Bilal Ndongo is an American, born and raised. This has riddled many for obvious reasons. My nom de guerre , the titular component of my identity that headed my papers until my sophomore year of high school, brings together the namesakes of the first muezzin of Islam and lands roamed by bantu speaking peoples and controlled by Nzinga. I ain’t no “John Doe”! It took me some time to appreciate my name for what it is, a gift, that I’ve become quite fond of . I love my father but, as far as being socialized goes, I feel disenfranchised. I haven’t acquired the knowledge that I would otherwise be entitled to. Being born and raised in Brooklyn some how managed to upend the propagation of thoughts and ideals(most of which he can keep), linguistic skills, habits, religion and the other areas of life where culture likes to permeate and thrive. All I can walk away with is a name. I have learned about Senegalese culture through my various experiences with my peoples both stateside and abroad, but it’s not enough for me to feel satiated. Nonetheless, I have still managed to become a dynamic individual despite the sparse exposure to my father by using my experiences here and abroad to further my understanding of the world as a whole.
My father was present but not often. He lived in Columbus, Ohio with my three brothers. There he owned a boutique, “Ndongo Fashions co.”, which called for infrequent trips to New York to restock on more “merchandise” bootlegged designer clothing and movies. After all of the Chinatown business was handled, he’d touch base with his little boy.With great nostalgia I can recall the statuesque man’s arms elevating me to his eye level upon my opening the door to receive him. He usually came with an industrial sized black plastic bag filled with support. After chatting with my mother and checking to see how many pairs of pants I could fit he’d hit the road the following hour, back to my brothers and his business, leaving the lingering scent of his homeland with us.
Sada, Amadou, and Sileye, are my three American born siblings. They too, like myself are un-African-Americans, in that, they have assimilated like me, but what I lack in exposure ;they can account for. They’ve had schooling at the local masjid, so they can speak some arabic, if not at least having an understanding of Al-Fatiha, a Muslim prayer. In fact when I am in their company I look to them for guidance, hence I’ve never prayed with my eyes closed. My greatest apologies paid to Allah. I remember my father’s failed attempts to teach me the arabic prayer one evening while driving from the store. It quickly became clear that he was losing his patience with his son, so I kept my eye on his hand, and braced myself because I knew that at any moment the backhand or palm could make contact with a cheek. At the time he must have thought I was retarded. Here I was, his second eldest son struggling with a (relatively) basic prayer. He has 5 and 7 year olds in Africa reciting this these few lines like the alphabet. The reality is he missed that tiny developmental period, that only spans about my first 6 years, where exposure to language is critical. At that point it is almost inevitable that you’ll develop an accent so thick you can never brush it off. Keep in mind my father has been in this country for more than 20 years, and his english has become arguably worse. A transliteration of the text would have served me much better but I couldn’t articulate that verbatim, at the time as I was only 13 or so and had no clue what transliteration was.
The majority of the knowledge I have collected pertaining to Senegalese culture has been both a direct or indirect result of my experience amongst the Senegalese settlements located in Ohio and here in Brooklyn, specifically in Bedford-Stuyvestant there is a portion I like to call Little West Africa. The following sums up the basics of what I knew the recent breakthroughs in my knowledge have been omitted: It is common that ten men will live under the same roof. All working to support family back home. When you come you’re either a street merchant, a cab driver, or factory/day laborer or a mixture of said positions and other dead end jobs paying mediocre wages. The languages you hear will be a mix of Pulaar, French and Arabic. Wash your ass with your left hand and some water. Dad only bathed us in cool water, as if the ‘H’ on the handle was not visible. Breakfast is toasted baguette with butter (optional) and tea/coffee with cream and sugar. You eat with your right hand, you greet people with your right hand and you write with your right hand; but guess who got clapped by their father for eating and scribing with the left? The idea being that, the left is taboo for any engagement that is not it’s most principal duty, indeed the left hand serves as a sort of manual bidet In the Islamic world, or the shit hand, for lack of better terminology, so I’d say I crossed a few boundaries. Lastly all of your uncles are your “Daddies” but your dad is just your father not your uncle. With that said uncle Ibrahim becomes “Daddy Ibrahim,” uncle Allesayne becomes “Daddy Allesayne,” and so on with Suleiman, Simba, and the rest of the men who stayed in an apartment right off the intersection of Franklin and Fulton, and in that small house in Columbus.
