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The Noble Fish

Fishermen in colorful boats returning to shore at a Dakar beach in Senegal, 2013

Wolfgang Kaehler/Getty

Fishermen returning to shore at a Dakar beach in Senegal, 2013

It was on the night before Eid, the Muslim celebration that breaks Ramadan’s month-long fast, that I arrived in Senegal in 2019.

The travel there had gone smoothly, barring a layover in Amsterdam that an unexplained mechanical failure had turned into hours of delay. During the wait, the loud, crowded lounge thinned to a ghostly quiet of only a few passengers, waiting for the flight to Dakar and the one other outbound plane. On the flight across the Atlantic from New York City, I had finished rereading Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. In the hush of the Amsterdam lounge, I flitted between the two other books I had packed: my high school copy of Ousmane Sembène’s 1960 novel, God’s Bits of Wood, and a crisp 2017 edition of Phantom Africa by Michael Leiris.

The latter, new to me, was the first English-language translation of Leiris’s 1934 travel diary of the famous—that is, infamous—Mission Dakar-Djibouti, an ethnographic collecting expedition across sub-Saharan Africa. But the characters of Sembène’s novel—Ramatoulaye, N’Deye Touti, Bakayoko, striking miners—were as familiar to me as my own family members. That I couldn’t decide which book to stick with for the final flight (and I felt resolute on choosing one) was like being struck by some kind of latent superstition: whatever I chose could color my journey. At some point I took a picture of the covers of both on the gray lounge sofa and texted it to a friend, along with this message: “Stuck between a rock and a hard place!” He texted back no words but a photograph of Sembène standing in a blue suit, Dakar’s cityscape behind him, his body leaning forward, his ever-present pipe stabbing the air. Blazoned in a white caption was the phrase: “I myself am the sun!” Putting Leiris away in my backpack, I chose the rock.

Nine hours later, half-starved and somewhat light-headed, I was in Sembène’s beloved Dakar, the city I’ve visited countless times in his books and films.

On the recommendation of a friend, I had booked a room at the Casa Mara Guest House in Dakar’s Amitié district. The front desk was closed when I arrived from the airport, and the Casa Mara’s watchman had to be roused to let me in. In halting but clear English, he apologized as he checked me in at a table by the side of the pool, in a courtyard lined with arabesque tiling. The short date palm tree in the middle of it, strung with light bulbs, reminded me of a riad in Marrakech where I stayed years ago. The aquamarine light of the chlorinated water shimmered on the watchman’s military-style uniform. The light also caught his dark, handsome face, which was round, with a kind expression. He said his name was Souleymane.

When I mentioned my hunger, he apologized again, for the hotel kitchen’s being closed. I told him that was all right, I’d go on a walk to find food. The likelihood that any restaurants would be open at three in the morning seemed slim to nil, and Souleymane seemed doubtful. But he gave me directions out of the neighborhood and his cell phone number, pointing over the hotel’s head-high fence to a tall concrete wall beyond it. He said I should follow that wall.

My optimism floundered as soon as I got to it. Not one but several dusty lanes adjoined the wall, each heavily marked with footsteps. The dust rose two or three inches off the ground with each step and was higher still where it was banked against the bottom of the wall. The wall itself, my measure of hope, curved out of sight. Did Souleymane say I should go north? Nord, oui? And I must follow the second lane on the right; no, the third lane by the wall, yes? Or the fourth. I remembered that he’d said only one lane by the wall. No, two. The many-forking paths stood empty in all directions. I could hear only occasional distant traffic and the bark of dogs. Well, if Amitié meant “friendship”—as it does in English—I should be fine, I told myself. I picked a lane and started walking.

The apartments in the Amitié district appeared either newly built or newly refurbished. Most were set behind high iron-trellis gates, bursting over with bougainvillea. Concrete walls were fortified with the shards of broken bottle tops. In the moonlight and under the bright streetlamps, I noticed many brand-name SUVs and sedans, some parked in commercial lots but most on the sidewalks. Some teetered on the edge of open drains.

In half an hour of walking, I saw no one on the street. The clean night air was cool as if it were about to rain. Then suddenly a scent filled the air with nothing else but itself. It stopped me in my tracks with a jolt. My mind reeled: Where was it coming from? I started down one dusty lane, then I crossed right over to another. I turned back up that one and crossed left into another before switching to the right again. I walked down it for a moment before crossing to the lane on the left, as dusty as the others. After a few paces, I started to doubt myself. The scent pulled me back to the previous lane, which I decided was indeed the lane of promise. 

