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Awkward in Africa

Awkward in Africa


In the second half of his African tale, out Peace Corps volunteer Philippe Gosselin meets the gay underground in Senegal and deals with an unwitting flirt in Burkina Faso

In a way, it's easier here in Burkina Faso. Sure, the desire is still there, unrequited as always, but I came without expecting to find anything or anyone. And how nice it is to have my expectations met, for once in my life! Whereas my thoughts have usually been along the lines of This sucks! I can't believe I can't even find me a man in Paris!, now I simply think This sucks!

It's a subtle difference, but you see, finding a man here is beyond my control, and therefore I'm completely justified in whining incessantly while making no efforts to rectify the situation. There's simply nothing I can do. Which is actually quite a relief.

Lust Hurts

OK, I admit that while I fully expected the gay scene in Burkina to be about as barren as the landscape, I secretly hoped the Peace Corps would be teeming with progressive homosexual studs like myself. What young gay man wouldn't want to leave behind the gyms, the clothes, the clubs, and the hair gel to come live in poverty in the remotest place on earth? Apparently, not quite as many as I thought. Instead, I find myself in the company of a group of straight-white-upper-middle-class-hetero-sexist-monogamist OPPRESSORS.

But they're OK once you get to know them.

These hopes dashed, I was no longer expecting love. (You hear that, Love? I'm not expecting you! Look at me, twiddling my thumbs, reading a book. I daresay, this is probably the moment in my life where I've expected you the least!) But nor did I expect to arrive in Africa and be consumed by lust! All we ever hear about Africa back home is genocide, famine, disease, poverty. Am I missing anything? Exotic wildlife. So of course I imagined I'd be living among poverty-stricken, disease-ridden, war-torn starving folks. And elephants.

Does the news ever mention that in addition to all these things there are also hot men in Africa? Never. News flash! There are some seriously hot men in Africa! Not just because it's 110 degrees! And some of them even have damn nice teeth! This all came as quite a surprise to me. Perhaps the growing attraction is a natural part of acclimating to new people and surroundings. Or maybe it's due to a condition I've developed known as "desperation." I don't know.

All I do know is that when I go play shirts-and-skins soccer my eyes aren't on the shirts. Nor are they on the ball. Rather, they're glued to the many topless muscly torsos writhing and twisting and flexing under smooth, black, sweat-drenched skin glimmering by the light of the setting sun...and then I get hit in the face with the ball, which has happened enough times that I've taken to just sitting and watching with the people on the sidelines. Lust hurts, man. Ouch...or as they say here, "WHYYYYYYY!"

First Contact

After months and months of being heterosexual, I found my beautiful gay rainbow flower slowly, sadly wilting inside of me, with no Diana Ross to rejuvenate it. I needed to know I was not alone on this continent. So when I found myself on an unexpected extended medical leave in Dakar, I decided to do some snooping around. Senegal may not be the land of plenty, but like almost every other country in the world, it's got way more going for it than Burkina. Because Senegal, and Dakar in particular, is so much more developed, Internet cafes are more popular and widespread, allowing gay folk to find fellow family (not to mention fornicate).

After some Google forays I sent off an e-mail to the head of Dakar's underground gay organization, explaining who I was and how I was hoping to learn about the gay community here. Sure enough, he responded, and we set up a rendezvous for an informal chat. It wasn't till later that he told me that since I was an outsider, he'd had to ask special permission from the board of the underground organization to meet up with me and share his story, with the hope that I could provide some help...I'd stumbled across some deep shit, man.

I arrived by taxi at the appointed hour and place. We were to meet at a busy intersection. I wasn't sure how I'd be able to pick this guy out, 'cause all I knew was that there was a good chance he'd be black. And in Dakar I wasn't the only whitey walking the streets. But I needn't have worried: The man had a flame brighter than the African sun. He had the lisp, the wrist, the swagger, the look. You work it, sista! I was nervous and excited as he led me to a more private spot, a nondescript restaurant/bar/club down the street. This was my first contact with family in Africa! I wanted to know all about it.

We were seated in a private corner. My contact (I'll call him "Deep Throat"--nah, better yet, "Z") told me that the server was safe, a.k.a. in the loop, and the server sat in on parts of our conversation. We ordered beers and I asked away. Turns out the situation for gays in Senegal is much more precarious than it is in Burkina. A gay identity in Senegal is much more salient, and the government officially condemns it. Men in Dakar don't hold hands or bump and grind on the dance floor because of the possibility they'll be labeled. Gays have to be very careful how they meet up and be very discreet in their appearance--which must make life awfully tough for guys with flamboyant traits like Z.

He formed the group about five years ago, with a goal of providing a social meeting space for gays in Dakar. It's since expanded its mission to include HIV/AIDS education for its members as well as political activism to reverse government persecution and to abolish a law forbidding homosexual relations. Since the group's officially banned from meeting, it all takes place in secret, communicating through word of mouth, e-mail, and phone. It started out with 50 members but now has 400 in the capital and over 1,000 overall. Z told me the membership includes gay men, bisexuals, and lesbians. Many of them are married, and some are sex workers.

