YAMOUSSOUKRO, Côte d’Ivoire — In 1984, in an essay for The New Yorker, the writer V.S. Naipaul described Yamoussoukro, a town in central Côte d’Ivoire, as a place that “awaited full use.”[i] He meant this in the most fundamental way. The previous year, President Félix Houphouët-Boigny had established the town, his birthplace, as the country’s political capital, but the business of government had not yet relocated from Abidjan, the cosmopolitan metropolis down on the coast. Today, more than three decades later, this largely remains the case. The persistent absence of activity renders Yamoussoukro’s purpose-built environment, however ambitious and impressive, disorienting. The wide boulevards, golf course and 12-story Hotel President, capped with its top-floor restaurant sandwiched between two horizontal slabs of concrete, seem to have been designed for a population that never arrived.
The phrase “awaited full use” also applied in another, more abstract sense, speaking to the awkward way in which the town carried its conflicted identity. An old brochure for the hotel hints at its animating tension: “Find the traces of the native village of President Houphouët-Boigny,” it reads, “and discover the ultra-modern prefiguration of the Africa of tomorrow.” The past and the future, together in the same space: This is not an impossible or even a necessarily difficult vision to execute, yet the general air of Yamoussoukro suggests an autocrat’s enthusiasms run wild, and a lack of thought given to the integration of competing elements. Hovering above everything, the most stable point on the horizon, is La Basilique Notre Dame de la Paix, a Catholic basilica larger even than St. Peter’s in the Vatican. A marvel of soaring columns and gorgeous stained glass whose dome reaches 158 meters into the air, the basilica is Houphouët-Boigny’s most staggering vanity project but also his most curious, given that it was completed — at an estimated cost of $300 million that doubled the country’s national debt — as Côte d’Ivoire’s post-independence economic boom was going irrevocably bust.[ii]
Over time, following Houphouët-Boigny’s death in 1993 and the onset of political conflict, Yamoussoukro settled into its role as a second-tier tourist destination, overshadowed by the beaches of Grand-Bassam and Assinie. A visitor’s day could begin with a morning tee time, followed by a tour of the basilica and an afternoon at the hotel pool.
Meanwhile, the town remained caught somewhere between the modern and the traditional. Each evening, a brief ceremony outside the presidential palace provided something of a link between the two. The palace complex, which contains Houphouët-Boigny’s ancestral village, is not open to the public. But just outside the palace walls, facing the road, the president installed an artificial lake populated with turtles and caimans, crocodile-like creatures that were fed at around 5 p.m. in a public ritual that tourists could witness and photograph. In his account of the feeding, Naipaul describes a “very tall, very thin” man in a skull-cap arriving in a Land Rover and throwing meat at the caimans, which react slowly, clumsily, struggling to retrieve the pieces of meat that land on their backs. The feeder then offers to the caimans a squawking black chicken, swinging it around before tossing it down to be devoured.
Naipaul heard many explanations for the caimans, and he struggled to interpret them. Were they a symbol of strength? Of reincarnation? He was told several times that the caimans could alert the president to trouble simply by turning their heads. In the end, Naipaul threw up his hands, concluding that the caimans “were meant to be mysterious, to be felt as a mystery, and only the president knew what they, and the ritual of their feeding, stood for.
It has been several years since the ritual was last performed. In 2012, the caimans turned on the elderly Malian man who had been offering them meat and chickens for decades. As tourists filmed with cameras and smartphones — clips were later uploaded to YouTube — the man, Dicko Toké, lost his balance and was dragged into the artificial lake by one of the biggest caimans, known as “Chief of Staff.” The significance of this incident was widely debated but difficult to pin down, much like the presence of the caimans and the position of Yamoussoukro itself in the national consciousness. “Perhaps there is a message behind this,” Augustin Thiam, Yamoussoukro’s governor, told the BBC. “We need perhaps to consult the spirits.”[iii]
* * * *
A town with no clear purpose or logic might naturally sound uninviting. But when he moved there a few months ago, Adama, an Ivoirian man in his forties who is secretly attracted to other men, chose to focus instead on Yamoussoukro’s potential. His new home could be whatever he wanted, or needed, it to be.
