Thursday, January 05, 2006

I'll be home for the after-Christmas sales

Alas, my dear friends, the time has come for me to bid you Adieu! (god bless you!) No, that wasn't a sneeze, that was French. (oh. sorry.) Anyway, it's true. The siren song of post-holiday clearances at JC Penny proved too hard to resist. The seat on Air France was beckoning, and who was I to refuse its call? I booked it, and now I'm bookin it. My last order of business in Ouaga before getting on the plane will be to treat my abused calloused feet to a pedicure. Tonight at midnight I'll be sipping champagne and watching Brokeback Mountain 35000 feet above Mali on my way back to civilization.

I made it quite a ways, wouldn't you say? A whole year and a half. Not bad, Philippe, not bad.

Thank you so much to all of you who were generous enough to me send care packages! (And for those of you who weren't, well, I guess I forgive you. This time.) You spiced up my life, literally. I wasn't even able to get through all of the wonderful spices, so I've left them in my PCV neighbor Imane's equally grateful and loving care.

To all the volunteers, thanks for making it worth it. I love you guys.

Thank you too for those of you who wrote to me to tell me how much you enjoyed my stories. You're the only reason I kept writing this shit down! Without your encouragement, I would have never had the satisfaction of sharing all my most gruesome and painful experiences with all of you. The promise that you would later live them vicariously was what got me through some of them in the first place.

Yes, I've been a bit quiet these past few months. Well, I had to save something for the book, didn't I? Does that make me a greedy capitalist pig? Well, I gotta feed myself somehow. There will be a book! If your 3rd cousin twice removed's boyfriend's stepdad is in publishing, let me know.

But really, my hiatus had less to do with moolah and more to do with laziness and not having enough hours on the computer to keep typing it all up.
Frankly, I was also a bit burnt out. I mean, how many times can one bitch about horrific transport experiences from hell? What's that? You want more? All right then. Here's one for the road:


I've seen cows loaded on the roof. I've been crammed and smooshed, sat upon with an old guy's knee in my crotch. As many people on top as inside. I've seen the van loaded down with so many motos that the roof buckled and threatened to cave in. Man, I've been through some shitty ass transport in my day. Whenever you think you've seen it all, just when you consider yourself seasoned, whenever you think transport couldn't possibly get any worse... That's when Burkina really delivers.

The bush taxi heading to Ouaga showed up already packed, with 30-some goats tied to the roof. So far so good! I was waiting to get on along with the French and Peruvian ladies who live in Meguet, each of us with a bike and a pack. I wasn't worried that there wouldn't be room. There's always room.

The ladies got placed up front (the seat of honor, though I don't know if you can call it such when you're sharing half the middle seat jammed between the driver and a large Burkinabé man). I got into the back, and was mildly surprised that instead of a floor, the van's bottom was covered in--yes, more goats. So I kicked off my birks and buried my cracked feet into the warm live goat-fur rug. The problem with live goat-fur rugs is that they like to nip. Hell, I would too if I were bound up on the floor while people prodded me with feet as nasty as mine.

The granny sitting beside me just got a goat-piss shower from the roof and I caught some of the spray. And, so we go, bouncing merrily along the dirt road, inhaling dust, listening to the goats' eerie child-like screams, enjoying occasional golden showers from the goats up top, resting my feet on the squirming bodies on the bottom, all while squished between 3 women and a baby. And chickens! I forgot the chickens! Welcome to the next 4 hours of your life.

The goat on the roof pissed on granny again. And this time it kept pissing and pissing. There was no room to scoot over, and no way to close the window since the pane was missing (of course). But not even the people sitting next to closed windows were spared. Granny saw me laughing and so she started flinging piss at me, and that's when I just lost it. The situation was so far beyond annoying, leaping past pain, bounding past torture, and was just so ridiculous that I couldn't help but laugh. And laugh hard. I had tears streaming down my face, and granny and the rest of the 25 passengers were laughing at me for laughing.

Granny looked to the transport guy and held up her shirt and said, I'm not paying! Look at me, I'm covered in piss! I'm not paying! I buried my face and sat there laughing uncontrolably. Granny turned to me and said, You're going to sit here and I'm going to sit there! NO! NOOOO way, granny! I don't want to! I don't want to get pissed on by goats! The transporter turned and asked me, Is there health? Oh, there's health all right! Nothing but health! Granny over here might not agree, though!

I talked to my mom on the phone just before I got into this clown car. She told me, you know, you should be grateful to Peace Corps for giving you all these experiences. Yeah, yeah, ok mom. No, really! Even though it may not be working out, Peace Corps has let you have experiences that you would have otherwise never had. Be grateful.

And now, surrounded by goats and covered in their excrements, I suppose, in a weird masochistic sort of way, I am grateful for all of it.

You know, as much as people whine about it, these sorts of things just don't happen on the Greyhound. Or on Air France, for that matter. But I'm gonna ask for aisle seats just to be safe.

Peace out!

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Harry Potter and the Circle of Life

July 28th marked my first year living in Burkina. I believe this milestone officially makes me an American African. I assume the identity with pride. I've had to sacrifice a lot to make it this far. One entire year without urinals (unless you count brick walls) without elevators or escalators, without tofu. Without my laptop or deodorant, and most painfully of all, without my hair gel. I have no idea what the Oscar movies were this year, or what blockbuster bonanzas are on the marquee this summer (aside from Star Wars), what last season's hot reality shows were, or whether Will has finally got himself a goddamn boyfriend. He's fictional, for chrissakes, and still his love life is more pathetic than mine. Please! A year without perpetual internet or constant electricity. No microwave, no washer, no toaster, no appliances of any kind. I had a cell phone, then it was stolen, then I had another, then it broke. It's only a depressing reminder that no one's calling, anyway. Surprisingly enough, I'm doing just fine without it all. Except for the lack of hairgel, food, gay men, toilets, air conditioning, working pens, beaches, and people to talk to, life is grand!