Because of his position as head of the organization and his efforts to get support from various nongovernmental organizations, he inadvertently became something of a public figure in Senegal. A couple of years ago he was attacked and severely beaten by a group of people on the street. He went to the hospital, but they refused to treat him after they discovered his identity. He had to go into hiding and managed to escape to France for six months.

The law used to persecute gays, Article 219, was put in place by the French during colonial times, and it still exists in all of France's former colonies in Africa (though, somehow, not in Burkina). It's actively enforced in Senegal. Z gave me the example of two of his friends who were arrested on trumped-up charges of public sex while they were sitting together in a park that had a reputation of being a cruising spot. Punishment can range from one month to two years in prison--they both got two years. They weren't even allowed to speak in their own defense at the tribunal. Z told me that nobody bothers to refute the judgements because the society's attitude is "They're gays, they deserve it."

Z's organization also helps its members who are AIDS patients find treatment because they're often refused treatment at local hospitals or clinics. Even organizations like Amnesty International have offered nothing but sympathy (literally) for these injustices, claiming that helping the gay community will sully relations with the government and harm its capacity for addressing other abuses. Other NGOs [non-government organizations] have refused receiving help and funding for similar reasons. For instituting all this homophobic discrimination and persecution we've got the Frogs to thank. Damn those dirty French and their toast!

Speaking of toast, by this point in the conversation the beer had reached my head and I was feeling a little toasty. It was wonderful to finally be in the company of somebody I could relate to on a deeper

level than the weather. I felt my suppressed activist tendencies boiling back up, and I had saintly visions of myself taking these people under my wing: getting them condoms, books, funding for an office; helping them form a network with other gay groups in Africa; publishing a Web site; educating the gay community about AIDS and STDs, getting them treatment. Maybe I could even help a group in Burkina get on its feet.

In the Peace Corps I've gone between feeling mildly and completely useless. But now here was something I could be passionate about: working with people I have a connection to, whom I care about, and whom I can possibly help somehow, and maybe get laid doing it... We've got a whole big family in Africa who are struggling to find their own sense of pride, and if only we could all get together and hold hands and sing "Kumbaya," it would be so beautiful...

Then the server brought over the bill for the two beers, and that brought me out of my buzzed idealistic stupor awful quick. I'd invited Z, so of course I was paying: The bill was for $12. Two beers in Burkina cost about $2, and in Dakar it's normally only a little more. Maybe it doesn't sound like much, and to any other whitey in Dakar it wouldn't be, but $12 was my entire day's living allowance, and I still had taxis and food to pay for. This for a volunteer who's looking to help you?

Z, perhaps noticing the look of shock on my face, said he'd already paid up a bit to ensure we wouldn't be disturbed, but he offered to put in $2 as I laid down a 10. We said goodbyes, and I left with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. However, I realized as I was going away that this was just another hurdle Z and his group had to deal with: paying dearly for the privilege of being able to meet and speak openly without trouble.

Z told me he has a contact with a Burkinabe doctor who was trying to establish a group in Ouagadougou. Unfortunately, my attempts to follow up with him have gone unanswered, and so, to this day, I've been left high and dry in Burkina.

An Indecent Proposal

After returning from Senegal I started wondering, Is there really nothing I can do? No way to find these people? They've gotta be out there. Probably even in my village. I set my gaydar on high alert but didn't pick up anything. I did note some suspicious activity one day when I spotted a group of three young guys taking turns showering in a cement brick shower out in the open near the clinic. The ones who weren't showering were hanging around, chatting, leaning against the shower wall, and I dunno, man, it looked like the dudes were checking each other out as they took their turns getting nekkid! Unfortunately, there was no way to go verify this nonchalantly.

One evening, around this time, I was chilling with Souleymane after he'd given me a lesson in Moore, a language used in Burkina. We were sitting around, shooting the shit, staring off into space, casually nudging each other's arms. As you may already know, I'd developed a bit of a crush. Souleymane holds hands and gives affection along with all the other boys, but unfortunately, since I'm a nassara (a whitey) I'm not generally included in these displays. (Nor have I ever been a participant in the dance floor bumping and grinding. Well, unless you count that one drunken night down in the south...)

Souley and I have graduated to an occasional hand on the knee, though, which I'm happy for. On this particular evening we're sitting silently, I'm trying to detect signs of sexual tension, and then he blurts out, "Have you ever slept in a mud hut?" Ummm, no. (My house is made of cement bricks and a tin roof--not technically a hut.) "Well, then you'll have to come over, and we'll spend the night together sometime."

Well! Whoa there, Souley! Nobody's ever tried that pickup line on me before. Could this be the love connection I'd been waiting for? I mean, not at all expecting? I was skeptical of course, but amused by the possibility that his invitation was something more. And so were other parts of me.

