This opinion piece is written by Nompendulo Mkatshwa
In January 2017 I set off from Johannesburg, South Africa to Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. Even though a few days before I was to arrive there was a military mutiny, I was still very excited to be experiencing a new country for living purposes and not to visit. The only sort of familiarity with Cote d’Ivoire I could be said to have was my experience of its neighbouring country, Ghana that I had visited in 2016. I was not too afraid of some sort of “culture-shock” as I had heard that Abidjan was once called “petit Paris” – not to say that, that reference is a progressive one. So, from that reference, from knowledge of its economy being said to be one of the most buoyant in Africa and from my general love for Africa, I was not anxious about my move to Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire.
After a stop-over in Accra, Ghana, I landed at Felix-Houphouet Boigny Airport in Abidjan in the evening. The airport, just like everything else in the country, is named after independent Cote d’Ivoire’s first president. The lights from Christmas were not yet down so the modern and well-built, yet small-sized airport was stunningly lit. As we drove from the airport I was like a little child looking out the window of the car at the buzz of big American SUVS and the Christmas lights dominating the streets of Abidjan. My thoughts were ‘my… but this city is lit’.
In the morning everything became clearer, the lights were off, and one could see the true make-up of the country which included its infrastructural setbacks. Eager to discover the town I quickly prepared to make my way through the streets of Plateau, the Central Business District of Abidjan. As I stepped out of the hotel doors I was met with an overwhelming gush of humid air from my legs up. I ran straight back into the hotel and tried to internalize what I had just experienced, then walked back out. The hotel security were polite but didn’t speak much English, so I tried to use my little knowledge of French to explain where I was headed to, not that it made much of a difference. I then proceeded to walk for one block and couldn’t help but feel eyes gawking at me. I was wearing a short dress as the weather dictated. However, being foreign to the country I was not sure if I was indecently dressed so I rushed back to the hotel and found a much longer dress. When I went back to the streets the stares lessened. Funnily enough, in my 15th month in Abidjan I wore the same dress, and no one looked at me. Maybe I had simply become more comfortable in the country and less self- conscious.
During my stay at the hotel before moving to permanent accommodation, I had two experiences that truly welcomed me to the country. Firstly, it was my visit to the Banco National Park. The park was so beautiful with an extremely rich ecosystem; it almost reminded me of the beautiful forests along the Garden Route of the Western Cape of South Africa. I was excited by the fact that communities were freely allowed to use the park for their cultural practices. At the same time, I could not help but notice its poor upkeep, no clear management and an abandoned looking research centre. Secondly, we were referred to Palm Beach where we were told we could swim and enjoy a range of restaurants. Never in my life had I seen so much waste lying on a beach. When I walked closer, I witnessed pockets of human faeces. At that point the BSc graduate in me was fuming with all sorts of analysis of the situation.
Eventually I moved into permanent accommodation and continued to experience the country from Abidjan to Yamoussoukro.
Allow me to further share with you my analysis. Bear in mind that these are my personal views of what I witnessed.
One would think that being in a West African country you would get a strong sense of culture everywhere you go. I think of Johannesburg, South Africa where we have tourists dominating Vilakazi Street that is full of our art work, African food, music, dance and political history. I found that Abidjan had an overwhelming presence of French traditions. It was predominantly through food that I was able to understand the culture of the people. For months I enjoyed myself some attieke (ground cassava), alloco (fried plantain), Poulet and poisson brassiere (grilled chicken and fish), kedjenou (stew), bissap and gingembre (local freshly produced juices). These foods were also fairly reasonable unlike everything else in the country.
I also experienced their African fabrics which I spent lots of my money on. Fortunately, after some time I became familiar with their Marabastad called Adjame where the prices of fabric and other goods were much better than in your urban areas such as Deux-Plateau. I experienced a lot of their art work, such as masks, fabric paintings, jewellery, wooden carvings etc, that was mainly to be sold to tourists. One would hear their music on local radio stations and at some social scenes, however, rarely would you see Ivorian locals dance. It would mainly be expatriates, particularly from the South, enjoying the various sounds of West Africa. Nigerian and Congolese music strongly dominates these spaces, but one was also introduced to the Ivorian “gqom”, called Zouglou.
Perhaps if I enjoyed the liberty to frequent spaces of the working class I would have experienced what one would experience in Soweto etc. However, being foreign in the space, it was highly discouraged for us to frequent “non-expat” spaces. Especially since the language remained a barrier to communication. This also highlighted the polarisation of social spaces. People of a specific class frequent certain spaces. I find that in South Africa the chesa nyama spaces have curbed that sort of polarisation as you find a lot of the middle class frequenting those spaces and re-identifying with the township after relocating to urban areas.