I thought this would be a good occasion for sentimentality, looking back on what exactly was going through my naive little head those first couple days in country.

First, though, let's examine what the hell I was thinking when I applied. I started the Peace Corps application online late one night in the fall 2003. In truth, I' here only as a result of a spontaneous decision to start the application while procrastinating a film paper due the next day. Afterwards I realized, oh shit, now I still have to do this stupid film paper, and then I'm getting sent to a tiny village in Africa for 2 years where I'll never get laid. That'll teach me to procrastinate! I've learned my lesson, I swear.

The application asks for a statement on what motivates you to join the Peace Corps. What DID motivate me to come here? I decided to take a looksy. And I quote:

[ahem] Before I get entrenched in a career, I'd like to challenge myself some more by living somewhere completely different from what I'm used to, roughing it a little, and working hard to make a positive influence in peoples' lives. [well, save the last bit, I'm certainly meeting my goals!] Humanity's biggest flaw at the moment is its inability to care for itself. [uh-oh... here it comes...] As advantaged Americans, it should be our duty to end war, poverty and disease for everyone, not limiting our efforts to within national borders. [and there it is. Translation: I want to save the world!] It's important to strive to balance the disequilibrium of opportunity, health, education, and stability in the world by giving a piece of ourselves to helping others. [Wow. I should be a politician. Except then those photos would surely get leaked....]

And I end quote. Flash forward 8 months.

It's an odd experience opening a package in the mail that will tell you where in the world you'll be spending the next two years of your life. Almost as odd as boarding a plane to that place. In June 2004 I eagerly opened the green Peace Corps invitation packet and there was my destiny staring at me in the face: Burkina Faso! I was overcome with giddiness. Knowing now exactly what was in store, that reaction seems a little irrational. Perhaps even insane. But it was exciting just to have a spot on the globe to point to, even though to me it was nothin more than that.

Tucked inside was an official letter of congratulations from GW: "Take this opportunity to build goodwill and to help lay the foundation for a more peaceful world." Uh... right. I will if you will, Dubya!

The package also came with a little brochure describing the country and our future job. It sounded like something out of Mission: Impossible. Your mission, should you choose to accept it: You'll be living in one of the poorest countries in the world, amongst its poorest people, fighting against the evils of AIDS, malaria, polio, and Guinea Worm. You'll be out in the middle of nowhere, in a foreign land with a foreign tongue. No running water. No electricity. Bats, mice and cockroaches might live in your house [an actual quote!]. You'll be forced to fend off marriage proposals on a daily basis [never imagined I'd see the day where I thought of proposals as a regular nuisance]. The variety of fruits and vegetables is somewhat limited, with only one fruit or vegetable often available during any given season [and do you know what that only fruit or vegetable is? Onions. For the past 4 months, nothing but onions. And I have to bike 30k to get them.] Public transport is slow and uncomfortable [the understatement of the century]. The pace of work and life is slower than what most Americans are accustomed to [or maybe THIS is the understatement of the century]. All of this while sweating you ass off in 100 degree weather [try 120!]. Can you do it? Are you tough enough? Are you brave enough? Are you good-looking enough?

Back then the answer was, Yeah! Bring it on! Watch your back Malaria! Philippe's gonna fuck you up and then go after your boyfriend AIDS! Let me at em! I can do it!

A year later I realize, no, actually, it's impossible. That would be why it's called Mission: Impossible. How could you not get that? I'm reminded of a headline from The Onion that a volunteer posted up in our hostel:

Reality is certainly humbling. But I don't at all regret taking the blue pill. Or was it the red pill? Whichever pill it was that brought me here. Before I came I had no concept of how much of the world lives. While Burkina might be on the extreme end in terms of poverty, I would guess that the majority of people on earth live in conditions more like those here than those in America.

But even living in the midst of it it's easy to lose sight of the reality. Too often I'm preoccupied with being annoyed at people. Whenever somebody goes off on their sob story, about how America's so rich, and Africa's so poor, and it's too hot, and life's not easy, I think, oh Jesus, not again. I'm living here right next door, and it's not easy for me either! It's just as hot in my hut! But I forget that I have something they don't. A plane ticket home. I forget that AIDS and malaria really do kill, that people have it tough, that they go hungry part of the year. They have hopes and dreams and ambitions--It's true, Africans are just like us!--but they have far fewer opportunities and much greater obstacles to fulfilling them.

So what can I offer? Pity for the poor Africans? No thanks, there's more than enough of that to go around. (Though I'll graciously accept pity for the plight of this poor PCV--send to Philippe Gosselin, PCV, CSPS de Zamsé, BP 34 Zorgho, Burkina Faso) What can I do? I still don't know. Maybe nothing. Maybe all I can do is live alongside them for a while. Try to understand what their life is like. Give them my encouragement, for whatever it's worth.

The mission pamphlet concluded, "You will rarely see direct results of your work. But your presence alone is making a difference in the lives of those around you." God, I can only hope.


So here it is: an exclusive look into Philippe's most intimate, salacious thoughts from one year ago. It begins on Air France, somewhere over Algeria...

28 July 2004
I keep wondering to myself, Why are these people going to Ouaga? I can't imagine that many of them are tourists, but most of them are white. I just never imagined anyone other than PCVs and host country natives would have any reason to go there...

[I've sinced learned that actually, 198,376 tourists visited Burkina in 2002. Of these, 55% were confused surfers who accidentally bought plane tickets to Ouagadougou instead of Honolulu; 30% were French sex tourists; 10% were victims of practical jokes (Oh, Burkina's got great jungle safaris!); 4% were masochists; and 1% were friends and relatives coming to visit PCVs (most of those for Chrissy).]

