Dancing under the mango trees

My life in a Chadian village took a roller-coaster turn when I became obsessed with the local bad boy.

Published November 12, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

I noticed Yamingue soon after arriving in the village where I would live for two years. He could have been any other Chadian youth in mended clothes and foam flip-flops, toting a plastic jug of kerosene across the small market square. But his face was uncommonly handsome, hard and square. Fine scars, part of an initiation ceremony done in this part of southern Chad, striped his cheekbones. He radiated an improbable glamour, the way he slung by in an open jacket, cigarette dangling, a bad boy utterly in his element.

I didn't see him again for over a year and soon forgot about him. Though Bessada is a village of only about 3,000 people, my daily habits kept me on a tight circuit. So did my status as an honored guest. I mixed mainly with the chiefs and functionaries and missionaries, the people who controlled things, or tried to, in this nation of civil wars, famine and constant strikes. Because I'm American, I was included in men's meetings where women kneeled to serve us tea. I wore long skirts, avoided the bars that line the road and the dance parties that follow church each Sunday. Nights, I lit my kerosene lamp and wrote in my journal or read old magazines, listening to the drumming in the distance. When I wanted to carouse, I flagged down a truck and went to stay with other Peace Corps volunteers in the city of Sarh, 100 rugged kilometers away.

By my second year, I'd had enough quiet evenings. One Sunday afternoon, I asked Zam-Zam, my best friend and the wife of the village doctor, to take me to a pari-vente. These are elaborate all-day fund-raising parties for which women prepare vats of billi-billi, a fermented millet beer, import cases of warm Gala beer and soda and sell the drinks at inflated prices. In exchange, participants get free food -- delicacies like rice and spicy fish meatballs called kanda -- and drumming and dancing under the mango trees.

People marveled to see me there. A village chief bought me a calabash of billi-billi. It was warm and foamy, bittersweet and heavy as a malted milkshake. Zam-Zam made them give me a glass -- I was a nassara (European) after all, and nassaras don't drink from calabashes -- and then we sat down on a straw mat with other women. Settling in, I looked up at the dancers and then my heart jolted.

Yamingue was directly in front of me. He was dancing, swaying slowly to a Zairian song, smiling slightly, holding his arms out to me. To me.

He extended his hands. I stared and the year of prim skirts and careful acquaintances ripped away. Yamingue, if only you knew who I really am. Back in the cities of America, I am a buccaneer girl who has never denied herself a beautiful man. I splash in their pools of sweat and swing from their limbs. I tear off their shirts in nightclubs and dare them to out-dance me. You have no idea, sultry boy, what you're calling forth.

"Get out of here!" a chief's wife scolded him away from me. "Little vaut-rien, little good-for-nothing." He retreated a few steps, back to his friends, who were watching me. No one in Bessada had ever flirted with me, no one had ever treated me as anything but a missionary, a colleague, a rich outsider with ghostly skin. Yamingue held out his arms to me again, laughing now. Was it mockery or invitation? A young girl with high breasts and tight braids entered his embrace. The circle closed and he was gone to me.

I swooned into my beer, made polite chatter. Then he was on the mat next to me, leaning close, slurring something. Before I could understand, a teacher's wife yelled at him and then turned to me. "You should go home," she said, bosomy and business-like. "This is no place for you. People are drunk." Zam-Zam agreed. Reluctantly, I let them bustle me up and out. As I was leaving, Yamingue broke away from the party and followed us down the road. "Leave her alone!" the women shouted.

Alone and tipsy in my hut at 6:30 p.m., I entreated Yamingue to come after dark. Please come and tap on the open tin window in the back, near my banana tree. The door is held closed only by a rock. Just tap and say my name. I'll be awake. Yamingue, please come.

He didn't come but he was outside my fence two days later, raking at weeds in the county chief's large compound, which was home to me and four of the chief's wives. He looked tired, sullen. "What are you doing?" I asked in Sara, speaking to him at last. He laughed and his companion told me they were working for the chief. I brought them tea. Yamingue took his shyly, looking away. "Merci, madame," he said. Later I found out that he was being punished for adultery. After the pari-vente he had slept with a married woman.

He was gone a day later. I had to find him. That night, I put on jeans and went to a cabaret, a wooden lean-to bar where people pass the time, tell stories, drink billi-billi. People welcomed me and bought me beer. I sat down on one of the logs and drank it straight from the calabash. It was excellent, so I ordered more, and more, and then started drinking every day.

Like my neighbors, I popped by the cabaret in the mornings, or after siesta, and always at night. The French missionaries drove by and saw me but I didn't care. I farmed with hand tools and I drank billi-billi. I did what everybody else did and the whole village opened up to me like a flower. Women sent foaming calabashes of beer to my door in the morning, and I'd send the pots back with something I'd made, such as my mango/hibiscus sangria. I found out who was sleeping with whom, who had allegedly poisoned whom. Best of all, I saw more of Yamingue.