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*

As a boy, Africa meant many confounding and elusive things to me. I was often told that we black Jamaicans were from Africa—“back to Africa” was a frequent reggae mantra on the local airwaves—but no one could say exactly where in Africa we were from; no one could confirm that, say, I was descended from the Ashanti tribe, or that the language of my ancestors was Yoruba. As I learned the names of African countries, I imagined belonging to each, never settling for one over another.

When my paternal grandmother was alive she was my closest blood tie to these several, severed ancestral Africas, though she herself had never been beyond the Caribbean, and she espoused no Afrocentrism in my presence. Yet she called her yabba pot her “African pot.” Yabba, a common Jamaican word for earthenware, derives from the language of the enslaved Ashanti peoples of Ghana. That my grandmother called it her African pot set it above question or ridicule: this water jar, broken at the rim and unusable, was indestructibly African. It was her ennoblement of this rather plain receptacle that added to my wonder and desire to encounter that Africa—the one across the ocean—in its solid, imperishable form.

But as Teju Cole has written, “You can’t go to ‘Africa,’ fam.” You go to a country in Africa, to one or another of the current fifty-four nation-states, and hope against hope to learn something about yourself. In a way, that’s what Hartman’s Lose Your Mother is about: going to Ghana and coming close to the personal toll of transatlantic slavery. While there, she wrote that she had “entered a dark zone of private grief.” Being on the continent, in situ as it were, is a distinct encounter with a kind of ground zero of oneself. My trip to Senegal was, therefore, a necessity of self-knowledge. But self-knowledge is not just for me. When I travel in Africa, I do so with the full awareness that I’m the first and only member of my family, dead or alive, to have done so. I travel with them, with my grandmother in my mind.

Yet there’s another awareness that I travel with, a melancholy sense of belatedness. For someone descended from enslaved African people, it is always too late, centuries too late, to return; the fatal rupture of colonialism did its work on both sides of the Atlantic. Hangovers of that rupture persisted in Jamaica after independence: poverty, mainly, but a host of other socio-political obstacles that prevented me, a boy from a deeply rural part of Jamaica, from getting a passport in the 1990s. Family members had no clue how to navigate the bureaucracy, nor did the rural schools I attended. It was only after I moved from the countryside to Kingston in 2003 that I got my first passport. I used it for the first time three years later, when I was granted a student visa to study in the US. With my student stipend I traveled around the Caribbean, and went to Italy on a tight budget. But a trip to Ghana or Ethiopia was out of my reach until I left university and found real employment.  

Before I could see it for myself, the only Africa I knew was Dakar and Thiès in Senegal, and Bamako in Mali, the principal settings of God’s Bit of Woods. As a teenager reading Sembène I had no reference for cityscapes, or for the 1940s, but there was much in the humanity of the Senegalese and Malian characters that I recognized. That solidarity gave me an Africa to “return” to, a template for my own heritage. Yet reading a novel written in French, whose characters spoke that colonial language along with their own native tongues of Wolof and Bambara, didn’t clear up my confusion—they seemed somehow to lack the authenticity of my grandmother’s pot, before I understood that a single, unbroken Africa had never existed.

*

The scent of grilling overpowered me—though what was cooking I couldn’t tell. But by the time I reached its source, I felt I was back home in Jamaica, in one of the harsher parts of Kingston. Then I was transported to the flanks of the Old City, in Jaipur, India. Wherever I was, I was worlds away from Amitié.

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Down the last of many lanes, I came to a little shack standing alone at a three-way intersection. I could barely make it out in the dim lamplight, which also illuminated an open sewer, heaped with garbage. I wasn’t at all sure whether the rickety structure, a lean-to of rusty rippled zinc built right into the median of a roundabout, was a cookshop or just a mirage produced by my hunger. Above it, improbably, was a large neon sign, part of its bulb either turned off or blown, casting blotchy shadows on the ground.

In front of the cookshop was a concrete pit about two feet high and two feet wide. I could see the faint glow of coals. Now, so close to the smell that maddened me, I felt calm. I recognized this instantaneous calm: it’s knowing that a home-cooked meal is waiting for you, careless of the hour of your return. The longer the time away and the further from home, the deeper the calm. Anticipation replaces the traveler’s anxiety: you are the prodigal son, and whatever you’re about to eat, big or small, will be a feast.