Kaya, 29 July 2004
Arriving may have been a mind trip, but waking up to Africa was something else entirely. Made it sink in, and I look around at everything in a strange sort of awe. Everything s new, and it's very refreshing to have no idea what to expect. The food, the money, the toilets, the people, the critters (geckos and oxen and goats... and who knows what insect freaks of nature we'll encounter). [oh, Philippe, you have no idea...]

The drive this morning from Ouaga gave us our first look at the people and the life here. We return their stares, because for now they're as much of a curiosity to us as we are to them. It helps to have a group to dissipate the attention--it might get tough absorbing it all by myself in a village. [oh, Philippe, you really have no idea...]

On the way from some place to another, I asked Courtney, a PCV helping out with training, So where is Kaya? She'd said that Kaya was one of the larger cities in Burkina. We walked along the dirt street, mostly empty except for the occational goat or ass or shanty along the sides. Oh, we're in Kaya, she said. [oh, Philippe... all looks, no world experience]

I thought I would be stressed out of my mind, but instead I'm just soaking it in, eagerly awaiting what comes next. [Patience, Philippe. The stressed out of your mind part comes next.]

Boussouma, 5 August 2004
Our only instructions were to "integrate with the family." I was all for it, of course, and went in with a positive mind, following my new host dad on his bike to my new home for 3 months. When we got there, they pulled up a chair and we sat in silence. The dad left after a few minutes, leaving me with his teenage son, who speaks a little French.

I tried to make conversation. I asked him how old he is (16), if he was in school (no), if he played sports (volleyball)... What else?? He didn't return the questions. I started to freak out. It was 9:30 am and I had time to kill til 2. I'd already run out of conversation. I hadn't been prepared for this! What the hell was I supposed to do? I didn't think I could take it. I'm not cut out to live in an African village! I can't handle it, especially not alone! This was within the first 20 minutes. I sat with Guillaume for a painful half hour then asked to take a nap.

There were so many formative firsts in Burkina: My first roach, my first scorpion, my first shit...

6 August 2004
My first time squatting on the latrine, worrying about my aim (after assuring myself there were no monster roaches in sight). I felt God there with me when it went straight down the hole. I'm beginning to see why they say this is the toughest job I'll ever love. Tough, but boy did I love being through with it. I've learned that PCVs love to talk about their poop, some more than others (ahem, Cassie). The color, the texture, viscosity, is all a subject of conversation. Not to mention the latrines themselves, and the process... Adjusting to the food here does some weird shit to one's digestive tract. For example, Cassie found it necessary to inform me that hers resembled the slimy sauce she ate with her To as if it simply passed through her unchanged. When I suggested she send in a MIF kit to test for parasites, she said she'd have no problems collecting a sample since she always misses anyway. This from a small, pretty, proper girl. What is it about PC service that makes people think it's ok to just plainly discuss the most unmentionable of bodily functions? Better to share with Philippe than to write home about it. [And then Philippe will write home about it later!]

It wasn't until after my first week that I saw the true extent of the wretched human conditions in Burkina:

7 August 2004
Music video hell. I accompanied my host brothers to the village TV on the side of the road. There were probably 50 young guys surrounding the 14" TV captively watching some of the most bland music videos I have ever seen. Maybe I was sent here to teach the Burkinabé about production values.

While I was watching, one guy came up to me and rescued me from my supreme (albeit amused) boredom by striking up a conversation in shaky English... He told me about his desire to go to America, where he could be rich, and escape the lack of opportunity here. He brought up my American guilt by asking if he could go back with me, or if I could help him. "I want an American boyfriend," he said several times. "Can you help me get an American boyfriend?" I was very amused by the wording, though I didn't point it out. I felt guilty that after 2 years I'll be going home, but they'll be stuck here in poverty with their shitty music videos. Perhaps I shouldn't tell them what they're missing.


As of July 4, I'm the only gay male PCV remaining in Burkina. The only one who'll admit it, anyway... I notice the other boys stealing lustful sideways glances at me when their girlfriends aren't looking. Oh yes. In any case, on August 2nd, Air France will deliver us 50 new trainees, contributing to the Peace Corp’s continual cycle of renewal, flushing out its jaded cynics and replacing them with new batches of doe-eyed idealists.

This is the mother-load. The biggest incoming group of PCVs Burkina has ever seen. For all of us here--well, all 3 of us who are still single, anyway--there's only one thing on our minds. My mom says I should leave more up to the imagination in these posts, and so I will. Ok, ok, I will tell you that it involves Harry Potter Sex. I mean, Sex! ...No, wait, I can say it: Harry Potter SIX. I'm so desperate for Harry Potter SIX that I don't know what to do with myself. If there's nobody on that plane who can "give it to me," well, gee, I'll be screwed. Or, more accurately, I won't.

And even if there is, we're not supposed to solicit Harry Potter SIX from trainees, and after training they're stuck in village for 3 months, and if there's an even number of them they'll surely share it with each other before I even get a shot, and then you gotta factor in the chances of someone wanting to slip me the old "Oliver Wood" and me wanting to "play Quidditch" with that particular someone, and also that, as many cold bucket baths as I take, I still reek of desperation. Also I just plain stink. And they could all turn out to be lame-ass "Muggles." It's hopeless. Hear that, Love? Hopeless. I'm still not expecting you. Love... the biggest bitch of them all.


Pretty much the only way to "Get the hell out of Dodge" (aka Zamsé) and make a decent living in this country is to win a job as a functionary, a government worker such as a nurse, a teacher, a police officer, etc. There is a tiny private sector, but it is overrun with nepotism. If you're not linked to someone high up through your dad's 3rd wife's uncle Amadou, then you're shit out of luck. A few lucky ones get jobs with rich development or aid organizations (like Peace Corps). But for the most part, the only viable way to get out of a life of farming in village is to get one of these aforementioned jobs through an annual national competition. The state provides full scholarships to the winners and then after their training assigns them to a post somewhere in the country. But the competition is ridiculous... For each slot available, there can be something like 300 applicants.

