café is always jam-packed. ‘And His Excellency, my namesake’ he argued pointing with has fatfed fingers to the picture gazing at him from the wall. “The Professor, were he to hear these observations of mine on the laziness and negligence of Gambians will pat me on the back.’
Two hanging pictures faced off on opposite walls of the café as if vying for dominance. On one end, a wide framed picture of Lazarus, with the widest of smiles that for once diminished the terror of his stare, shaking hands with H.E the President. It was taken when the Nigerian community went to help at H.E’s farm, in gratitude to the Government. On the other end, on the other hand, was a painted image of the holy mother in glorious pink, yellow and orange, with a bright sun behind her head and one hand upright from which the sunrays shone out, as if to offer constant blessing to the shenanigans in the Café.
‘I know Bubacarr, you’re trying your best to dissuade my harmless musings on the affairs of your people. It surely hurts your ego, when I merely point out to you and your countrymen, the widespread anomalies, that perhaps you shall take heed and do your best to overturn the daunting situation.’ Lazarus rolled his tongue around the words, fanning his face around the room like a lighthouse spreading the light of enlightenment.
‘But I thought you confirmed that the serers are not offended lightly’ said Buba, joking with some trace of truth. Thus passes the work in the Café until the late closing hour of 11 pm. Buba was used to going to bed after midnight as he takes the long trek to his father’s house, at the farroh-end of Fajikunda.
As he approached the house in the dark, Buba was startled by the light of candles that chattered in the wind within the rooms. A family of chicken that retired to bed early, he wondered what kept them late tonight. The silence that greeted him conveyed a message of doom. Doom he confirmed upon the sight of his uncle Omar close to his father as they discussed in low voices. Sprawled on the praying mat was his mother Ndeye Oumie, his cousin Yassin breastfeeding her son Pa Ebou, whilst his three younger sisters sat together in the worn out settee.
‘Did you bring the bananas?’ Yassin asked him without returning his greeting, a responsibility she left to the rest of the room.
‘What is wrong?’ Buba asked no one in particular, as he placed the bananas at the table, where Yassin would have to juggle breastfeeding and movement to reach them.
‘About your aunt Astou, it’s not very good’, his father stopped there.
‘The Doctors have diagnosed her with cancer,’ continued uncle Omar, ‘we have to take her to Senegal, as soon as possible. So the family has been putting heads together’. Given the impact the blow of his words gave him, Buba felt his gut give in. There was no need to feign worry as the colour had drained from his face, as several thoughts rained on him.
‘Don’t worry it will be okay,’ his mother is always the first to understand his state. ‘The doctor says the early diagnosis is a good thing, not like Ndeye Fatou.’
‘So what is urgent is to get her to Dakar for the treatment and she will be O.K,’ Buba said to no one but himself.
‘Exactly.’ The men said almost at once. Buba drew his chair closer to his fathers and asked the question he dreaded the answer.
‘What is the decision you have taken, about the expenditures to Dakar?’
‘It is the urgency of the matter that is the most important thing here.’
‘We are trying to put together something here but it will take time.’
‘Pa Babou plans to sell his plot in Yundum, but it may be too late’. For the answer to his question, he waited, and endured, all the beating about the bush. Perhaps not out of kindness, Yassin freed him from suspense.
‘They have all agreed, every one of them, of us here, to ask uncle Mass to foot the bill.’ She delivered the sentence like a pedantic judge. In that one sentence, Buba’s world came crashing down, just like he feared. It is funny how one second, one moment can change the cause of your life. All your struggles, all your dreams, all the effort can become meaningless by one turn of event, and the verdict is delivered, with casual ease, without care or concern for the damage it unleashed.
‘I see’, he said, though he only saw that his one need needed rescuing. A pang of guilt swept over him to awaken his conscience like the splash of water over a sleepy face. You are not selfish, so think of your poor aunt. You were worried about her as you did your work, so why do you only think of your I-20, your visa and your own education? Maybe, just maybe, uncle Mass can help aunty Astou and still provide the bank statement for your visa process.
