The Container

Thomas Boberg

Artwork by Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee

Dodou and Mass and one of their relatives, Ibrahim, pick me up in a car. There’s always an Ibrahim. We drive to Banjul’s harbor, where Dodou’s container waits to be opened. There’s a line at the security gate at the harbor. Dodou knows one of the people working there. They greet each other and laugh and shake hands. The sun hangs over the land. The dock is red-hot. Activity is intense but not chaotic. A mobile crane drives around the container city, lifting enormous containers down from the buildings or up on top of them. Some of the blocks of containers are stacked up to four stories, and the word Maersk appears on most of them. We walk up and down the container streets and around and back until we find the right one.

Dodou and Mass have been looking forward to getting this big mobile attic opened. I’ve been looking forward to participating. I have a sense that when the door of the container is opened wide I’ll gain insight into something about which I previously knew nothing. I have a feeling that this place, this container, the activity out here, is a key to an understanding of the Gambia, of West Africa, of the whole continent, and therefore, of the world. Right now, no one outside Africa really cares about Africa. Right now, there are no nations, no power constellations outside Africa that take it seriously, other than as a continent that should be fenced in so no one can leave it. People outside Africa seem to feel there should be electric gates only for the trucks that drive the gold, cobalt, coltan, diamonds, and other metals and resources out to the harbors where the big ships wait to bring everything to China or the West. It’s been estimated that 30 percent of the world’s oil and minerals come from Africa. The world either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to admit that right now Africa is the most important place in the world. The most important thought right now is an African. The most important catastrophe right now is an African. The most important tree right now is an African. The most important diamond is an African. The most important rhinoceros is an African. The most important bird, the most important flower is an African. The most important book right now is an African. The wildest music right now is an African. The most significant bone in the world is an African. Every time they dig a new bone out of the earth, they dig deeper down into time, into Africa and the history of human beings. The other day, when we were talking about music and reggae and Afrobeat, Dodou’s brother Hussein said that the music the slaves brought to the New World—the rhythms from Africa—returned there because the slaves wanted to walk from the cotton fields into death singing; that Western music is originally from Africa; that all things come from Africa, even human beings themselves. Yes, even human beings themselves come from Africa, said Hussein. Human beings themselves! You get it?

And we’re standing here at the Banjul harbor waiting for the container from Denmark filled with the things Dodou bought and collected there, things he’s going to try to sell in the Gambia, the country from which he comes originally, but which he once left because he could not see a future for himself here unless he did. It’s a well-known movement. Go away, create an economic foundation, and then return one way or another, if not in person, then at least through the money that can be wired via Western Union. That is the movement. That is the journey. That is also what is imagined by those who take the “backway.” Arrive in the West, earn money, buy a house for the family, for oneself, send one’s sister, brother, daughter, or son to school.

We’re standing in the hot sun, dripping sweat. And now a harbor officer comes with some employees and opens the container. Containers are emptied so the customs registration process can be carried out. A team of day laborers stands ready; every morning they wait to be pointed out: You and you and you and you. They’re hired in teams. And so now a team is standing here waiting to start. They don’t want to, but they’ll have to if they’re to have anything to eat later in the day. They want the money, but they don’t want to work, says Dodou. In fact, he’s kind of a boss out here. The boss of the container cargo. He’s a lively participant in the task of monitoring the unloading, and he helps with the unloading itself as well. He’s wearing sunglasses with narrow rectangular lenses under a straw hat, a self-rolled cigarette in the corner of his mouth. They drag things out of the container; a uniformed man with a notebook walks around among the things and makes notes as they’re brought out. There’s conflict among the day laborers. They argue loudly. They’re threatening Dodou with a work stoppage. They want to be paid more, but they can forget about that, says Dodou. I packed the entire container by myself, but there are eight of them and they can hardly be bothered to move their feet.
The day laborers struggle with the things, some of which are very heavy. One of them has left. That almost ruined the day’s work, but the others finally decided to continue working. If I were doing this, I say discreetly to Mass, I’d leave too. But what do I know about things like this? This is a matter of earning their daily bread. Dodou pays two thousand dalasi to the team of eight that they must split among themselves. They can get through several containers in the course of a workday, says Ibrahim, but then it’s three in the afternoon, we’ve been here since eleven, and we still aren’t finished.