My language tutor Souleymane is one of those bright, modestly ambitious guys who just wasn't meant to live in village forever. He took exams for a couple different positions last year. The competition results were announced on the radio. Can you imagine the nerves? Like having your SAT scores announced on MTV. He heard his name and went all the way to Ouaga where he learned that SEVEN Souleymane Ouedraogos won competitions, and he wasn't one of them. So this year he's giving it his all to make it. He's taking 6 different exams, for nursing, teaching, accounting, etc. He wants to become a nurse, but he's gotta take whatever he can get. He bought the pricey study guides with all the practice questions, so I got to see what he's up against.

My God. Each exam is 2 hours long. They're all essentially the same, no matter what position you're trying for. A big section of abstract problems, like out of an IQ test. Find the pattern, predict the next number, which of these shapes does not belong, etc. And then a section of questions on general knowledge and current events. No easy shit like, Who is the President of the United States? No, no... More like "Who is the king of Cambodia?" Want to try some more?

1. Who was the first Chinese astronaut in space?

2. What is the Quebecois political party whose sole goal is the legalization of cannibis?

3. What is the biggest optical telescope in the world?

4. Who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2004?

5. What is the smallest capital city in the world?

6. The UN charter is composed of how many articles?

7. Who are the biggest alcohol consumers in the world?

8. The first film was projected in what year?

9. What is the process of sperm production called?

10. In Greek mythology, who is the god of forests?

Applicants are expected to know the answers to questions like these when they've never had access to TV, CNN, the Internet, textbooks, encyclopedias, libraries, or even books. All they've got is radio. Even Americans, who are constantly bombarded with all of these media would be hard pressed to compete in a test like this. Sure, exceptionally brilliant people like myself know off the top of their heads that the answers are 1. Yang Liwei, 2. Bloc Pot, 3. Keck One, 4. Elfriede Jelinek, 5. Thorshavn, 6. A hundred and eleven, 7. The Czechs (they beat the Russians and the Irish!), 8. 1895 (I was film major, after all), 9. Spermatogenesis, 10. Sylvan, and that the King of Cambodia is Norodom Sihamoni. But how the hell is the average person supposed to know? It might be a good way to pick out Jeopardy contestants, but to choose teachers? Nurses? Souleymane's a smart guy, but more importantly he's good with people. Does the test doesn't give a damn? Nope. Explains why all the functionaries I work with are pretentious smart-asses.

In addition to all this, the exams require an in-depth knowledge of Burkina facts and figures. I put my chin on Souley's shoulder and give him backrubs while he studies. (Uh, they make you smarter, I explain. But only if you're not wearing a shirt) I've picked up quite a few interesting Burina tidbits by doing this, like the number of tourists to the country cited above. Some more examples:

Cotton production makes up a whopping 31% of Burkina's GDP. The GDP per capita is around $300 USD (in the US it's more than $30,000). 45% of the people live under the poverty level, on $2 or less a day. The life expectancy in 1997 was 53.8 years. In 2001, 28% of the population was literate. 8% have electricity. There are more than 60 ethnolinguistic groups in the country, living and starving together in peace and harmony. 360,000 Burkinabé returned to the country following the crisis in Cote d'Ivoire--they all go there for work! Burkina produces between 50 and 60 thousand tons of onions a year. Indeed, that's all I eat. There's a good chance that Shea butter you pick up at Bath and Bodyworks originated here, since Burkina's the world's 3rd largest producer of shea nuts. Burkina was home to 782,891 dogs in 2003, and 24 million chickens. And finally, Burkina has 320 tourist sites--I assume these are all the places where you can get a cold beer.

Souley's not taking any chances with the competition this year, so he went and got his fortune told at the fêticheur... I don't know what this is in English. Fetishist isn't quite right. It’s something like an animist witch-doctor. You go tell this guy what it is you're after, and for 40 cents he'll tell you what you need to do to get it. Usually it's something like sacrificing a chicken. Souley tells me, "So I went, and instead of telling me to bring him a chicken, he told me I needed to sacrifice a sheep!"

--Whoa... A sheep! Isn't that a bit expensive?

**I know! I tried to negotiate with him, and make it a chicken, but he wouldn't budge! So I said fine. A sheep it is. But I don't know what I can do... I can't afford a sheep! I still need to pay my way in Ouaga.

--Couldn't you just forget it?

He gives me a look that says, you dumb-ass nassara!

**No I can't forget it! I need to win a competition!

--So you actually believe the guy? Aren't you muslim??

**Of course I believe him!

(everybody here, no matter what their nominal religion, still carries around some animist superstitions and beliefs.)

--Didn't you do a sacrifice for your exams last year?

**No, and look what happened!

By now the subtext was quite clear that he wanted me to help him buy the stupid sheep. It would surely upset the values of the Shave the Sheep Vegan Society at Wes, but it obviously meant a lot to him, and if helped boost his confidence... I agreed to give him an advance on his tutoring salary.

--Can you at least bring the meat home to your family to eat?

**No! Not even. Sometimes you can, but not with this guy. He keeps it for himself.

--Souley, I think you need to find yourself a new fêticheur.

**Yeah, you know what, I do. I'll look into it.

Don't tell him, but I've already decided to pay for his school if these competitions don't pan out. It wouldn't be for lack of effort or deserving. This guy needs a ticket out of village, and would make a fine nurse. And I mean Fiiiine! UNH! I have the money saved up somehow from my volunteer allowances. And if it can make a real difference in somebody's life, hell, I won't miss it a bit. Though a plane ticket to Paris would be awfully nice... And some time on the Mediterranean... Study your ass off, Souleymane, and let's pray this damn sheep sacrifice works!


