A New York-to-Mississippi Minute: Layover in Atlanta Edition

I was looking to eat some African food at the airport, but just having someone to talk to about it was enough.

The ennui of a three-hour layover in the Atlanta airport was setting in when I remembered that somewhere in the parking lot there was a cafeteria for African cab drivers. What better way to spend my time than to eat with people and learn about their food? (It was 8:00 A.M.; this was curiosity, not hunger.) I looked for someone to ask for directions. Left and right, fast-food and airline employees were bleary-eyed and scowling, but I eventually came upon a man selling stuffed animals.

He was black, but it wasn’t until he directed me that I heard his accent and realized he was African.

“Do you eat there?” I asked him.

“A friend took me there once. I have prayed there, but not eaten there.” He explained that the cabbies use the place to worship as well as to gather and eat, and that most of them are from Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia: East Africans. Elhadji is from Senegal, and he prefers the food his wife makes for him.

“When I bring my food to the breakroom, everyone can walk in and smell it. I bring grilled lamb…”

Dibi?” I asked.

He brightened, widening his dark round face. “Yes! How do you know dibi?”

“Well, I love to eat, and I ask around,” I said, telling him about the Senegalese place Robert Sietsema took me to back in New York.

“Ah, yes, yes,” he said. He’d been there; his cousin lives in New York. “But I tell you, when I bring my wife’s dibi to the breakroom, everybody says, ‘Oh, that smells good!’ And I like to share it with them. People know that they can come get my food. In Africa, that is important. When you share, you are happy.”

When you share, you are happy. I let those words sit for moment. I liked them. He started talking about a Senegalese restaurant in Atlanta. “The lamb is soft,” he said, making a fluttery pinching motion with his hands. “The seasoning is good. The cooking is good. You go at 11 when they open, and there is a rush. It’s not just Africans; the Americans have discovered dibi.” He sounded a little proud of this. I think maybe he feels that his culture is being shared.

“When are you planning on taking your break today?” I asked, sounding a little less subtle than I intended.

Elhadji smiled, half apologizing, half winking. “I will have to buy my lunch today; my wife is traveling back to Senegal.” He changed the subject. “Where are you going?”

Mississippi, I told him. My girlfriend lives there. “That’s far,” he said. “But when you meet the right person, it’s worth it. I know. ” He sounded sage, but there was a tinge of pity in there, too. “I know,” he said again.

He told me about how he met his wife, at a friend’s wedding back in Senegal. “I was younger then, you know, going out dancing, going to the club. But we kept talking and one day I said to her, ‘Are you ready?’” And they married. They have three kids: 22, 18, 11. They’re in Senegal. He told me about where they’re going to school, where their athletic talents lay, happily miming basketball and soccer moves as he talked.

Who takes care of your children? “Oh, everybody. It’s Africa, you know? Their grandmother, their aunts. But we talk every night, we send back money. We handle the situation well.” He works for this concession stand part time, on top of a full-time job with an airline that lets him fly for free. He has a master’s in economics, a degree that he thought might land him a solid job on Wall Street years ago, where his cousin worked. But his wife was in Atlanta already, and so he came to be with her. “I don’t complain,” he said. “I know still I am making much more money than in Senegal.”

And so we talked, him telling me about meeting congressmen and senators and celebrities, showing me their business cards, describing the thickness of the binder he keeps at home, full of more cards. All the while, he gave pounds and hugs and waves to other airport employees walking by. “You can meet anyone in the airport,” he said.

I looked at my watch. It was near boarding time, and Elhadji and I exchanged emails and a thought of maybe having some dibi together some day. Sometimes you meet and share with people over food. Sometimes you meet and share with them just talking about food.

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