This was no simple task, because he seemed to have no daily patterns. But he went often to the Sunday dance parties, and so did I. They called him the Prime Minister because no one could dance pesa like Yamingue. I wanted him to know that in some bars of Sarh the Chadians called me the Queen of Rap because no one could dance to American music like I could. I danced for him, for the village, whenever I could. Children joined me. Old women mocked me, laughing, and old men stuck coins to my forehead, a dancer's highest reward. Swooping, darting, Yamingue would strenuously pesa to Zairian music on an old radio, just within my view, not looking at me.

I finally found him alone at a crowded Saturday cabaret. He paid for a calabash of beer and instructed the seller to give it to "ma femme." My wife. Everyone laughed and I blushed. Soon after, he left. At another cabaret days later, he softly called out my name, Djuisse, and touched the log beside him. I joined him and the cabaret erupted in hoots. We touched knees and smiled into our beer and said nothing to each other. I was thrilled. I had arrived. I belonged. I was Yamingue's sweetheart.

At a pari-vente a few nights later, he invited me to another dance party far off the main road. He was careening drunk, so I declined. OK, he said, do you have any food at your house? I hesitated. Wasn't this what I wanted? No, a drunken tryst with a young man who has only slept with circumcised village girls wouldn't hold much for me, especially since he'd probably ask me for food or money afterwards. I declined and went home.

It might have been a charming story if it ended here, but it didn't. It unraveled, or, rather, I did. On International Women's Day, when the men dress in drag and prepare the noonday meal while the women wear pants and race bicycles, he was the only man who wouldn't let me paint his nails candied crimson. He had cooled off considerably and I was horrified. I didn't know what I wanted from him, but I knew I had to be near him. Come now, Yamingue, I am your spiritual twin. It does not matter that I am barely female by the standards of your culture. It does not matter that you are barely human by the standards of mine. You are the Prime Minister and I am the Queen and we understand each other.

Yamingue knew better. He knew it was pointless. He started to avoid me. I started to humiliate myself. At one slow late-night cabaret, I bought a calabash of beer and asked that it be sent to mon mari. My husband. Who? said the seller. Him, I said, pointing. No one laughed this time. There was silence. Yamingue looked embarrassed. He drank the beer quickly and left. I knew I had gone too far, but I also knew it was too late to stop.

I abandoned all discretion and used the village grapevine. I approached two village operators, Joboy and L'Argent, ambitious hustlers who patched tires and procured girls for the local bigwigs, and who resold the condoms I gave out for free. I dropped Yamingue's name, knowing word would travel back to him (and everyone else).

It did, and I got my reply. "He's afraid," said Joboy. Yamingue left school in the fourth grade. He doesn't even speak French. His domain consists of the 100-meter strip of road between Cabaret I, Cabaret II, the cigarette stand at the market and Cabaret III. Once when they all went to the city, Yamingue couldn't stop staring at the floodlights of an outdoor bar. "He's T.D.V., tout direct du village," said Joboy. "You're rich and white. What can he offer you?"

I tried the women. "He has nothing," said Bernadette, one of the chief's neglected wives. "How can he pay for your millet and tea?" Josephine, my clinic co-worker, was more blunt. "He doesn't want you anymore," she said. It was bad enough I was 27, unmarried and childless; now I was publicly fixated on an illiterate market boy. They were disgusted. "What is wrong with you?" said Zam-Zam finally. I had gone much too far, but I knew I would have to keep going until this obsession came to one of its two awful conclusions: consummation or a face-to-face rejection.

Wisely, I took a hiatus and got myself a beau in the city. He was educated, had a high-paying job, wore leather shoes. The sex was unremarkable. Meanwhile, my village life settled into a pleasing groove. I had plenty of money, interesting work, a circle of friends, healthy chickens and a growing crop of banana and guava trees in my tidy yard. I could picture staying there forever. My Peace Corps friends went on a safari but I stayed in the village, loathe to miss one Sunday party, one more chance to see him.

Then from nowhere, Peace Corps headquarters offered me a job in the capital, as a trainer for the incoming health volunteers. I would have to leave my village immediately, three months sooner than planned. I declined, then reconsidered. It was a promotion, a great chance to share what I knew about working in Chad. It would also keep me from seeking a disastrous and humiliating conclusion with poor Yamingue.

The night before I was due to leave Bessada, there was a light tap at my door. I yanked it open but found my friend Otondjibaye. He was my age, educated, a successful merchant, and miraculously, unmarried. I tried one last time. "Do you think Yamingue would come?" "No," Otondjibaye told me. "He has a girlfriend."

I was knifed. How could he?

"But look, I'm here. All of the men in the village have been waiting for you to stop loving Yamingue. We've lined up behind him, and I'm first in line."

We both started laughing, because Chadians laugh at everything, because it was ridiculous, because it was my last night. He locked his reedy arms around me and said "Come on, it will only take 20 minutes." That made me laugh more and I pushed free.

"Sorry," I said.

He tried a few more angles, then gave up and we ended up talking about the future. His future in Chad, mine in America. "You can't stay here, you know," he told me. "You wouldn't be happy here."

I know. I had gone as far into the village as I could, and now it was time to go. I left Bessada, I left Yamingue and began my long slow journey back home.

By Joyce R. Lombardi

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