Nonfiction

Yamba

Joyce Lombardi

The night I found myself lingering, yet again, at the deserted village beer stand with the boozy old men droning into their drinks was the night I finally slapped myself together. It was time to find a more suitable social scene. Ever since a government strike shut down the clinic where I worked, I had been wandering farther and farther outside of my prim professional life, until I found myself mixing with the after-dark drinkers and showing up, uninvited, at the teenagers’ giddy midnight drumming circles. Worse still, I had developed an embarrassingly public crush on a dashing market boy. My village friends—respectable, married, and home by dark—were appalled. As a westerner, I had high social standing in this African village, a position I had carefully preserved for the past year and a half. To save what was left of my reputation and peace of mind, I had to fill those long moonlit nights with something other than village fare. I needed to get a beau in the city.
Back in my hut, I reviewed my options. Other Peace Corps volunteers were out; there were too few of us and we needed to maintain harmony. There weren’t many other Europeans in town and I’d already burned one romantic bridge with a local Italian development worker. Most Chadian men my age were married or very poor or both and I was looking for something uncomplicated. Perhaps I would pursue a fine-faced Muslim from the north of Chad. Northerners, largely descended from Arab traders and nomads, tend to be proud and self-sufficient and usually want nothing from Europeans—not money, not attention, nothing. I had already developed a refreshingly simple friendship with two Arab nomad women who camped beyond the edges of my southern village. With them, I had no official role to play. I didn’t push my public health agenda (“Use soap.” “Dig latrines.”); they didn’t ask me for gifts or favors. We just lolled on straw mats, drinking sweetened milk and laughing over nothing. An educated northerner, I figured, could provide a pleasant hassle-free affair—my favorite kind. I lit my lantern and put my wish on paper.

The next morning, a government truck broke down outside the empty clinic where I was loitering with my old colleagues. Out stepped a handsome young northerner, graceful in his white button-down shirt and leather shoes. I was ashamed of my shapeless village dress, its enormous orange flowers and sloppy embroidery. Nonetheless, we exchanged greetings and started talking about what we did for a living—a very first-world conversation.

He worked in the treasury department, but also chaired an AIDS task force that promoted condom usage. Really? I had been an AIDS educator in New York City and had formed a village AIDS team here in Bessada. He gave me his card—Yamba Mahmat, Trèsor de Sarh—and on the back wrote the date he first started using condoms. “I have used them ever since that day,” he told me. This was going much better than I’d hoped.

I looked up and saw that a dozen of my neighbors had taken position on a fallen mango tree across the road. They were lined up like crows, watching me consort with the enemy, a detested Muslim. I said I had to go. “Call me when you come to the city,” he replied, “and we’ll go out for capitaine” (Nile perch, a Chadian specialty).

I knew better than to pursue this, of course. I knew that no affair is simple, especially an interracial one, especially a postcolonial one. But I’d chosen cross-cultural relationships off and on for years precisely because they tended to be more interesting and less demanding than unions closer to home. Less expectation of true love; almost zero expectation of marriage. At their best, the affairs were joyous and passionate and gave both participants short cuts into private foreign worlds. At their worst, they were short sour things, laden with ugly history and unspoken judgement. Either way, I had been able to flit in and out of them largely unscathed, secretly pleased with my own nimbleness and daring. Grrrrl power before cultural politics. At age 27, however, this image was wearing thin. Bad affairs were causing me more boredom and guilt than pleasure. I knew that at some point I had to cut them out. However, I was not quite at that point.

Five days later, I was at the treasury building in the city, 100 rutted kilometers away. Yamba was not there. I found him the next day, behind his desk, on the phone, every inch the young executive. Men doffed their caps when they entered to entreat him for favors, money, attention. With me he was charming, funny. With them he was high-handed, arrogant. Not only was he a privileged government worker, but he was a Goran, one of a reputedly warlike northern tribe whose light skin and preponderance in the Muslim-controlled Chadian army made them especially loathed down south.
Yamba smiled, obviously pleased to see me, and motioned for me to sit down while he conducted business. I felt silly, idle. We made the same amount of money, but he had a better job. A real job. I rose to leave, pretending that I had other business. I’ll come by tonight at 7 p.m., he said. Okay, that’s fine, I said, as if he’d asked for confirmation. He hadn’t. He knew I’d accept. I had to admit that in the village I had grown accustomed to a certain amount of deference, but from Yamba, there was none. I was relieved.

