Time

April 4, 2021

Going to an ATM and getting some money is a matter of minutes, if you live in Amsterdam, London, Paris or Berlin. In Bamako, or Ouagadougou, or most other major cities in this region (perhaps Abidjan excepted) this operation can take as much as an hour.

Why? Because only a few local bank subsidiaries – a lot of them are still owned by the French – will accept your card. Your first job, therefore, is to locate a bank that will take your card. Found one? Good. Now, you will often find that the ATM is out of order, has no money, has been disconnected from the satellite-operated network because of an internet glitch or does not work because of a power cut. If this last is the case and you are in the pleasant and lucky possession of a home: go there and grab that beer before it gets warm because chances are that you will have no electricity at your place either.

In all the other cases: find an ATM that belongs to another bank. This machine may be located a cool two or three kilometres from where you are at present. You can cover the distance on foot (I have done this frequently), on a bike (I have been on quite a few of these suicide missions), by Sotrama or taxi. Whatever the case, you may arrive at your next ATM and find…that this one is not working either.

A simple day-to-day operation that should take no more than a few minutes eats up a sizeable chunk of your day in this manner. Time lost that you will never get back.

Now, this is for those of us who own bank cards, which makes us a tiny minority. Hardly anyone in this part of the world has such a thing. Their bank is the cash in their pocket (the economies here are cash-based and will be for a long time to come). And cash is always in short supply, and that includes small change. The amount of time lost searching for the correct amount of change is staggering. The time lost organising splitting up a massive 10,000 franc note (fifteen euros) equally so. Not always – but frequently.

So time gets lost all day, every day. Time gets lost when you are driving a taxi, Sotrama, lorry or tricycle and have to conduct lengthy negotiations about your bribe with a traffic police officer who has seen, found or invented an infraction that you must pay for. This means the proceeds from your current trip have just been partially or entirely lost. You will have to work harder, drive faster and somehow make up for lost money. And time.

Time gets lost when dealing with bureaucrats who sit solidly in that old tradition of what Shakespeare so eloquently calls “the insolence of office” and will make you wait…and wait….and wait…..and wait…….and probably eventually pay for a piece of paper that will give you the right to run a taxi, open a shop, operate a money service, have a beer garden, a restaurant, a concert venue and so on and so forth.

Time lost. Opportunities lost. Money lost. What a waste, while there is so little to waste to begin with.  

It seems to me that the people who can least afford to lose time because they need every minute of every day to make those two euros that will at least allow them a meal and some water and the mandatory cup of tea…that these are precisely the people who lose the most time dealing with what are, at the end of the day, terrible nuisances.

Now you may perhaps understand why in so many big cities across this continent everyone is almost permanently in such an almighty hurry. People are making up for the time they could not afford to lose, negotiating bad roads (time), monstrous traffic jams (more time), the aforementioned officers and the all-too-frequent bad manners of their fellow road users. Time lost idling involuntarily, time lost negotiating, arguing, searching, waiting…

In the rich part of the world we get upset when the train is ten minutes late – yes, me included. In the less fortunate parts of the planet we are always in a hurry, in order to survive another day.

Could this be another turning point?

February 7, 2021

A few fairly random thoughts following the trip back into West Africa…

The most overwhelming feeling on return to Mali after some time on the Old Continent to the north of here is how normal it all is. Bamako is bustling, the traffic is the same controlled murderous anarchy I left behind half a year ago, radios in shops and cafés play the same autotune-riven stuff I once described in this old piece and remains the main staple of locally produced pop.

The only people bothering with – nominally mandatory – face masks are the rich, who sport it when they drive around in their expensive FourWheelDrives. Alone. “It has become a status symbol for the elites,” was one perceptive remark I heard from long-time Mali veteran Aart van der Heide, on returning from his last visit to the country, late last year. He is right.

Although not entirely absent, few among the ordinary folks wear them. The defining issue is not whether or not they make any sense; that is a debate to be had by those who can afford the luxury of wasting everybody’s time. The defining issue is cost. If you have a family of seven (say) and you have to furnish them daily with that standard white-and-blue stuff that pharmacists sell, you will be left with no money to buy food. Ordinary folk go to Bamako’s heaving markets and do so unprotected.

This was Amsterdam’s world-famous Schiphol Airport, early in the morning of a late January day. In normal times, this place would be featuring hordes or businesspeople hurrying to their planes, copies of their obligatory pink financial daily tucked under their arm. The chances of these scenes returning are fairly slim and that is a good thing. Which does of course mean that in future I shall have to be as good as my principles and take the train to Paris for my flight to Bamako. As it happens, the COVID19 measures prevented overland travel and this was an old ticket, only halfway used. I repent and shall not do it again. Incidentally, my in-flight experience reminded me again why I have not flown Air France for literally decades: the plane was absolutely packed with passengers, “like sheep” as one rightly complained, the food was bland and quite frankly awful, the service correct but perfunctory…

The first night back in Bamako was spent in a mental time capsule. I was thinking back to the time when I was observing the wealthy, smug, self-referential Amsterdam elites doing their shopping in an upmarket Economy market in the city centre, which is selling food at the eye-watering prices only they can afford. I was thinking about them whilst sitting behind a large beer (one euro) in one of Bamako’s culture centres and watching a large crowd of boys and girls dressed to the nines (clearly an evening out) but wearing plastic flip-flops and imitation luxury shoes that would probably fall apart on the way home. The music was the usual totally eclectic mix only they understand, veering from seriously traditional stuff featuring chant and percussion that effortlessly segued into Ivorian coupé-décalé (zouglou does not work here), reggae, then rap and back to classic Mandé music. All in the space of half an hour and thanks to the DJ who was egged on to make his musical mixes as fast and outrageous as possible. A brilliant time was had by all. Social distancing resembled that of the Air France plane.

