Zena is about three, and I met her, her mother, a family friend, their maid, and their yardman at her family's home in Brusubi. Brusubi is not far from Banjul, perhaps 20 minutes directly by car without traffic, and it is a dramatic physical departure from the rest of The Gambia. About half of the roads are paved and the land has been parceled out by the government to civil servants and for purchase. Many Gambians living abroad will build homes here that are easily 5000+ square feet for the equivalent of $60,000 to $70,000. They bring with them western tastes and often western lifestyles. Zena was the only child I met at the home, and her mother was working with the family friend to put the finishing touches on their home.
Zena's mother declined to be photographed stating that she was not ready for a photograph. This was the first time anyone declined to be photographed, and her attitude was noticeably western in this way. She was a beautiful women, nicely attired in a patterned day dress. Picture perfect as I told her, but she still declined.
One room, which was to be the kitchen, was being used as a side parlor. It had a stack of Philipe Stark Ghost Chairs in the corner. I was able to access a few homes under construction in Brusubi (much thanks to Fatou), and often the last piece to be completed was the kitchen. These houses had additional, more traditional compound buildings adjacent to them within walled in compounds. It is strange how some tower over these walls without the lower part of their porticoes or rusticated bases showing. The wealthy expatriated Gambian owners typically will have some family members living in the compound, but not in the house. Typically the cooking is still being done outside in the traditional fashion by these relatives. Along the roadside, near and in Brusubi, you see LG and Samsung appliance stores and billboards advertising “European Kitchens,” but the unfinished kitchens I found had limited if any of such things. Kitchens which are not yet fitted out will even have floor to ceiling tile arranged in patterns that would never accommodate a typical western countertop.
The imbalance of wealth represented by these houses and compounds is in visceral visual contradiction with the rest of The Gambia. The area is built, on the whole for and by Gambians, and it rises in contrast out of a landscape of traditional farming and living. You will see farm animals roaming about and traditional palm thatch roof lean-tos attached to half built mansions of concrete block. Gambians build when they have the funds, and stop when they do not.
Interspersed amongst these rising suburban edifices that would be comfortable in L.A. or Miami are subsistence farm plots of peanuts, corn, okra, and other produce. This seems natural to Gambians, and after a few weeks of being here, It seems logical and appropriate to me too. I have recently been reflecting on this in the context of the theoretical “whitewashing” of the American south during the nineteenth century where wealthy planters expended great efforts to seperate toil and work from genteel living (and some would say black and white). Here in Brusubi they reside together without contradiction. Many people familiar with West Africa will comment on the difference in the African approach to race (white and black) when compared to America. My subconscious racist even said to myself, “it is as if they do not know that they are black.” Although I have learned that “black” is an American construct, it never struck as deeply as when I understood the sameness of both rows of hand tilled corn and the half built mansion they were pushed up against. You cannot have the distinctions of toil and gentility, dirty and clean, or black and white if you do not seperate them initially.
There is also a familiarity in West Africa with New Orleans and Louisiana that is palpable. The bright colors of clothing and decoration speckled in the dirt covered street scapes, a general blatant lazing amid symbols of power and wealth, and the cultural permission to allow things to deteriorate from apparent usefullness if there is still some practical use. This sameness, I think, is a result of both places deemphasizing the polar oppositional construction of black/white and toil/genteel. Most historians would probably suggest that in New Orleans the line was more permeable than in other American places, but in West African, I think, the line was never constructed.