But then I noticed that the man next to the pit, wearing a smudged white apron over his dark, long-sleeved polo shirt, was washing up utensils on a scarred, linoleum-covered table. My heart sank.

Asala maaleykum,” I said.  

Malaykum salaam. Na nga def,” he said.

Manger du poisson?” I asked.

He smiled and looked down at the dying coals. He then said something at length in Wolof, Senegal’s second official language. I followed his facial expression with a pained stare, certain he meant that I was out of luck.

Seulement le Français?” he asked.

Un peu, pardon,” I said, and in English, “I’m Jamaican.”

Jamaïquain!”

He put his arm over my shoulder and led me across the street and into a bar I hadn’t noticed. The inside was dim; although a blue bulb burned above the liquor bottles behind the counter, the main source of light in the empty bar was a dull streetlamp standing outside the entrance. The man banged on the counter and called out. A woman entered from a side door, one hand rubbing the back of her neck. She was tall, at least a head taller than me or her partner, and dressed in a crinkly gold frock that matched her head wrap. A fold of the head wrap was undone and covered a side of her face. She said something sharp to him. He cut her off, waved toward me, and said something punctuated at many intervals with “Jamaïquain.”

The lady in the gold frock regarded me. I almost said, as if to put myself above suspicion, “Yes, I’m Jamaïquain.” She tucked the fold into the plumed crown of her head wrap and lifted the flop of the bar to come around to us.

Jamaïquain,” she said. I couldn’t read her tone. She grasped my palms in hers, and her eyes, very dark and lined thickly with black mascara, fixed mine. She began to speak in Wolof. In between each little break in her words, I said, “Yes” and “Oui.” Her expression was serious but then grew lighter, even playful as she spoke. Then, to my surprise, she said in English, “Welcome, welcome to here.”

“Thank you. I’m glad to be here.”

“Mohmmadu says you eat lakk jën? Jën, poisson?”

“Yes, poisson s’il te plait!”

“Oui. Jën for Wolof.”

“Yes, jën.”

Still holding my hands, she turned to Mohmmadu. She said something rapidly to him, and then led me to an upturned white plastic bucket at the entrance of the bar and indicated I should sit.

“Mohmmadu make for you jën. Thiof bu ñu làkk,” she said.

She then lifted an index finger in warning. I knew she was being playful, but it was in a serious tone that she said, in English, “One thiof for you,” and then other words in Wolof. I tried to understand her meaning, following her eyes and her finger as she spoke. I believe she was saying that she was making an exception for me by letting me have the last fish of the house, long after closing time. The gravitas of her generosity sated a deeper hunger in me.

I nodded and thanked her.

Jërëjëf. Welcome for Wolof. Jërëjëf, you say,” she said.

Jërëjëf,” I repeated. I didn’t dwell on it, but I felt a strange charm in saying the word. “Waaw, jërëjëf,” she said back. She welcomed me, I welcomed her. She left, the gold of her dress glittering briefly in the blue of the bar.

Mohmmadu brought the dish to me, covered with a pink, oval fly protector. The fly protector, at night when there were no flies about, made me smile. It was part of the presentation, an effort at hospitality I was familiar with from home. Food, especially food that’s served to a guest or stranger, is almost always presented under one of these plastic bushels, ubiquitous in Jamaican homes, particularly in the countryside. It’s a small gesture of care when a meal is covered, a gesture that never goes unnoticed.

As I took the cover off the plate, a gray cat slunk in from the shadows of a fence near the bar. It purred and sat on its haunches with an expectant stare. I could hear Mohmmadu and the woman (I never got her name) talking very low somewhere inside the bar. Beside their voices and the occasional purr of the cat, all else was hush and still.

Sitting on the upturned plastic bucket, I ate the best fish of my life.

The large thiof, a white grouper, was grilled crisp and covered with finely chopped chunks of tomato, red onions, peppers, and a green sauce. The thiof, I learned later, is referred to in Senegal as “the noble fish.” It’s something of an expensive delicacy, eaten mostly on special occasions. But in the moment, I was simply overwhelmed with my luck at having such a generous-sized fish in my lap. The smell—the scent of mingled spices, char, and hot oil that I’d followed through the night—made me a little dizzy.