The amount of things they drag out of the container is staggering. I’ve never seen anything like this before. I try to keep up with the pace. My thoughts are crushed by the weight of the sun. I guess it doesn’t come as a surprise that these weightless beams prove to have weight. The backs of the day laborers are bent by them, by malnutrition, and by the actual kilograms they’re carrying. Two cars have been towed out of the container, and in the back there’s still a cutaway chassis truck with a generator on the load bed. Like the customs officer, I’m noting down every item. I have my own system; regardless of how unsystematic I think I am, there are some paths that meet at a point in my brain where the control tower is located. There’s no boss there, and the feet and fingers of my thoughts run around and try to cope with having no commands. Like Dodou, I’ve made an investment. By writing, I’m creating a key that may or may not work, for who knows whether it will fit the hole in the door and get us into the room? Right now, there’s nothing more significant or interesting than that key.

Dodou has bought one hundred thousand kroner worth of junk—or what we in Denmark would call junk—in the hope of being able to sell it here. There are already three buyers at the harbor. A man wants to have the two hundred car tires right away, a young guy is looking at the scooter with interest, and the Nissan family car has been sold in advance. The future owner is even willing to pay the customs fee himself; he wants to take the car with him without further delay. Dodou’s nephew had already spread the word about the contents of the container before it arrived in the Gambia. The nephew is a young hip-hop type in black-and-yellow patterned clothes and sunglasses in shiny gold-colored frames. He takes care of the shop Dodou and one of his brothers own. And tomorrow, another container full of junk and trash is arriving from Europe. A third brother sent it off from Switzerland. Many hours have passed; the team has gotten to the cutaway chassis truck on which the generator stands, a generator Dodou claims is potent enough to supply an entire village with electricity. He bought it from the police in Copenhagen for forty thousand kroner—it’s the Copenhagen Police Headquarters’ old generator. He imagines he’ll be able to sell it here for one hundred fifty thousand kroner. The sale of the generator alone could cover all his expenses. The container transport itself cost nineteen thousand kroner. Then there are the day laborers’ wages—that’s small change—fees, customs duties, and so on. In a best-case scenario, Dodou says, he could clear two or three hundred thousand kroner.

Now it’s time for the tug-of-war. I say I’ll join the team. We start yanking and pulling. Finally, the cutaway chassis truck is pulled out. This miniature truck from Skanderborg municipality that Dodou bought for five thousand kroner has a scratched rotating yellow blinking light on the roof. He’s counting on selling it for twenty-five to thirty thousand kroner—there are just a few issues with the load-bearing surface, which needs to be adjusted and cleaned up. It’s been like this for a long time; Africa is the junk continent of the West. The average Dane earns fifty-nine thousand dollars a year. The average Gambian earns one thousand seven hundred dollars. Who buys these used goods here? The population segment with a certain amount of capital. I try to understand some of the economics. How does it hang together—or how does that which doesn’t hang together hang together? How can one understand the world via numbers? Two Swedes sold Spotify for twenty-nine and a half billion dollars. In 2016, the Gambia’s gross national product was nine hundred sixty-five million dollars. Out of one hundred ninety-five countries, the Gambia is number one hundred eighty-one when it comes to the gross national product. Denmark is number thirty-four. The climate crisis and poverty are connected. The underfed walk around in a daze of hunger; if they don’t get anything to eat they die at a young age in the stinking pool of the remnants of resources. We also have to go through numbers, economics, and statistics to achieve insight; I admit it. Literature suffers because of these numbers. They are like scratches on the surface that expose an ugly cavity in which aesthetics rot. In numbers and calculations. We have to put some numbers on the table. Partly for the sake of the poems. Some hard sentences. Price lists. Weight. Goods. Products. Rectangular texts of iron, steel, cobalt, coltan. Texts smeared with the sweat of the child laborers and the pus from the wounds worms dig in the skin. Texts that stink of the dump, of illness, and of cell phones. Every fifth cell phone has coltan from the Congo in it. But the children who mine the coltan so we can talk on our cell phones and look at Facebook and everything else—they’re nothing, they have no faces, no numbers, no papers indicating that they are individual people, that they can travel freely, as we can; they’re nothing but the forced laborers of the privileged. They can never come to visit us; even if they knocked on our doors we wouldn’t open up and let them in. No, no. But now we need to get our lack of knowledge under control. It’s running around in all of our brains. We want to know something about profit and capital, self-interest, and the value of certain papers. When is a human being worth less? When more? What is the cost of a facelift, a firmer buttock, a piece of bread, a book, a bottle of water, a swollen lip, a lecture?

