three pairs of lovers with space

DAKAR IN 1948

 

The following account of Dakar comes from English journalist Michael Davidson (1897-1976)’s Some Boys (1969), his memoir of his Greek love affairs.

The text is taken from pp. 205-16 of the unexpurgated American edition (New York, 1971), from which one paragraph and the odd word of no great significance had been cut in the British edition. The footnote is the author’s.

Though Davidson says in the second paragraph of this chapter of Some Boys that he visited Dakar in “about 1949”, it is fairly clear that in fact it must have been the visit there mentioned in his  earlier autobiography, The World, the Flesh and Myself (1962), as having taken place in early 1948, since that year he left for India and went on from there to spend five uninterrupted years in the Far East.

 

Some Boys

 DAKAR

IT WAS in Dakar that I respectfully declined an invitation to dine with the Governor-General of French West Africa because I had a date with a barefooted black boy who had picked me up the night before.

This must have been about 1949; and the Place Protet, the wide square pleasantly shaded by palm trees where I'd met him, hadn't yet earned its present name of "Place de l'Indépendence": Dakar was still the administrative capital not only of Senegal but also of a number of vast tribal territories which today are sovereign nations. The French still ruled; and Dakar was already the "gay" city of West Africa; when I returned nine years later, the French rulers had gone; and Dakar was gayer than ever.

I suppose this sad yet bubblingly cheerful waif was about fourteen years old. He had, I remember—seeing in my expression friendliness and probably, too, invitation—rushed over and flung his long thin arms round me, pressing his naked dusty-black chest against me and saying a lot of what I hoped were African endearments. He was wearing nothing but an African variety of sarong, and a smile that made his plain, flat, fleshy face wonderfully beautiful.

In fact, it was lucky for me that the gubernatorial dinner-party happened that night, because the two friends I was travelling with went to it and spent the evening in grand and rather stuffy company, while I had to myself the flat the three of us had been lent. To myself, that is, and the black boy. I believe I enjoyed my evening better than they enjoyed theirs. Even now, twenty years later, I can still see in my mind the gentle lines of that lean—yet so loving—ebony body and remember the clinging of his limbs. The very sparkle of his nature, the very warmth of his response, enhanced his pathos, the desperate sadness of the young life ahead of him. Scarcely out of his childhood—from all I could make out of his touching chatter—he was on his own: of family, he knew none; if there were any government or charitable institutions looking for him and his like, he carefully eluded them—with that natural instinct which prizes liberty above everything else. He earned what centimes he could as a part-time shoeblack—and God knows there are too many shoe-blacks in Dakar: each pavement cafe has its "official" team of half-a-dozen or more shoeshine boys who squat on the pavement-edge with their wooden boxes of pads and brushes, quarrelling and joking over each newly arrived customer, flashing their huge white eyes around the people sitting at the tables, and exchanging an endless backchat of jolly obscenities—an anarchical, ebullient company of charmingly-mannered bandits whose only cares were hunger and which doorstep to sleep on tonight. What chance could there be for a part-timer?

This is the tragedy with which always--if not many times in his life then at least once—every lover of boys is faced: a boy he loves, even if it’s only a transient love; yet whom, for a million reasons of the social world we live in, he can’t sustain more than perfunctorily, casually, as contemptuously as he’d tip a headwaiter—dismissing a person whose deep affections he’s accepted, whose warmest passions he’s shared; dismissing this boy with a hurried “goodbye” and the price of a few days’ living. But this seemingly contemptible behavior isn’t a shame, it’s a tragedy; we’re forced to it by the social rules set by a resolute bulk of anti-understanders—the great mass of tax-paying White Men who cannot bring themselves to believe that their brothers or their nephews (or even their sons) could want to do something that they themselves had never wanted to do. But Heaven be thanked for ourselves: for every day, somewhere in the world, boys who are hungry, homeless and unhappy are nourished and even made happy by one of ourselves—there's nobody else to change, even temporarily, young misery into a full belly and the glitter of enjoyment. And sometimes; God be thanked—-and God will thank-—we are able, in spite of the world, to help change a boy’s hopeless-looking life into successful achievement and often a happy family life with a row of children.

Dakar at that time, except for the grandiose administrative palaces of the French Government and their social equals, the commercial edifices of the great French firms which made their fortunes out of products like peanut oil and phosphates, seemed to be a sprawling maze of African huts and shantytown suburbs—"bidonvilles" is the nice French word for them—from whose walls rows of repulsive baldheaded vultures gazed down on the lookout for offal. When I saw Dakar again nine years later, the administrative centre seemed merely a subsection of a great modern city; the population had grown to something like a quarter of a million people; and there were more shoeshine boys than ever.