As I got up to leave, my backpack carefully positioned in front of me, one of the wives in his family said something to me, which Souleymane translated. "She asked if you were going to stay the night and sleep with me. She'll feed us to," a kind of porridge. And then one of the dads asked, "Aren't you going to sleep here?"

So his family was in on this too? I was a little taken aback, though this probably meant the whole thing was an innocent sleepover. But who knows? Maybe this sort of thing happens all the time. Maybe his family obviously saw the tension between us and thought, Please! Just sleep with him already! No, really, maybe they did. But I figured, Well, the least I'll get out of the deal is some innocent cuddling. And I could sure use it. Anything more would be just a pleasant surprise. A very pleasant surprise.

Souley was building himself a new hut at the time, and it was still missing some things, like a door, so he said when it was finished he'd invite me over. It was finished a couple weeks later, and he took me on a tour. (It wasn't a very long tour.) But we sat on his bed, and he said, "See, my new hut is a little distanced from all the other ones. So we can have fun without being bothered by all the kids."

HOLD UP THERE! What did he mean by "have fun"? Because where I come from, that would be a blatant come-on. But what do I know? I stuck to my policy of zero expectations, but I was a little giddy thinking about it. And so were other parts of me. That backpack comes in handy.

Eventually, with a little prodding from me ("Remember when you told me..."), the day came when he invited me to stay. We'd gone out into the bush for our Moore lesson, out to a spot where the crocodiles are. We didn't spot any, but we took pictures and had a perfectly romantic time of it. We went back to his family's courtyard, where I watched the kids play while he bathed and walked around without his shirt. He cooked me beans and we ate, and it got dark, and we sat and talked.

"So, do you want to sleep inside the hut or outside on a mat?" Well...inside, of course! "All right, in that case I'll sleep outside on the mat." I was too flummoxed to respond. WHAT? Aren't we at least gonna cuddle? 'Cause, dude, I really need to. You have no idea how much I was looking forward to it!

He brought me inside, lit a lamp as I stripped to my boxers and, like a good host, asked if I needed anything. "Aren't you gonna come sleep inside?" I finally asked, trying not to sound terribly disappointed or forward or needy.

"Why, are you scared?" Ummm...yeah.

He laughed. "Don't be scared. I'll sleep outside until it gets cold and then I'll come in and we'll sleep together. Don't worry."

OK then. Was this a good sign? Maybe he was sleeping outside just for show, then at the stroke of midnight he'd come inside and strip down and he would rock my world. Or at least hold me close. Ah...I tried to fall asleep.

I got up a couple times in the night to pee. Midnight: He was fast asleep outside the door. I made as much noise as I could coming back, but he didn't stir; 2 a.m.: same; 4 a.m.: I was fast awake. Dude, it's gonna be dawn soon. Should I wake him up? Would that be obviously desperate?

Well, I wasn't gonna get another chance, so I opened the door and called to him, "Souley, aren't you gonna come inside?"

"Oh...yes, OK."

He put away his mat, came in, and crashed on the bed, fully dressed, with his back to me. He was on the very edge, leaving a good six inches between us, and he stayed that way. NOOOOOOOOO!!! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! Well, shit.

Souley was up with the sun 45 minutes later, along with the rest of the family. I got up and dressed after stewing in my disappointment a little while longer. "So how was the night?" Souley asked, smiling. Amazing, Souley, just amazing. He asked if I wanted leftover beans for breakfast, but I declined. "You're gonna invite me over to your place one night, right?"

Ha ha...sure, Souley! Let's, it's way too hot to sleep inside, but I got this one-man tent. Of course we can both fit! Please, this is Africa! I'll take your clothes. All of them. Now you go ahead and crawl in. I'll just lube up and...slide right in on top! I'm sorry, there's really no other place to put my hand. Now, let's see...put your arm here...move your leg around this way...slide my arm here...slip on this condom...and there we go! Comfy?

Would you believe a few days after our Night of More Nothin' I saw Souley all over a guy in the market? They were holding hands, leaning on wooden posts together, putting hands around the back. He even did the "Ha ha ha, you said something funny and now I'm leaning in and touching your chest" move. Souleymane, you bitch! It didn't help that the guy was incredibly handsome and dressed better than I was. I asked Souley the next day during our lesson who the guy was. Oh, just the son of the new chief. I've given him the cold shoulder ever since. But I still grab his knee sometimes.

And so my gay life in Burkina Faso can be summed up in a word: zip. Will it be so for yet another year? Will I manage to stay that long? Stay tuned.

Would you believe it: I just had a beer with a gay former volunteer who's returned after two years away to visit his Burkinabe lover. So there's hope after all...but I'm not expecting it. Nope. No sirree.

Oh, I almost forgot. What about the pin? Well, I took it off just before we deplaned. And stuck it on the inside. Not that it would have made a difference, as I've discovered. I could go marching down the street waving a huge rainbow flag, wearing spandex rainbow shorts and glitter and pink feathers in my Mohawk and nobody knows I'm gay painted across my chest, and no one would have a clue. So maybe I will.Part One: Into Africa...and the closet

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Philippe Gosselin