Philippe Gosselin here with your Peace Corps Burkina Faso 7-day Bowel-Watch Forecast, brought to you by Giardia. We start off the week on Monday with the usual light diarrhea. Look for conditions to worsen gradually overnight. Runny all of Tuesday with a 30% chance of leakage. Now we're keeping a close eye on this high pressure gas system that's coming in on Wednesday, and may bring with it painful indigestion and decreased appetite alternating throughout the day with pangs of starvation for a decent American meal. Or Chinese, or Mexican, or even Ethiopian. You'll want to be especially cautious on Thursday as the gas system moves down through the gut, potentially creating emergency conditions with explosive spurts and a much higher than usual 60% chance of missing the hole. Look for things to shift suddenly into Friday, which for now looks to bring with it the start of another long bout of constipation lasting throughout the weekend and likely well into next week.

Keep it tuned to RWO for further bowel updates and special alerts on extreme gastric conditions. Or get reports by SMS, or by logging on to our website. Or by phone, or by fax, or email. Or via post, pager, telegram or RSS feed. Or by biiga, by carrier pigeon, smoke signal, telepathic messaging, or prayer. Or remain blissfully unaware of the horrors that lie in store the next time you eat that sketchy street food. It's up to you.


When I first moved to Zamsé from my training village last October, I biked down to Zorgho to make friends with the good people of the local post office. I explained to them that I live 45km away, and that it would be difficult for me to come down every time I got a package, cuz I have but a bike to get me here, and a round-trip in a single day to pick up a package would just about kill me. My counterpart, the head nurse, rides into Zorgho regularly on his motorcycle. Would there be a way for him to pick up packages on my behalf? No. Not if they're addressed to you. Really? Nothing I can sign to give him permission? No. You understand that it's difficult for me to come all the way down here? Yes, we understand. Ok... What if I asked people to leave my name off the package, would that work? Yes, that could work. Great! ... And so I told y'all to send packages without my name. The packages would just come to me, and I would be happy.

One day, my counterpart got a package slip, saying a package had arrived from the USA. But they wouldn't give it to him. The nurse was going away and wouldn't be able to pick it up for another couple weeks. So the next time I was passing through Zorgho on my way to Ouaga, I went in and said, hey homies, wazzup! I got this here package slip, and that package there has got my name written all over it. No, it doesn't. Well, you're right, it doesn't actually have my name, like we agreed, but it's for me. You can't pick it up. Only the CSPS nurse can pick it up. Well, the nurse told me he tried and you wouldn't give it to him either! What gives? He didn't have an official stamp. Great. I'll tell him to bring it next time. But for now, since I'm here, and I just biked 45k, could I pick up my package please? It's not for you. Uh, yes, you see, that's my home address in the upper left corner. Helene Gosselin, that's my mom. She sent the package for me. But it doesn't have your name. No, you said I could leave off the name, and I wouldn't have any problems! We can't give it to you. It's my package! You KNOW it's mine! Yes, we know. So PLEASE JUST GIVE IT TO ME! I WANT MY PACKAGE FROM MY MOMMY. PLEASE, JUST GIVE IT TO ME. IT'S RIGHT THERE AND I'M RIGHT HERE AND I'LL JUST TAKE IT IF YOU DON'T MIND. It doesn't have your name on it. AAAAAAGH!

You would think, this being a third world country, that they could be a little lax about these things. Make life a little easier for a brother. But no. The folks at the Zorgho post are the tightest-assed tightasses I've ever encountered. As I walked out, fuming, throwing an inner tantrum, desperate for the boxed piece of home that was just on the other side of the counter, they called to me, Make sure the nurse comes back to pick it up soon! We don't want this thing lying around. There's no room.

On another occasion, I went to the Zorgho post with Imane. We biked from Imane's village and arrived at the post around 11:15. She had two packages to pick up (with her name, thankfully) and I wanted to mail a letter with some photos I was sending to my former host family. It took until 12:30 for me to get my stamps and Imane her packages. There were no other clients. There were two people working. I thought of tacking up a Bang Head Here poster to the wall. Sure, you have to go through paperwork and sign in triplicate and pay the fees, but seriously, folks... And when we finally left, they called out: Next time, could you get here a little earlier? Indeed, they had worked half an hour into their siesta.

Around this time I found out that Katy, another volunteer in our area, had made an arrangement for a courrier to pick up packages bearing her name from the post on her behalf. Interesting. Very very interesting. She gave me a copy of the procuration agreement she had signed and gotten officialized at the police. I took it and copied it, had my nurse sign, biked to Meguet, waited an hour at the police, paid the fee, got all the stamps, and then biked the rest of the way to Zorgho. I strolled into the post with a victorious, cocky, sweaty air. I gots a little sumthin for you folks. Perhaps you'd like to read it? I handed over the contract. The guy at the counter took it to the manager in the other room. Five minutes later, he comes back with the paper. This won't work. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was expecting something to go wrong, and I was ready to go off when it happened. WHAT? What do you MEAN this won't work? My friend did this exact same thing! I'm doing everything to make you people happy, and you keep giving me shit! No, sorry, this needs to be done on our official forms. And he handed me copies of the official form I needed to fill out and get stamped in order to have someone else pick up my packages. Um, I believe I asked you people for this a long time ago. Would have saved me a lot of trouble. No you didn't. YES I DID. I ASKED FOR IT QUITE SPECIFICALLY. Was it me you asked? No, it was some other guy, but-- You didn't ask. JESUS CHRIST!

@@@ Yes, Philippe?

I'm not generally an angry person. I never yell at people. But, Jesus, I can only take so much bullshit. What would you do in this situation?

@@@ I would bust out the French.


But I'm a blubbering mess when I'm enraged, and wasn't able to get it out nearly as eloquently as Jesus might have. The guy chuckled, and told me to calm down, there were other customers. I took the new forms and huffed outside to my bike, but the guilt set in before I could flee, so I came back with my tail tucked between my legs and apologized for my outburst. ...Jesus told me to do it.