*             *             *

Anybody who's read my account earlier in this book of some experiences in Timbuctoo will have perceived that it couldn't be advertised as "gay." Dakar, however, one thousand miles to the west. on the Atlantic coast. certainly can. Two over-simple reasons, perhaps, occur to one in explanation of this: it’s been one of the great West Coast ports of call for European and American shipping during two or three centuries, and an entrepôt of foreign commerce, and its people thus have learned a lot about how to provide "white" needs; and two hundred years ago Dakar was one of the main ports loading slaves for the Caribbean sugar plantations and the cotton fields of the southern States: the unhappy natives of Dakar learned a thing or two in those days.

                                            Colonial Senegal

But that's not all there is to it: for some reason, buried in history and ethnography, the Senegalese—the people who inhabit the vast plains on either side of the Senegal river, raising livestock and harvesting the easy-growing peanut—have a reputation in all those regions for homosexuality, and in Dakar one may quickly see that they merit this reputation. Why, I've often wondered, isn't homosexuality rife, or at least noticeable, in Timbuctoo also. One would think that a populace subject so long to the influence and often to the rule of the men of the desert would have become accustomed to desert habits. But, then, is homosexuality a Touareg habit or propensity? I doubt it, though it may sometimes provide a diversion the Touareg, in their caravans, lug their huge fleshy women with them astride their camels (to the Touareg noble's eye, female obesity equals allure). It's likely to be a traditional mode of pleasure among the swarthy nomad Moors of the southern Sahara; but these, though they are in and out of Timbuctoo to barter supplies or have their saddlery or weapons seen to, have never dominated the city's people and never stay there. And when I knew Timbuctoo the boys there were so unused to white visitors who even noticed them, that they shied away from any approach—not from fear of sexual assault but from plain shyness. As late as 1958, there wasn't much sign, that I could see, of queerness in Timbuctoo. But in Dakar!

*             *             *

The whole matter should be so interesting to an anthropologist, and is so puzzling to the mere uninstructed observer that one may insert a brief note—for the sake of readers who don't know the country—about the surprisingly sharp differences between the Senegalese and the people of Timbuctoo. The ordinary American and European who doesn't know about Africa thinks that it's all the same—just Africans, looking the same, coloured the same, speaking the same. This, of course, is nonsense.

For example, a young man from Dakar, a Senegalese, who had come to Timbuctoo as one of our party, started questioning some "locals" one day when we were walking through the market. He was furious when they didn't understand him—and he couldn't understand them. "Sons des idiots, quoi?" he exclaimed irritably; "Sons des indigènes, ces types-là?" "They're just a lot of natives, these idiots." And, of course, that's just what the people of Timbuctoo thought about any other "foreigners" whose language they didn't know, black though their skins might be.

Dakar has no real ethnic affinity with Timbuctoo, apart from all being African together; nor really any geographical—the vast stretches of Africa which the great windings of the Senegal river kept alive are utterly different from those that the fabulous Niger nourish—though on the map their two tails are tantalizingly close. Half a dozen languages are spoken in the varying tribal territories between Dakar and Timbuctoo; the architecture of the beautiful mud-brick buildings one sees in any of the few large villages along the route, keeps changing in a dramatic way that shows a change in communal need and idea; colour alters too: the people of Senegal are generally lighter than the people of Africa further south; they are, might one say, the colour of coffee with a little cream in it. But once you get beyond the source of the Senegal, and far beyond the source of the young Niger, you suddenly find the people lighter still: the colour perhaps of a very dark local English cheese; and now the country is the sovereign republic of Mali—it's the heir to one of the great Niger empires of that name and today includes Timbuctoo. But the people around Timbuctoo are, again, much darker: they are Songhai. Dakar knows nothing of all that: the name "Timbuctoo" is better known in the nurseries of Europe than in the neon-lit bars of up-to-date Dakar.

The Dakar of 1958 was the Paris of Africa. The French, in their old colonial days, possessed a genius for evoking the atmosphere of la métropole, as they called metropolitan France, wherever they settled down and whomever they settled among: as they did in Saigon and Hanoi, in Indochina; as they did in the towns of Arab North Africa; as they did in Djibouti, capital of the French slice of Somaliland; and as they most certainly did throughout their dominions in West and Equatorial Africa—and nowhere more enduringly than in Dakar. In 1958 Senegal had just become an independent republic; but French was still the administrative language, and in any of Dakar's bars and cafés one could easily, if one closed one's mind to the climate and the predominance of black skins, suppose oneself in Paris.

