The Keep Leftie

Tim Lovejoy

[an excerpt from his yet-to-be-published memoir The Mau Mau Party]


I was so excited the night before I left for Dar that I hardly slept.   I’d been teaching in Songea, a small town in southern Tanzania, a whole school term already.  Somehow it confirmed I was truly there, not just passing through but really living in Africa.  Returning to Dar was  a kind of punctuation for me, something earned,  not in the sense of having stuck it out there in a town with no electricity or running water, two days from any city, from anywhere.  It wasn't a triumph over adversity, but rather some thing achieved, like what my friend Nadia, talking years later about Roe vs Wade, called “an achieved liberty,” a place arrived at that couldn't be reversed or taken away. 

“Something like losing your virginity, you mean,” I joked at the time.  

That's what this was.  Africa was like that for me now, a part of my life, an experience I couldn't undo, unlearn, unfeel.    

I had this project in Dar, something I had cooked up with a friend, another volunteer.  It was a school holiday but, for we volunteers, it wasn't actually a vacation.   The Peace Corps only gave you one vacation a year.  The rest of the school holidays you were supposed to work on projects you found or invented for yourself.  My friend and I had come up with the idea of doing an English language workbook for Tanzanian secondary schools like the one we taught in.  We recognized it was probably a pretty dreary project but, by saying we needed to be near the Ministry of Education for which we were doing the book, we got the Peace Corps to let us use their offices in Dar to work in, and to pay for our hotel there as well – a sweet arrangement, we thought.  

I just wanted to get out of Songea for a while and get to a city.  I mostly grew up in the country, but I’ve always loved  cities.  I loved New York and thought of it as my town.  I loved the crowds, the skyscrapers and Central Park.  I loved the restaurants and bookstores, and I loved the theaters and dreamed of being a playwright.  When I was at Yale – I had just graduated the spring before, in 1966 – I had gone to New York as often as I could, driving in most nights to see a play, or second act one, and, when I could, as I said, trying to sound grown up, I guess, get laid.  Like Chekhov's Three Sisters who were always dying to get to Moscow, I was always dying to get to New York, the Big City.  And in sleepy dusty far away Songea, I had convinced myself that Dar, being the capital, was Tanzania's big city, and was dead keen to get there. 

Of course, Dar was anything but the big city.  I actually knew it perfectly well having been stuck there for two weeks when I first arrived in Tanzania for what was called in-country training, but I had chosen to forget it: Dar es Salaam, the Haven of Peace, was basically a dump.  There was hardly any city at all, really, just a lot of run-down government buildings, a few shabby hotels, some badly stained “modern” office buildings, a few so-so restaurants, two (not so bad) bookstores and a couple of big old movie theaters that mostly showed old Hollywood films or Bollywood musicals.

None of them was air-conditioned and you just sat there with these huge fans blowing in your face until, by the end, you were goggle-eyed and couldn't blink.  The first air-conditioned theater was built a year or so later and showed, very lucratively, nothing but snowy, cool Doctor Zhivago for as long as I was in East Africa.  

The heat, for me, was the worst.  I thought I would get used to it after a few days, but I never did, any of the times I went there.  Wherever I went, after just a few minutes, my clothes would be soaking wet and clinging to me.  I felt frantic, feverishly pale and sweaty, and completely out of place.  If only, I thought, I could move as slowly and smoothly as the Africans.  Even with great sacks piled on their heads or balancing two by fours or wood palettes piled with cinder blocks, they moved effortlessly, one, usually, bare foot in front of the other.  

No, sadly Dar was a letdown in pretty much every way.  It was definitely not the big city.  But my biggest disappointment was sex, or rather the lack of it.  Except for Jimmy, a young Canadian missionary from down near Lake Malawi who I had sex with when he was in Songea buying supplies – a sweet but unexciting experience – it had been months since I had been to bed with anyone, or even just fooled around, and a big part of what I had been looking forward to in Dar was having sex, or at least a little flirtation to get my heart beat up.  But, so far, my score was a big fat zero.  