The airline, through no fault of its own this time, lost my luggage for a day. Which meant, among many other inconveniences, a missing phone charger. The Amsterdam mindset immediately kicked in, as I asked around for a place where I could buy one. The Bamako mindset returned the question with direct clarity: you said it’s in your luggage, right? So, wait for it to come back and in the meantime… (hands over phone charger) use this one. I know of an artist living in Ségou, who probably owns every single type of charger that has ever been on the market and helped me out similarly when I needed a particular type to fire up a rechargeable bicycle lamp…

From Bamako to – indeed – Ségou, where I found similar scenes at the Centre Culturel Kôrè, pictured here, which had organized an evening of storytelling, an art form to which I really do want to devote more time… Now, because this event was part of the largely foreign-funded Festival Ségou’Art and we had members of the country’s elite attending, the wearing of face masks was mandatory and the checks at the door rigorous. It did not, for one single second, diminish the fun the mostly young audience were having watching the shows, launching comments, hooting and shouting and singing along if a song came up they knew. (Most of these were of the traditional village type with a contemporary twist.) When the show was announced over they immediately filed out of the Centre with astonishing discipline, something I have witnessed in other places, as well. Maybe something to emulate for the youth of The Netherlands, when they consider going on the rampage again because their hours out on the streets have been temporarily limited…

Truth be told, Malian youths went on a spree back in July, smashing and looting, but this had little to do with a slight inconvenience in their otherwise cosseted lives but because they had connected with a crowd that wanted to remove a government that was killing their future. This provocative juxtaposition is, of course, a deliberate exaggeration.

During an off concert I only heard about the day before…

From the silence of Covid-ridden Europe to the life-affirming noise of Africa, where public life no longer suffers the devastation brought about by government measures in response to the pandemic, with the exception of South Africa I will immediately add. It resembles, by and large, a continent going about its large and expanding business, from music to IT service, from selling food to transporting people in ever growing numbers – and everything else you wish to imagine. It’s all happening and resembles, coming from the weird shutdowns that continue to hobble economic life from Lisbon to Stockholm, a return to something more than just business as usual.

Of course, things are far from ideal. I already mentioned the ubiquitously appalling behaviour in urban traffic and we are still having to deal with every other ill under the sun, from the very true menace of armed militias to everyday petty corruption and a massively dysfunctional infrastructure. And yet, in spite of all this, it feels like a continent going places, while in Europe I cannot shed the impression that this is the end of the road. The European run has been impressive, just like the cost it has imposed on the rest of the world and it is high time to make space for others. What exact shape that will take is impossible to predict but you can take the end to excessive decadence like flying dozens of times each day to easily reachable destinations as a welcome sign of the times. We can do with a bunch of those planes over here, after all…

Abidjan miniatures 8 and end

December 31, 2020

Abidjan is probably the easiest place on earth to find a taxi. They beep at you incessantly the second you place yourself on the pavement, even when you just want to cross the street. They are, in fact, louder and more insistent than their colleagues in Dakar but somehow manage to be less annoying, mostly because in this city literally EVERYONE is making noise… So: taxi. Within seconds.

The driver fills his seat to overflowing and he has positioned his corpulent self like someone on an extended relaxing holiday. But he is most assuredly at work and does not miss a beat when manoeuvering his orange Toyota through the throng in this, the busiest part of the city. And in the meantime: he talks, virtually non-stop. “See this traffic jam?” Er, yes, I do. We are in it. A long procession of private vehicles, blue wôro-wôro, buses, taxis (including mine), vans, gbaka stands still and does not move. This may be a looong ride…

“You see? These people are not even leaving Yopougon. They’re on their way to the next maquis. Everything is here! You want beer, there’s beer. You want food, there is food. You see that bar over there?” He points to his right, across a pavement, lined with food stalls and busy like a bus station. “Yes, that one. Now! When that maquis on the other side closes…” he points to his left: amidst blocks of apartments I spot part of an open space packed with tables and chairs and I pick up the sound of a band that is clearly attempting to top L’Internat in the decibel production department. You only have ONE guess as to the music it plays

“Yes – that’s the place I mean,” my guide and driver continues. “Now. When that maquis closes everybody crosses the road to come here. You see the girls getting ready?” He was not only referring to the ones selling food. “This is the new Rue Princesse, you see? After they had knocked down the old one they all came over here.” Rue Princesse, for the uninitiated, is the busiest street in the area, where boys with money meet drinks meet food meet girls looking for a good time and some money (and maybe even the other way around)… hence the name. You may, by now, have reached the conclusion that the urge to turn life into one giant party is irrepressible here and you would be right.

After an interminable ride through Yopougon we emerge onto one of the three bridges that give access to the six-lane motorway that is part of the giant motorway system linking all constituent parts of this giant city. There’s always a bit of anarchy going on here, to put it mildly. My driver, forever slouched in his seat, belly protruding as we hurtle along, explains that there’s a lot of accidents happening on this stretch of road (in fact I saw an overturned gbaka minibus on the way in) because people don’t keep their distance.

