A Friend and Lover in Cote d’Ivoire

 – Rob Tocci, RPCV

Before Peace Corps’ invitation I lived a quiet life, teaching public school and was out to only a few friends. I figured that expressing my sexual orientation would have to be put on hold as a PC volunteer. I was going to live and work in a foreign culture and language. That would take up most of my energy. Then I met George in Atlanta, in 1976, during our pre-stage training. He was handsome, intelligent, and charismatic. He stood out among our diverse group headed to Cote d’Ivoire. I had no idea then, that for the next two years, he would become the most important person in my life.

On the plane from New York to Abidjan I had a chance to talk to George and was intrigued. We were both from New England and valued our Italian heritage. We had similar family backgrounds and were the same age, 26. Conversations and shared experiences with the other PC trainees continued during the four-week stage (training), held at a lycee in Abidjan. Up at 6:30, cold showers, language, cultural, and pedagogical classes filled our days. Training was exhilarating, but exhausting. Besides meals, interactions with George became the high point of each day. I don’t remember the exact moment, but at some point during that time in Abidjan, I was smitten. Now what?  He seemed more and more interested, but in all likelihood, we would be assigned to different towns at the end of August. How could a potential relationship develop if we lived scores or hundreds of miles away before computers and cell phones?

By the end of training we decided to continue and deepen our relationship and requested that Peace Corps assign us to the same town. In a move that surprised both of us, Peace Corps assigned us to Dabou, a town about 25 miles east of Abidjan, on the main paved north/south road in Cote d’Ivoire. The Ivorian government provided teachers furnished housing, in our case a three-bedroom ranch with indoor plumbing and a metal roof. We decorated the house with Ivorian-produced fabrics and batiks. We welcomed many guests to a home that reflected us.

School was a five-minute walk from the house. We taught from 7:00 AM to noon. After lunch and a siesta my favorite part of the day was between 4:00 and 6:00 PM. The heat of the day was abating and the glaring sun of mid-day was replaced by a softer, richer illumination. Often we would get on our PC-provided motor bikes to go to the marche, tour the surrounding countryside, or visit friends. If lessons were already prepared, evenings were spent reading or studying French. When the mosquitoes became intolerable, we retreated to bed under mosquito netting.

After I returned from a five-week med-evacuation in March of ’77, we established an English-language library at our school, which we staffed three or four afternoons a week.  Students could borrow books, practice their English, or just hang out. Those afternoons when the hazy setting sun reflected off the tin roofs of the houses sloping down the hill, I felt peace and contentment. The words of our training director would come to mind.  “The red dust of Africa gets into your veins.”

Because of school vacations, we and our fellow PC volunteer teachers traveled to Abidjan, Korogo, and Sassandra in Cote d’Ivoire. During our summer vacation, we took two trips through West Africa. We used the same transport as ordinary Ivorians. The usual transport was an overcrowded bus or station wagon, driven by a possessed driver. One evening the bus we were in broke down at the Burkina Faso/Niger border. For dinner we ate bread and canned sardines from a near-by village. We slept outdoors under a spectacular star-filled sky. At another point during that summer we took a thirty-six hour train from Bamako, Mali to Dakar, Senegal. As we approached Dakar, the train got so crowded with people carrying produce to market, that the aisles became impassible. At one point we had to chase away would-be thieves who tried to steal the purses of our female Peace Corp friends.

I savor the memories of the experiences I shared with George. Aside from the fact that we were living in Africa, in many ways our lives were quite ordinary. I loved him, but, perhaps more importantly, liked him. For two years we were friends and lovers. Who knows how different our Peace Corps adventure might have been had we not met. Sharing those two challenging years with him in a foreign culture and language resulted in an infinitely more rewarding experience. I would not have changed a thing. I knew then that we were very lucky to share that time together. I realize that even more so now.

Rob Tocci can be contacted at robtocci@yahoo.com

 

 

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