In truth, Adama didn’t have other options; his itinerant life had left him with few prospects, both financial and personal, as he approached middle age. Born into a family of seven children in Abidjan, the son of a woodworker and a housewife, he squandered his chance to study in one of the city’s most elite high schools, flunking out after months of drinking and clubbing. In the 1990s, he became a vendor of motorcycle parts in Côte d’Ivoire’s interior, making good money for someone with neither a diploma nor a government job. But despite his financial independence, fear of the inevitable social repercussions led him to abruptly terminate each of his same-sex relationships. He eventually gave up on the idea that he could live happily with another man and resolved to date women exclusively.
After falling in love with and impregnating a Cameroonian woman living in Abidjan, a neighbor in his apartment block, Adama decided to move with her to Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital. Once there, however, he failed to find work and became idle and unhappy, burning through his savings and beginning an affair with an older woman. His relationship sabotaged, he moved to Cameroon’s political capital, Yaoundé, where he entered into the most intimate and fulfilling same-sex romance of his life. Again, though, he cut it short, this time because he concluded he would never be able to support himself in Cameroon and needed to return home.
Since arriving back in Côte d’Ivoire, he has tried to construct what he describes as “a normal life.” Though he would like to try again at living more openly as a gay man, he is convinced he must first attain economic security to insulate him from the attendant risks. This security has proved elusive. Moving from hustle to hustle in the informal economy, he has struggled simply to support himself and to send occasional gifts to his two children.[iv]
Around a year ago, Adama thought he had finally found the job that would help make “a normal life” a reality. A new hotel in Abidjan’s working-class Yopougon district hired him on as a manager, offering a salary of $160 — the national minimum wage is around $100 — as well as rent-free housing and meals at a nearby restaurant. With that kind of compensation, Adama thought he would soon be able to afford an apartment of his own, far from the eyes of colleagues and relatives, or perhaps even save enough money to apply for a visa to Europe or the United States.
Like so many of Adama’s plans, however, this turned out to be overly optimistic. The Ministry of Tourism moved slowly in granting the hotel a permit, meaning it couldn’t advertise and attract clients. For several months in a row, the hotel’s owners asked Adama to forgo his salary until the hotel could establish itself. Adama went along with this for a while, but finally, in June, worried about settling into a long-term arrangement that was doomed to fail, he quit.
By that point, it had been more than a decade since Adama’s return from Cameroon. He became seized by the notion that he needed to leave his home country once again. Inspired by stories of Ivoirians making a way for themselves in Mali, he traveled in June by road to Bamako. Unfortunately, however, he was unable to reach the few people he knew in the city ahead of time, and these contacts also failed to return Adama’s calls once he arrived, leaving Adama dependent on a taxi driver to find a family to take him in. He now concedes that the move, conceived in a state of mild despair, was poorly planned. He stayed two weeks before realizing that “everything was in flux” and returning home, now out of a job and forced to ask friends to front the bus fare.
This failure did not rid Adama of his wish to get away. “I had left Abidjan with a heart to go somewhere else and succeed,” he said. He had also hoped to resume dating men, “to find myself somewhere where I would feel freer in my activities, in my actions.” He settled on Yamoussoukro as an alternative destination, though today he struggles to explain exactly why, saying only that the choice was “inspired by God.” In July, he again left Abidjan by road, taking with him around $80, a backpack and a duffel bag filled with shoes and clothes.
As in Mali, his few contacts in Yamoussoukro weren’t around to welcome him when he got there. He spent his first nights sleeping in an abandoned bus station, having been turned away from a local mosque as well as a church. To those who declined to help him, he responded with bravado. “I said to them, ‘You will see me succeed in Yamoussoukro. I’m not leaving.’” Privately, though, he had his doubts. “Each day I woke up in the morning with my hands crossed in prayer, very sad, reflecting, putting my trust in God, but also asking myself, ‘Adama, what are you becoming? What are you doing? Adama, where are you going?’”
