Five Abidjan Friends Thinking of Getting Out

My best friends during my three years of living in Abidjan weren’t rich. They weren’t political activists or businessmen, or expats or ngo workers or even journalists.

They were poor, almost homeless, adventurous, desperadoes, dreaming of a different lifestyle, thinking a lot, not having many opportunities, it seems. They all shared a common dream of getting out, but not doing that much to get out. They were all reckless and fragile.

You hear the horror stories, getting robbed in the desert, dying of thirst, being lumped in repeatedly broken down trucks with others sharing the same ill fate, criss-crossing between borders and smugglers back and forth, from woodsy hideouts to possible takeoffs, being fed barely enough, finally taking a boat full of holes into the night, drowning before even passing the first break of waves, or having the boat slowly fill with seawater and the delirium of passengers, in some cases washing up rachitic on the shores of the Canary Islands amidst stunned portly beachgoers, themselves getting a globalized whiff and sight of human reality in that lost chain, saving themselves perhaps, momentarily, from skin cancer.

By then, many of the would-be migrants have abandoned the voyage, got lost in the desert, died. Most of those who thought they succeeded will be taken back if they did cross, many times handcuffed, and turn to petty crime to pay their voyage debts they can’t pay off. Those who do make it will find horrible work, cold apartments and western union back money to all their family, relatives, sponsors and slowly bid their time and energy for better, trying to find some schooling, while reminiscing about easier, even if less modern and idler times, back home.

There are also those who never really try, but always hope.

I have been told I have friends like this because of my own insecurities and shortcomings. Perhaps. But I also like to see people’s hearts and be able to be myself with them, to speak to their hearts, to ride in the bliss of undeterred being. And I felt comfortable with my friends, I knew I was with them, in this world, and we were going to remain together, whatever happened.

I always say in Africa I find people’s large and tried hearts to be true, to flutter and quiver through in their dusted up and occasionally jaundiced eyes when they look piercingly into you, they know about precariousness. They also know about loneliness, which sometimes means feeling so alone against the forces of nature. Many have so much to gain and nothing to lose, but also such a difficult existence.

I will try to tell some of the stories of five Abidjan friends, JB, S, Mm, J, and M.

going to visit JB

Chapter 1 - JB in Assinie

His totem is chicken, meaning he can’t eat chicken, or even eggs. That leaves him with fish. He doesn’t complain, it comes straight out of the ocean, even though he himself is afraid of ever going, and rightfully so, there's a nasty current.

It's often the son of the village chief himself who goes out on a pirogue, black speedo and all, and comes back with fresh fish, for a couple thousand cfa francs. Anything land or ocean based in proximity invariably belongs to the village chief or his family, Sometimes there is conflict or bribery with state authorities and their vigilantes since now the state owns everything, but the Gods sometimes have a different opinion.

If JB doesn't have enough money, he can go for the spicy beans sold in the rickety beach shack, next to the table where they play the local version of craps.

Still, he is rail-thin. He usually wears these large hats. He has a gangly, feminine appearance. He hates being called gay. He hates it when the only gay in his village walks up to him. He is defensive about this, and says he wants to tear up the only gay in the village. But then he laughs, a nice laugh, and the laugh trails off as little chicken run around in tall grass, amid the whiff of chicken being roasted.

JB likes to watch turtles come in and out of the white wash, and he likes to spot whales, especially at sunset. He spends a lot of time sitting and watching the ocean.

When they had a Club Med before the war, he used to be a sort of male prostitute for overweight, in their thirties and forties, even fifties, European female tourists. Some of them kept on sending him money for a while. He emails a lot of them from the Internet cafe at the fancy hotel a 45 minute walk away through coconut trees.

A few show up for a few days, sometimes a week, pay him a visit, leave him some money, gifts. He doesn't look the part at all, but he doesnt seem to be able to keep a regular girlfriend, so maybe this past lingers inside him. But fewer and fewer of the older girlfriends show up or send money.

He tries to have a stable relationship with local village women, but it never seems to work. Which poor man can keep a regular girlfriend in Africa though, a land of to the highest bidder, can't get a girl until I get a decent paying job.