‘We have already contacted him and he is shocked by her illness,’ Yassin went on, ‘he agreed to do all he can, though he told your father that he has some unexpected financial difficulties.’ She paused for effect, searched his face for reaction, without a hint of sympathy. With a hint of sympathy, Buba looked at her in wonder. How can one be so mean to your own blood? How can one revel in the pain of your relatives? Why is Yassin, a daughter of his mother’s sister so wicked? His mother had consoled him once that it is petty sibling rivalry, but he is not convinced. She is five years older than him, supported by the whole family, more so in her times of need. He used to help her with school work before she dropped out to get married. And when her good for nothing husband became abusive, they rescued her, and to pay back the dowry, he had to stop his IT degree at the UtG.
‘Buba, these bananas will not keep until tomorrow, just look at this.’ She was not finished with him.
‘Your prince can finish them tonight and save you suckling,’ said Buba. Baby Pa Ebou was nearly three and still breastfeeding.
‘Yassin is right, you should have picked better bananas,’ said his father.
‘Never mind,’ said Ndeye Oumie. ‘I’ll bring you fresh ones tomorrow. Please take the boy inside to sleep before the mosquitoes get him.’
‘I’ll carry him for you,’ said Buba and took his nephew on his shoulder. ‘I’m retiring early tonight.’
Lying in bed, Buba contemplated his options. He had not heard the full story on Uncle Mass but he feared the worse. And every day for the next few days, Buba Sarr walked to work, over taking the taxis. The hot July sun still hid behind the early morning clouds as he sets off every day, yet its absence did nothing to lessen the stifling heat that stood motionless, soundless. The rains were expected with bated breath. And to think that just last week he was hopeful that this will be his last rainy season. A week can be a lifetime and time is running out for him. One failed UK student visa process, two hopelessly miserable semesters at university, and now two, two attempts at US student visa. With all the planning done second time round, it’s now looking like it may not happen. He needed to get a clear answer from his uncle in the U.S.
His mum warned him not to remind her brother Mass, after her sister’s illness sprang up. ‘You know your uncle’s wealth is snake poo. No one sees it much more get their hands on it.’
‘You never know and there is no harm in trying,’ Buba persisted.
‘Leave it, let it go,’ she insisted. He still insisted on raising it as if to allow himself closure after grief. Something in the symmetry and clarity of Mass’s words convinced him they were well rehearsed.
‘You should know better, Buba. How can you ask me about bank statement when my sister is between life and death? And none of us know the extent of the expenditure. Thank God I made my intention to help you known before this calamity hit us.’ His words riddle his body with the piercing sting of their sharpness. ‘If my clear intentions cannot materialize due to circumstances beyond our control, I expect you to understand and not embarrass me by forcing a no from me.’
Buba tried to hide it from his parents that he had called his uncle. The teary-eyed welcome he got coming from work told him there was no hiding place.
‘I never knew you to be strong headed. But now… I can handle my own brother. But I can’t handle him and your father’s wrath all at once,’ said Ndeye Oumie. Anger made her choke back the tears and embarrassment made him wish the earth will swallow him. His mother was rarely angry and he had often been praised for inheriting this gentleness. He heard his father’s voice at the terrace, taking it out on Yassin, and he knew he was next. They had long learned that Pa Ebou Sarr got irritable when he struggled to meet his fish money obligations, and recent events must have tried his pocket with a severe trial. Buba tried his oldest trick.
‘Dad, I did some IT work for the Forex bureau this morning. Here is your share.’ He went out to meet him at the terrace.
‘I don’t want your money! My honour is dearer to me.’ The worst thing for Buba was his dad raised his voice. ‘Did I not help you enter university? Where was your uncle for your Angalterre visa process? Where was he for the first Amreeka visa?’
‘I admit my mistake,..’
‘Your mistake has already done the damage. This man calling from Amreeka just to complain about you! Oh God, where men cannot fault you, your children will be the tools for them to harm you. I may have nothing but I wear my honour with pride, even if I have to eat sand.’
‘Fine, I will not ask anyone for help,’ said Buba.
‘If you have known that earlier, you would have saved us a lot of grief,’ his father replied.
Buba did not sleep at home that night. He went back to the Internet Café and let himself in. He called and invited one of his ex-girlfriend to browse for free. He never let her browsed much when she showed up. Instead he pestered her with makeup talk until she relented and ended up making out with him.