Neither does he, as he alternates between one line of fast moving vehicles and another…

Angré. Oh dear…are you really going back there…?

“So Angré it is where you’re going, right? But there’s nothing there! No life!” The traffic starts thinning out as we get to our exit lane into Cocody, leading to the Boulevard that takes us to Angré. There’s still a bunch of cars about but nothing in the way that Yopougon was crowded. My driver is almost triumphant as he weaves his way in and out of smooth flowing traffic on the two-lane boulevard. “See? Told you! Nothing here! The bosses are sleeping!” It is just after 10pm and we are, indeed, entering a more affluent part of the city. “Now, in Yopougon, hm, you will see people out and about at midnight. One, two, three in the morning. Yes! And do you know why there are so many banks in Yopougon? Simple: when people are having a good time and the money runs out, there’s always one who will say: ah, let me just pop over to the bank and get some more money for our next beers…? You see? But here….”

But then some doubt creeps into his discourse. “Look, I am working really long hours to get some money and then I pass those maquis – every day of the week, and the same guys sit there at eleven pm, twelve midnight, three am…and they are supposed to work the next day? Of course not. And then the next day…I see them again! Where do they get all that money from? I don’t quite understand…” It is likely that the equally ubiquitous Western Union agencies have something to do with that seemingly endless flow of money…

And then he drops me off in far too quiet, empty and miserable Angré. And he almost feels sorry for me. “Look at you, I’m leaving you in this stone dead neck of the woods and look at me and where I am going: back to life, back to joy, back to good food and plenty drinks and gorgeous princesses…” Do I get the picture?

Yes. Certainly. I do. See you soon in this city, enjoyable and exasperating, full of life, noise, crime and grime but in possession of copious amounts of Never Say Die. I will be back.

An Excellent New Year to You All.

Abidjan miniatures 7

December 30, 2020

An evening in Yopougon

C’est mangrrrove. You know what that means? You know what a mangrove is, right? Where trees are growing in the water, right? But here in Côte d’Ivoire mangrrrove means: nice, lovely…”

Thanks for the language lesson, Roger, who says he is one of the neighbourhood youths that designs the dazzling street dances that have for the longest time been a part of the tradition at the place where I meet him: L’Internat, also known as the Zouglou Temple, where the ambiance is, indeed, mangrrrove.

Alright. What is zouglou and where is L’Internat?

Zouglou was born in the huge Abidjan suburb of Yopougon and L’Internat, located well inside Yopougon in the Niangon Sud part of this massive maze has been its principal podium ever since it opened in 2009. “Zouglou is music that allows you to have a good time but it’s also a way for people to express themselves.” That’s Cécilia Yao talking, a visitor I interviewed for a Voice of America report on this place and its music (starts at 25 minutes 30 seconds into this lovely program). She explains in a few words the absolute genius of zouglou: this is music that makes you dance and think at the same time. The rhythms are based on beats that come from around the country, as Yodé & Siro, two veteran zouglou artists and two true gentlemen explained to me the day after my evening in L’Internat. The instantly recognisable multi-layered singing, too: there’s a bit of the Centre in it, the West, even the North…and a detectable link to Congolese rhumba. Their point was this: even though zouglou was born in Yopougon, it is very much part of national Ivorian identity.

Most of you will know the biggest zouglou hit ever, Magic System’s Premier Gaou, which made it all the way to MTV in the 1990s. An apparently autobiographical account of a poor boy who is rejected by a girl, who then tries to rope him in again when he has become famous thanks to a hit song he’s written. Magic System are still huge and one of their offshoots is a music company, unsurprisingly called Gaou Productions. Other bands have also made sure that their names are not easily forgotten: Les Salopards, Les Garagistes, Les Patrons…

A whiteboard-like wall, next to the bar, gives you some of the biggest names who stood on the stage of this mythical place…

The thinking part of zouglou comes from the words, as another visitor to L’Internat, Olivier, explains. Like Cécilia (and yours truly) he comes a veeeery long way, from the Cocody neighbourhood of Angré, to see the bands and have a ton of drinks and fun with his friends. Mind you, this is only once a week on the Sunday and it tends to end pretty early because for many of the music lovers here, tomorrow is a working day. “Zouglou…it’s the  beautiful music and the words,” Olivier explains. “There’s good advice on how to behave, how to live…” In actual fact, many of the songs tell not-so-uplifting but truly hilarious stories about what has happened in the street, the neighbourhood, the antics of a veritable rogues’ gallery of small-time crooks and two-timing husbands and/or wives, brought to you (we cannot stress this enough) with a huge dollop of uniquely Ivorian humour. Abidjan is called the Capital of Laughter for a reason.