*             *             *

That one didn't have to be shy in Dakar, and even less furtive, if one was queer became pretty plain to me almost my first evening there (I'm writing now of my second visit). I was in a rather low bar, just off the city's principal boulevard and in the heart of the French quarter. The woman behind the bar, obviously the proprietress, was a typical big-bosomed colonial Frenchwoman; a few men, whites, were sitting with a typically French-colonial moroseness in front of their apéritifs, waiting for God knows what—probably their return to la métropole; a couple of European tarts, blonde, brash and brassy and no longer in their first youth, were making up their faces in a corner and gossiping—it was early yet for customers: these morose males were clearly putting off the moment when they must go back to their wives.

And suddenly, into this typically small-town ambience of the French provinces, there swished a middle-aged tapette with an ebony skin, orange silk bellbottoms, a sky-blue satin blouse and dangling gold earrings—and this was some ten years before our male sartorial revolution in Europe and America. He seemed about the campest thing I've ever seen: the featherweight lithe figure of a boy-dancer, the giggles and lisps and little shrieks, as he toyed with his bock of pale beer, of a coquettish schoolgirl, and the wrinkles and ogling knowingness of an ageing queen. Obviously there were no customers for him in this bar—the few Frenchmen on their barstools still gazed sadly into their glasses, apparently unaware of this sudden shrill presence. The patronne served him his beer and took his money, and exchanged with him the usual pleasantries of the evening; to her he was a customer: for any Frenchwoman who sits at the till, it's the till that makes the social rules.

                                               Dakar in the 1950s

But the two tarts in the corner owned quite a different sort of till. The moment the queen swished in, they dropped their gossip and their face-making and got their weapons ready; by the time he was half way through his bock, they attacked: they launched one of those battles of abuse which French tarts generally win.

But their abuse wasn't directed at his being gay, at his being a queen, at his sexual morality or his sexual practice, nor at his colour—they abused him simply because, so they alleged, he was trespassing in their beat.

"You and your kind," they said to him, "you're taking a living away from honest girls like us. Can't you go somewhere else—can't you go to your own bars? Why've you got to spoil our trade? You're just a lousy spoil-trade, that's what you are." They spoke in what one might call dakarois—a local slang-French interlaced with plenty of African slang-words, or rather words made slang by the French. What impressed me was their evident and uncritical acceptance of what he was—just as one would accept somebody's being a wigmaker or a Jehovah's Witness: that's the sort of chap he is, one would say, and leave it at that. It was intrusion into their territory that the tarts were angry about; they seemed to think that this fifty-year old queen, which is what I judged his age, really did mean a competition in their own trade. Right through this discussion, the patronne sat omnisciently beside her till; one by one the men lowered themselves from their inelegant perches, primed at last to return to their homes. They seemed not to have noticed that there'd been any altercation in the bar. When I left, the tarts and the queen were still there: customers for all would doubtless arrive later. The patronne remained by the till.

Further evidence of Dakar's atmosphere of permissiveness, of the moral indifference with which other people's private diversions seemed generally to be regarded, cropped up in the small hotel where I was staying. It was French-owned; and characteristic of hundreds of its kind to be found wherever the French are: cheap, clean and uncomfortable—and, of course, the inevitable Cerberus in the hall, controlling every visitor's entry and exit. The rooms were tiny, each with its own shower, and the beds were enveloped in a tent of mosquito-netting. Sometimes the Cerberus was an agreeable friendly Senegalese hall-porter; sometimes Madame herself guarded the stone stairway leading up to the rooms: anybody who went up or down those stairs was observed. When, therefore, I wanted to bring a young African in his early teens to my room—a shoeshine boy who in his ragged singlet and shorts looked as if he badly needed the shower-bath he was coming to enjoy—I knew there wasn't a hope of smuggling him in. So I walked boldly in, followed by my barefooted guest, and, finding Madame on guard, called out gaily "bonjour, Madame," with all the self-assured courtesy I could muster, and made resolutely for the stairs. "Bonjour, M'sieur," she calmly replied, hardly looking up from her account book. . . .

After that my little shoeblack came in and out unquestioned—and he wasn't the only one either.

