Shadows and Eye-Shadow
Abidjan, June 1998:
It is the rainy season, but despite the band of cloud stretching
across the CNN weather map from Cameroon to the middle of the Atlantic, it
hasn't rained once since I arrived. Hubert and I wander through the
Intercontinental Hotel d'Ivoire, its air-conditioned comfort almost
successful in its imitation of its Northern brothers. Certainly it is more
luxurious than the Novotel where I am staying, where the humidity in my room
crinkles the papers of the report that Hubert and I are writing and
threatens to short-circuit my laptop.
We step out of the Intercontinental, back into the heat and dusk of Africa.
As we pass the upturned bowl of the Conference Hall, where rust or lichen
stains stretch down the dirty white walls, I stare up at the slender 100
foot column surmounted by an offering of concrete tusks. Crows swirl round
it like energetic vultures. Back on earth, two boys approach, one on
crutches and missing a leg. "Taxi?" they ask hopefully. "Merci,"
I shake my head. He is not begging - there are no beggars in this city,
only boys and young men eager to clean your shoes, to sell you chewing gum
or to stop a taxi and open its door.
Hubert, a short, overweight, cheerful Ivoirien dedicated to his work for
people living with HIV, and I walk down the avenue that leads from the Hotel
d'Ivoire to the Corniche, the few hundred metres of road that skirts the
stagnant lagoon on the way to the centre of town. The pavement is broad, the
width of several cars, but the concrete soon gives way to sand and rubble
and we pick our way carefully. Orange taxis, a cheap Peugeot or Renault that
I don't recognise, honk as they pass, their drivers leaning forward and
turning their heads in the hope that one of us will give the signal to stop.
But we walk on, discussing violence, national politics and the inevitable
topic of AIDS.
am disappointed. There are few people around. This boulevard lined by
embassies, a high school and a new town hall is supposed to be the premier
cruising ground in Abidjan, where transvestites, gay men and Real Girls come
to make or spend money, but all I see is the occasional young man on his way
home, glancing at incongruous couple that Hubert and I make. After half a
mile, we turn and retrace our steps.
am about to give up, when I notice two figures in skirts sitting on a
concrete block a few yards away. I am not certain they are what I am looking
for, but one of them has made an encouraging noise and I reckon that no
respectable Ivoirienne would sit in semi-darkness and call to strangers.
walk over. "Bon soir, les filles," I say, respecting the wigs and
stuffed bosoms and ignoring the masculine arms and faces. "Bon soir,"
one replies. They are surrounded by bags and newspapers and as we talk, they
continue their toilet, pulling mascara and creams and powder and jewellery
from one place or another. "a marche?" I ask. Life is fine they say.
"a marche chez vous?" I misunderstand the question and tell them I
am from London. Hubert corrects me and, when I am back on the correct
linguistic path, we introduce ourselves.
Olivia is thin but handsome, with lighter skin than his companion. He is
wearing a blouse so dark and the light from the nearest streetlamp is so
feeble that I cannot make out its style or the length of its sleeves. Tina
has prominent features, a blond wig and a top cut so low that I can see the
shadow between his chest and his padded bra. From where I am standing it
looks as if he has some breasts, or perhaps it is muscle. Is Hubert my
friend? Olivia asks. A friend, not my friend, I tell her. My friend is in
New York. Bring him here, they say. A sore point; my friend, later to become
my ex, sometimes resents the journeys I take without him. "I can't afford
to," I say.
Credentials established, we move on to more personal topics. As we talk, my
ear becomes attuned, for the most part, to their accent. I ask about
business - it's not bad - and whether there are problems with the
police - "toujours," says Tina, in the same bored tones as
colleagues in London complain about the Northern Line. With ten thousand
francs CFA - 10 - they can be satisfied and you can be on your way.
Ever mindful that local etiquette and definitions of masculinity can differ
widely, I ask a few questions. This side of the road, it appears is for
travestis, while the other side has homosexuals. I am asked if I am a
man, and I answer in the affirmative, without enquiring what local manhood
demands. Hubert, who has spent the last four years counselling husbands and
wives with HIV, but whose knowledge of sex between men is limited, has said
little. Finally he asks, "C'est quoi, la diffrence entre travesti et
homosexuel?" Tina looks surprised at his ignorance, shrugs her
shoulders, makes a half-hearted and mumbled attempt to inform him. Hubert
nods as if he understands but half an hour later I help him by reviewing
this gap in his sexual education.
As we talk, they are pulling on and adjusting clothes, wigs, make-up. A
transformation is taking place in these shadows that I can barely see. What
clients do they get, I ask. Both Ivoiriens and foreigners, some white,
mostly African. And do the girls protect themselves? Of course, they always
use a capote. The worst customers are Nigerians, although whether
this is because they are most demanding, refuse to use condoms or are poor
payers is not clear. As everywhere else in the world, the price of the
service depends on how much the customer is willing to pay. Tina always asks
for at least 10,000; sometimes she asks that amount and is rewarded with
20,000 or 30,000.
While Tina and Hubert talk, Olivia tugs at my arm. I turn to see a very
different person from the one who first talked to me. Her hair is pulled
back, her face is pale, her eyes are slender, long and oriental. She admires
my muscles. I assume she admires every potential client's muscles, but I
accept the flattery. She whispers something I do not understand. I crouch
beside her and she repeats the question in more coarsely "Est-ce que tu
baises bien?" Of course, I do, I tell her; no man would admit to being a
poor lover. I do not need to hear the next question in order to understand
it, but I confess that she is not my type. She does not seem disappointed;
the night is young and the question, I am sure, was routine.
But since Hubert
and I are not customers, and Olivia and Tina are now ready for those who
are, it is time for us to leave. We exchange smiles and good luck wishes and
Hubert and I step into the street for a cab to take me back to my hotel. As
it drives down the Avenue I see on both sides of the road figures hovering
by the kerbside, waiting, waiting. (2011: many years and two civil wars later, I
wonder if they are still there.)