Many times my actions have been the subject of scrutiny. Doing things like eating and writing with the wrong hand, eating during the fast, and trivial things like exiting the kitchen to go wash my hand in the bathroom. At this time one of my aforementioned “dads” argued that the kitchen sink was inches away when I made that decision. I can’t expect everyone to employ their sociological imagination to infer why someone carries on in a particular manner at any given time, I behaved like a deviant. To him my actions were weird, however my mother trained me to use the appropriate facilities to carry out task, not that I always listen to what momma says, but she still gets on me about washing at the kitchen sink to this day. Granted, a faucet is a faucet. Depending on where you are you’ll get penalized on how you live, but after that day the whole world became Rome (metaphorically speaking of course). Being amongst my kinfolk has contributed to my minimalist, apathetic take on life.
When you have to navigate two cultures you begin to understand that nothing is clear cut, and you will be more open to different ways of doing things and interpreting them. Even if the folks around you don’t care to entertain your notions of cultural diffusion, they don’t want to be exposed. You come to fashion your own way of carrying on. More often than not it will be a combination of both spheres of influence, for example; When asked “Dude, why you eating with your finger like that? That’s disgusting.” I tell, “ I can make do without forks. I’ve been to Africa.” It’s just an instance of me employing methods I’ve learned from another culture to accomplish a goal which may have been otherwise unattainable had I not been afraid to deviate from the norm, to cross that boundary briefly. Unfortunately small things like this like to travel, instead of respecting your methods someone finds it necessary to make a phone call and inform your mother, and from there she issues the same argument except in her head she’s upset at you for not conforming.
Africa was like one big ‘Huh?’ to me and my older brother Sada. It was the summer of ‘04 and we were both nine. The experience was a joyride wrought with inquiry, diversity, adversity, mosquitoes, and sand. In Dakar my dad’s family lived on a compound on a fairly busy street. Dakar is the capital of Senegal, a bustling city full of trade. And if you thought the hustle game was really your neck of the woods, understand that a man followed my father for three blocks until he agreed to buy some hair clippers from him. My brother and I were stunned. Senegal is also where I can recall eating the most real food, my diet was food raised on the farm in addition to various fruits I hope to see again, corn, yams, peanuts. You see just about every meal from conception. When we went to get burgers at a grill in Dakar all the prep was done in your face in an assembly line style. When it came time to prep the bun, the man carved out the middle and proceeded to pool oil into the hole, and then topped the burger. This all being standard procedure of course. Yet again me and my brother were stunned by how things took place. “Its as if they drink oil here”, we joked. Could you imagine using all 96 ounces of Wesson on any given day, sometimes it would be a jug that size and a half of oil going to use for the day. Regardless of my eating habits abroad I came back slim as a twig
After a few days spent in Dakar we headed to My father’s hometown, Matam, on a packed bus, with two of my cousins in tow, one of whom acted as our translator and chaperone in Dakar. In hindsight there had to be some arrangement behind that because were both girls. Matam had no streets, it was desert sand and real estate, similar to the Africa depicted on National Geographic. My father’s own compound was particularly large and open, it housed a farm as well. A common dispute among houses would be “to whom does this free range chicken belong?” as compounds housing farms are in close proximity to each other. Along with the chickens, there were lambs and cattle, and though beef was rarely slaughtered I had the opportunity to see many lamb take a trip down the Styx. One time in particular my dad was up to the task. Now normally two men work together to slit the goats neck, drain the blood, tie it to a tree, and begin skinning it. My father swooped in, and as graciously as a man his size could, kneeled on the goat and took its life. I found this incredible. After bearing witness to this sight my father rose to God status in my mind. I wasn’t the only person who held my father in high esteem, he is very well known and respected, people are excited to allow him into their home; Abdourahmane Ndongo holds weight.