Eager to learn a new field, he convinced a bakery owner to take him on as an apprentice. The arrangement allowed him to eat and sleep at the bakery and bathe in a nearby public bathroom, but after one month he grew discouraged with the menial labor — cleaning, crushing ice — he’d been assigned. “After a while, I said, ‘What is happening? I didn’t come here to do that.’ I said to them that if I couldn’t do other things, I’d leave.”
Dejected, aimless, he began roaming the streets in search of work, spending nights with the few friends he’d made. “During this time, because no one knew me, people were afraid,” he said. “They thought I was a police officer working on an investigation, because I was very well dressed. Others said, ‘You need to be wary of him. Is he not a rebel? Is he not a jihadist?’ They attributed to me whatever they could attribute to me. But today, I walk by them with pride.”
Adama’s luck changed when, out drinking one night, he met a woman named Mariam, the 50-year-old daughter of a soldier in the presidential guard who had spent her entire life in Yamoussoukro. She was sitting by herself, reading a pamphlet distributed by Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Adama, always easy with strangers, struck up a conversation. He learned that Mariam’s two children lived in France, and that her siblings were in London and Abidjan, leaving her alone in the family compound. They talked about God and religion — Mariam is an evangelical Christian, Adama comes from a Muslim family but converted to Christianity — and before long she invited him back for a plate of kabato, a northern dish of cornmeal paste. She offered him a spare bedroom in her home, the largest in a courtyard in Yamoussoukro’s mostly Muslim neighborhood of Dioulabougou. Meeting Mariam was the luckiest thing that had happened to Adama in some time. “We found each other in the difficulty of life,” he said.
His housing secure, at least for the time being, Adama renewed his search for work. One day, he dropped in on the Café Royal, a restaurant and nightclub on Rue des maquis, a boulevard running along a lake. After talking his way into the manager’s office, he recounted the story of his failure in Mali and described his reluctance to return to Abidjan, his desire to establish himself in this new place. The manager turned out to be the older brother of some of Adama’s friends from the posh high school he attended in Abidjan before flunking out. The man took a liking to Adama and gave Adama his card. From that point on, Adama called the manager every Monday morning, determined not to be forgotten.
One day in early August, the manager told Adama to come by the café that afternoon. “I understood right away that he had good news for me,” Adama said. At the meeting, the manager explained that, beginning on August 7, the anniversary of Côte d’Ivoire’s independence, he wanted Adama to set up tables in the outdoor garden across the street from the café. If diners took to the space, Adama could manage it on a regular basis, earning $65 a month in salary along with whatever he could make in tips.
Adama tackled this new project with the hunger of an intern — which, despite being 44 years old, despite having worked for more than two decades, he effectively was. He befriended local sex workers and told them to use the garden, knowing their presence would attract men with money to spend on chicken and beer. He promoted the space on 88.1 FM Radio JAM, the local station with the largest reach. And he made a point of charming his wealthy clients, encouraging them to return again and again. The job played to the strengths of a natural networker, a man who since childhood had been able to identify the most important people in a room or at a party and win them over by dint of his ear for anecdote, his ability to fill gaps of unstructured time with fawning introductions, pleasantries and debate.
Four months later, the space is thriving, rivaling the Café Royal itself. From Thursday night through Sunday night, the plastic tables scattered across the grass are occupied until well after midnight. Though Adama’s salary has been irregular, he has supported himself with tips, aided by the fact that he lives rent-free with Mariam. Meanwhile, he has assumed an identity inextricably linked to his success: “Adama du jardin,” or Adama of the garden, the moniker that staff and customers typically use when addressing him.
With this new name has come a new look: that of an Ivoirian dandy. Though Adama always took pride in his appearance, in Abidjan he rarely deviated from polo shirts and button-downs paired with dark jeans. In Yamoussoukro, he has amassed a collection of golf caps in an array of colors. Dark sunglasses cover his eyes at all hours. If the night is cool, he sometimes dons a blazer and bowtie. He explains that these flourishes are a necessary aspect of his new job. “People look at your appearance before they form an opinion of you,” he said. “That’s part of life. Who wouldn’t want to look at something that is beautiful?”