Seven years ago, during another visit here, there was one song that kept coming back: Je Roule Kdo (that’s ‘cadeau’ for you, and in this neck of the woods ‘cadeau’ means ‘for nothing’, or ‘free of charge’…). It told the story of two Frenchmen who were swindled out of a very large amount of money by a wily Yopougon taxi driver…so large was the sum that he could buy a car from the proceeds – hence the title. A party of very robustly built neighbourhood women was dancing to this tune, whilst pretending to be at the wheel. They had an absolute screamer of a good time, while I was having visions of their husbands, tied to the kitchen table back home…

Evening has fallen and as usual, the music cascading from the PA system has reached such ear-splitting levels that the sounds starts bouncing back from the buildings around the place. To give my ears some relief, I move to the adjacent parking lot, which is where I meet Roger and Olivier, and where I interview artistic director Patron Sylvanus, who explains how zouglou is also a great leveller, as it makes you forget, if only temporary, who is boss and who isn’t. Even when there are plenty of songs to remind the listener of exactly that…

Yodé (left) & Siro, after the interview

Like the latest Yodé & Siro tune, Président On Dit Quoi (the last three words here are, in Ivorian parlance, the universally used phrase to ask you how you are), where they take a few digs at the current government of president Alassane Ouattara. “It’s nice that there’s light everywhere now. Tarred roads everywhere. There’s even lights IN the tarred roads (a reference to the tiny lights that alert drivers they are about to stray into a lane for oncoming traffic…). Our country is becoming really beautiful. But president, why is it that we always hear that the money is working…but then we only see certain people eating well and oh, by the way, why is it you don’t care what happens to us when we fall ill? Ah yes, I forgot: you lot always go abroad for medical treatment…”

Yes, in spite of the banter and the jokes the lyrics can be pretty hard-hitting. Yodé & Siro did not really want to discuss their recent legal troubles with me, the result of their comments on the partisan actions of the nation’s State Prosecutor, which landed them a suspended prison sentence and a substantial fine but they were clearly undeterred: “Look, we have been lampooning presidents ever since we began. Just because there is a new government now does not mean we are going to change. It’s our job to tell leaders what they do right and what they do wrong…”

One famous episode recounts how, when Laurent Gbagbo became president, Yodé & Siro did a song that warned him: if you appoint thieves in your entourage, you will be called a thief. One day, they were called to the presidential palace, where they went with some trepidation. Gbagbo had lined up his entire cabinet of ministers, so the story goes, and then ordered the two artists to sing their song on the spot. When they had finished, the president told his ministers: “You see? It’s YOU they are singing about. YOU are the thieves…” This is unlikely to have changed the actual situation materially – corrupt bureaucrats have been a blight on this country for decades – but it does show you the extent to which zouglou is part of the Ivorian DNA. Président On Dit Quoi was on permanent rotation in the maquis, on the radio, in the markets, everywhere…

Photo credit: L’Internat Facebook page

But now, for me, the time has come to leave L’Internat. This is very sad but my left ear is ringing from the World War Three levels of the sound system. Ever since I caused a rather unfortunate sound accident in a self-op studio some nine years ago in Hilversum there’s a maximum to what that ear can tolerate. And yes, even more maddeningly, my back has started protesting yet again… (I don’t moan about it all the time but rest assured that it moans at me on an almost permanent basis…). So it is time for a taxi and the last instalment of these Abidjan stories…

Abidjan miniatures 6

December 29, 2020

Here’s a picture. Take a look. Yes, Cocody wôrô-wôrô driving past, well spotted. In the middle but a bit removed from the front you can see a tower. It is attached to one of those oversized church buildings that have gone up all over Abidjan. If they did not act as places of worship, they’d be concert venues; they can easily accommodate 3,000; and a lot more standing up. Service can start as early as Friday evening, carry over into Saturday and find its apotheosis on Sunday, when proceedings can go on all day. It was one fine Sunday morning when I was making an attempt to cross the street in the centre of this picture when a cheerful young lady came walking in the opposite direction and greeted me with a heartfelt “Bonjour le Blanc! Jésus vous aime!”

Now bring your gaze a little to the front of the picture and you will see that large white building on the left. It is home to a row of shops, a supermarket and there is also a car wash streetside. Between the car wash and that row of shops there is an open triangular space. What do Ivorians do with an open space? They fill it up with tables and chairs, put a fridge somewhere and start selling cold beers. Soon, the tables and chairs are surrounded in a most friendly manner by a series of open air kitchens where people busy themselves with preparing roast chicken, roast fish, atiéké, alloco, rice, all manner of sauces, brochettes, and even pigeons. While the tables get stacked with clients’ beer bottles, smoke rises and the smell of roast chicken, fish and beef fills the air. In short: it becomes a maquis.

Now, I want you to take a look at the name of the building. INCH’ALLAH. Close to a church and overlooking a large open air bar. I like that. It is yet another symbol, testament to a capacity for living together and religious tolerance that I challenge you to find to a similar degree somewhere else.

Simplistic reports on the Ivorian conflict in the Dutch press a decade ago referred to the issues at hand as a fight between ‘The North’ and ‘The South’, a proxy for a religious conflict: Christian versus Muslim. Which of course explains the presence of a huge cathedral on the northern side of Le Plateau, Abidjan’s central business district, and an equally impressively sized mosque on the southern side, with plenty more of both dotted all around the city.

Let’s be clear: the list of unresolved issues that could potentially still bring harm to this country is long. Failed national reconciliation, failed reform of the security forces, the obstinate refusal to address the problem of the yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots, the circulation of unregistered arms and the presence of armed gangs of various stripes in different parts of the country, political polarisation, the risk of communal violence, land ownership…….. But religious strife: no. Can’t see that happening.

However, I am loath to turn this into a tract on the kind of religious tolerance that is the norm in this part of the world, in spite of what you may have been told. So just bring your gaze down from the top of the INCH’ALLAH building and have a look at that open air triangular maquis. Where the following scene took place one fine evening, not long ago…

***

He was walking very slowly, meandering past the tables and chairs. I was sitting at one of them, under a parasol because of the alternating sun and rain. I had been going past the line of cooking places, eliciting the usual good-natured comments when this weirdest of weird phenomena, a White chap without a vehicle, comes sauntering past.