The Club Med still has guards, and all its plates. It’s a hassle to go through it from one end of the beach to the other. You have to talk to the guards who have nothing else to do.

The Club Med has been closed down since the start of the civil war, but the bright canary-yellow uniformed guards are still guarding the plates and empty dormitories.

Most villagers lament the end of Club Med. It’s all about money, easier the better. They set up here at a source of easy money, a well which has dried up, but they are all thinking eventually it will come around again. It's a bit like waiting for a bus on a Sunday when the bus has broken down.

One of them says he once poked out the eye of a policeman with a sling blade.

The villagers still have their old stalls with clothes, artefacts and statues, just those types of tourists never come anymore. You have Pakistani peacekeepers who order a Flag beer, go knee deep into the ocean fully clothed, and say it's a wonderful day and head back to their base in Abidjan.

So JB now deals drugs to the occasional surfer, or to Lebanese businessmen who come for a day or two with their assorted posses. They pay him with used clothes, shoes, magazines, those big hats, a bit of money. He keeps everything in his moldy beach shack he guards for a Chinese family who never show up.

He's also a bit of a pimp for the few cute waitresses who work on weekends in the village center, dancing as they serve beer, but it's never entirely clear what his role really is, beyond being a facilitator, and whether he really makes money.

The drugs business may be more lucrative, but it's more dangerous. He got caught once riding his bike, got set up, threw his stash when he saw the cops, but it was too late. He spent two days in the local jail, before his boss paid his 100-dollar bail.

He says the main drug dealer for foreigners is this Italian with a strange restaurant on the ocean, serving wine and pasta at the end of the village, by the lagoon. Cocaine on its way to Europe from South America, some of it gets housed here, transits, and a few scraps get sold locally.

The main drug dealer for Ivorians wanted to recruit JB. When JB went inside his little hut, for the getting to know you better, size each other up meeting, and saw everything the dealer was hiding, and when he told him about taking pirogues in the dark and back to Ghana, that seemed a bit high stakes, for what, just some money, nicer clothes, maybe a car, shallow girlfriends, lots of hassle and work during odd hours and then bang trouble can hit you before you even figured out who is who.

So his regular job is being a waiter, concierge, coordinator for tourists who come to eat at a small beachside fish and chicken place.

His boss left him one dawn without telling him, drove off when there were anti French and anti Lebanese riots in Abidjan, there wasnt going to be more business anyway, just left without telling his employees, went back to his country Burkina Faso, to sit it out for a while.

JB was left to fend for himself. He's from Burkina Faso too, and when trouble hits, locals get a bit testy. But they said, tourists are our cocoa, so we won't let the young patriots rampage their "paillotes", or sea-side shacks, we will defend this territory.

A few French people who had been vacationing were rescued by French army helicopters, for whatever reasons of fear and history and paranoia and race relations, and outsiders insiders, foreigners natives, money to waste, scared to die, no choice but to just watch, bear, sit, relax.

JB came from Abidjan to this place by the ocean, Assinie, after he hit his high school teacher, just smacked her in the face for whatever reason, And JB is not the violent type at all. But he's never been to school since and that was probably eight years ago. He's never going to get his high school diploma.

He stutters a bit, so he talks fast to hide this. But he's smart in his ways, and despite his frailness a survivor who knows how to position himself.

He would come to my place in Abidjan, say he wanted to visit his father in the suburbs, smoke cigarettes inside, listen to reggae, and then go back to the beach, say he didnt feel like seeing his old man then, but would come back and see him another time.

There was another time he was violent though, and that leads me to my second friend, M.

It was New Year's eve and we were drinking beer and palm wine. JB had some business, and wanted my help, so we left M with some rowdy locals, who poured him more palm wine. When we came back, M. was gone, nowhere to be found.

The owner of the bar, a rasta, said he had M's wallet and ID but was not going to give it to us because he didnt know us. That set JB off for whatever reason and he started yelling c est foutaise, this is bullshit, and stomping out of the bar, and saying he would burn it down, which of course he never did.

M ended up waking up full of red dirt, having slept on the ground, in the small police guard post at the entrance of the village, slowly walking back to JB's shack on January second.

A new calendar year for the small time hustlers of Africa.

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