Parza: Writing His Name

- Mark Canavera, RPCV Burkina Faso

Funny, that I thought writing my partner’s name, “Parza,” would be a relief. Oh, it may not look like much to you since you’re reading it in Times New Roman or maybe Arial, who knows. But know that when I write it, when I really write Parza with a thick pen that’s purple or green or royal blue, it swirls on the pages with curlicues, basking in its newfound glow of legibility. It sounds even better. Read it out loud: Parza. Do it, read it: Paaaarza. Rolls off the tongue with a zing, doesn’t it? PAARZA!

You might have read about Parza before, just without knowing it. In an earlier edition of this newsletter, Parza was P_____, my anonymous Burkinabè lover (February 2003, see I wrote anonymously as well since this newsletter is sent to Peace Corps staff in Burkina Faso and both Parza and I feared losing our thin veil of secrecy. We’re no longer anonymous: P_____ is Parza, and I am Mark. I had thought that writing Parza, outing Parza, declaring Parza, would rush through me like an electric wave, a thrilling release, a throwing off of the protective cloak of anonymity. A naked jump into icy waters. Writing Parza was supposed to be a Defining Moment, both his coming out and ours.

Parza gave me permission to write about him by name about three months ago, some two years after my departure from Burkina Faso. “Write it all,” he said. “Everything! Don’t leave out a single detail.” At the time, I itched at the prospect of artfully sketching vignettes of Parza’s coming-out process: the day he learned the French words for “homosexual” and “fag,” our first kiss, the time he saw Doug kiss his boyfriend on “Melrose Place” (yes, it showed in Burkina), and finally, triumphantly, the moment he declared to me, “Voilà! That’s who I am – a man who prefers men to women.” All interesting in their own ways, but stories like these have already been told a thousand times.

Parza’s story has more. In May of last year, Parza, who like me is 27, faced increasing pressure from his family to get married and to start a family. To stem the tide of marriage proposals, he decided to tell his father about our relationship, one-upping me. I feared that he would be chased from the village, ostracized. “What did your father say?” I asked with baited breath. “He asked to see your picture,” Parza replied. We have his family’s felicitous and unexpected blessing.

Writing Parza was supposed to be a declaration of commitment, a putting to ink of our love. But seeing it now, written in Times New Roman (yours might be Palatino Linotype or Garamond, but no matter – they’re all typewritten), “Parza” looks vaguely lifeless, an inaccurate transcription of our spoken affair. Read it out loud again and you’ll understand how much is lost in the typing: Paarza! ParZAAH!

There are irreducible ironies. For starters, we speak almost daily but have not seen each other in over two years. The cell phone keeps us close just as plane ticket prices, immigration laws, and cultures keep us distant. We never talk about “us” anymore; we just enact the day-to-day drone of married couples. Parza is working in a bakery right now, rolling baguette loaves from 3 to 7 am. I just finished a final paper for a political philosophy class. Our lives seem to exist in two different spheres, the dusty streets of Ouagadougou and the pristine halls of academia, yet our conversations are filled with quotidian banalities, hardly the stuff of star-crossed lovers. We no longer love each other exotically.

Parza and I have been together for more than four years now, two of them together and two and a half of them apart. Never once has the end goal been apparent. A counselor I saw recently raised his eyebrow and said, “You call that a relationship? Whatever.” Somehow neither of us seems to let the obvious questions grow too loud: where are we going, or even more basically, what direction are we headed in? Those sounds of those questions remain, but they are reduced to a soothing hum, the purr of a well-constructed Cadillac engine. For now we just keep coasting, somehow together but viscerally apart.

“I’m so lucky,” I used to tell other Peace Corps Volunteers in Burkina. “I’ll never have to think about where my relationship with Parza is going, never have to worry about visas or marriage or long-term prospects. This relationship is only what it is right now, and right now it’s a lot of fun.” Those words are some of the only ones I have ever regretted uttering: “I’m so lucky.” Maybe they were a curse or a jinx. At the very least, they prophesied our separation.

Writing “Parza” was supposed to be an explosion of truth, an outraged outcry for our rights denied, a pitched squeal against the manmade barriers that separate us. But it’s not. Maybe Parza and I will just keep coasting for a while, on autopilot, until we turn some unexpected corner onto vast turquoise horizons, unimagined possibilities. And maybe Parza will never be written, preferring instead to be spoken and sung.