One young guy shouted: “Bonjour, le Blanc! Ya volaille ici, hein…” Pigeons, in fact.

Two women were trying to sell me roast chicken but then suddenly stopped and pointed accusing fingers at my T-shirt. What’s wrong with it…Errrrrrrr …you do realise, do you not, that you’re wearing your T-shirt back to front…? Oops. Quick brisk walk – as briskly as my back will allow – to hotel room may in order. Thank you ladies.

And elderly Muslim man was busy getting a fire going, looking out for customers, putting all manner of items into their right place and selling brochettes.

I got back, having sorted out the offending T-shirt and sat down. Ordered a beer. Bought chicken and atiéké and fresh pepper and that lovely tomato-relish. Finished it. Had another beer. And then I saw him again, still manoeuvering gingerly among the tables and making sure he did not stray too close to the food departments. You could see why as he approached. His jacket was threadbare and dirty. Ditto his trousers. Cheap Chinese flip-flops. He had nothing but a few rotten teeth remaining and his hair was untidy, which is a sin in West Africa but inevitable when you are sleeping rough. And then I became aware of a faint sound. Tink-tinkatink-katink-tinkatink… Not your easiest rhythm. 

I could not determine where it was coming from. Until he shuffled closer and I saw he was holding a small empty bottle in one hand close to his body and a bottle top in the other. With the bottle top he tapped on the glass, in a complex rhythm that may have come from the forested Western regions of the country; rhythms that carry across borders and go into Guinea and Liberia.

And he sang, in a very soft voice. In French mostly, which became audible when he got ever closer. And then I noticed he was not just singing anything. He was improvising words on the spot. A round and well-dressed character in sunglasses occupying the table next to me got a compliment for his riches and perhaps could he share a little…?

And then it was my turn. It went something like this, with him sing-speaking in a melody that followed the rhythm of the tinkling.

“Good evening mister White Man.

Where do you come from?

You have come from far to see us.

Thank you for your kindness and generosity.

May God give you a long and healthy life…”

I gave him a little something and he smiled his ochre smile. Once again, he wished me a long, healthy and this time also prosperous life. And then slowly, never stopping his rhythm with the bottle and the bottle top, he shuffled away, past the line of smoking kitchens, to the next set of tables.

Abidjan miniatures 5

December 28, 2020

Getting a Covid19 test.

Hey, never mind that you have to do an expensive Covid19 test before you board an aeroplane and that you have to fill in a bunch of forms online using a government website that (surprise, surprise!) has decided to declare permanent war on me…but still. You can have a bit of fun while you’re at it, right? And yes, for most Ivorians, getting a Covid19 test at €76 is eye-wateringly expensive. Incidentally, I parted with a vastly more eye-watering €202 for a similar test in a private London clinic, which was rejected as by the Ivorian health authorities on arrival at Abidjan airport. My passport was confiscated and I was made to take yet another test, at – you guessed it – €76. Add to this the test I did at Mali and that amounts to a cool 400 euros paid for tests in the past four months, whose results were checked precisely ONCE. Neither Bamako (departure), nor Paris (transit), nor Abidjan (departure) I can now report, nor Brussels (arrival and transit), nor Amsterdam (arrival, twice!) were interested in my test result, negative of course. This feels like scratch that: this bloody IS money down the drain.

However, the Covid19 test operation in one of Abidjan’s eight dedicated test centres allowed me another peek in the city’s positively gigantic, constantly innovative, highly flexible and therefore thriving parallel economy. How? When you can’t pay for your test online, for instance, because no credit card. Or when your phone cannot answer questions on a government website. So how do you these things? Follow me.

Or rather: follow the guard, across a busy road, across a terrain where there is a place that sells beer and food (of course, you’re in Abidjan), along an open space and then through a small gate towards a block of flats. Very loud local music called zouglou (much more about that in exactly three days’ time) is playing its upbeat, humorous and topical songs. The first Covid-related tunes emerged here and in Dakar.

‘This is the place,’ says the guard who I have been following. It’s not much more than a simple alcove under an apartment block and it’s run by a fast moving young chap. He sits at his desktop computer and rapid fires the questions that are on the form I cannot fill in.

“Hang on, this country of yours…what’s it called? Holland?”

No that’s only the Western part of it, in fact.

“So, Pays-Bas, then?”

We find the name of my country listed, inexplicably, as The Netherlands. The rest of the list is in French. Weird.

“How come such a tiny place has three names?” By this time we are laughing out loud.

Well, technically, it’s only two since Netherlands and Pays-Bas essentially mean the same. We also have two capitals…well, one official one of course – it’s where I’m from – but the government is in another city…

More laughter.

In short, we’re starting to have a good old time of it. We go through the rest of the form (you have to announce your planned itinerary, which in these Covid times is entirely hypothetical) and we part as best friends. I pay him and he processes my payment for the test; he prints out the receipt and the other forms and he gets 3000 CFA francs (€4,57) for his invaluable service. As I am walking back to the test centre, the guard brings in two others. Covid19 is not only good for government and clinic business…

Back at the testing site, the remarkably patient crowd that has been sitting in chairs for hours before being let into the temporary building is now bickering over whose turn it is. Clearly, the chair system has broken down somewhat.