It wasn't for want of trying.  Most nights, after dinner with the friend I was working with, or some other volunteers, I would head off on my own.  I didn't really cruise much; it was so hot there, even at night, that, no matter how driven I was, walking around endlessly was the last thing I wanted to do.  Instead, most nights, as when I had been in Dar before, after a bit of a wander, I would head down to the terrace bar of the New Africa Hotel on Maktaba Street, overlooking the harbor.  

It wasn't Rick's in Casablanca where “everybody went,” but it was a kind of meeting place and, it seemed to me, the likeliest place for a sexual encounter.  From there, I could keep my eye on both the bar inside and on the waterfront, a traditional pick up spot, I imagined, the world over.  And I could also keep track of loose or wandering Peace Corps volunteers approaching unseen; I wasn't interested in being surprised by someone I knew popping up behind me and bellowing, “Whatcha doin', Lovejoy?” 

And so, like Noel Coward's “gentle Alice” in his song “Alice is at it Again,” that is where I usually “took up my stand.” But I never seemed to have any luck.  

Until, finally, one night, I did. 

I was just leaving the New Africa.  It was late and I felt like I had been hanging around forever. 

But that night, there was this big, very black, man standing there on the sidewalk just outside the hotel door as I left.  Handsome and very...contained, very relaxed and calm, he was dressed in one of those sort of Chinese outfits with short sleeves, collarless shirts and matching slacks favored by Mao Tse-tung and Mobutu Sese Seko, the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kinshasa, soon to be re-named Zaire.  And indeed this man looked to be from there.  Not only was he wearing the same kind of suit as Mobutu, but the same leopard skin cap and thick, black-framed glasses.  He was carrying a briefcase and looked to be someone important, I thought – in Dar on government business, perhaps.   

And he picked me up.  One often didn't know who picked whom up, but this time, it was clear he picked me up.  There was no cruising, no starting or stopping or looking over shoulders,  It was as if he had come there purposely to pick me up, or someone like me, as I suspected he had, someone young and white.  He said hello and started talking to me there on the sidewalk just beyond the hotel terrace.  And I immediately felt the little pain in my chest, part excitement, part fear, that I always felt in these situations.  

I wanted to talk for a while, if only to get a sense of him.  In the first place, it had been some time since I had been picked up in the street and I was...what?  A little out of practice? But also I was in a foreign city, far from home.  Dar was still a strange place to me, somewhere I didn't really feel I knew what I was doing.  In a foreign place, you have no basis for judging the other person; you can't just look at his shoes, his haircut or the kind of watch he is wearing and get at least a sense of what you might be getting into.  

And, of course, he was black.  But then that was part of why I was interested, why I was turned on.  As I said I had had sex with blacks in America and liked it.  I found many of them amazingly handsome, and the ones I had been with, at least, seemed to be sexier or at least more...sexual than any

of the white guys I had slept with.  Sex with most white men I had been with, even the older ones, was more like sex with Jimmy:  sweet, but anxious and tentative, more like two boys fooling around.  It seemed to me that black guys enjoyed it more, or enjoyed it more easily.  

I hadn't a clue about this man, what was going on or what it might be like.  But I wasn't about to hesitate.  He was African and I was in Africa, and I thought let's do it.  

I questioned him a little and he told me he was from Kinshasa, Mobutu-land, and was, in fact, in Dar on government business.  I was worried he might read my questioning him as hesitation and be put off, but he didn't seem to be offended.  He just pulled out a newspaper clipping from the Dar Daily News showing him at the Kilimanjaro Hotel, the then newest and biggest hotel in town, shaking hands with some well-known mucky-muck in the government – his cruising curriculum vitae, as it were.  He was clearly quite determined and it occurred to me that, very possibly, his being in Dar, well away from the frankly terrifying psychotic, Mobutu, was a bigger opportunity for him than this chance meeting was even for desperate me, and he wasn't about to miss it.

