A man in a stained shirt and dirty brown pants stumbles out of a mud-brick building, fiddling with his zipper. Giggling, but sober, he shuts his fly and fishes a cigarette from his breast pocket. Approaching a woman grilling brochettes over a fire, he places a hand on her thigh and swipes a skewer of meat from the grill. The woman doesn’t move or speak, just clucks her tongue disapprovingly. Grubbing in his pocket, he pulls out a hundred-franc piece and drops it at her feet. She scoops it out of the dust without looking. When he’s finished eating and smoking, he wanders off to a bar down the road, using the brochette stick as a toothpick.
I think his name is Henri; I’ve seen him here before — here outside the brothel in this tiny African village. As a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English at the local school, I’ve struggled with how it looks for me to spend so many evenings here, but the place is also the only restaurant in town. It opens at sundown and begins serving the grilled brochettes, which are like kebabs, around seven. You can also get good meat in the marketplace, where teenage boys cook it over old oil drums, but I prefer to sit down while I eat; the brothel has outdoor benches circling the fire where the woman cooks.
It is always the same woman, Celine, sitting on her tiny stool, never looking up from her work. I think she hates this place, and that makes me feel guilty for enjoying coming here. It’s the only night life I allow myself. Too scared to go to discos alone, too worried about rumors if I visit a male colleague, I’ve found comfort here in the company of prostitutes and unfaithful husbands. The words exchanged are mostly demands for food or sex, but sometimes I find myself in a pleasant chat about the price of millet, and, even if the conversation isn’t stimulating, it at least reminds me that I am not alone.
The Lutheran missionaries in town tell me I shouldn’t come here: I’ll get a bad reputation. They worry about me as they would a younger sister. They don’t want me hanging out at the brothel — “It’s just not right” — but they love my stories at Sunday dinner. “Oh, you!” a missionary’s wife will say. Once I’ve set the scene for them, gotten the hue of the evening sky just right, and named the song blaring from the disco down the road, we cut to the heart of the matter:
“See anyone from church?” they ask.
Of course. I always do. Everyone goes to the corner store.
That’s what I call the brothel, which is located on a fairly busy corner about a block from the central market. Besides sex and brochettes, you can get cigarettes, batteries, matches, aspirin, mosquito coils, tiger balm, bubble gum, pencils, pens, razors, cooking oil, roasted peanuts, and toilet paper here. A young mother and her suckling child sit by the road in front of the brothel, selling such necessities from a tiny wooden stand. Sometimes, after dinner, I buy a cigarette from her and stare with Celine into the fire while I smoke.
I know most of the men here: policemen, shopkeepers, my colleagues from the school — men with a little cash to spend on women. They watch me watching them duck through the front door. I don’t know if they are embarrassed. We usually smile at one another.
I’ll never tell them how their scurrying after sex is somehow sweet. After the initial disgust leaves me, when the mental picture of the wife and children is gone, the thought of people coupling, random and reckless, seems to make sense in this sorrowful heat.
My friend Fombi, who teaches French at the school, comes here often. In the teachers’ lounge each day, where we sit during the morning break eating groundnuts and drinking warm Guinness, he ranks the local prostitutes. This routine began when I refused to sleep with him. If we couldn’t have sex together, he figured, at least we could talk about it. But he does all the talking, and I listen because his energy is infectious; he bounces as he speaks.
One day I gave him all of my Peace Corps-issued condoms; word was out that two new prostitutes in town had AIDS. “Miss Mary,” he cried, “what will you use yourself?” When I told him I had chosen to remain celibate during my two years in Africa, he slapped me on the back and laughed. “Good joke,” he said.
Celine hands me the two brochettes I’ve ordered. I give her my money and a cold Coca-Cola from my backpack. She pulls the cap off with her teeth and spits it in the dust. “Merci,” she says, but makes no eye contact.