As the days turned to weeks and the weeks became months, the expiry of the I-20 became a nasty reality that still hurt like the demise of a loved one. Buba buried it, mourned it a while and made the difficult decision to mend his broken dream with the glue of hope. On the plus side, he had pleased his parents by making a generous contribution to aunty Astou’s treatment. He had to do it to make amends and it freed his parents from any more responsibility. His mum was absolved from accompanying her ill sister. And Pa Sarr was beaming since Buba announced that he will contribute. The first thing he did after holding his son on both shoulders without a word for what seemed like a lifetime, was to get Yassin to call uncle Mass and let the family announce the humble gesture of his only son. Uncle Mass, slightly ashamed, told Buba that he didn’t really have to do that.
At the Internet Café in between lulls in the crowd, Buba summarized to Lazarus the outcome of his U.S. student visa process.
‘Oh too bad you did not adhere to my advice, Bubacarr. Here I am offering services to the Gambian populace and here you are, under my nose not benefitting whatsoever.’
‘Prof, the fake bank statement is too risky for the U.S. Embassy. Do you know how many failed cases I can tell you about?’
‘Do you know how many successful cases I have conjured for the American visa?’
‘But I don’t have those 100,000s you are charging Prof. You yourself told me you succeed mainly with the premium cases.’
‘Well I could have arranged a premium case for you with second rate prices.’
‘Why didn’t you say that before?’
‘You never asked me, my boy.’
‘Ok we can do it now.’
‘Now is not possible. It needs a process of 6 to 8 months.’
‘How much will I pay?’
‘You pay $1,000 up front and $1,000 at the end of the whole affair.’
‘That’s only 25% discount.’
‘Bubacarr, do you expect me to cook foofoo for you like your personal cook, serve it to you like a faithful butler and help you wash it all down with the choicest aperitifs?’
Buba brushed aside his reaction with more questions. ‘If we start it now, when will we be ready?
‘Let me see, May two thousand and ten in the year of our lord.’ Said Lazarus, hesitating, before adding, ‘unless’.
‘Unless something inadvertently, comes up to throw a spanner in the works,’ he said, looking him in the eye. Buba tried to keep his spirit up but his shoulders fought back, and dropped down in resignation. There is always a spoilsport in his visa process.
‘You know Prof, you should have helped me with this offer when we spoke to your man Alieu Touray at the Bank.’
‘During your second attempt?’
‘You were adamant you wanted a genuine bank statement.’
‘But I was not aware that you are willing to give me a premium arrangement at a discount.’
‘Well, I merely thought of it now, seeing you so desperate and exasperated.’
Flustered from directing the traffic on the highway, Officer Morroh Saidy-Khan came in and took his usual seat under the ceiling fan. ‘You are nownow needed Buba, don’t you see my miss calls?’ Saidy-Khan was a reigning champion of the Gambian habit of miss calling people one needed to talk to.
‘S.O., how can you need me and miss call me?’ Buba said laughing, ‘credit is not cheap’.
‘I called you for your own affairs, Sal Joof was brought to Station for one of his Boys’ injury and Dinho was the cause. If not for my timely invention, the case will be lodged.’ He said with pride.
‘Intervention,’ corrected Lazarus.
‘What happened?’ said Buba, looking worried. ‘Is Muhammed OK?’ Buba never called him Dinho.
‘Is it the prodigal son again? Or should I say your prodigal son, excuse the subtle substitution,’ said a grinning Lazarus.
‘Dinho is fine but the boy he head butted was bleeding badly,’ Saidy-Khan informed them. Buba asked Lazarus’ permission to go to Sal’s garage.
Sal was working on a gearbox with the apprentices around him when Buba approached.
‘Bro, S.O. told me you were calling me. Do you have a new number?’
‘Is that all he told you? He didn’t let it slip that we had a bloodbath here today?’
‘Boy, Sa boy bi la waat,’ one of the apprentices chipped in.
‘Shut your mouth,’ Sal was definitely angry. He turned to Buba, ‘my mobile was stolen yesterday, I have been working 24 hours to finish this box, and that one. I don’t need my boys to drag me to police for killing each other. Everybody back to work’. He dispersed the audience around the two of them.
‘Can you tell me what happened?’
‘Nothing unusual, Dinho attacked Bai Nyaisse for calling him names, and before we know it, Bai was on the floor and blood everywhere. Like no one called him names before!’
‘Did you speak with him?’
‘I had to see him first. He ran and jumped over the fence. And we were more worried about getting treatment for Bai.’