It is clear, too, that Adama is using his look to struggle against boundaries that have restricted him for decades, preventing him from embracing his alternative sexuality. Shortly before leaving for Yamoussoukro, Adama declared that he was “tired of pretending” to be a straight man, and he holds out hope that the town can be the place where pretending finally becomes unnecessary. In his right ear he has taken to wearing a gaudy blue fake diamond as well as a teal band featuring the interlocking ‘C’s of the Chanel logo. The earrings are “only a style that I like,” Adama says, though he also knows they are loaded visual cues. Seeing them, some Ivoirians will conclude he is gay, while others will assume he’s “a gangster,” “a bandit,” someone “outside the law.” Adama welcomes all of these interpretations. His lack of concern reflects the freedom he feels in Yamoussoukro, something he hasn’t experienced since his days in Yaoundé, the last time he dated a man. Yet he retains the caution of a man still uncertain of just how much of himself to put forward, a man awaiting full use. Asked whether he intends to declare his sexuality in a more overt way in Yamoussoukro, he says this is not an immediate priority. This move must be made in its own time. “It’s a bit too early to launch certain actions in my life,” he said. “Because when you make yourself discovered you need to make sure you are independent, and that it’s not going to rock other aspects of your life.”
* * * *
On a Saturday afternoon in December, Adama crowded into the booth of Radio JAM with nine other guests for a one-hour talk program. In recent months, Adama has become something of a fixture at the station, appearing frequently on shows hosted by Charley, a DJ who has worked there for 14 years. Founded in 1997, Radio JAM stands for “Jeunes africains modernes,” or “Young Modern Africans.” It occupies a two-story, faded white building a few blocks in from Rue des maquis, halfway between Adama’s garden and the presidential palace. The artificial lake with the caimans can be seen out the station’s back window.
This particular program dealt with the problem of teenage pregnancy and obstacles to providing sex education to Ivoirian youth. The group who joined Adama and Charley in the booth included two local education officials and three high school students, two girls and a boy. To begin with, they listened to a short sketch about a 16-year-old girl, Carole, whose father goes into a rage when he overhears her working on a homework assignment about contraceptive methods. The sketch challenges the teachings of local religious leaders concerning birth control, as well as the easy authority assumed by many Ivoirian fathers. “A child is a gift from God, and is never too much,” Carole’s father lectures. “A mouth that God has produced will always have something with which to be fed.” Carole responds dismissively: “The teachers told us that God has nothing to do with it. They said each person is responsible for the children they’re going to produce.”
After the sketch ended, Charley had the guests introduce themselves before beginning the debate. (“Adama du jardin, pour votre plaisir,” Adama, speaking slowly and in a low voice, said when his turn came.) Though the discussion that followed was generally supportive of Carole, the hour was not without its moments of tension. At one point, a young woman named Djima, who works at Radio JAM, confronted the education officials, noting they were quick to criticize parents resistant to sex education in schools but do nothing to discipline teachers caught sleeping with — and impregnating — students. An awkward pause followed Djima’s comment. One of the officials then tried to downplay the scope of the phenomenon she’d described.
Though Adama had no real expertise on the subject, he consistently contributed some of the most thoughtful comments, drawing on his experiences as a parent while evincing his own hard-won faith in the importance of individual responsibility and self-reliance. No one party can be blamed for teenage pregnancy, he said, but students ultimately need to take charge of their own lives. “The true problem is that students need to be made to understand that it’s their lives, their future,” he said. “Who is going to carry the burden? It’s the students.”
The program showcased Ivoirians’ general openness to discussing subjects that were once considered inappropriate and risqué. Adama told the audience it would have been difficult for him, as a child, to bring up contraception with his parents. “In Africa, all subjects related to sexuality are taboo,” he said. “When I was young, in a religious family, there were certain debates that I just couldn’t have with my elders.” Yet despite the evolution demonstrated by the show, afterward, away from the other guests, Adama said he believed there was still an impenetrable barrier to any public discussion of alternative sexuality that wasn’t explicitly, and enthusiastically, censorious. He said he wouldn’t dream of raising the issue with anyone in the booth, even those — like Charley and Djima — who seemed more interested in facilitating debate than pushing their own views.