Meanwhile, me and a fellow test victim are trying to work out how much the Health Ministry is raking in from this new effort. We arrive at yet another eye-watering moment… Let’s say 100 people go to these test sites per day. We have eight of those so that’s 800 people paying CFA50,000. That’s 40 million francs – 61 thousand euros. Every day. Niiiice… How many days are they open per week? Six. Only Sunday’s they’re closed. So that’s at the very least 24 days per month, 25 on average. That is a very cool one billion francs per month; one and a half million euros.

Before all this can truly sink in it is time to be led into the Waiting Room, which is a smallish place where there are notices, a television set and an aircon. I am forever trying to escape these monsters because they make me ill. So to the great amusement of the staff on duty, I move as far away from the cold air blasting thing as possible. “Ah, so you are running away from the cold air!” says a doctor. “Now you have become one of us…” Cue helpless laughter from his colleague and yours truly…

And there, in the corner, is the tiniest Christmas tree in the country. The shopping centres have already gone full tilt into Christmas mode but even when you are being tested so as to make sure you are not caught up in a global epidemic, here’s a tiny reminder of the festive season, before you have your papers being verified once again, you’re being told about the procedure and you’re subjected to the decidedly unpleasant but mercifully brief invasion of your nose by a swab and being sent on your way. Where was that beer again? Hey, you’re in Abidjan. Drinks are never more than a few steps away. But then the guard re-emerges. “Have you forgotten me?” he inquires, beaming innocently.

Course I haven’t.

Abidjan miniatures 4

December 27, 2020

Ya pas monnaie.”

There is no small change. Sigh. The eternal problem here and it’s almost everywhere. Supermarkets, fancy shops in the big shopping malls…they all have problems finding the right change. The chains of boulangeries are among the worst: if you want a simple baguette and nothing else do not enter the shop if you don’t have a single silvery 100 franc (15 eurocents) in your hand. You will not be served. I once did go into a boulangerie when I wanted something more wholesome than the bland French staple. And ordered what’s called a pain complet but the very nice lady behind the counter made a face when I handed her a 500 franc note. There was no way I was going to get the 200 francs change she now owed me. After some reflection I ordered another smaller pain complet and left with no change, two loafs and I left behind a very happy shop assistant.

Whether it is a red 1,000 franc note or a blue 2,000 franc note let alone a green 5,000 franc note let entirely alone a purple 10,000 franc note (at €15 the highest denomination available), the reaction is universal: copious amounts of huffing and puffing, dramatic searches through pockets, purses and drawers, frequently ending with the utter failure to come up with the required coins. Sometimes this is theatre: they don’t want to part with their own small change. Supermarkets and the shops that are attached to petrol stations tend to offer you a little thing to compensate for the change not given: some sweets, chewing gum or a tiny package of biscuits, that sort of thing. Another solution is to look at the client very sweetly and ask in a coy voice: is there nothing worth 200, 250, 300 francs you want to buy?

In any case, don’t make a scene – these are always counter-productive – and understand that the reason your caissière has no change is that her clients ALL tend to pay with banknotes and expect change back, which means she is almost always short of coins.

But why are these coveted coins of 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 200 and 250 francs all in short supply? For some it will forever be linked to the traumatic unilateral devaluation of the CFA franc, by France, in January 1994. Goods imported from France became more expensive requiring more coins as a result. This may perhaps offer a partial explanation. This problem has indeed been around since the 1990s and is unlikely to go away any time soon. Even the changeover from the Franc CFA into the doomed* new currency ECO will change nothing.

*doomed because (1) the initiative to convert the Franc CFA into the regional ECO comes from the wrong country, i.e. France and (2) the utterly dominant economy in the region, Nigeria, took one look at the planned new currency and binned it. This means the ECO is either dead or simply the continuation of the CFA franc under a different name.

pic: Eburnietoday

There’s a few urban legends about the coin shortage. Accusing whispers do the rounds about wily street vendors supposedly hoarding tonnes of coins; some reports mention a lively underground coin circuit only they have access to, with scores of secretive exchanges across the city. Hmmmm, not convinced? Neither am I. Fingers point at beggars, too. Yes, they receive a few coins if they’re lucky, which they then spend on food, one would think. But no, says the rumour mill, they hoard those coins so they can pay for trips back home to their families…beggars apparently are non-Ivorians. Yep, sure.

The most plausible reason is a lot more boring: cost. Coins are notoriously expensive to mint. Any banker will tell you that a coin costs massively more to produce than the value it represents. The largest one, 500 francs, is already making way for a banknote, much cheaper to produce. And the others, those pieces of metal representing 5 francs, 10, 25, 50, 100, 200 and even the increasingly unpopular 250 francs? Likely to be in perennial short supply. They just don’t mint too many of them.

In Zone 4

Don’t even think of getting on a Sotra city bus, one of the gbaka minibuses (warning: these are frequently driven by maniacs) or a wôrô-wôrô (local communal taxi) without the right change. This is the routine.

Sotra excepted (they have regular busstops), you can flag down any of these anywhere.

You talk to the driver.

You will be asked where you want to go. Either you state how much money you have and if it is anything over 500 francs (75 eurocents), forget it. Or you know how much the fare is and you simply tell the driver: ya monnaie. You will be taken at your word and there will be hell to pay when you have arrived and you don’t produce the monnaie you promised.

Wôrô-wôrôs are easy to recognise. They are colour coded Japanese saloon cars – colour coded according to the area where they are allowed to operate along fixed routes: yellow in Cocody, blue in Yopougon, green in Marcory/Koumassi, and so on. They sit four passengers: one in front, three at the back. The name is said to have come from a word from the Mandé linguistic family that means sixty (bi-woro), said to be the fare at the time this transport variety was introduced. Well – maybe.