Many say that Cote d’Ivoire is one of the most developed West African countries. My input is to say that perhaps the country may have been way more developed in terms of infrastructure and other measures of development had there been a consistency in the government’s national priorities moving from one administration to another. Looking at the now ghost-town looking, administrative capital Yamoussoukro there was a clear plan for the future of Yamoussoukro and the role it was to play in the country and the West African region at large. The capital houses the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, the well invested Presidential Palace, and the Felix Houphouet Boigny Foundation for Peace Research.
The Basilica according to the Guinness World Records is ‘the largest "church" in the world, having surpassed the previous record holder, St. Peter's Basilica’ in the Vatican. Today the basilica is predominantly a tourist site and with a holding capacity of 18 000 people, one may want to say it no longer realises its full potential. Personally, I feel that today the Presidential Palace no longer realises its founding intention as President Allasane Ouattara lives in Abidjan. My thinking on the palace is that it could have been used by various presidents to come, like with Mahlamba Ndlopfu; yet Ivorian state resources are wasted in creating and reinforcing new presidential homes with the coming of every new president. The Foundation for Peace Research was initially built to create a space where matters of peace, conflict negotiation and resolution etc. could be researched and addressed. At some point it was rarely used for its initial purpose but mainly for touristic purposes. However, there is a great attempt by the Ivorian government to live up to the purposes of the foundation.
Economic activity – micro level
Under the apartheid government various laws made it difficult for black South Africans to partake in small business activities. This has therefore stifled the rate at which black South African’s have been able to emerge in spaces of small business in post-Apartheid South Africa. A great majority of black South Africans have inherited a culture of being employed and having to have “umlungu”, in other words an employer. On the other hand, it was inspiring to see how many people in Abidjan were self-employed. Everywhere you go, you see small businesses and informal traders. After every corner and every street, you will find a spaza shop (referred to as a boutique) tailor and free-lance mobile tailor; a lady selling local foods; a man with a drinks-trolley; another with a hot beverage-trolley; young boys selling kitchen utensils; a spaza-shop with garden equipment; a lady selling dried fruits; young girls selling fruits; outdoor salons; open air stationery stalls… You find everyone, selling everything, everywhere! It was absolutely fascinating to experience the high levels of entrepreneurship in Abidjan. It made me further interrogate our government’s actions to remove street vendors from certain spaces. This same action has been taken on the arts and craft market vendors in an area called Cocody in Abidjan. The vendors have been moved into a building with various stalls. The vendors were greatly disappointed as they would have to pay rent which increases the selling price of their products and therefore delays the turnaround time of sales. Which then brings me to the question of how do we create structure for vendors without frustrating them?
As a student activist I found it interesting to note that Ivorian students and South African students shared something in common after a student protest in Cocody, Abidjan in September 2017. Students were protesting against increased tuition fees just like South African students did in 2015. These students were also met with resistance from the state through the police force as police threw teargas at the students.
Over and above that I have also come to realise that many Ivorian grade 12 graduates leave to study abroad in North America, Europe and now Asia as well. Noting the commonality in this; I then wondered would it not be possible for there to be a sort of intra-African initiative that focuses on increasing learning opportunities in the best institutions on our continent for West African students, and in fact all African students. I mention this as I believe it will also play a role in breaking the reliance on Eurocentric and western knowledge, but it would also increase relations and familiarity of Africans towards one another. I say this in line with my views that we must have African students taught by African academics to solve African problems.
This would also mean that as a continent we must discuss the possibility of regulating fees for African students across all African institutions. It means that as Africans we need to have a continental discussion on how we can better the entire African education system in order for us to curb the current “brain-drain” that we experience.
Abidjan is a coastal city that lies just above the equator. One never experiences winter or extremely cold weather in Cote d’Ivoire. I personally never wore a jersey in Abidjan and never understood when the locals said they were cold. Often rain would be associated with cold which was not the case for me. I loved it when it rained in Abidjan, the temperature dropped to a level that was comfortable enough for me to enjoy the outdoors instead of being locked up indoors with air-conditioning.
Abidjan is built in and around the Ebrie lagoon, reminding me of how the South African town, Knysna, is built around a lagoon. Sadly, the lagoon is terribly polluted and is currently undergoing rehabilitation spearheaded by the Moroccan government.
