issue 201 - November 1989
The African Quota
Faisal from Mali dreams of joining the colonies
in space. A short story by Elizabeth Sourbut.
On the first night out from Dakar, 12-year-old Faisal wandered the deck restlessly. He thought about his family, far away in Mali's dusty savannah, eating the evening meal with the television switched on in one corner. They would he watching the American channels, picked up by the satellite receiver dish on the outskirts of the village. His mother would be tired, probably complaining about the distance she had had to walk to fetch water that day. He wondered how long it would be before he saw them again, returning from space a rich man.
Picking his way between the groups of emigrants, he went in search of the family of Bambara cattle farmers who had befriended him. They had sold their farm to the Mali Government and were travelling to a new life in France. Faisal had seen advertisements on television and knew that Europe and North America were almost empty now most of the people had moved into space. The Bambara's talk about the house and cattle they were going to buy made him wish that his father had agreed to move. But now he was going into space, and when he had made his fortune he would pay for the whole of Mali to be irrigated so it was as green as France.
When he found his friends, he saw that a lean white man had joined them. You should all have stayed at home,' he was saying, stuffing tobacco into his pipe with nervous fingers. 'You've no idea what you're letting yourselves in for.'
'Don't be silly,' said Shanti, the mother. 'All the farms in France are lying idle now the white people have gone into space.'
Mahoud, her husband, greeted Faisal. 'This is Ralph. He's travelling alone, too.'
'Are you American?' asked Faisal timidly.
'Yes. A poor one.
'Americans are rich,' objected one of the children. 'We watch American TV.'
'So do I,' said Ralph. 'So what? TV isn't about real life. There are plenty of Americans like me. bumming around the world because our country has no jobs for us.'
'Why don't you go into space?' asked Faisal. 'That's an expanding frontier, unlimited growth, enough wealth for everyone.' He repeated the phrases he had heard so often on TV but Ralph sneered.
'Sure, but how can I get there? They're independent states these days, no more free transport. Do you know how much the fare is?'
'There's no fare,' said Faisal. 'My permit was free. Look.' He took the precious papers from his pocket and the American snatched them out of his hand. 'You're on the African Quota!' he exclaimed.
'Is that a spaceship'?' asked Faisal.
Ralph laughed mirthlessly. 'It's the number of Africans the UN allows to go into space,' he said. 'They get a free ride. It's all to do with a guilt complex.' He handed the permit back. 'What will you do when you get there?'
'I'm going to buy my own spaceship and be an asteroid prospector. Then I'll get-rich-quick.'
'And how will you afford a spaceship?'
'I'll work for it. There are millions of jobs in space. All the factories have moved there.
'Yeah, said Ralph. 'Why do you think I don't have a job?'
'But the North is rich,' insisted Shanti.
'And you think you'll be rich when you get there?'
'We're going to buy a farm,' said Mahoud. 'We have money.'
'But there aren't any for sale. The French city people may have gone but the farmers are still there - they weren't wanted in space. Space farms are tended by biochemists, not farmers. You were told lies. Your country has too many people, so your government is shipping you north. There's no land for you.'
'Then what can we do?' asked Mahoud, dismayed.
'Same as me. Get out your begging bowls and wait for somebody to sort out this mess.'
A long silence fell. Faisal wondered if getting rich would help at all. He didn't understand. Why couldn't the land be shared amongst those who wanted it? It seemed the world was more complicated than he had imagined.
Mahoud sighed heavily. 'We are in the hands of Allah.' he said.
'I'm sorry,' said Ralph. 'I just wanted somebody to talk to. You would have found out soon enough.' Nobody replied and he stood up. 'Well, so long.'
Faisal followed him to the railings. 'Who's in charge of it all'?' he asked.
Ralph shrugged. 'Who knows? Maybe you will be one day, after you get rich prospecting the asteroids.' He smiled and pointed towards a point low in the eastern sky. 'Look.'
Straining his eyes, Faisal could just see a tiny cluster of lights where the colonies were rising above the hidden bulk of Africa.
Elizabeth Sourbut is a writer on science and the environment.