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Wonder in Africa

By Charles Cantalupo

After my first visit to Dakar in 1989, I left disoriented. Now I felt reassured to be back. Pulling into the driveway of the hotel that I had once hoped I would never see again, my taxi stopped behind a huge black limousine, out of which poured an entourage of muscular men and fashion model women – draped in a riot of bright Senegalese cloth, wild braid coiffures, cowry ropes, shiny sunglasses, and every width of gold and silver chains – all centered around a hulking, tired looking, elaborately braided man in a one-piece suit of alternating ankhs in red and gold entwined by grapes and monkeys. Stevie Wonder was checking in ahead of me.

I tipped my driver, wove through the entourage, and no one seemed to mind or even notice. I had to talk to Stevie.

Moving slowly, he looked straight ahead with his trademark sunglasses shielding his blindness and his double chin moving up or down according to the level of the ground under his almost shuffling feet. A similarly heavyset woman in an orange and brown Muslim headscarf and robe modestly led him by the hand. Three feet away, I thought of my opening line: “Stevie. I'm just arriving at the hotel and from America too. A lot of us coming to Africa are following you. Thanks.” Two steps later, I began, “Stevie, I'm,” but before I could continue he turned to me and held out his hand, replying, “Yeah man, yeah man, yeah man.” We shook and he said, “What's your name?” I said, “Charles,” and he said, “We're only staying the night and leaving tomorrow for the states,” to which I replied, “I'm leaving too. But first I'm going out into the countryside and down to Casamance with a friend from here.”

Even moving slowly, the entourage started pressing and rattling louder as it pushed him along, and I started falling behind. “Hey, Charles. I wish I could go with you. Let me pay your hotel bill tonight and promise me you’ll come back and tell me someday what you saw.” I looked sideways, abashed by his offer yet grateful, and saw the concierge, whom I recognized from my last visit by his bright blue eyes and the circular scarification down his cheeks, give me an emphatic OK sign. I looked back towards Stevie. He disappeared amidst his Afro-centric Detroit entourage like a fabulous sunset draining through the hotel’s dark glass doors.

As I entered behind them, I saw a sign advertising a hotel happy hour by the pool to feature “native dancers.” A bunch of tanned, middle age French women in halter-tops, with their older husbands in billowy thigh length shirts over their tiny Speedos, headed for the pool, the husbands and even a few of their wives ogling the statuesque prostitutes like ebony wrapped in orchids peaking out of the lobby’s corners. No thanks. I had joined in that party last time.

I went up to my room, upgraded on Stevie’s orders to a suite of chrome, red and black leather, champagne and feather pillows, a steam room, fresh fruits and vegetables, baguettes, French cheeses and six kinds of olives. I ordered local fish, a 1985 Chateau Neuf de Pape, and drank to Stevie and Africa, remembering his songs from the 70s and the 80s, even back to 1966 when I saw him come onstage in Yankee Stadium in a chartreuse zoot suit and sing “Fingertips.” Wanting to sing “Isn’t She Lovely,” I remembered my newborn back in Pennsylvania and started to cry from the proverbial pangs of separation that I felt from Barbara and the children. Too much love…too much wine.

The next morning, when I gave my friend, Tino, the money I had saved on my hotel bill, he replied with a deep nod and a smile, “Last time you were here you gave me enough to buy a sheep to celebrate Mohammed’s birthday. Now I will buy five.”


Charles Cantalupo is the author of two books of poems, Light the Lights (Red Sea Press, 2004) and Anima/l Wo/man and Other Spirits (Spectacular Diseases, 1996), three books of translations of Eritrean poetry, and books on Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Thomas Hobbes. Cantalupo has written and directed the documentary, Against All Odds: African Languages and Literatures into the 21st Century (2005). He is completing a memoir, Joining Africa, based on his experiences there since 1985.

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