BOSSEY — Her elegance dazzled the world's most powerful men. When she stood next to her late husband Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Ivory Coast's first president who served from 1960 to 1993, it was impossible not to notice the graceful Marie-Thérèse.
"Everywhere I went, I would transcend," says the former first lady, now 84. "Besides, he did choose me for my beauty."
Still smiling, she adds, "I was also Pope John expand=1] Paul II"s favorite."
But those days of pomp, presidential palaces and dinners with Iran's imperial couple, the Kennedys, and the de Gaulles seem so far away now, in time as well as space. Marie-Thérèse, who used to be nicknamed the "Black Jackie Kennedy," has been hiding for years near a small French village on the Swiss border. She says she's bored by the hours spent watching television and embroidering. Even the splendid view of Geneva no longer comforts her. As a matter of fact, it's in that city, in bank coffers, that the fortune she thought she would inherit vanished into thin air.
A servant in livery brings the champagne. Marie-Thérèse, exuberant and barely wrinkled despite her age, admits to having abused parties in her prime. A chic and glamorous icon of the "Ivorian miracle" of the 1960s and 1970s, her charm was immortalized by Andy Warhol. She was in her 30s at the time, and her husband, nicknamed "the Old One," was twice her age.
It all ended on Dec. 7, 1993, when Félix Houphouët-Boigny died. The Ivory Coast lost its father, and Marie-Thérèse Houphouët-Boigny her husband — and his millions. "Instead of spending your time in an unbelievable funeral, you should have rushed here," a UBS banker told her in March 1994. "Your stepdaughter has already taken everything."
As soon as news of Houphouët-Boigny's death emerged, Parisian, Swiss and Ivorian lawyers and solicitors tried to inventory the inheritance. It was a difficult task given that the president's was one of the biggest fortunes on the planet. Without forgetting to take their own share, they split the pie between their constituents: Marie, Guillaume, François and Augustin, the four children of Khadija Racine Sow, the first wife, whom Houphouët-Boigny divorced 22 years before he married Marie-Thérèse, in 1952.
Félix Houphouët-Boigny and his wife Marie-Thérèse with the Kennedys in 1962 — Photo: Robert Knudsen
These heirs, discreet Parisians who still live off their father's wealth, have done everything they can to keep away the stepmother they so abhor. Contacted by Le Monde, they declined to answer our questions. It's possible that Houphouët-Boigny left one or even several wills, but none of them has resurfaced to date. The four children, with the backing of Henri Konan Bedié, Houphouët-Boigny's successor, asserted the existence of an oral bequest.
The late president did, however, write in July 1970, in Geneva, specific bequests concerning some of his possessions, for Marie-Thérèse and the first children of his first marriage. "He gave me an envelope with three bequests, with the instruction not to open it until his death," Marie-Thérèse whispers, her face hardening. "There were two bank accounts in Geneva and Zurich, and the contents of a deposit box at UBS in Geneva. But the others took everything."
She assures that her husband confided to her that he had arranged all inheritance matters with the French solicitor Jean-Michel Normand (who also declined to answer Le Monde"s questions). "But when I went to that man's office in Paris, he apologized and said I'd lost my mind," she recalls.
Learning how to fish
In 1994, the widow first shut herself away in her villa in Cocody, a posh neighborhood in the Ivorian economic capital of Abidjan, before flying to Nassau, in the Bahamas, where she stayed for three years. There, she spent her days managing an African arts-and-crafts shop and learning how to fish. By night, she would drown her melancholy at the casinos. During that time, in Paris, Geneva and Abidjan, her husband's legacy continued to erode, like sand in an hourglass. At the end of the 1990s, she moved to Bossey, France.
Almost 15 years passed before she decided to take action, following advice from her lawyer and her friends. She says she's driven by a feeling of injustice, adding that she mostly lives off a 1,700-euro monthly pension ($1,900) paid by the French National Assembly.
The servants are paid by the Ivory Coast state. "They stole 20 years of my life," she says. "With that money, I could have made some Ivorians happy. And live better. I'm sick of depending on the Ivorian presidency's goodwill to buy my plane tickets."
Yammousoukro street scene — Photo: Joker-x/GFDL
She pressed charges in 2013 for, among other things, forgery and fraud. The investigation in France doesn't seem to be going anywhere. But in Switzerland, where she pressed charges against UBS, the court is expected to hear her case soon. These two legal actions are in part based on the 1970 bequests, of which she has a copy. But she continues to believe that a more comprehensive will exists somewhere. Maybe it's in the Vatican, as some rumors suggested, because of "the Old One's" close ties at the Holy See.
"Everything needs to be sorted," she says. "It's as if the president had just died." But in this fight, she's already scored some victories — for example, by proving that the document claiming that her husband's wealth and hers were to be separated was a forgery made in Abidjan.
In the documents Le Monde has seen, one name keeps coming back: Philippe Rideau. Marie-Thérèse accuses him of having siphoned her late husband's Swiss accounts for the four children, and of having sold off part of his furniture and paintings, including a Renoir, at Sotheby's. It was an estate estimated at the time at around 7.5 million euros ($8.5 million).
Rideau, a former vice president of JP Morgan in Paris, says he "didn't make any money in this inheritance business that I executed as a courtesy."
He says there were only 1.2 million francs ($1.3 million) left in the two Swiss accounts, to be shared between seven heirs. The seven include the four children from Houphouët-Boigny's first marriage, Marie-Thérèse, and the two children whom he adopted. And yet, in 1999, the only transfers were made to the first four children, who wished "to address it to the foundation Notre-Dame de la Paix," Rideau says.
The money was supposed to be used for the construction of a modern hospital near the Notre-Dame de la Paix basilica in the Ivory Coast's administrative capital of Yamoussoukro, in accordance with Houphouët-Boigny's and John Paul II's wishes. The rest of the money was supposed to come from the sale of the president's furniture and paintings, which ended up bringing in close to 21 million euros ($24 million), and of his apartments, villas and other real estate in France.
Félix Houphouët-Boigny with U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1973 — Photo: Schumacher, Karl H
On Jan. 14, Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara finally inaugurated the building. The Vatican and the Ivorian government footed the 22.8-million-euro bill, with an extra 4 million still missing for the equipment. The absence of "the Old One's" funds leads Marie-Thérèse's lawyer to believe they were embezzled.
Since 1993, all Ivory Coast presidents have had to deal with the mysteries surrounding Houphouët-Boigny's estate. But since she decided to claim what she believes is hers, the former first lady says she no longer feels welcome in her country.
Tonight, in her Bossey villa, she dwells on those words she says her husband told her in the twilight of his life. "You'll see, when I'm gone, you'll be the richest woman in Africa." Her gaze turns to an old photograph of them. He's wearing a tuxedo, she a fur.
"For a modest African girl, I was lucky enough to have a dream life among the world's first ladies. That was a bonus in my life. I now lead the life of a nun," she says succinctly. "God decided it that way."
But the final decision, the one that will settle whether she'll end her days embroidering or living lavishly, lies with the justice of men.
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
- In Northern Colombia, LGBT Rights Meet Indigenous Prejudice ... ›
- LGBTQ+ In Morocco: A New Video Series To Open Minds ... ›
- Why Italy Is So Slow In Protecting LGBTQ From Violence ... ›