My pops is a community leader, this is something I learned on an expedition to my neighboring daddy’s compounds, many of whom we just left in America. His task was simple, touch base with the wife/wives, introduce his sons, and leave some money. We trekked to 9 different compounds each spanning about a mile in between, I requested a large jug of water from each home. Before we reached the final compound a gallon of deep turquoise green fluid ejected from my mouth and left only the taste of bile and the sea. A common question we were confronted with was “do you speak pulaar”, we always responded “just a little”. During our stint we learned basic greetings, the names of a few things and a few other skills for legitimate social interaction, but for the most part we had dad, a cousin, or our younger brother translating. And more often than not, there would people around who we could converse with by working together to decipher their broken english. But language barriers don’t matter really when all your social interactions hinge on fun and adventure. The language of “play” is universal. I managed to get into an altercation over a game of marbles, with a kid a who may as well been speaking goldfish. After three kicks landed on my chin I conceded, I was all unintelligible talk. Africa’s greatest impact lies in my understanding of the world, both past and present. Like why descendants of bantu speaking peoples drink coffee and eat bread every morning. The abject result of colonialism, not for what it is but what it represents. But it’d take years for that insight to manifest itself.
I thought my dad was rich, he has many cows on his compound, but his hometown is more inland near the edge of Mauritania, a rural town preserved in antiquity; hickstown, a real down home feel. Fulani peoples are nomadic herdsmen, the amount of cattle one has is a sign of wealth. The number of wives one has also attests to his riches. So he was a relatively wealthy man, however he can’t afford to have all his wives stateside. He lives in a house with several other men, who like him, all work to support wives and families back home. Legitimately hustling for chump change and praising Allah is their day in the life. He did amazing moving from selling his merchandise on the sidewalk and in parking lots to real brick and mortar, with a change of location twice. In his first stores location they literally demolished the neighborhood that was his source of clientele, caput. Regardless of that fact, he went out of business because of his stale sense of style. He still sold 5xl tees and other must haves of summer 2003. He only knew one way of doing things, didn’t understand shifting trends, and didn’t heed my brothers when they tried to alert him – “Just stop buying those obama tees in bulk old man, it ain’t working.” The only American thing I’ve ever seen those men wholly embrace is politics. They gathered around CNN and BBC morning, noon, and night. Other than that, this place is a threat to the lifestyle they know, this is why we were pressed about speaking pulaar in Senegal. The question of our language skills, particularly Pulaar, was an encoded “surely a man of your esteem has taken the time to teach your sons the language of your people, you understand it’s importance that we still manage to cling to our old ways.” Our father’s people wanted to know if we were cultured. And the fact is, even though we answered “so-so” it was definitely a bad look because to them it spoke volumes about our identities, I can only imagine how it hurt that man’s pride, if at all seeing as how he does have three younger native sons to pick up the slack.
In high school I met Namani Bodian. She was tall, dark skinned, slim, nice butt… unmistakable features. Whenever we’d share a space, whether it be at adjacent lockers, or in the classroom my nose was filled with an all too familiar scent. What Namani represented was a chance to reconnect with my peoples, authentic ones. We became close friends. After engaging in conversations with Ms. Bodian about what her lifestyle is like back home in Africa and where her family is spread, I have come to understand the socio-economic paradigm that influences nearly all of West Africa. Namani’s mother is a nurse stateside. Being middle class here translates to racks out ballin’ back over there, her home is off of the beach in Dakar. That’s the capital city right there, prime real estate, and French relatives to boot. In the capital however, you can feel how affected the area is by its sphere of western influence, and that goes without saying as it is a coastal city and a major trading point. That’s where all the money and diversity is. With insight into Namani’s life and with some research of my own, I concluded that what I had inferred about the socio-economic dynamic in Africa was correct, and that a man’s wealth or family’s wealth is in direct correlation what their role is in other spheres of influence, and what social ties they bear in these spheres.