Neither of us had any idea where to go, or I certainly didn't.  My project partner was probably in our room asleep and, for all I knew, this guy had a whole trade delegation waiting for him at his hotel, but he set off up the street as if he, at least,  had some idea.  He walked a bit in front while I, seemingly playing the juvenile – which I was; I figured him to be in his forties – followed along behind.  Maybe he didn't want to talk to me, or just didn't want to talk at all.  At any rate, he didn't say anything and after crossing the big avenue at the top of Maktaba Street, we headed silently down a series of endless, nearly-deserted streets.   

I was beginning to think he had no idea where he was going either when we, finally, got to a keep leftie, Swahili for a roundabout.  The city was full of them, most of them built by the British who were, and are, addicted to them; they're all over England.  

This roundabout was just a struggling patch of lawn with a bedraggled flower bed in the middle, a waist-high hedge around it, and a large billboard facing the street.  My new friend, holding his briefcase over his head, much as if he were muscling his way through the jungle or fording a rushing river, pushed and hopped his way through the hedge.  I followed obediently, and we went over behind the billboard and, what is it the British say?...“And Bob's your uncle.”  All at once, there we were, making it al fresco behind the billboard.    

It was very late by then and there was no one around, hardly any cars and no one at all on foot.  Still, it was pretty stupid, I guess, almost like asking to get caught.  In truth, it hadn't been any smarter that first time, years before in one of my New York forays when this guy picked me up and took me into Central Park – I seem to have had quite a lot of outdoor sex in those early days.  That time, a police car with two cops in it pulled up and parked on Fifth Avenue just on the other side of the low wall from where we were lying, trapping us there for what seemed like ages while they smoked and yapped about the Yankees and pussy.  

But this was a good deal riskier.  In those days, even in America, homosexual acts were illegal in all fifty states, and you could be arrested and have your life ruined.  But in Africa, though you weren't likely to be executed or stoned to death as you might be today, the old British laws about homosexuality were still in place and you could be arrested and put in prison – and not a very nice prison either – or be expelled from the country.  On top of that, although there was no AIDS yet, in Africa I imagined there were plenty of sexually transmitted diseases you could get, and we had no protection.

It was reasonably crude too.  My partner, though obviously very turned on, was no romantic.  He did at least put down his briefcase, but he never took off his hat.  It was just sex.  But it was basically new to me, what went on, and amazing.  I had been, how should I put it, "a little bit pregnant" or a sort of semi-virgin for some time.  No more.  This was the real thing.  And though I can't say it was really pleasurable for me nor what I had been yearning for, looking round at the tangle of our bare black and white legs, our trousers down around our ankles, it seemed pretty sexy.  

And then he was gone.  No fuss, no muss.  No connection, no emotion.  After he came, he just tidied up and walked away with no more than a “good night,” where to I have no idea, and I walked what seemed like miles alone back to my hotel.  

Strangely though, I felt a kind of high.  Not just because of having sex – that was always a high.  Even early on, I had very little guilt about these strange tendencies; if I actually had sex and actually came, it was all good.  This high was because it had been just that, plain sex with a man.  A first for me, and a breakthrough.  This was not boys furtively rolling around and jerking off.  There was no nervous chatting, no questioning one another, no imagining this might be love.  This was not sweet, not sensitive.  It was clear cut, no bullshit, no how am I doing, no performance anxiety,  no will I see him again.  No self-consciousness. No mind in the way at all.  No pretense that this was anything but what it was, sex with a man.  For me a kind of triumph.

No wonder I was so elated, I thought.  I'd done the unthinkable –  the  nearly unimaginable, for me – I hadn't even known that men did that until I was almost twenty – and I was free at last.

A freedom I had earned. 

# # #

Tim Lovejoy was born in Ft Smith, Arkansas in 1943, attended Philips Exeter Academy, and studied at the Sorbonne and Yale. He did a tour teaching in the Peace Corps in Tanzania and then another in Morocco. On returning to America, he worked in the theater for a while then made a feature documentary called Just Crazy About Horses. After that he began painting and painted all over Europe, the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, and most recently in Tibet. He showed for a time at the Coe Kerr Gallery in New York but for almost thirty years has been showing there with W.M. Brady & Co. He has also exhibited in Chicago, London, Basel, and Cairo.