Mark Canavera can be reached at

Post-Partum Conversations with P____

- Mark Canavera, RPCV Burkina Faso

October 16, 2002
Today, for the first time since leaving Burkina, I talked to P_____. About two weeks ago, we said our teary good byes at Ouagadougou’s small, antiquated airport, and since then, I’ve spent much of my time in a black and white haze, imagining his ashy, charcoal skin against my soft, untested white. I miss his cracked hands. (Upon meeting him, one Peace Corps Volunteer said, “He’s got the roughest hands I’ve ever felt!” P____ is a construction worker. His specialty is cement mixing.) P____ snapped me out of my corny, sepia-toned reverie. “When can you send me an American car?” His first question. “I don’t even have a job yet, my friend, much less a car to get me to a job, even if I were to have one.” “Oh, okay. Well, when you have the time, send me a car.”
This nonchalant request is no surprise, but it is a wake-up call. I realize that today, I officially become a long-distance sugar daddy and that our conversations will probably become numeric, filled with Western Union transfer codes and exchange rates. But then, money has always been a tangible third party in our relationship. When I met P____ I was penniless. I was at the end of a pay quarter, and he had a great gig as chief cement mixer on a prestigious construction site. For a few weeks, he bought my every meal, cigarette, and beer. Soon his gig ended, my new pay quarter started, and the tides turned. I became the provider, a post I occupy to this day. But P____ had proven himself to me in those first few weeks. When you are a westerner in the third world, your own hunger can quickly winnow friends from freeloaders. P____ is my friend.

November 20, 2002
P____ blew my mind (again) today. “Guess what?” he answered when I called him. “What?” “I finished my literacy classes today. I can read and write now. Like a regular student.” I was speechless. A few days before I left Burkina, P____ asked me for ten dollars to enroll in a short series of nighttime literacy classes. I gave him the money, mostly expecting him to squander it on local millet beer and cigarettes within a day or two, but he hadn’t.
One of my first interactions with P____ had been a lesson in the letters of the alphabet, and my favorite memory (sometimes) of my time in Burkina came just a few days later. We were walking down a city street one night, and he yelled out “Shell! Total! I can read those!” He was reading the signs of two adjacent gas stations. “I can read those!” I had given him that most basic of tools, the alphabet, and he quickly taught himself what to do with it.
I can never help but relate that incident to our romantic relationship, though not in such a hopeful, inspiring way. For I also guided P____ through the basics of homosexual love. He had offered me a frightened, skittish kiss, and I had taken it from there. But as sharp and curious as P____’s intellect is, I know that he will never learn to read the signposts of West African homosexuality, quite simply because there aren’t any. During the two years we spent together, I faced a daily quandary: what would become of P____ after I left? Was I doing him a favor by broadening his sexual horizons or simply walking him down a dead end alleyway that only I would be fortunate enough to walk out of by leaving Burkina? These questions remain unanswered.
When we’d finished our conversation, P____ and I said goodbye, and then we both lingered on the line in silence. Eventually, he chuckled , a low, melancholy laugh, and said, “I miss you. Where am I supposed to go now? Who can I be with?” “I don’t know,” I answered. I really don’t know.

December 25, 2002
Today came the reality that some small event, a broken cell phone, a change of number, a dead battery, something small, could and probably will separate me from P____ forever. It’s Christmas, and for two days I have been trying to contact him. His cell phone is disconnected, and until he can call me (a major financial investment, and where would he get the cash?), I am disconnected, éloigné. So I call a friend of his in Burkina, asking the friend to track down P____ for me. The friend says he will do his best, and then the panic sets in. What if that was it – two months of post-partum communication and then kaput? Perhaps now is the time to begin considering my life without P____ in it. I don’t want to, but sometimes circumstances pre-empt choice.

January 23, 2003
P____ has gotten his cell phone up and running again. In the past month, the following things have happened: 1) P____’s uncle has fallen deathly ill, and as the next eldest family male, P____ is assumed responsible for treatment costs (remember that he is a construction worker in the world’s fourth poorest country, and he’s a 24-year-old construction worker at that); 2) P____ has gone approximately $80 into debt to cover hospital fees; 3) the loan shark who lent P____ the money has had him imprisoned for overdue payment; and 4) P____ has borrowed from another usurer to repay debt number one and get out of jail. “Why didn’t you let me know?” I ask him.” I didn’t want you to think that I’m with you for the money.” “But I know you’re not with me for the money. Let me help you out of this mess, my friend.” “Okay.” P____ is my friend, but our understanding is one that neither society nor immigration laws will accommodate. “I’ll never forget you. You know that, right? “he asks. “I know.” “I thought you’d have forgotten me by now.” This is perhaps the most insulting thing P____ could have said at this moment, but also the saddest. “But I won’t ever forget you either, P____.”
So where are we supposed to go now?

Editor’s note: Because the author wants to protect P____’s identity (Burkina Faso is a small country), he has opted to write this article anonymously. You can contact the author at


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