‘I’ll find him and..’
‘Bro, whatever you are going to do with him ends with you. With me, I’m finished with him,’ said Sal.
‘Sal, take it easy, the kid is a hard worker. You yourself told me.’
‘I’d rather stick to average workers than end up in Police. And dealing with S.O. is never cheap. I had to fork out bribes all over to kill the case.’
‘I’ll refund you,’ said Buba.
‘Buba, what’s it with this boy? He is not your blood. O.K his mum is not exactly sound, but for God’ sake, get a grip. Take him to social welfare or SOS. He is fifteen now, before it’s too late.’
‘He is only fourteen and he rarely gets into trouble now.’
They all debated whether Muhammed was too violent but they all agreed that Bai Nyaisse, was the cause of the problem. The boys advised Buba to check for Muhammed at the video club in the evening.
The boys were right, he was at the video club but he refused to walk out mid-way of a champions’ league game. ‘Alright then, I’m working late so you can come to the Internet Café right after the game’.
‘Who won the game?’ Buba asked him when he came in later. Muhammed looked small for his age, but had a sharp piercing look that made him look elderly.
‘Spartak Moscow,’ he said looking uninterested.
‘Ah, Shevchenko’s old team.’
‘That is Dynamo Kiev,’ he said giving Buba a knowing look, as if mistrusting him for his disinterest in football.
‘Ok, I’ve set up this computer for you, as you browse you can tell me why you did what you did today’.
‘There is nothing to tell. He ate my breakfast, my lunch, and abused me.’
‘He made sure I was sent when they shared the bread,’ Muhammed bit his lip.
‘Didn’t you eat porridge at home before you left?’
‘My mother is not feeling well these days.’
The silence roared around them, inflicting its spittle on them both, one lost in thought, one lost for words. The mother question had a habit of posing difficulties of all sorts to answers. His mother was deaf, mentally disabled and without strong family ties. Much worse, she happened to live in Africa when these conditions happened to her.
‘Why didn’t you go to aunty Sukai?’ Buba tried just to say something.
‘Like you, I don’t want to burden anybody.’ There was something strange about Muhammed’s short blunt answers that were so unlike him, that rattled Buba out of his comfort zone, like an unfamiliar trait newly discovered in a close friend.
‘But you have become a burden on Sal with this police problem. So what you should have done when you are abused is to abuse back and relief your misery. What if the boy you kicked died?’
‘Then it will be a lesson that no one should mess with me.’
‘Look, Sal told me you are one of the best apprentices, you learn the metals quick, you’re hard working. Within 3 to 4 years you can be your own mechanic, have your own garage. These boys are jealous, don’t fall into their trap.’
‘I am leaving’, he said after a while.
‘And you tell me like this! Like I’m one of your boys.’
‘Forgive me, I did not mean it that way.’
‘You will not only upset me if you leave, you will your mother too.’
‘I don’t want to be a burden on my mother, on you, Sal or anyone.’
Buba sighed in exhaustion. ‘I see you’ve made up your mind to quit. Please tell me I’m wrong. Sal will take you on again. Do you hear me?’
Quiet. Quite quiet.
‘I think we are both tired. It’s late now. Go home, rest and think about what I’ve said.’
Buba called him back when he reached the door and gave him some money. Muhammed thank him and left. Then Buba did something he hadn’t done before. He got up, stood at the door, and watched him disappear into the Fajikunda darkness. Like something told him he may not see him again.
The good news floated from Dakar that Astou Joof was getting better. They called and the whole family spoke to her, including Baby Pa Ebou. ‘By the time I get back I want to find you’ve stopped suckling,’ she told him.
‘I have stopped,’ he screamed down the phone. ‘No he has not!’ said nearly everyone in the background. It was times like these that made the hardships worthwhile. It had not been easy. Muhammed had still not reported back to Sal’s garage, Buba was running out of cash and ideas to initiate the next student visa process. At least his aunt was better. He went to bed feeling like a champ, ready for the next round.
Buba tossed and turned but could not attract sleep. The voices he heard from his parents’ room worried him, as it went on for hours. He got up and glided to their door without a sound like a mouse on the prowl. I’m not eavesdropping he thought, for he knew that eavesdropping entertains the ears and hurts the heart. If I know the problem maybe I can help. What he heard shocked him. His dad had borrowed more money; his mum was helping to pay it, now they needed more for Aida, the first daughter’s education, after her good grades.
