Five Abidjan Friends Thinking of Getting Out, Part IV, J

These are real stories about young Africans, spending a large part of their lives thinking of getting out of the continent. Chapter I was about JB, a Burkinabe who quit school after slapping his teacher, chapter II was about M, an illiterate street tennis playing philosopher, chapter III was about S, a semi stripper who dreams of becoming a rapper.

J has shiny eyes, shiny hairs, and ends his sentences going up, and smacking his lips. He sometimes adds an "ummmm-humm" for emphasis. If he's in a good mood, or if he has money for a meal, he'll sing a bar of a song he's working on. "I got to get myself a studio, man, or some studio time, at least, and make myself a mixed tape or something man, ummmm-hummm. I'm telling you I've got some sweet love songs."

He tells me this over the buzz of his razor while home cutting my hair, after we've played some ping pong in my living room, and tried to out street-talk each other for a few minutes ... "yo man, yo yo. Howse it hanging?" he would ask me. "Just chilling, you know, the usual," I would answer. OK, that's maybe a bad example, or maybe our level of street talk was just what it was.

Getting back to our protagonist, J is a self-employed on-call hair dresser, ping pong hustler, refugee con artist, apartment squatter, randb aficionado, drifter extraordinaire, rolled into one interesting package. He always rolls while walking, and walks everywhere, alone, and in his many thoughts.

He also says things like "we are in a war zone, now." This seems obvious, but in divided Ivory Coast, no one speaks English like that, unless you are an American, scared for your life. J is not, scared or American. I have no idea what he is.

He has a Liberian refugee card, but I am not sure what he uses it for. One of the only things I remember him telling me clearly was that he is not Liberian. Or is he? Anyway, the expatriation of Liberian refugees has come and gone and he missed it. Many Congolese and Nigerians successfully faked it as Liberian destitute, but J missed that boat, and whichever other West African refugee boats were available for a while.

There's a whole business of refugee conmanship which I am not sure European and American processing agencies are fully aware of.

Anyway, I can't remember where J said he was from. Ghana? Nigeria? Maybe the mystery was more interesting. He sounded like he was American, but why would he be here struggling in Africa?

I remember him telling me that he once made it to the United States, but for some reason I can't remember the conversation distinctly, and I can't imagine why he would be back in Abidjan, if indeed he had made it to New York City. I vaguely remember a story of him jumping off a ship, swimming into New York harbor, surviving a few days, going hungry, handing himself over to authorities and being shipped back. But that seems improbable.

"I got this special cream, man, and this little massager, ummmm-hum, let me try it on you, here on your scalp. The ladies, the ones I cut the hair for, they love this shit. One of em ladies wanted the massager, but I told her that was my business card, you know what I'm saying, and what was I going to do without it? You know? She even offered me 20 bucks for it. I was tempted, but nah I got to keep this, it's my secret weapon."

His massages were impressive, reminiscent of those days in Indonesia where the pre and post hair cut head massage could last a good half hour. Your head feels woozy as if it's been almost detached, hanging around on your neck only because of the humidity.

"So this Chinese cat down at the ping pong place at the Hotel Ivoire, he was pretty good. So I let him win a few games on me, and he started betting higher and higher. Yeah that was funny. He had no idea I didn't have anywhere close to the money we were betting on. But then I started playing, um-hummmm. I got a bit scared cuz it took me a while to get in the groove, after pretending to be average for half an hour. You know what Im saying? But finally I let him have it. Bought this new jacket, um-hummmm. Still not paying rent, staying for free at this woman's place. She’s been to Paris for a while, not sure when she’s coming back, anyway place is open right now. Sometimes landlord comes around, but I pretend I’m just sweeping."

Once he did lose a ping pong bet, and had to do dishes at a Chinese restaurant for a few weeks. I never played someone as good as J, but when his mind was struggling with money woes, unfortunately, he was beatable, but even in those circumstances, not often.

J told M (chapter II) about some gig that he was trying to pursue, acting very religious, praying every day at this church, and befriending this visiting American pastor, and being sponsored by these evangelicals to go to the United States on some sort of religion visa. M for one didn't speak any English, and he was dubious of the whole plot, any which way, so he never went with it. J seemingly stopped as well, because he only talked about it once.

J seemed to talk about everything only once. It all seemed so very improbable, or wretchedly precarious and lonely, those are the only words I can think of. Yet there he was, in the streets of Abidjan. In some ways, I admired his utter freedom, but he had a growling stomach and gnawing boredom I am sure on many days, even if he had some of the wisdom to handle it with grace and elevation.

Half the time he didn’t even have a working cell phone, and I'd just bump into him walking around, humming his songs to himself, smiling when he saw me, but seemingly adrift in a strange land of disconnect between his dreamy out of continent potential and African reality on an almost unimaginable scale.

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