Just before I began to eat, to my surprise, I found myself starting to whisper grace—something I’d hardly done since childhood. It wasn’t the grace prayer I learned at my missionary primary school, thanking a supreme being for my daily bread, but words of no order that poured in an unbroken stream from my mouth. I realized that I was crying.

*

The unchanging water of the Caribbean Sea—that’s the home I know. Yet when you’ve lived your life surrounded by it, you develop an abiding trust in what Derek Walcott calls the “subtle and submarine” changes of history. History’s cold march reduces Jamaica to certain milestones—1834, Emancipation; 1962, Independence. These dates, celebrated as national holidays on a grand scale, miss the unrecorded offstage changes that truly make history. History happens when one hand slips out of another in a cane field, never to be reunited. Nothing is preserved of such intimacy, of loss which nonetheless echoes across time. Where there is no instrument to measure such changes, it takes faith—the same abiding trust—to sight up that they have occurred and keep occurring. To “sight up” is a Rasta coinage that means to see, with a double vision, the “there” that’s there, the hand that is lost to sight. It’s the worldview I was raised with.

In a way, if I were to claim a single ideal itinerary for travel to Senegal, it would be by sea. Before this trip, I had never seen the sea from the coast of West Africa, save for a glimpse once on a brief trip to Lagos a year prior. Other than my sense of familiarity with Senegal from Sembène’s work and other literature and films I had consumed, I didn’t know any of the country’s languages, much less its customs. But I knew that the sea around its coast constituted a leg of the Middle Passage. I knew millions survived the horror of that journey. I knew millions were thrown overboard the slave ships.

Out of the calamity of history, in my late thirties, I found myself with this fish on my lap. The thiof was from that sea. The fish was dead, I knew. It had been changed by seasoning and cooking. But beneath its spices, there was the immemorial tang of the Atlantic.

What tenacity had brought me here? I had arrived at nothing short of a missing link, present since my childhood but out of reach. Far more than the privilege of my adult work, it was my childhood that brought me to Senegal. My childhood has been my first and last impetus of travel, to experience what lived on its edges: that as-yet-imaginary Africa.

Sentimental or romantic as it may be, there’s a faith I’m unwilling to concede that in eating a fish from the same terrible sea my ancestors endured or perished in, I was in spirit with them. By being here, I thought, I’m there. I accept the dire fallacy inherent in such thinking, atavistic and fatalistic without any weight on the scale of justice. A plate of fish won’t assuage history’s pain. But I sight up a fact that’s beyond the cold statistics of death and survival. Where no traces exist to point me to my African origin, this fish was a homecoming, and, in that sense, a joy.

The cat circled my feet and purred louder. It had to wait, for I took my time filleting one side, flipping to the other side, and filleting that, and only after I’d eaten the flesh and licked clean each bone did I place them on the ground in front of the cat. Then, at last, the fish head. I sucked out its eyes and the juices between the gills. I sucked out the strips of meat in the groove of the skull, from the mouth to the back of the neck hacked off the spine. I licked all of that clean until there was nothing but a milky white skull in my fingers. Satisfied, I put that, too, in front of the cat. It immediately went to work.

Finished, I brought my plate to the counter of the bar and called out. The voices within, without my noticing, had fallen silent. There was no response after a second call. I called again, and again, nothing. As I was about to call a fourth time, I decided not to. Who could know, I might be disturbing precious sleep. Setting the plate down, I took from my pocket a thick coil of bills of West African francs I had gotten in Amsterdam. I put them under the plate on the counter and stepped back onto the road.

I crossed the broken asphalt around the lean-to and stepped back into the dust of the lanes. So many lanes! And which would lead to my hotel? My own footprints were indistinguishable among the countless others in the dust. I was still alone in the silent streets. The sky was the same moon-washed dark as when I first set out an hour ago, but I could feel the dawn very close. I chose a lane at random and started to walk down it, make-believing as I did that I was reprinting my earlier steps. Though above ground, I felt all subtle and submarine.

Soon enough, I saw in the near distance the long, curving wall of Amitié. When I reached it, I noticed for the first time how much the banked dust at the base of the wall resembled wavelets, moving in near-perfect symmetry. After another twenty minutes of walking, I saw the high iron-trestle gate of the Casa Mara. I quickened my pace toward it, but as I drew closer I heard a mewling sound behind me. I turned and saw the cat following me, the gnawed fish head in its mouth.

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