Historically locals that lived where the lagoon meets the smaller streams would use the lagoon water for household purposes. Now they cannot do that as the water is harshly contaminated. Of course, the BSc graduate in me also made analysis of this and concluded that it links back to the same lack of appreciation for the impact that globalisation and development has on changing the way in which African communities manage waste. Because we are now more interconnected as a globe, more countries are exposed to more manufactured and processed goods that come in forms of plastic, cardboard, paper, rubber etc. These are materials that do not degrade therefore need to be managed differently to a banana peel for example. Also, as populations multiply the strain on waste management is intensified as consumerism also increases. With the civil wars that Cote d’Ivoire experienced many people moved South towards Abidjan as the war started and predominantly took place in north and central Cote d’Ivoire. This has resulted in a densely populated Abidjan, that seems to be struggling with conceptualizing and executing an effective waste management system. All of this has a gravely negative impact on this city and country with an extremely rich and beautiful environment.
As you drive through the streets of Abidjan you will see loads of broken-down cars on open land on the side of the road. My reading of this is that the West and Europe are using Cote d’Ivoire as a dumping site for their depreciated cars. Due to the absence of the capacity to manufacture cars in Cote d’Ivoire, cars are significantly imported. The new cars arrive at outrageously exorbitant prices. So, many turn to buying used cars from North America and Europe. The engines of these cars are usually at a standard that is close to collapse. Therefore, they will drive normally in Cote d’Ivoire for about a year or so and then completely collapse. What deludes the Ivorians is the typically intact outer-body of the car. These cars with dying engines then populate the streets of Abidjan releasing the harshest carbon emissions. The Ivorians struggle to service the cars and buying parts for the car is costly as the parts must be imported. In the end, the Porsche, Range Rover, Hummer… is left parked on the side of the road. So, noting that penalties on exceeding carbon emission targets, as per the Kyoto Protocol, is harsher on Europe - one wonders if this indirect dumping (mass selling) of waste (dying cars) is maybe not merely a coincidence.
A lot of the food in Cote d’Ivoire is expensive as much besides their local staple foods is imported. Even their apples are imported from South Africa. This for me made the cost of living in Abidjan extremely unbearable. I never imagined myself paying approximately between R36 (1600 CFA Franc) to R42 (1800 CFA Franc) for a litre of milk.
Living in Abidjan I couldn’t help but continue to ponder on how suffocating foreign aid is. In Cote d’Ivoire I experienced an overwhelming influence of the French culturally, politically and economically with the CFA Franc (Historically Colonies françaises d'Afrique - "French colonies of Africa". Now Communauté Financière Africaine - African Financial Community) still being pegged to the Euro. There’s a large Ivorian diaspora living in France that even calls France home. The French’s overwhelming influence is followed by that of the rest of Europe, followed by America and Canada and then you see countries like China and Morocco also being heavily influential. Looking at the influence of “developing” countries like China and Morocco, I question the possibility of South-South cooperation being neo-colonialist in nature, as I ponder what the true nature of the agreement of Morocco leading the rehabilitation of the Ebrie Lagoon and the building of a waterfront on the Cocody side of the lagoon is. The Lebanese are equally overwhelmingly dominant as they own a great number of restaurants, shops, hotels, super-markets, malls etc.
Cote d’Ivoire enjoys a number of indigenous languages, however through colonisation it has French as its overwhelmingly dominating lingua franca. The intensity with which French dominates in Cote d’Ivoire was of great shock to me. Everyone speaks French, and rarely do you hear something that doesn’t sound like French which you would assume is an indigenous language. In fact, often when I heard a language that didn’t sound like French I would stop to ask what language it is and usually it would be a language foreign to Cote d’Ivoire. This made me appreciate how diversely and inter-changeably our languages are used in South Africa, particularly in Gauteng. For example, at a till of a shop, you could greet someone in isiZulu and they would respond in Sestwana and the conversation would organically continue in that manner. Post my experience in Cote d’Ivoire, contrary to the belief that our vernacular languages are becoming “extinct”, I would like to express that in actual fact, I think the black community to a large extent still communicates amongst itself in its vernacular languages. This is something I did not sense in Abidjan. Of course, the situation maybe different in deeper parts of the country. So, my concerns on English weighing out African vernacular languages in South Africa eased a bit due to my observations in Abidjan. However, if we are not cautious and continue to regressively glorify the ability of our children to speak English we may find ourselves in a similar position. Further, if there is no deliberate attempt to systematically include our vernacular languages we will have a crisis.
When I first arrived in Abidjan, I was fascinated by how there was no extreme class dynamics in terms of urban planning such like in the case of Alex vs Sandton. Everyone sort of lives together. However, over time I came to realise that, the fact that a person with a two-story house can live next to a person with an informal structure such a wooden shack speaks to the grave dynamics of class polarisation within the Ivorian community. So even though there isn’t a great sense of racial disparities, besides those created by the increasingly overwhelming presence of the Lebanese; there are some major class disparities within the black Ivorian community.