Taxis, by contrast, are universally orange, Côte d’Ivoire’s national colour. They are sometimes still referred to as taxi compteur because they used to have functioning meters. But nobody bothers with those compteurs any more. The reason, as was explained to me, was that the compteurs were inside the formal economy and hence taxed to the hilt, which rendered the whole business unprofitable. Passengers increasingly demanded what became known as ‘arrangements’, where you’d negotiate the fare before getting in the car, standard practice in literally every West African city. But do not – ever – forget to ask the driver this extremely vital question: ya monnaie? He (almost never a ‘she’) will then ask you with which note you will pay: the blue one? OK. The green one? Maybe. The purple one? Forget it.

(Sadly, I have not been able to travel on the rapidly expanding lagoon boat network but I will leave that for my next visit.)

Abidjan miniatures 3

December 26, 2020

Most of you know I have a lifelong subscription to technology trouble. One very recent Sunday, I was in very serious (as in: desperately urgent) need of a memory card for my recording device. Problem: it was Sunday. In Abidjan this means that most people are either in church or at home. The internet café that I use as a last resort when all else fails…closed. A nearby fancy looking geek shop was open…but had clean run out of cards. Another internet café, a surprise discovery…open but did not sell cards. “Go to the market,” came the advice of the young man behind the table who runs the place.

The offending non-functioning item

So off to market it is then. This one is hiding behind a few blocks of flats but it’s a big market alright and it’s buzzing, even on a Sunday. I wander from one busy lane where they sell cosmetics to another where there is fish and meat to another where there are textiles and yet another where there are fruits and vegetables. Yes, there’s order in this scene that only superficially looks like chaos. Suddenly, my eye falls on a shop front that says TECNO, after the Chinese cheap smartphone brand that has taken the African continent by storm. Have you got a card? Yes, we do…but only a tiny one. Can you fit it in the bigger one so it goes into my machine? This elicits the comment that I am using very old-fashioned stuff. Stop making me feel twice my age already…

Anyway, he meticulously fixes the tiny card item into the old-fashioned bigger one and I depart. Destination: my room and where my recording device awaits.

I take a right turn, on my way to what I think is the exit. But it’s the wrong turn. It leads to another corridor and here I am spotted by a congregation. This is easy, as I am the only non-African looking person in the entire area.

Six lads. Late teenagers, I would say and they immediately remind me of the club-wielding guy I saw at the Adjamé bus station a few years ago. They look like they are about to take up position, but the kind of across-the-path block they seem to have in mind is only half-heartedly executed. However, their rather sullenly expressionless “Hey….!” Followed by a monotonous “Le Blanc…” does not give the impression they intend to be friendly. And why should they? This is their turf and I have no business being here. One of the guys, short dreadlocks, simple T-shirt and trousers, the inevitable plastic flip-flops, is positively glaring at me in a pretty successful attempt to look menacing.

What’s their purpose here? Hard to tell. Vigilantes? Self-assigned market guards? Taking a break from the tedious task of assigning places for the many cars outside that need a parking space? Their eyes betray the use of recreational drugs. To the north of this area is a neighbourhood called Abobo, which has become a notorious hangout for young criminals Ivorians have decided to call ‘microbes’. These microbes have turned particular sections of Abobo into a series of No Go areas where even the toughest of taxi drivers will not venture after a certain hour. There are persistent allegations that these often very violent youths are politically protected by high-ranking politicians in the ruling party and have even been used as murderous vigilantes during the election violence in October and November that killed 87. If true, it would follow a familiar pattern but it is hard to distinguish between truth and hearsay. Could my Welcome Committee be related to the ‘microbes’? Whatever it is, they most definitely belong to the huge army of disenfranchised youths who have never figured on anyone’s lofty development agenda.

Back at the market I decide not to slow down and offer them a cheerful “Good afternoon – all going well?” My question goes unacknowleged but at least it works. The now entirely silent group leaves a passageway for yours truly and I leave the market following another right turn into a sand path, past one final throng of food stalls and hawkers, through an improvised corridor behind yet another apartment block under construction and finally onto the busy street where horns blare and music pours from oversized loudspeakers that people plonk on the floor – or dump on a lorry – when they want to sell something. It is almost as if I am emerging from another world… Maybe age is beginning to help: the elderly are generally left in peace here and I have noticed that folks are beginning to call me “Papa”. Which is almost as disconcerting as being half-confronted by a bunch of not-too-friendly youths. Almost.