He returned to bed with a tighter chest. He hated the helplessness; struggle, keep it in, start again, on and on. Like all people, Buba reflected on his life, trying to find reasons for his predicament, hoping to make sense of it all. Is it their character or mere bad fortune on their part? No, it is not about the family, it is the whole damn life. He flipped open his mobile phone and looked at his life support once more. On the screen wallpaper, Bill Gates smiled at him, in shirt and cardigan, geeky without a coat, with his quote “If you’re born poor it’s not your mistake, but if you die poor it’s your mistake.” Saltwater splashed on the phone, blurring the image.
By the end of the rainy season, there was still no sight of Muhammed. His mother, Jankeh would have been worried if this was the first time her son had disappeared. It was only last year he hopped on the caravan of mourid pilgrims all the way to the Magal Touba, and during the election year, he became a green boy out of the blue and went on a countrywide tour, without telling anyone. He will show up anytime soon. Buba still avoided Jankeh like the plague. For no reason obvious to him, Buba, in his mind, shifted the blame of Jankeh and Muhammed’s burden from his conscience to his parents. Why is Pa Ebou Sarr and Ndeye Oumie Joof so accommodating? He faintly remembered the scandal of Jankeh’s pregnancy. The helpless Balanta woman taken advantage of market side, probably in the dark. Rumours had it that Jankeh had kept going back to the market by the commercial transport garage, night after night, even when heavily pregnant, spurred on by weak hope that she would see the father of her child again. Now Buba blamed his parents, if they had never helped Jankeh, he would not be burdened with worry now. He would be like any other Gambian youth, occupied with his own struggle.
Saidy-Khan left the traffic in a huff upon receiving the news that his son had been driven from school because of school fees. ‘That woman! Carrier of bad news,’ he said as he sat under the fan in the Internet Café and unbuttoned his uniform. Busy with a customer, Lazarus heard him and ignored him. This customer deserved all his attention. He had brought his visa application papers for verification, and he needed an affidavit to be prepared.
‘Thank you very much, Professor,’ said the customer, a neatly dressed man in his thirties.
‘Oh sir, kindly address me by my Christian name,’ Lazarus had a habit of saying sir when accepting payment. He handed the customer a new folder to pack his papers and went behind the counter to count the notes and came back beaming.
‘So why do they call you Professor?’ Said the customer as he packed his bag to leave.
‘It is your countrymen that have saddled me with the nomenclature, for the range of services they benefit from my expansive expertise,’ he sat by the door and picked up a newspaper.
‘Ah, it is certainly expensive,’ said the man. He had tried to negotiate a discount on the affidavit without success.
‘Ex-PAN-Sive,’ Lazarus said. ‘Id est, meaning, vast, widespread. And how can you call my services expensive when you have just received enlightenment on the syntax of expansive? Mind you, you did not pay for that. It was gratis, pro- bono.’
The satisfied customer nodded in gratitude, in symphony to his every word. ‘Pro-bono, gratis,’ he muttered.
‘Should you so desire a lecture on the origins of pro-bono and gratis, then I am afraid you will have to remunerate me,’ said Lazarus. Saidy-Khan, despite his worry, shook his head, amused, as the customer bade the Internet Café farewell.
Lazarus turned to Saidy-Khan, ‘I seem to recall you were complaining about your wife again.’
‘They sent Alieu from school and she is sending him to me. Can’t she borrow money and let me repay later? Am I not struggling for them, standing under the heat all day?’
‘You should permit the traffic lights to perform their duties,’ said Lazarus, straight-faced.
‘The stupid lights do not change even if the traffic is one sided. Without my expensive service the traffic won’t move.’
‘Ha haa, S.O. I assume you mean expansive,’ said Lazarus.
In school uniform, Alieu Saidy-Khan came in. ‘Did your mother send you here empty handed?’ His father said.
‘No, she gave me 400 dalasis and wants you to add 800.’
‘Buba will come from the bank soon, no?’ Said Saidy-Khan .
‘No, he departed not for financial transactions, but to assist Mr. Touray fix some computers. I don’t perceive he will resurface anytime soon.’ Lazarus watched him with interest. It is easier to milk blood from a witch than borrow a butut from Lazarus. ‘So what will you do now, Officer Saidy-Khan?’