In spite of these difficulties (which I pray I’ve resolved), the mail in Burkina is actually quite reliable. The only problems seem to arise when West Africa isn't specified in the address. Most people, American postal clerks included, don't think Burkina Faso is a country. Recently I got a letter from Alpha Delt at Wesleyan (you didn't know I was a frat boy?) that was stamped MISSENT TO JAMAICA. Gee. Sure wish I'D been missent to Jamaica! But it found its way to me eventually.

Only once did I think a package had indeed been swallowed by the postal system. My parents sent it on January 13. It landed in my hands on July 11. Why did it take so long? The package was marked Economy Mail all over. I took a look at the customs form. Aha! It was my dad who sent it. That explains things. The postage cost an arm, but if he had just thrown in a leg I could have gotten it in 2 weeks instead of 6 months.

But no matter. It was in my hands. I was ecstatic. On top was the Thermarest I’d asked for. My back had gotten used to sleeping on my rock-hard cot by this point. Oh well. There was also food. So much food! And pictures of me from my college graduation over a year ago. DAMN, I looked good back then! I was jacked. It’s tough to stay that way when I’m eating for 300. Me and my 299 intestinal worms.

But the most exciting of all was the Parmesan Cheese. I was gonna eat me some CHEESE tonight!

It took me a while to admit to myself that the Parmesan cheese had gone bad.

--Philippe, I think it might be bad.

**No, no, it's fine!

--No, really, Philippe, smell it. It smells like blue cheese.

**Well, what's wrong with that?

--You hate blue cheese, it's disgusting!

**It's an acquired taste.

--Philippe, the color's not even right. It's brownish-yellow.

**Well, who knows, it's reduced fat, that's probably what it's supposed to look like. I'll just taste it, all right?

--Fine. Tastes disgusting, doesn't it?

**Well I don't know, I haven't had Parmesan in a while, maybe it's supposed to taste--

--WAKE UP, Philippe! Wake up and smell the rotten cheese!

** Cheese doesn't go bad! Least of all delicious fake processed reduced fat Kraft Parmesan! Maybe I just need a little more.

--No, Philippe!

**Yes, I want more!

--You'll ruin your meal!

**Spaghetti with CHEESE!!


**MORE CHEEEEEESE CHEEESE SAY CHEESE! .......Oh god. You were right.

--I was right.

**Oh, god, this is nasty.

--What'd I say?

**A whole bottle of Parmesan cheese and it's BAD! For once I get cheese and it's ROTTEN! Oh god, no. No! NOooooho ho ho! Oh the humanity! I'll never be hungry again!!

...It was one of the saddest moments of my life. This is what happens when you send Reduced fat Kraft Parmesan cheese via Economy mail. THIS is what happens! The cheese goes around the world on a boat and when it finally reaches your self-sacrificing cheese-starved child in Africa it's gone BAD.

I ate the spaghetti anyway. I'll give the cheese to Imane. Maybe she won't notice.

You see, America is wonderful because you can have all kinds of cheese. Mozarella, swiss, American. It comes in all forms--sliced, powdered, individually wrapped. In chunks, in spray cans, in jars, or old-fashioned wheels. Cheese goes in sandwiches, in chips, in dips. Cottage, cream, parmesan! Spread it, spray it, melt it! On pizza, on pasta, on salad, on cracker! On bread and on soup and on fries and baked taters! Cheese is everywhere. And when it runs out... you just go buy more! Brie, munster, goat, soy! My fellow Americans, living in Burkina Faso, one learns what makes America great. Tonight, after one year away, I can tell you that the answer, my friend, is toilets. And KJ and Pepe, who, in my hour of need, sent me black gay erotica, which doesn't go bad, thank god. But most of all, it is great for its great abundance of CHEESE.

God Bless Cheese! And America. Goodnight!


Sunday, June 26, 2005

BurkinaGay Pride

All over the world, folks are marching down streets in spandex and feathers, waving rainbow banners and flags, making gratuitous public displays of same sex affection as they celebrate their Pride of being Gay. And Lesbian and Trans and Bi and Pan and Poly and A and Inter. Except here in the Faso. So I've been doing a little soul-searching, trying to sort through my feelings, discovering my inner child, cause that's what one does in Peace Corps. And my inner child is saying to me, DAMN, philippe, you need to get some asssss! It also came up with the following deep reflections on being gay in Burkina:


I had a little dilemma when I landed in Burkina almost a year ago. Just after landing, in fact. I had this rainbow pin on my backpack. I'd placed it there when I was in the midst of coming out my freshman year of college four years prior, back when I was becoming a poster-child for gay pride. I was gay, and I wanted everyone to know about it, goddamn it! It was my time to come out and be proud and maybe finally find myself a boyfriend or two. Or three or four. I was gonna come out and get lots of love. I was 18, and my purity score was embarassingly high. I even went on MTV to spread the word that I, Philippe André Gosselin, am gay. [wild, spontaneous thundering applause, and a couple of cat-calls. Work it, honey!] That's not what I said on MTV, but that's the message that got out nevertheless. You'd be surprised how fast the word gets around once you go and say it on MTV.

So, my first semester at college, the modest rainbow ribbon got pinned to my backpack and it'd been there ever since, following me everywhere I went. Now I had landed in Africa, and was pulling out my backpack that had been neatly stowed under the seat in front of me with my tray-table in the upright and locked position and my seatback fully erect. And there was the rainbow. Shit... whaddoIdo, Toto, whaddoIdo? I couldn't just take it off. Well, I suppose I could, but what kind of a statement would that be making? Perhaps this hesitancy needs some explaining.

