While cycling through a sliver of five countries in Africa, I happened upon a mobile flea market/art fest.
The cars and makeshift cargo bikes and pushcarts formed a wagon train circle brimming with handmade crafts and folk art and recycled wares that could all be closed up and rolled on at a moment’s notice.
Khumbu stood at least 6 ft 3 or 4, but his laugh made him taller. I took a shine to his work and he could tell. When I pedaled back around a third time he said, “You coming in for a landing or more circling?”
The clothe these were painted on… mismatched sizes, draped from the tailgate of a VW van older than me – and carrying the man’s worldly possessions was my guess. When I asked how much for the bike shack, he grinned, then actually reached out and tossled my hair the way Bill Murray did Glida Radner on SNL, stepped back, drank something out of a flask I had not noticed until then, offered me a swig, when I waved it off, he threw out a ridiculously low price. I countered with four times his asking price and said I would like the one of his van as well, if he’d part with it. He looked at me for what felt like a long time, like the first time. Still smiling, he asked,
“You’re so money, then?”
For a second I could see my white privilege on full display. I’d just announced, to the entire market really, that I didn’t need to bargain. In fact, I would pay above asking price. I felt like I’d farted in church…. the embodiment of A Bull In A Pushcart China Shop.
I lowered my voice a notch to outdoor level and pointed at my bike. “I’m American so of course I’m loud and graceless and act like I’m money… but among my people, I’m the opposite of money.”
It was silent for too long. Then Khumbu was joined by his friend one pushcart over, and without missing a beat they proceeded to do the “Baby, you are so money!” scene word for word from the film, Swingers. At this point, relieved but suffering serious cultural vertigo, I closed it out with a solid, “Vegas, Baby, Vegas!”
Laughter and nodding all around. Khumbu made a place for me on the bumper. We chatted for the next 20 minutes. He ask me if I wasn’t money, then who was I? I explained about my travels and my writing and the charity bike ride I was embarking on for Children In The Wilderness, and the cover story for Bicycling Magazine. We bonded over the creative arts.
In the end, Khumbu got me to drink from that flask, and as I choked down the liquor he said, not unkindly. “So we are the same, except you have the world.”
I told him I would try to get my publishers to use his artwork on the cover of the anniversary edition of my first book. I asked him if that would be OK and where we could send payment if it happened. He explained that most of them were artists exiled by Mugabe and on the run. Some had family running with, but his, a son and a wife, were back in Zimbabwe. “It’s no good running or staying, but I had to run.”
Only a few minutes earlier I’d been romanticizing the idea of a life in the traveling arts and crafts mercado. In those moments, I know that I know next to nothing about the nature of suffering.
“It is a lovely thought,” he said. “But I have no address.” He patted his van.
I paid my price for the artwork. He tossled my head one more time.
“But I do have an email, and Yumbo, he has Paypal.”
When the money was sent, I put the agreed upon subject line in the email.
Subject: Nigerian Bankers Are So Money!
If anyone wants signed copies of any of my books this holiday season just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or message me on FB for pricing and shipping info. A portion of the proceeds goes to help send kids to our summer bike camps.