Much crime has been committed for and because of the American dollar note that proclaims In God We Trust and it maybe perhaps time to speak the truth and assert publicly that we do not really believe in God or Allah. If we did believe, we will have hard time explaining all these crimes against humanity that are being committed in the name of God or Allah as a Crusade or a Jihad. If, however, we come out boldly and assert that we do believe in greed, domination, profit and evil it would be easier for all to understand that our problems and miseries have little to do with religion and God. With so many Gods and devils on line and competing for our attention, it is also possible that our prayers are getting fast replies and, as our prayers are mostly of the “please wrought destruction on my neighbour, rival or enemy”-type, God and Satan may be obliging to keep in business. This, my good friends, is no heresy but the honest attempt by a bewildered African to understand why people who say In God We Trust violate the sanctity of human life and commit such hideous crimes. All the above has been sent to both God and Satan via e- mail and I am waiting for a reply. Whoever replies to me first will get my allegiance. We do live in the fast world of the Internet and speed does matter. As concerns Africa, God’s reply has been slow and Satan’s fast and this is why most of our technologically advanced rulers are Satanists and very evil [sic].

Hama Tuma, Give Me a Dog’s Life Any Day: African Absurdities II, 2004.

But we who have come from the rich world to visit the poor one don’t understand any of this either, beyond what we can see and hear, which isn’t an understanding but rather a registration and then a great tiredness, as if from a beat-up truck rolling directly toward us from the distant, shattered horizon. We would like to have a clear answer too. We want to meet the new CEO of Novo Nordisk, to have him explain to us what is going on in his sector and what is actually meant by the triple bottom line, so he can tell us about product portfolios and the pressure he faces. We have to put the businessman in the spotlight. We want to hear about what it is he does. On the red-hot dock at the Banjul harbor, we want to know what’s in that container.

I’ve already recognized ten chairs from the oversize trash room back home in Nordvest. Let’s see what’s actually been dragged out of the container, as it’s my understanding that now everything is going to go back in except for the three motor vehicles, the generator, and the two hundred car tires the satisfied buyer is planning to take with him.

A Nissan family car and a Seat Cordoba SDI, both cars are filled with small items such as toys and clothing; two hundred car tires; a large, used water tank; a smaller used water tank; two used black office wing chairs; ten chairs with woven rush seats from the oversize trash room in Nordvest; a used Ledow motorcycle; two large rolls of black and orange plastic flexible tubing for sewerage; three used engines, one of them a six-cylinder Mercedes diesel engine; six used transmissions; seven Schulstad plastic boxes containing various small items; a motorcycle helmet; ten rigid pipes of plastic and/or metal; two electric adjustable beds for elderly individuals with limited mobility; fifteen cans of white wall paint; a used “Panasonic Colour Television”; bags of tools; a plastic beer crate containing tools; a used welding machine; an air compressor; a wheeled suitcase; several twenty-meter rolls of blue tubing for water supply systems; two roll-up doors; two garage doors in ten parts; a used Keeway Focus scooter; a chainsaw; a “Contact Freezer”; a used Bosch oven; four straps for lifting cars; a box of nine “Platinum” wine glasses; an old TV (I didn’t get a chance to see the brand); an electric sewing machine; a woven bast mat; two workout mats; two boxes containing a “Multi-Purpose Gardening Tools System”; a little used cutaway chassis truck from Sloth’s automobile dealership in Skanderborg; a used Philips TV screen; a generator from the Copenhagen Police Headquarters; a scratched long yellow gas container plus various smaller items I didn’t get a chance to record.

translated from the Danish by Peter Sean Woltemade

Thomas Boberg Africana - Rejseroman
Gyldendal, Copenhagen 2019
© Thomas Boberg 2019

Rights: Anneli Høier, Copenhagen Literary Agency