You see, if I learned one thing in my years amongst the hyper-politicized neo-hippie fascists at Wesleyan, it was that everything you do, whether you mean it or not, is a political statement. The way you dress, cut your hair, who you sleep with and how, who you talk with, who you meet with, the "political spaces" you create, the way you sneeze, tie your shoes, the way you do the things you do, it all implies a political statement of sorts. And you have to be oh so careful about the political statements you make. Thus, the intellectual discourse on campus went something like as follows:

"You offend me."
"No, YOU offend ME!
"No, you are offensive!"
"No, I am offended! And if you respond, that's also offensive!"
"Don't silence my voice!"
"Don't silence MY voice, you straightwhiteuppermiddleclassmalehegemonist OPPRESSOR!"
"Don't oppress me with your labels!"
"You think YOU'RE oppressed?!"
...etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

At Wesleyan I also learned that students at prestigious liberal arts schools are full of shit. So I guess that's two things.

But then why was I so troubled by the statement I'd be making by removing my pin after all these years? I was over those days of gay this, gay that, everything is gay gay gay! (or "queer queer queer" if you want to fit in at Wes) I'd let go of the cause to some extent (though my mom has taken it up in my place). Here I was, embarking on a journey that could be two years of my life... I knew I wasn't gonna be able to be out and proud in Burkina like I'd grown accustomed to since I started college. I knew I was making some sacrifices by coming here. But it was tough, thinking that I would be letting go of a part of me that had come to be as much of me as anything else. Could I really just put it away for two years?

Actually, that's not where the story begins. Why on earth did I end up joining the Peace Corps in the first place? Well, for starters, I'm a saint. That's a given. And joining the Peace Corps is just what saints do. But saints have needs too, you know. This saint first started feeling those needs around the tender, confused young age of 13. You see, back then I was feeling young, confused, and tender...

Ok, we're gonna skip all that and go straight to this summary of my past 10 years:

High school: Nothin. Get into gayest college possible.

Freshman year: Out of the closet and ready for love. Come 'n get me! ...nothin.

Sophomore year: Right then, I'll settle for hookups. Nothin. Well screw Wesleyan I'm going abroad! But first...

Summer in LA: Nothin. But smog. And horrible public transportation.

Fall abroad in Paris: Nothin.

Spring abroad in Madrid: Nothin.

Summer in New York: Nothin.

Senior year: Nothin. By this time I was starting to see a trend. A whole lot of Nothin can bring a saint down. Even a handsome ripped saint with the body of an adonis. What good is a body with nothing to rub it up against? Where did I go wrong? One night, while procrastinating a paper, the saint had a lightbulb go off over the glowing ring above his head. Everybody always says this sort of somethin somethin happens when you least expect it, and here I am looking in all the most obvious places! Going to a queer school (if there ever was one), doing summer internships in gay indie film, studying abroad in romantic capitals of Europe... Please! How cliché! Why don't I join the Peace Corps? I certainly won't expect it there, sweating in a mud hut doing saintly things somewhere in Africa. It'll set me up perfectly.

Pre-departure Summer in San Francisco: Ka-CHING! DING DING DING DING DING DING! Tika Tika Tika Tika Tika! (also, it was freezing)
But by this time, I'd already accepted the invitation to Peace Corps and had a one way plane ticket to Ouagadougou with my name on it. Leaving in 2 weeks. Paradise gained... paradise lost.

Lest I leave a less than honest impression, I'll admit that I wasn't entirely innocent before I reached San Francisco. And I must say I was very fortunate to have experienced all these places despite finding myself hard up in all of them. But folks have had better luck, too. I joked to myself, Sure, you're probably gonna have to be celibate for two years, but it can't be any worse than Wesleyan! One year later, I find myself eating those very words, because I've got nothing better to eat; furthermore, they were untrue. Oh, how very naive I once was.


Within our first week of training we had a session detailing the risks of coming out in Burkina, or accidently outing other volunteers. It's a small country, word could get around. And since the country is heavily Christian and Muslim, the only logical thing to do if you discover a man prefers men is to ostracize and possibly beat him. I mean, what else is there to do? Go on with your life?

This said, nobody will ever suspect you to be anything but straight. People have heard of homosexuality before, but they assume it's something only freaky frenchmen do. It's perfectly acceptable for same sex buddies to walk around holding hands in public, cuddle and caress, and to do some heavy and obscene bumping and grinding on the dance floor. Just as long as you don't seem to enjoy it TOO much. On the other hand, for opposite sex couples to do the same in public is considered quite scandalous and inappropriate. Amen to that, I say! Keep the breeding in the bedroom, you perverts!

It's a little disconcerting at first to see two young men walking hand in hand through the market, or sitting with their hands on each other's thighs, or leaning a head on a shoulder, or making out in a corner. I find myself wondering, Where am I?? Ok, so there's no making out. But the rest is perfectly common. And how refreshing! Nobody could get away with that at home. Men have to keep a 5 foot radius between themselves and other men, watch how they dress and what music they listen to how they speak and be sure not to bleach their hair, or they set off a gay alarm. (*krchshshs* We have a suspected code Pink, please call for backup. Confirm that. Man with tight jeans and excessive hair gel listening to Christina. Designer underwear label showing. That's code pink, over. *krshschsch*) That's why it's so liberating to just come out and forget about all the bullshit. I feel sorry for the straight men in America, all the self-censoring they have to do lest they raise suspicions. Here you do anything, wear anything (or possibly nothing) and nobody blinks an eye. All that registers is: LOOK, A WHITIE!

One evening during training while I was living in a host family in Boussouma, I was hanging out with my host brothers and some of their neighborhood friends, sitting on a bench outside of the courtyard, by the millet field. The moon was shining, the millet stalks waving, and there was a crackling radio playing some slow jazz. My oldest host brother, around 19, is a tall handsome guy, and that night looked rather like Tiger Woods, wearing a baseball cap and a polo shirt tucked into khakis. Barefoot of course. He took the hand of one of the smaller more raggedly dressed neighbor boys and started to twirl him around to the music. They laughed as they twirled, and then they settled into each others arms into a swaying slow dance. The radio, the moon, the stars, the breeze, two boys just dancing out in the field as the rest of us sat and watched. I was mesmerized. I'll be damned if it wasn't the most romantic thing I've ever seen.