Adama’s fears had been reinforced the previous month by a mini-scandal in Côte d’Ivoire’s music industry. In early November, La Tribune Ivoirienne, a newspaper, had reported that the son of the late Roger Fulgence Kassy, a television personality credited with launching the careers of a number of famous Ivoirian performers, had married another man in the United States. The article quoted an aunt of Thierry Kassy, the son, who said: “If he really married a man, that means he’s no longer my nephew because when we say nephew, we are talking about a man. He needs to marry a woman because he’s a man. He needs to marry a woman to procreate, to make children to pass down the name of his father.” An uncle said: “It’s beyond me, really, I can’t believe my eyes. It’s very bizarre for me. Like I’m dreaming and need to return to earth.”[v]
In Yamoussoukro, Adama said, reaction to news of the marriage had been much the same. “Africa is very complicated,” he said. “People say, ‘How can the son of a big man like that become a homo?’” Instead of humanizing sexual minorities, the fact that a member of a well-regarded family was openly gay only underscored, for many Ivoirians, the reach of the homosexual menace.
Yamoussoukro’s gay scene is a clear product of this environment. Unlike in Abidjan, there are no bars or organizations that cater exclusively to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people. Little emergency help is available for gay men who run into health problems or are victims of homophobic violence. As a result, gay men do their best not to draw attention to themselves, said Souleymane, a 20-something Yamoussoukro native who works with a public health NGO that conducts HIV testing.
Nevertheless, the town, like all Ivoirian towns of a certain size, does have a community of sexual minorities, one whose members are largely known to one another. “When we go to bars or to maquis, we can have fun, we’re at ease, we do what we want to do,” Souleymane said. “There are sometimes insults and that sort of thing in bars, but people are only attacked if they provoke someone, or if they hit on someone who is not gay.”
Adama himself has no interest in joining this community, not now and perhaps not ever. He remains committed to his approach of pursuing material success first, personal and romantic fulfillment later. In an environment that stifles discussion of alternative sexualities, most of the gay men he reads about are celebrities. Haven’t their achievements contributed to their freedom, their ability to live their lives as they want? “Take for example Elton John,” Adama said while drinking a beer one afternoon. “Do you think he has problems with his sexuality? A great musician like that? Who will bother him?” Adama doesn’t think he needs to become famous. What he does need before making his sexual orientation public, though, are the resources to shield himself from social sanction and from claims that he’s not a true Ivoirian — the same claims that Thierry Kassy, happily married and living in the United States, can presumably tune out.
But Adama, of course, is a true Ivoirian, and as such he faces the same obstacles to financial success that have bedeviled all men of his generation — men who were born too late to benefit from the Ivoirian miracle engineered by Houphouët-Boigny in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, and who instead endured more than two decades of political turmoil. Having seen for himself the tail end of the country’s economic boom as a boy, and having eagerly consumed all the information he’s ever encountered, true and false, about life in more prosperous parts of the world, he has an acute sense of the extent to which his country has let him down. “Without being too prideful,” he said, “do you really think, if I were in the U.S., with the intelligence that I have, I couldn’t get a better job?”
His experiences in Yamoussoukro have nonetheless made him the most optimistic he’s been in years. “It’s today that I am afraid of dying. When I was in Abidjan, I wasn’t afraid of that,” he said. “It’s when you are fulfilled that you have this fear.”
[i] Naipaul, V.S. “The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro.” The New Yorker. May 14, 1984.
[ii] Mark, Monica. “Yamoussoukro’s Notre Dame de la Paix, the world’s largest basilica.” The Guardian. May 15, 2015.
[iii] James, John. “The crocodile feeder of Ivory Coast.” BBC. Sept. 13, 2012.
[iv] For a more detailed account of Adama’s life, see “RCB-16: Adama’s Life in the Shadows.”
[v] Dasse, Claude. “L’homosexualité de Thierry Kassy: La famille de Roger Fulgence Kassy en état de choc.” La Tribune Ivoirienne. Nov. 5, 2015.