Saidy-Khan got up, buttoned his shirt, told Alieu to wait, and went back to the Brikama highway. Lazarus Stood at the door and strained his eye to reach the highway at the Junction to watched a familiar scene unfold. Whistle in mouth, sternest look on face, Saidy-Khan resumed directing the traffic. Nearly every other car was stopped for an offence, real or imagined, checked for lights, papers and whatnot. The parked cars were released only after dashing a fine and in a dash Officer Saidy-Khan was back in the Café. He counted a thousand dalasis and gave it to his son, telling him the extra 200 was for his fares and lunch money for the rest of the week. It was in the midst of Lazarus’ applause that Buba walked in, pale faced, followed by Pa Waaly from the shop next door, who came in to see what the applause was about.
‘What happened at the bank?’ Lazarus said .
‘Nothing much happened at the bank,’ said Buba. He was not going to share the revelation he received from Mr. Touray. Despite the effort to freshen up and relax on the way back, he saw that he had betrayed his disguise. They knew something was wrong.
‘Are you sure you’re fine?’ Pa Waaly said.
He had to release some news. ‘Muhammed has gone backway,’ Buba announced.
‘When? Where is he now?’
‘I don’t know, some Arab country. He called me and called the shopkeeper next to their home.’
‘When did he call you?’ said Lazarus.
‘Just an hour ago,’ he lied.
‘This backway business is spreading like a mad disease,’ said Pa Waaly.
‘And it is very serious. They take the boats and they can die just like that,’ Saidy-Khan said, ‘if I was Station Officer, ahgo do serious investigation.’
‘He can also make it Boubacarr. Do not worry yourself too much, the prodigal son is something special. That I deciphered ages ago.’ Lazarus tried to comfort his employee.
‘I am worried about his mother too, if something happens to him,’ said Buba, as he sat in front of a desktop. He let them discuss the backway without a word from him. He had something to check on Facebook, he must verify what a former classmate Sainabou told him at the bank. He had to find out if Omar Malleh, the dumbest boy in their class was actually in the UK. Today was a day to remember. The day that creeps on unaware you like a ghost, until it clasps you and spins you around forever changing the course of your life. Yes there it was. Facebook may gloss over the realities but deep down it reveals more than its posters bargain for. Omar Malleh was indeed in England. He scrolled down the comments, yeah Sainabou was right. Omar’s uncle used his position in government to help him with the visa. Buba clicked through the pictures and read through the messages and wondered what is the new feeling troubling his insides. A dose of envy with a shade of resignation, whipped into frenzy with the now familiar usual suspects of helplessness, despair, and depression.
He reviewed the messages with half interest, and sniveled at Omar’s poses and bad grammar: ‘Lolz, I ma quit Jollof 4 good. Its all bright and sine as am ma parsuee ma education to higher hights’. As he logged out, they were still discussing backway and other customers had joined in. Lazarus’ arguments caught his attention and he could only nod helplessly like a sick man hearing the doctor’s instructions.
‘What one must do to make it in this unfair world, one must do. Grab your chance and don’t wait all your life for it. If it doesn’t come, make your own luck.’
Buba prayed for as mundane a day as possible. No surprises, no out of the blue event that spiced Gambian life were needed. Quiet and calm till 4 pm when he would close early. A few days ago, he had come with his mum to inform Lazarus of his trip to Senegal for a week to check on aunty Astou. Twelve year old Junior was in the Café today to take over in the most literal sense. Buba tried to avoid any controversy. Smile and work, work and smile. As hard as he tried to do so, a frown stuck to his face like a permanent scar that became more pronounced whenever he crossed paths with Lazarus. He was relieved when it got to 2 pm and there was no issue, apart from Junior, who got more animated when Saidy-Khan arrived as usual, followed by Pa Waaly. Junior made sure his presence was felt, to the annoyance of the regular locals. Pa Waaly did not understand English well but he could sense that Junior’s tone was condescending. ‘What is he saying now? What is your problem Boy? I’ll tell S.O. to arrest and deport you to Nigeria.’
‘That will be the icing on the cake,’ said Junior, ‘from dilapidated Gambiakunda to the federal republic of the fatherland.’
‘And pray, what will you tell your countrymen about a district sized country entitled The Gambia?’ Lazarus said.
