A Conversation About Life in America

About a week ago, I went to New York City to see my West African friends at the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market. Usually I take the subway from Penn Station up to 116th street, which is where my friends sell their wares. It was a hot day and wanting to avoid the heat intensity of the subway I stood in a taxi line and slipped into a New York City medallion cab.

“116th and Martin Luther King,” I said.

The driver, who looked like he might be from West Africa, turned toward me and smiled. “Going to the market?”

The Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market
The Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market

“Yes.”

“Vous parlez francais?

“I do,” I answered. “Learned it Niger.”

“Hey, hey.” He chimed in. “I’m from Niger! From Niamey. My name is Soumana Idrissa

“Ni ga ma Songhay cinne?” I ask.

“Good God,’ he exclaimed. “You know my language and my country”

“Seven years.”

‘Allah be praised.”

‘Small world.”

As we slow-rolled into a major traffic jam on 8th Avenue, we discovered that we had mutual friends in Niger and America.

“Looks like it will take a long time to get to 116th,” I said.

“It’s not so bad,” Soumana said. “We can slow down and take time to talk. Everything is so fast in America.”

“How true,” I said.

“How is it that In America you have to schedule a coffee date or dinner invitation weeks in advance.”

“I know what you mean. Last February I asked my co-worker if we could have lunch. He said he had no time until May!”

“You know in America,” Soumana said, “you just can’t drop by someone’s house for a visit. People are too busy—even to talk.” Soumana put his taxi into park. “It’s going to take some time to get up there.”

“Looks like it.”

“Like I was saying,” Soumana continued, “things are too fast around here—especially in New York. Back home we have many problems—drought, hunger, Boko Haram—but we make time to talk. We call it fakarey—how do you say it in English? Shooting the wind?”

“Shooting the breeze.”

“Ah shooting the breeze. Anyway, we have many problems in Niger. So many people suffer and yet we take our time, we fakarey, we joke and laugh and try to help one another. That’s how we’ve been able to survive. You’ve seen it. You know what I’m talking about.”

“I do. I do. I wish I had more shooting the breeze time with family, friends and co-workers. I always used to shoot the breeze and even daydream, but now it’s more difficult. I teach in a college and your know what? Our bosses only care about results—it’s not how good you teach or how good your article or book might be, but how many students are in your classes and how many articles and books you can produce. You know, things really are too fast around here.”

“Things are not that fast today that today on 8th Avenue!”

“For sure.”

“Since you’re a college teacher, can you explain something to me?”

“I’ll try.”

“How could America elect someone as ignorant, mean-spirited-and idiotic as Donald Trump? We Nigeriens talk about it all the time and we can’t understand. I mean, you have so much money, so much food and so much water, and so many phones and computers. There’s so much information. We thought that America was great. We thought that Americans would go out of their way to help needy people all over the world, but now it’s everyone for themselves. It’s America First.”

“You’re on to something Soumana. Things are so fast here you don’t have time to read or think. Everything becomes too simple and it gets easier for someone like Trump to gain trust and votes. Our Congress voted on a health care bill that they hadn’t read…and Trump, of course, didn’t know what was in the bill. And the bill would have taken health care away from 22 million Americans! It’s the madness of speed, Soumana. No one takes the time to think about what’s going on. We are so busy on our phones we have become blind to pain and suffering at home and in the world.”

“Yeah, that’s right Prof. But with Trump, isn’t it also about racism? People didn’t like Obama because he’s black and that’s why they voted for a liar, a cheat and a bully.”

“That’s part of it, for sure.” I said.

Just then, the traffic began to flow and we began to move north toward Harlem.

“At last, we’re on our way,” I said. “I’ll be happy to see my friends at the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem market. We’ll eat some Senegalese fish stew, drink some green tea and talk for hours.”

“Say hello to Boube Mounkaila and Issifi Mayaki.”

“They’ll hear your greeting,” my friend. And by the way, you are right about the racism. Sadly, race is the most fundamental issue in our society.”

“I know. I know. I never experienced racism until I came here. It made me very sad. It made me miss home where people take more time to be with one another.”

“I miss the nightly tea-drinking conversations around the fire. So many stars and meteors—such friendship and good feeling. These are bad times today, but those memories give me hope for the future.”

“You should be hopeful, Prof. In West Africa, we’ve had our versions of Donald Trump. If we can survive our Trumps with limited resources, you, too, will prevail, my friend. American is lost now, but America will come back. I know it.”

Soumana gave me his card.

“I’ll be in touch,” I told him. “I wish more people could hear your wise words.”

I got out of the taxi and said goodbye.

“In your absence,” Soumana said, “life will be less interesting, but I know you’ll return and I’ll once again hear your talk.”

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