`STEAL away, steal away home,'' sings Abubacar Africa Weaver, strolling through hotel lobbies in Dakar, his red fez at a jaunty angle, his indigo gown swaying over baggy trousers. Abu, as he is called, is on the prowl for American tourists who need help finding their way around Senegal and Gambia. He calls his tours the Underground Railroad, and his play-it-by-ear approach to business justifies the title. ``I go to the airport to see what the planes bring in, or I pop into the markets looking for people who are being taken advantage of and obviously need some guidance. When I spot them, I simply offer my services. Gather 'em up impromptu like that.'' Abu has been gathering clients for nine years now, capitalizing on an annual flow of 30,000 American tourists to West Africa spawned by Alex Haley's ``Roots.''
During his first two years of business, Abu didn't bother to charge for his services. ``I just helped people out and they tipped me in return. Folks were genuinely appreciative, and their appreciation bought my food.'' Today, in addition to his special brand of ad hoc tourism, he is tapped by larger West African tour agencies. ``He saves us when we've got too many people to handle,'' says Pape, a driver-guide for Senegal Contact Tours.
As good as he is at his work, Abubacar never intended to be a tour guide. After all, he is just a fellow from Boston -- a fellow actually named Clifford Weaver Jr. Back in the fall of 1977, Clifford left Boston on a one-week NAACP charter for West Africa, and somehow never got around to using his return ticket.
``It all started in the Grand Mosque,'' he explains, his round face alive, his arched eyebrows going up and down like pogo sticks. ``I'd removed my shoes, washed my hands and feet, and entered the mosque. I was quietly praying and suddenly I heard this spirit say, `Do you believe in Allah?' `Well, yes . . . ,'' I answered. `Then you must stay in Africa,' I heard.''
When Clifford's co-travelers flew back to the States, he stayed behind. One week later, he was out of money. That night he slept on a beach, only to wake up all wet and discover that his few belongings had washed out to sea. The next day, the undaunted and gregarious Bostonian went to Dakar's lively Kermel marketplace. There he met a Senegalese woman who, learning of his plight, invited him home to have tea with all 16 members of her extended family. ``They fed me and took me in,'' he recollects, ``and gradually I got going with my tourist business.'' Today that generous family has hit hard times, and Mr. Weaver, who somewhere along the line adopted the name Abubacar Africa, helps support them.
Abu knows nothing of shyness. ``I got to know West Africa by wandering from village to village, stopping in and asking, `What's happening?' '' If he liked what was happening, he was likely to stay. He did that in Juffure, Gambia -- Kunta Kinte's village of Alex Haley fame. Abu stopped by there one day and ended up staying for half a year. In another Gambian village, Abu came across a family making batiks. ``I was real interested, so they taught me their craft. I lived with them and helped them make hand-dyed sheets for hotels.'' That experience led to Abu's first one-man art show. In 1981, Senegal's Ministry of Culture sponsored his 29-piece exhibit entitled ``One-Way Ticket to the Promised Land: Africa.''
Since then, the bold Abubacar has presented a piece of his richly symbolic work to five West African presidents. One of his tableaux, named ``From Slavery to Liberty,'' is displayed at the historic House of Slaves on Gor'ee Island, three kilometers from Dakar. Jo Ndiaye, conservator of the Slave House, calls this piece, which visually links the lives of Africans and Afro-Americans, ``one of the most significant gifts'' his museum has ever received.
Indeed, Abu is an artist when it comes to linking contrasting worlds. On Martin Luther King's birthday this year Abu launched what he hopes will become a tradition in Senegal: ``King Day in Africa.'' In the courtyard of his home, some 200 guests from West Africa, the West Indies, and the United States celebrated the call for equality exemplified by Dr. King's life.
It is not surprising that Abu is sometimes referred to as ``the Ambassador of Black America'' in West African travel circles. Tour here for any stretch of time, and you are likely to hear his name. ``Yeah, if you say you had a good time here, you'll probably be asked, `Oh, you met that fat guy, Abubacar?' '' he says. Yet he hopes that he has helped to change some negative views of Americans here. ``Folks used to think of us as ugly Americans, cheap hustlers, selfish racists. I think they are finding out that we're warm and generous. Sometimes kind of fixed in our ways, but basically nice people . . . .''
Cathy Love of Philadelphia is one of many tourists Abu has guided over the years. She and five other black Americans recently journeyed through Gambia with him. Says Cathy, ``Everywhere we went, Abubacar knew the people. Thanks to him we could get right next to them, into their homes, their culture.'' Greg Moore, who was on the same tour, adds: Abubacar was always well received by the Africans. It seemed like he was halfway between being an American and being one of them.''
Abu says that the most significant life lesson he has learned is that here, ``Everything is built on the we, not on the I, like in the West. Life is based on considering the other man. If you're patient, you find out that you become the other man.''
What about his family back home in the US? Clifford Weaver Sr., who recently viewed Abu's video of the King Day celebration in Dakar, says that his son has been telling him, ``I'll be home for Christmas,'' for the past nine years. ``I finally caught on that I need to ask which Christmas?'' he chuckles.
But according to Abu, who calls his family each month, he really will return home for Christmas 1986. ``I don't know who's going to take my place here, but I've got to go home. Got to see my family, tie up loose ends on that side.'' And there is something else tugging at him: ``One thing I didn't know till I came here is that black Americans are the richest black tribe in the world in terms of opportunities. At some point I want to go back home and do something there with my African experience. I've filled 12 notebooks and lots of tapes. I hope to put it all into a book, a special travel book geared toward helping Western folks understand the African mind.''
And when that book is written, when the ``loose ends'' are tied up back home, will Abu return to Africa? ``You can bet that I will, because Africa gives me peace of mind. . . . Everyone's behind you, because they know that if you make it, you've got to share it! [Grin.] No man is an island in these parts.''