‘That it is a refugee for thousands of Nigerians and Ghanaians’ snapped Saidy-Khan, and Lazarus machine gunned a barrage of words.
Helpless, Pa Waaly applied their last resort. ‘Boko Haraam! We don’t have Boko Haraam.’ Shoulders drooped, heads of father and son, could not but drop too. Boko Haram has cost them many brownie points. Buba knew that the attack after this will be severe so he had to think of a way to calm the waters.
‘Pa Waaly, c’mon just sit, listen and study Junior closely, he is another professor in the making,’ said Buba.
‘Indeed, indeed,’ said a smiling Lazarus.
Phew, one hour to go, thought Buba. Like humans everywhere, he failed to appreciate the infinite possibilities chance can throw in an hour. When the young man entered the Café around 3.30 pm he was just another customer to them. Saidy-Khan barely looked up and Lazarus left Buba to deal with him. Buba asked him to wait for a session as all the stations were occupied.
‘Sorry bro, I’m not here to browse, I use my I-phone to do that. It just ran out of power so I want to charge it for 10 minutes,’ the potential customer said.
‘Boy, the NAWEC is across the road should you desire to procure electricity,’ said Lazarus, half irritated by this I-phone carrying Gambian.
‘You can charge me for charging,’ pleaded the customer.
‘We are not in the business of charging phones. If you oscillate between the market and the garage, you will inadvertently find that type of business in that environ’, said Junior.
‘Wow, that is so meh,’ said the potential customer as he turned to leave.
Lazarus could not help himself, he could not resist the urge. ‘Will you be so kind as to enlighten us what you mean in plain English. This Internet Café, The Internet Café is allergic to Gambian English, especially where it is doused in a flutter of French.’ He said in a loud voice to make sure everyone heard him.
The customer stopped, took of his cap before responding. ‘Excuse me please, what English did you not understand in what I said? I repeat, Wow as in w-o-w, not w-a-w as in yes in wollof, that t-h-a-t is, i-s, so s-o..’
‘Yessah!’ Said Saidy-Khan.
‘Meh, m-e-h. Wow, that is so meh,’ said the customer.
‘Meh?’ Lazarus laughed.
The customer shrugged, shaking his head. ‘It has become more meh now.’
‘Can you wait for a minute whilst I rummage through my Oxford Thesaurus,’ Lazarus got up.
‘You don’t need that,’ said the customer, ‘just google it, there’s a dictionary online.’
‘What’s your name, my brother?’ Saidy-Khan was unable to hide his excitement.
‘My son, are you really Gambian?’ Pa Waaly sensed that something rare was taking place.
‘Ebrima Ceesay, born and bred here,’ the customer seemed to relish the attention.
‘Born and bred,’ Pa Waaly repeated.
‘Bread and Butter!’ Said Saidy-Khan.
Junior without waiting for his father, clicked google on the mother computer and typed with vigour, mouthing “M-E-H”. ‘Oh, 63 results on the search’ he frowned. Everyone got up to crowd around the screen. One of the other customers read after Junior clicked on the Oxford dictionaries.com link.
‘Definition of Meh in English: exclamation “expressing a lack of interest or enthusiasm” Adjective: “uninspiring, unexceptional”.
‘A-haa,’ Ebrima Ceesay said with satisfaction.
Lazarus pointed on the screen and read ‘“Origin 1990, apparently popularized by the US television show, the Simpsons” Hmmm’, said Lazarus.
‘Bart and Homer Simpson’, Junior announced with pride.
‘I know the Simpsons,’ growled his father. ‘What is the world coming to that the Queen’s English is deemed wanting, only to be enriched by cartoon talk?’
‘Mais, I mean francais mais, mais Prof, don’t be so Meh, anglais meh,’ said Saidy-Khan to peals of laughter.
‘And if you allow Ebrima here to charge his phone,’ Saidy-Khan continued, ‘then this internet café will never be meh, abadan!’ They all cheered and patted Saidy-Khan on the back.
‘Thank you all, thank you very dangerously,’ said Saidy-Khan.
‘No, this place is alright,’ Ebrima said. He was enjoying the spectacle around him. ‘I’ll spread the word, about this cool café. And this encomium from me is free of charge.’ Lazarus froze, unsure what to do. Surely this boy is chiding me, he thought, or he made a mistake. Unless I’m mistaken.