A little after 8 p.m. he strode, crisp and cologned, up the porch stairs to our Peace Corps guest house. I was fuming. “I’m not one of your treasury clients,” I said. “I’m not asking you for favors.” He smiled, all charm, murmured apologies, something about engine trouble, took my hand, complimented my outfit and said let’s go. I knew I shouldn’t like his confidence, but I did. Besides, there was nothing else to do at the guesthouse but read old Newsweeks or go drinking with other Americans, so I went. He had a moped, another status symbol in this town of pedestrians and oxcarts, and took me to a quiet restaurant on the outskirts of town.
“Those who work in the treasury have to be careful,” he told me. “If we are seen dining out too much while the government is not paying salaries, people will accuse us of stealing.” “But you do steal,” I said, “everybody does.” USAID had just given the Chadian government millions of dollars to pay its teachers, nurses, and others who had not received a check for over a year. Every cent was stolen. Eventually, some money was restored, but most government workers received only a few weeks of back pay. The strikes continued. “Not me,” said Yamba, “I’m honest. I’m not like the people here.”
It’s true; he wasn’t like most Chadians. He refused to drink, smoke, or ingest unfiltered water or unwashed vegetables. Raised in Gabon in a wealthy family, he seemed as much of a foreigner as I.

Back at the Peace Corps guesthouse, outside the garden gate, we leaned against his moped under the white moonlight. We kissed gently and my body shouted hallelujah. It had been almost a year since I’d dabbled with a man. “Let’s go inside,” he said softly. I declined. Too many other volunteers in town and this smug Goran was nothing I was proud of. It was already somewhat taboo to date locals—not in Africa, not in the age of AIDS—and Yamba wouldn’t come across well. His machismo would only play into American stereotypes about Muslim men. I could barely justify him to myself, let alone to other volunteers. “Next time,” I said.

In town a month later, I invited Yamba to come dancing with another volunteer and her boyfriend, a southerner, and several of his friends. They had jobs, shoes, educations. To my embarrassment, Yamba spoke only to the Americans and to other people he knew at the bar. As always, he insisted on pouring and paying for my drinks. My friend’s beau made a show of doing the same, but I knew that Kelly had slipped him the money before they went out. “You know he has other girlfriends,” my companions said when Yamba was away from the table. I didn’t care. He smelled delicious as he twirled me around the open-sky dance floor and I invited him home, condoms and all. He hesitated, then agreed.

Later that evening, he wrote “I love Joyce” in English on his arm and pretended he wanted to marry me; he’d like to have a white wife, he said, because his friends would be jealous. I laughed and pointed out that we probably wouldn’t like each other. He pretended to be offended. He curled up in the fetal position under the big mosquito net and mock-hollered I love Joyce, I love Joyce, until I started laughing. I wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or disappointed that he was so unguarded, that he didn’t try to carry his Big Man act into bed. I told him that white women don’t tolerate polygamy, and we don’t age well, especially in Africa, and that marriage was therefore out of the question.

He agreed, and asked if I could introduce him to l’americaine noire, an African-American Peace Corps volunteer in a nearby town. Chadians were transfixed by Gina. She was one of them yet one of us. Black yet American. Beautiful and rich. She wore her hair in long braids and dated men of position. In an expensive hotel in the northern capital, she was once mistaken for a Cameroonian prostitute and almost evicted, but down south she was revered. She doesn’t tolerate polygamy, either, I said, irritated.
Yamba showered and then poked around our dirty guesthouse, asking for things. I didn’t know if he was joking. I ignored him and read a magazine, told him he could leave. “Are you a prostitute now?” I asked. I felt low, like the garish older white ladies I’d see in African bars in Montreal, buying drink after drink for derisive young men and their friends while the elaborately dressed Ethiopian women looked on in disgust. Nonetheless, I finally let Yamba have a Jimmy Cliff cassette so he would get out. We parted amicably enough, but I knew we had crossed an ugly line.