Often when I went to the hair salon, I would use the space to vent about how economically challenging Cote d’Ivoire was. This would ultimately lead to a few brave hairdressers also voicing out their opinions on the state of affairs in Cote d’Ivoire. However, it always seemed as though they were doing it clandestinely. So, one day I asked why they always whispered and sort of “checked the coast” when they spoke on these matters and so they shared that in their country it was not always the best idea to speak openly and freely on political matters. This made me appreciate the freedom of expression that we enjoy in South Africa. It shocked the hairdressers when I told them that in South Africa everyone speaks about politics, on any platform, at any time.
Personally, I also found the overwhelming presence of the security cluster on every street corner, every day, all day and night unnaturally intimidating. Which in my mind affirmed students’ views on how unnatural it was to have the security cluster present on campus during student protests. I found that this presence was in itself a form of infringement to one’s freedom as you constantly feel surveyed. Of course, the country’s history of violence and civil unrest informs this; however there needs to be a discussion on how we can increase safety within our communities without intimidating the very same people we seek to protect.
Presence of Foreign Nationals
Over time, I came to realise that Cote d’Ivoire to the West African region was much like South Africa to the Southern African region. There is a great presence of foreign nationals from its neighbouring countries, who have come to find greener pastures in Cote d’Ivoire. Similar to South Africa, I sensed a level of micro-aggression from Ivorian’s towards foreign nationals, particularly, Ivorians of a lower class, just like in South Africa. At a later stage it would be beneficial to unpack how the random borders that were drawn during the ‘Scramble for Africa’ also play a significant role in the intolerance that Africans have towards one another.
Leading up to the AU-EU Summit in December 2017, the Ivorian government was able to repair multiple roads in the diplomatic zone and leading up to Sofitel Hotel where the summit was to be held. These roads were repaired within a short span of time, ranging from some roads being done in about 3 days, with the overall project taking no more than 4 weeks. The potholes that had existed from the time I arrived in the country in January till late November were closed off in a matter of days. This made me think what could be of the roads of Cote d’Ivoire if this level of effort was exerted throughout the year? What could be of the country if this level of effort was exerted in all spheres throughout the year? What could be of our entire continent if this level of effort was exerted throughout the year from one administration to the next? I also wondered what informed this sudden need to repair the roads? Who exactly is the Ivorian government trying to amaze? Was it a security measure perhaps? But in all of this, why can’t such priority be placed for the people of the country.
Transport (Local and Inter-Regional)
Upon my arrival in Abidjan, I relied on public transport as I did not have a car yet. I was impressed at how easy it was to get transport from right outside your door-step. The town is dominated by small, four-door, orange taxi’s that you do not have to share with anyone. These taxis are everywhere, all the time. There are also yellow taxis that are shared and are cheaper in price; then there are mini-busses that are predominantly used for long distance. There are also busses that are very reasonable. So, all-in-all there is a very efficient local public transport system in Abidjan and it seems to be the same in all its other major cities. There is no Uber, but there is AfriCab which uses the same system as Uber but is costlier; which is opposite to the reality in South Africa, where Uber is more reasonable that maxi taxis.
So, while the local transport system is effective and not so costly, I find it difficult to travel within the region as some roads are not safe and inter-regional flights are the same price as going to Europe or South Africa. This is of great concern to me, as it is a barrier to Africans being able to interrelate. Which then means we need to as Africans enhance conversations on how we can increase inter-continental connectivity and also make it affordable.
I want to conclude by hoping that my experiences and observations may be of insight to the readers of this paper. I want to emphasize my appreciation for the beauty that is the country, Cote d’Ivoire, and my appreciation of the great potential that it holds to further develop itself in order to cater to the needs of its people, the region and the continent at large. I believe there is a lot that we can learn from one another as Africans in order to make each other better and to curb us from making similar mistakes going into the future. I believe it is important that we increase relations within the continent in order to break the deeply rooted historical barriers created by the coloniser; In order to eradicate the colonial classifications: “francophones” and “anglophones” because we are Africans and not prodigys of the coloniser. But how will we know that we are the same as Africans when we cannot afford to visit and work with one another? I believe that Africa must unite in order for it to strengthen its autonomy and protect itself from continued foreign dominance and neo-colonialism.
I believe Africa must speak to itself and be honest with itself in order for it to take its rightful place as the powerful force that it is.
I BELIEVE IN AFRICA!
Written by Nompendulo Mkatshwa, a BSc Geography Graduate from Wits University, PGCE Candidate University of South Africa, Former President Student Representative Council University of the Witwatersrand, Former South African Students Congress Chairperson at Wits and Former Deputy Chairperson of Wits ANC Youth League