*             *             *

I'd been introduced to an official of some sort in one of the Ministries: a middle-aged Senegalese of great charm and culture—and himself a lover of boys. Would I care to see a very special side of Dakar night-life, off the regular beat of most foreign visitors to the city? And so one night after dinner—it must have been towards ten o'clock—we set off in his car for some outlying suburb. We soon left the "modern" town behind; and drove through miles of dimly lighted districts of the "ville indigène"—long acres of "native quarters": low-walled cantonments containing, according to tribal customs, either thatched beehive huts or parallelograms of one-room dwellings built of sunbaked brick. Then we came into a world of bidonvilles—a twilit, dismal shantytown, constructed of corrugated iron and empty oil drums and any sort of do-it-yourself material that the owner-builder could lay his hands on. From the endless rows of dark and unwelcoming hutments there came a low muttering of human life—the life of the crowded families that lived in them; and, here and there, the throbbing of some deep-voiced drum, beating for a wedding or other family festival. But there was nothing festive in the aspect of these sad districts: behind the general air of squalor and dejection, I got an impression of latent hostility and watchfulness: a notion that all these sullen shells which were the scene of human love and passion and family devotion were on the defensive, on the lookout, in a state of mental siege. That sort of peripheral slum always attracts police interference, to say nothing of those little government. busybodies obsessed with things like rates and taxes. . . . The misery of these acres of human degradation was the product of the people who suffered it—they need never have come here: the old, old story of a proud and dignified peasantry lured from their villages by the glitter of industry and the city. Thus we move forward towards the golden age.

Somewhere near the core, it seemed, of this labyrinth of sad—and even a little sinister—dreariness, my friend stopped his car and said: "Here we are. There are a couple of places we can look at here—I think you'll see something to amuse you, perhaps to excite you . . . ."

He parked the car and locked it, and I got out and stood in the sultry, near-tropical night; and suddenly found that I was listening to the muffled rhythms of some kind of dance music. There were drums of course, there are always drums in Africa, and I love drums; but I also heard the nasal noise of something like a saxophone, an instrument which has always seemed to me to emit the opposite of musicality. I began to wonder where on earth I was being taken to: not surely to just a night spot. . . .

Fairly full of misgivings, what with the rather weird surroundings, now almost pitch dark, and the saxophone, I followed my guide along a number of narrow and unlit alleyways, branching off abruptly at right angles, one way or the other; till suddenly he stopped at a wooden door at the end of a blind-alley—and now, all at once, I became aware of a large arc of illumination being thrown into the night from whatever might be beyond the door.

The door was opened; my friend talked to somebody or other—whether it was a club with an entrance fee I can't now remember; and then we were let in, and walked across what was an open-air dance-floor of polished and hard-trodden earth, veneered and admirably dressed with cattle dung, and found a table handily adjacent to the door whence the drinks came and as far as possible from the saxophone. We sat down, ordered some beer, and looked around. Couples were dancing, vaguely European dances—after all, Europeans had been dancing, in Dakar, among their other European activities, for two or three hundred years; people were sitting in tables round the dance-floor in twos and threes—and a few in solitary expectance. The whole small circular arena was brightly lit. Our beer was brought—and by now I was really looking around.

The place was full of adolescent Africans in drag.

In drag. I mean that most of them were indeed in girls' clothes—some in European, some wearing the elaborate headdress of the West African Mode[1] - it was in fact a drag party; and, apart from ourselves and perhaps two or three African onlookers of adult age, nobody there, I judged, was more than eighteen years old and most were around fifteen.

They danced together; they camped around like a pride of primadonnas; they came to our table and drank lots of beer with us, simpering, blinking their white-powdered eyelids, widening their great carmined lips. Cosmetics—at least the colouring kind—don't suit the African face: the skin anyway is much better protected than is the "white" against the hideosities inflicted by climate or ill health; and perhaps for that very reason makeup produces a bizarre and sometimes an eerie effect when sloshed over an African complexion.

They had pleasant manners, these transvestite Senegalese boys; they were friendly and undemanding, and bubbling with jokes of a tartish kind. They seemed, on the surface, to be as cheerful as boys of that age ought to be. But one couldn't, through all that paint and camp hilarity, see beneath the surface. . . .

We went to a couple of such places; and about midnight drove back to Dakar through the same dark, sinister shanty-towns. I went home with what's called a nasty taste in my mouth—not, of course, from any moral biliousness, but because temperamentally I dislike a display of effeminacy in boys and am repelled by an extreme exhibition of it. And also there was the knowledge of the sadness that must lie behind the tinsel—the old sense of tragedy under the clown's grease-paint: although adolescent boys can't often have experienced the feeling of despair, in these pathetic dolled-up tarts despair couldn't be far off.

The most interesting lesson of the evening was that the boy-brothels, for that's what they were (I forgot to ask whether accommodation could be got on the premises), hadn't been set up for a special branch of the tourist trade—their remote and dingy situation alone was evidence of that: they were the spontaneous acknowledgement of a native demand, an African taste. For some reason which I don't pretend to know, homosexuality, including the love for adolescent boys, seems to be immeasurably more widely and more conventionally inveterate among the Senegalese than among any other African people that I have knowledge of.

 

[1] A mode with the high-waisted booboo, introduced by the fashionable French ladies who, when their husbands colonised Saint-Louis de Senegal in the eighteenth century, made that city almost as elegant as it is today.