[pause for reflective sigh]

[deeper, slightly melancholy sigh]

[sharp, conclusive sigh]

It didn't matter that I didn't get a turn. Just watching was enough to fill this deep, longing hole in my... if only for a moment... I'm sorry, I can't go on. [blows nose into microphone] Can we turn the cameras off? Can we get someone to come fix my makeup?


So began my rebirth as a straight man. Sometimes volunteers make up stories about a "certain someone" back home to stave off overzealous suitors or the inevitable questions that arise. But I wanted to retain at least a modicum of honesty, so arriving in village I began with a tactic of subtle evasion: ARE YOU MARRIED? No. WHY NOT? Cause I don't want to be. Look, a goat! WHY NOT? Cause I don't have a girlfriend. How bout this heat? WHY NOT? Jesus, I dunno... Women are too complicated! Sure is a hot one, huh?

Of course, such answers, like claiming you don't have a religion, just make no sense to the villagers. And so they nagged and nagged until I finally decided, ok, just say whatever it takes to satisfy them. I never bothered to make up a story, so I can never keep my answers straight. ...erm, consistent.

DON'T YOU WANT AN AFRICAN WIFE? I've already got a wife. YOU SAID YOU WERE A BACHELOR. Did I? Sometimes I forget... She's so very far away. SO YOU HAVE A WIFE IN AMERICA, WHY NOT A WIFE IN AFRICA TOO? She's a jealous jealous wife. SHE'LL NEVER KNOW. YOU HAVE NEEDS! Lord, don't I know it! HOW ABOUT A GIRLFRIEND? Already got one of those, too. You know Imane? WILL YOU MARRY MY DAUGHTER? Your daughter's 6. SO? You know what, you're right. Age is an arbitrary thing. I'll marry her after these other 4 girls that have been bestowed upon me.

When I went to visit my neighbor Imane's village in the beginning, we made a show of our separate sleeping arrangements. Imane actually does have a fiancé back home, and it would be no good if her villagers thought she was some kind of slut. Look, people! He's sleeping on the porch! But of course, deny as we might any romantic or physical involvement, people will assume what they want to assume. So now if somebody asks if there's anything between us, the answer is No, we're just fucking. What other reason could we have for seeing each other?

Unfortunately because I can't be open and honest, in village I feel like a horribly lame version of myself. When I can't make comments about hot guys or complain about not getting ass, what is there left to talk about? The weather? Goats? It just isn't any fun. Not to mention I'm one lonely and randy rabbit.


In a way though it's easier here. 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 usually my thoughts have 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. Or possibly a releif. No, relief.

Ok, I admit that while I fully expected the gay scene in Burkina to be about as barren as the landscape, I secretly hoped 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 straightwhiteuppermiddleclassheterosexistmonogamist 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 amongst 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 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!"


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 rejuvinate 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 cafés are more popular and widespread and allow for gay folk to find their 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. Surely enough, he responded and we set up a rendez-vous for an informal chat. It wasn't til later that he told me he'd had to ask special permission from the board of the underground organization to meet up with me, an outsider, 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 whitie 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, sistah! 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"--or better yet, Z--told me that the server was safe, aka 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 in Burkina. The gay identity there 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 discrete in their appearance, which I realized must make life awfully tough for guys with flamboyant traits like Z.

He formed the group about 5 years ago, with a goal of providing a social meeting space for gays in Dakar. They've since expanded their mission to include HIV/AIDS education for its members and political activism, trying to reverse government persecution and abolish a law forbidding homosexual relations. Since they're officially banned from meeting, it all takes place in secret, communicating through word of mouth, email and phone. It started out with 50 members, but now has over 1000, 400 of whom live in the capital. Z told me the membership includes gay men, bisexuals, and lesbians. Many of them are married, some are sex workers.

Because of his position as head of the organisation and his efforts to get support from various non-governmental organizations, he inadvertantly became something of a public figure in Senegal. A couple 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 6 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 their former African colonies, 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. The possible punishment is between 1 month and 2 years in prison, and they were both condemned to 2 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 people who will agree to treat them, because they're often refused treatment at local hospitals or clinics. Even organizations like Amnesty International have offered nothing but sympathy for these injustices, claiming that if they help the gay community it would sully their relations with the government would harm their capacity for addressing other abuses. Other NGOs have refused 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 supressed 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, publish a website, educate the gay community about AIDS and STIs, get them treatment. Maybe I could even help a group in Burkina get on its feet. In Peace Corps I've gone between feelings of being mildly to completely useless. But now here was something I could be passionate about, working with people I have a connection to, who I care about, and who 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 2 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 whitie 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, put he offered to put in $2 as I laid down a ten. We said goodbyes, and I left with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. I realized, though, 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 Burkinabé doctor who was trying to establish a group in Ouaga. Unfortunately, my attempts to follow up with him have gone unanswered, and so, to this day, I'm left high and dry in Burkina.


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 gay-dar 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 Mooré lesson. 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 Nassarra, 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?" Umm, 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 some time." Well! Whoa there, Souley! Nobody's ever tried that pick up 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 Tô." 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! It could happen. 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's 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 myself (remember...? when you told me...?) the day came that he invited me to stay. We'd gone out into the bush for our Mooré lesson, out to a spot where the crocodiles are. We didn't spot any, but we took pictures and had perfectly romantic time of it. We went back to his family's courtyard, 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! "Allright, in that case I'll sleep outside on the mat." I was too flummoxed to respond... WHAT? Aren't we at least gonna cuddle? Cuz 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 asked if I needed anything, like a good host. 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, and 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. 2am, same. 4am, 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 6 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 see... Now it's way to 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, 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 me. 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 canned 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 2 years away to visit his Burkinabé lover. So there's hope after all... But I'm not expecting it. Nope. No siree.

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 discovered. I could go marching down the street waving a huge rainbow flag with 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. My Ouagadougou Gay Pride for one.