We crossed one more line, however, before I finally realized that this was it. I had reached the point, finally, when I was ready to stop this lukewarm affair.
We met up again in N’Djamena, the northern capital. I accepted his invitation to go out, partially because I was curious to see his private world of monied urban Muslims, partially because I thought maybe we’d get along better in a new setting. As usual, he was late. I was in clingy jeans and a tank top, drinking beer, feeling American. I didn’t want to step out into Africa, didn’t want to change my clothes, didn’t want to compromise.

“Your clothes are fine,” Yamba said. “These are modern people. Come on.” His confidence and my curiosity won me over. I went.

We stepped out into the street, busy with the snip and whir of a dozen tailor shops. He brought me to a compound hidden behind the shops, accessed by a small alley sliced by a tiny trickle of sewage. Before us was an immense courtyard framed by square mud-brick houses, closed off by painted tin doors and long curtains. In the courtyard, a dozen white-robed and turbaned men sat before a black and white TV rigged to a car battery. Chadians receive visitors outdoors, but Yamba brought me behind a curtain.
Inside was a small room, both its floors and walls covered with red and brown carpet. A blasting air conditioner and a loud stereo knocked me silent. A rotund bearded man came forward. Yamba introduced him as his cousin, a word that could mean kin or friend in Chad. “We put on American music,” said Abdulai, “so you would feel at home.” Diana Ross’s voice only made me feel more out of place. So did the two veiled women who were watching me from the floor. They were dressed like valentines, one frothy in lacy pink, the other heavily scented and draped in red. The face of the red one was plucked and painted and bleached like the “femmes libres,” loose women. Her open veil revealed a black lace camisole and more skin than I was used to seeing. Heavy red curtains parted and a woman in a tiny white slip emerged from a rumpled bed upon which reclined a bare-chested man. He looked at me and laughed. In a culture where public modesty was mandatory for both men and women, this much flesh was shocking.

They gave me a bottle of spicy red hibiscus juice, and talked in rapid Arabic. I understood nothing, least of all why Yamba had brought me here. He leaned close, hand on my knee, and asked if I wanted to go. Yes, I said. This exchange prompted a flurry of giggles from the valentine ladies. “They want me to feed you,” said Yamba, grabbing for the bottle. This was not our relationship. “Cut it out,” I said in English, pushing the bottle away.
“Yamba, come here,” the red woman teased from the bedroom. He joined her behind the curtain and they giggled together while the pink lady looked me over. I asked Abdulai for the bathroom and he summoned a boy to show me. Once outside, I sent the boy to fetch water and then shot out the door, past the contraband gasoline and shwarma stands, past the loiterers calling to the mademoiselle in tight jeans, until I reached the iron gate of the Peace Corps house.

A month later, back down south, I ran into Yamba at a restaurant. He demanded to know why I had shamed him. “Shamed you? You’re the one who brought me to a whorehouse.”

He was silent. Then, “You are not the person I thought you were.” The red lady was his cousin, Abdulai’s ex-girlfriend. The pink lady was her rival. The couple in the bedroom were married. “You left as if we were thieves. You completely shamed me.”

Oh God. I had always prided myself on genuine cultural competency. I had worked at it. And now this enormous gaffe. I apologized and explained to Yamba that our brief affair had left a bitter taste in my mouth. The whole thing was stupid, and I should have known better. We agreed that we’d had a silly relationship. Neither of us had enjoyed it much. We had both thought the worst of each other, and of each other’s cultures.

Though Yamba and I parted on cordial terms months later—he phoned me in the capital to wish me a safe journey home, a man of distinction to the last—the real closure to our relationship had little to do with him. I had decided, just as definitively as I had decided to pursue an Arab boyfriend, that there would be no more careless affairs. After a decade of dalliances, Yamba was my last; the end of an era. There might be more interracial relationships, but there would be no more Yambas.

The glory of standing up to accusations like “jungle fever”—and worse—is in defending a relationship that merits defense. Only a few of mine had. It did not matter if the motives of my lovers were as base or innocent as mine, or if we parted as friends. It did not matter that Yamba was as culpable as I, that he just thought it might be fun to parade around town with a white woman. What mattered was that I finally had to admit that initiating these tepid affairs did not make me a swashbuckling heroine. They did not make me interesting. They were not in my best interests, and certainly did nothing for cross-cultural understanding, something I’d always held dear. I had thought those two Arab women were whores. They must have thought the same of me. And so it goes, for centuries.