‘Pardon me?’ Lazarus offered with feeble hesitation. Buba, Saidy-Khan, Pa Waaly, Junior and all the customers who were now on first name terms with each other and everyone else like they were one big family caught the tense sense of an encore.
‘I’m sorry I did not hear you well,’ Ebrima almost shouted. But when you are in the jungle, you fear the lion since you know its capabilities. Fear hit Saidy-Khan and Buba that their new hero may have pushed it too far and will now let them down.
‘What did you just utter?’ Lazarus raised his voice too.
‘I think you want to say Comium, not so?’ Buba tried.
‘Yes, yes, Africell, Gamcell, Comium’ said Saidy-Khan nodding towards Ebrima as if to convince him.
Ebrima waited and waited, to heighten the drama, then repeated syllable by syllable, ‘en-co-mi-um’. Lazarus began to sweat. He wiped his brow, quite aware that all eyes were on him. Someone behind repeated the word, in a rough local way like English sounds on an untrained African tongue. Lazarus reconsidered, hesitated, thought for a while, then broke into a smile.
‘What do you mean by encomium?’ He asked.
A stream of celebration busted out of the Café like a crowd cheering a goal in a tight football game. It flooded the whole area and the neighbouring shops came rushing in to see the source of the deluge. Amidst the commotion, the audience had forgotten to wait for the meaning, but cared not as they danced around. Ebrima basked in the unexpected glory, faceglow betraying his feigned modesty. The revered thesaurus, placed on high ground, he reached for and opened it at the appropriate page, for the convenience of the owner, and anyone else that cared to look.
Like a true gentleman, Lazarus smiled in good spirit.
‘Mr. Ceesay, is it?’ He started.
‘You are hereby, with immediate effect invited, RSVP, to a full-course dinner at my Nigerian restaurant, under the patronage of my better half.’ Amidst further cheers, Buba laughed for the first time that day.
‘Bubacarr’, Lazarus began when he saw his good old employee returned, ‘you can join us too’.
‘Never mind, don’t invite me,’ said Saidy-Khan, ‘but if I was S.O. and Ebrima is in the police force, he will get rapidly promotion.’
‘No thank you Prof,’ said Buba, ‘I should get going now.’ He gathered his stuff, exchanged numbers with Ebrima, and hesitant at first, he took Lazarus’ hand and shook it. ‘Good bye, it has been, if you don’t mind me using your word, scintillating.’
It was a week after when Lazarus received a call. Never one to pick up a call from an unknown number, he let it rang on to dead. The stubborn phone persisted till he picked up.
‘Prof, it’s me.’
‘Bubacarr? Where are you?’
‘I’m going you know, backway.’ A pause followed by a longer pause.
‘So this was the plan. All this while, you intend on this peregrination,’ said Lazarus.
‘Peregrination, odyssey. It is a hopeless journey.’ And he almost said it to himself, ‘tragic, Homeric, but not the Simpsons kind’
‘I don’t have much time on this call, I’
‘Bubacarr, it’s not too late. Come back, think of your family.’
‘I’m about to board the bus to Agadez. I took your money, Prof.’
‘What! Bubacarr! What have you done?’
‘There is no time. Mr. Touray, he told me everything.’ Buba’s voice began to crack.
‘He told you what?’
‘You deliberately sabotaged my I-20 process. I.. I know everything, do you hear me?’
‘Do you hear me Prof?’
‘How much did you take?’ Lazarus cried.
‘I took what I need.’
Before Lazarus could finish saying you won’t get away with this, the phone went dead.
Lazarus did not know how to break this news. After he had confirmed that 75,000 dalasis was withdrawn from his account, for days he remained speechless and worryfull. Why did I not see this coming? He repeated. He decided to keep the bank account issue to himself when he informed the Internet Café. Pa Waaly could not believe it, Saidy-Khan on his part, remained pensive in silence.
‘A book must be judged by its cover,’ said he when he finally spoke, ‘must be judged by its cover, and Buba’s cover was charming. Chaaa.. must be judged by its cover.’
‘What type of English is that?’ Snapped Lazarus, as he got up to pack. ‘We are closing early today. I have cogent business to take care.’ He had been doing some thinking on the future and shape of his business.
The Internet Café needed a new makeover.