Dabo? Or, Pobot. Such a simple thing as family name is another way in which the Africans are strangers in a strange land; Americans who deal with them regularly aren't sure if the Africans put their family names first or last.
When I asked Dabo if the village where he grew up had electricity, he couldn't stop laughing; of course no electricity. I went to the library and looked up his country, Mali: half Saharan desert, the rest hot grassland and swamp, highest elevation below 4,000 feet, home to hyenas and hippos and giraffes and the town of Timbuktu, and people mostly getting by on subsistence agriculture when drought and famine don't interfere. Malaria is widespread and life expectancy for those who survive birth is 40 years - Dabo's age.
The African women I interviewed were so shy they would answer almost nothing. One, who would give only her initials, A.N., said, "Africa now is too hard."
Tolerating another question, Sidibeb Amarama replied, "What is ski? I don't know ski."
As the Africans tell it, they made their way separately from their home countries to the big stew, New York City. Dabo had the equivalent of a high-school diploma and a good job back in Mali, working for a government company as a traveling movie projectionist. The job vanished when the World Bank ordered his government to privatize everything. "My company was for liquidation," he said. "I don't have not-ting to do."
African immigrants make a loose community in Manhattan, where Dabo had an apartment with some of the others and worked as a bicycle messenger. Seeking a regular job, the Africans tried an employment agency. It turned out to be the mouth of the pipeline.
The agency asked for $100 each, up front, and referred them to the woman they know as Natalie. Natalie received the Africans in the office she shares with her husband, immigration lawyer Earl S. David, on the 60th floor of the impressive building at 40 Wall Street.
"Many people of my group doesn't go to school and he doesn't know if some-ting is right or wrong" in the papers that were signed and the money paid, Dabo told me. "Because Natalie speaks French, African people trust her."
Natalie charged the Africans another $300 to $500 each. In exchange, she connected them with Clean Serve, a corporation based in Atlanta, Ga., with field representatives around the country. The contract Natalie had the Africans sign is merely a few sentences typewritten in English. It authorizes Clean Serve to make deductions from each paycheck the Africans get, until Natalie's base fee, $300, is covered. Some of the Africans paid her an extra $200 up front before they left New York, according to the Africans and a manager involved in the employment pipeline.
"This fee represents relocation assistance and is not an employment-related fee," the contract states. The "assistance" didn't amount to much: By signing, the Africans also agreed to the declarations, "I understand that there is no transportation, food or housing with this occupation. I hereby state, I have $500 U.S. funds with me to pay for my transportation, food and housing."
Dabo's contract guaranteed him 40 hours of work a week for $6.50 an hour, in some place called Colorado. He told me, "I had never heard of Colorado before."