During the day I find myself looking for Celine in the marketplace, at the post office, in the bars. But I never see her. I never see any of the women from the corner store. I know nothing about them except what Fombi tells me, and even then I don’t have a name or a face to go with the story. One woman has a very sick child; another just lost a sister in a taxi accident. I’m not sure what one of the prostitutes and I would talk about, given the chance. But since I spend so much time in their courtyard, I’d like for us to exchange something more than a stranger’s greeting.
I wonder what they think about as they peer meekly from the doorway to beckon the next man, shadows from the fire dancing across their faces. It is impossible to imagine them in sunlight, dressed to go to market. Here they wear pagnes, loose wraps. Easy on, easy off. There is not much mystery, no mingling or flirtation, no illusion of romance. This is a place of business. Still, the customers and I trek here night after night, like pilgrims, searching.
I’d like to think I know what I’m looking for, but I don’t. And, outside of the obvious, I can only speculate as to why the men journey here. Perhaps they are trying to loosen the dead knot inside of them, a knot formed by years of heat and hardships. Or maybe, as Fombi has told me, it is just a cultural matter: African men are expected to frequent brothels. Real African men, he tells me, drink a lot, sleep around, and beat their wives.
While the men might see it as their “duty” to come here every night, I see the place as my surrogate home. I am welcomed here; Celine feeds me, the men talk with me, and when I get back to my house I feel a calm that carries me into slumber. But it wasn’t always like this. Initially, I came here strictly as a voyeur, titillated by the spectacle, unashamedly gawking. No one spoke to me then, and I didn’t attempt conversation. I thought the fascination would pass, and so did the villagers. Instead, I became a regular. Slowly, the greetings changed from irritated stares to “Bon soir.”
Now the customers ask how their sons or cousins or nephews are doing in my English classes. And some, if they’ve had a little to drink, practice their English on me. Once, a prostitute came out of the house and sat down next to me. She grabbed my beer, took a big swig, and handed it back.
“Thank you,” she said.
“You speak English?” I asked.
“Yes. Can you help me?”
“I don’t know.”
I went to buy her a beer, and by the time I got back she was inside with another customer. Celine called me over to the fire and told me not to talk with that prostitute because she was sick — crazy sick. I waited for the woman to reappear, but she stayed inside the rest of the night. Weeks later, I found out she had gone back to her village in the south.
Stories about roaming prostitutes accumulate. A while ago, I heard about a Zairian woman who had set up shop in the provincial capital, a couple of hundred miles from our village. She slept with forty men in three days’ time before word got out that she had AIDS. The police arrested her and attempted deportation, but Zaire didn’t want her back, so she was locked up and left to die in a dank, vermin-infested cell. The panic-stricken residents responded by storming the marketplace and buying up every available condom.
Then there was the news from a neighboring village about a bank whose employees were all sleeping together. Secretaries slept with tellers who had slept with prostitutes who had slept with the bank president. One by one they died. The small village blamed malaria.
I’d heard enough. I walked into a class of older students and, instead of teaching meaningless vocabulary, talked about safe sex. The young men giggled when I used a banana to demonstrate how to put on a condom, but they were attentive. Some even took notes. At the end of my presentation, after I felt confident everyone had learned something, I opened the class to discussion. Before I could call on him, one young man shot up from his seat, pounded his fist on his desk, and cried, “Miss, you must show us AIDS. We do not believe in what the eyes cannot see.”
A friend working for Save the Children had warned me I might get this response. I’d thought I was prepared. Instead, confronted with eighty sets of eyes waiting for proof to materialize, I dismissed class early. There were no protests; no one followed me and badgered me with questions. I counted myself lucky to be teaching English. Let the relief agencies warn people of imminent death.
That night, I went to the corner store, and a student’s father sat next to me while I ate. He wanted to know why I had wasted the school day talking about sex.
“Because Africa is dying,” I told him flatly.
“Not here. Not in this village,” he insisted. “Not from AIDS.”
I didn’t want to argue, because, like him, I didn’t want to imagine living without this place, without the mother and child and their stand of goods, without Celine’s brochettes and silent watch over the fire. I wanted to believe with him that only sex and food and conversation and happiness — only life — was found here.