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September 2009 Cover
September 2009 Cover

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Small-town boy from Senegal

By Matthew Link

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Outside my room, the boy looked up at me with piercing yet puppy-dog eyes. He was bent over an air- conditioner unit, the dry African sunshine beating down on his sweaty brow. He had on tight jeans and a white T-shirt and was on his haunches working alongside another man. Although I'm used to being stared at as the token white person when I'm in certain countries, this boy's gaze seemed to last a few sexual beats too long.
When I returned later, he was still there, even sweatier and nearly done with his work on the air conditioner. His gaze seemed even more intent this time, like he was trying to see through me. I went over and struck up some inane conversation in my high school French. He just smiled and nodded and answered back in his heavily accented Senegalese French. I loved the depth and valleys of his voice, especially coming from a thin but masculine young man in his early twenties.
"Do you want to go for a walk around the village later?" he suggested. I agreed. Around dusk he picked me up at my room in a fresh pair of jeans and we sauntered around his tiny hamlet. The streets were all hard dirt, and fluorescent lights and lanterns flickered in open windows as African pop music floated about. I had been to Africa enough times to know that my newfound friend was amiable and innocent. And horny.
We stopped at his house, and I gingerly met his parents and siblings who were watching a Muslim sermon on a TV on the front porch. The night was bone-dry and warm and dusty and restless. We were light years away from any bright cities, and the dark sky pressed down overhead.
After a spell, we left his parents and sauntered to the local tailor shop, run by an English-speaking young man who wore a flashy-patterned shirt.
His face lit up when I entered the small brick room. "Ah, you are from America, everything is very free there," he said with a wink. He kept smiling, looking at me and the air- conditioner boy. Another somewhat effeminate young man appeared in another shirt with flashy patterns. I quickly realized that in this tiny village in the arid Sahel region of West Africa, I was in the midst of a gay gathering of smiles and nods and oblique understanding that transcended all distance.
After the tailor shop, we seemed to be finished with the village's social screening process. He led me to a small, empty pier at the edge of town. We were finally alone. The jetty silently jutted out into the Atlantic. Cricket chirps and the low, nearly unheard drum beats of the continent created a wall of sound behind us.
I put my hand on his shoulder and squeezed it. He quickly grabbed me and pressed his lips hard against mine, like he was trying to breathe something in. He fumbled with his clothes and mine, in a frantic race against the falling night. He came quickly and zealously, finally expelling something he had bottled up inside, with a type of anger and relief and excitement a small- town gay boy anywhere in the world would tacitly comprehend.
On the way home I took a picture of him and we exchanged email addresses. I handed him a small cadeau of a few dollars. In Africa, one always gives gifts regardless of the circumstances, so there was nothing inappropriate about the gesture. In fact, the dark night of Africa had given me a gift of understanding how important a foreign stranger's presence can mean for the world's remote and exiled.

Author Profile:  Matthew Link

Matthew Link has written for numerous magazines and has appeared on many television and radio shows. His documentaries have aired on PBS stations and in international film festivals.


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