***

This is of course all about the glaring gap between the rich and the poor, an issue that the government of president Alassane Ouattara, firmly wedded to the kind of unfettered free marketeerism promoted by his former boss, the International Monetary Fund, is singularly ill-equipped and unwilling to address. Instead, it has allowed the gap between the haves and the have-nots to grow dangerously large.

on Voie Djibi, Angré, Abidjan

Take Voie Djibi, a big and busy thoroughfare lined with apartment blocks, hypermarkets and a large number of pretty flashy shops, restaurants and services. There are gaps in this façade. Here, look, take a look at the gigantic airconditioned Djibi Shopping Mall, hypermarket, jewellery store, expensive clothes store, hamburger place, and Father Christmas sits in the reception centre just behinbd security and hand gel dispenser (Covid19)… Yes, it’s December after all but the sight of this giant blow-up plastic figure in a landscape of imitation snow remains a disorienting sight. Outside, a stream of brand new FourWheelDrives wheel in and out of the big parking lot and blare their horns impatiently when one of the lower orders gets in their way. These could be any of the following: someone pushing a two-wheeled Nescafe coffee cart up and down the street, hoping to make a few bob selling coffee for CFA50 a cup – seven eurocents. A profusely sweating elderly man pushing a handcart laden with building matrials. A taxi driver who has parked his verhicle in front of an impatient 4WD while he is looking for change to give to a client. A communal taxi (called ‘woro-woro’ here) picking up or releasing passengers. Or the woman who I saw carrying a massive pile of plastic bags on her head. She was walking along the street, passing those buildings she will never enter. Her pace was brisk, as she was forever sidestepping parked or parking cars, avoiding the rubbish (usually put in a pretty neat pile; Abidjan is remarkably clean for a city this size) and only briefly stopping when a sister called her from across the street. In previous years, a few pilot schemes were launched in which plastic bottles, part of the hundreds of tonnes of plastic waste this city produces, would be handed in by people on the margins of society in exchange for a few pennies. One such collection point may well have been her destination. This army of people in the informal economy figures in no statistic and they may well live in the plastic-covered shacks that have sprung up in an open field just across from the Djibi Shopping Mall.

quickly captured scene from inside a taxi, between Angré and Attoban, Abidjan

The fact that the folks living inside these new apartment blocks you see on the left pay more rent per month than the vendors below make in a whole year constitutes nothing more and nothing less than an economic and social time bomb. To get an idea of what that means only requires a look across the northern borders, where the margins of the Sahel countries have already fallen prey to unscrupulous recruitment agents who only have violence to peddle. There is everything to suggest that the rich, complacent and self-centred ruling classes here on the coast have adopted the attitude that yes, this deluge will hit home as well but that this will, very fortunately, happen long after they have gone.

Abidjan miniatures 2

December 25, 2020

Espace Diaspora. Slightly tucked away just off the main road through 7ième Tranche, one of Abidjan’s sprawling neighbourhoods. Tables and chairs outside, when it’s not raining. More tables and chairs in a low open building down below (like so much here in Abidjan, Espace Diaspora sits on a gentle slope; go a couple of hundred metres behind this place and you will find the truly steep slope of a large moat).

As you enter, the main attraction is to the left: a kitchen (called “Diaspo”), where the usual Ivorian delicacies are being prepared – roast chicken, roast fish, atiéké, alloco, deliciously spicy tomato-based relish, tasty fresh pepper, need I go on? Next to it is a large covered wooden veranda, with comfy chairs, settees and tables. The entire place breathes conviviality, a highly prized commodity here. Oh and there is of course a massive screen to show video clips and of course…football matches. English Premier League, if you please.

As a colleague of mine and me sit down around a few drinks, we chat. In English. This does not go unnoticed. An elderly gentleman who was chatting with friends on the next table approaches, and asks us how we are. In English. We thank him and have a little conversation. In English. Turns out that he is a nurse and has worked for many years, in South London. He’s come to Abidjan to see his family and his place. Nope, no plans to return for the time being. In fact, he thanks his lucky stars to be here, what with the UK beset by a raft of Biblical Plagues: Covid19, Brexit, a Tory government, and yes: an upsurge in increasingly in-your-face racism. We wish each other a good evening as he returns to his friends: elderly gentlemen all, and very likely having had similar stories to tell, from France… After all, it is Espace Diaspora, n’est-ce pas? This is what people build with the money thay have earned overseas.

“He’s one of those who keeps the NHS alive and gets abuse on the streets for his troubles,” remarks my colleague. Only too true. On the rare occasion that my skin colour comes up as I walk down Abidjan’s very busy streets, it is meant as a way to identify me (they don’t know my name, after all) and to ask how I am. “Bonjour le blanc. C’est comment?” And you reply by saying “Oui, mon frère, ça va bien. Et la journée, ça se passe bien?” Maybe we have a little chat. Maybe we don’t. And then we go our separate ways.

Our Ivorian London friend is clearly in his element and why shouldn’t he be? His Espace Diaspora is a lovely little place, even though the slope on which it sits does nothing to accommodate my back, which it is escalating its protests as the evening progresses… Meanwhile, familiar noise never stops wafting in from the street, with taxi horns blaring, kids playing on a side street, people chatting, the women in “Diaspo” busy with their pots and pans, vendors advertising their wares or services…bliss.

Let us be very clear here. There exists a very nasty anti-foreigner undercurrent, especially in the southern part of this country. It becomes manifest during elections, when unscrupulous politicians (but I repeat myself) tap into this and foment communal violence. Plenty of unemployed youths around looking for a fast buck to earn by burning, smashing up, looting or stealing. A complex web of xenophobia, a tangled pre- and post-Independence geo-political heritage, political short-termism offers only a part of the explanation. But it does fit with what former president Henri Konan Bédié encouraged in the mid-1990s with his deranged ‘Ivoirité’. Subsequent governments have done little or nothing to counter the anti-northerner/foreigner rhetoric or have indeed escalated it. This can and does spill over into deadly violence during elections. Why this happens should be the subject of a long explanatory note and I know Ivorian colleagues who are attempting to decipher how exactly this works. But the point is that this is is not the norm, cannot be in a country where fully one-third of the population can trace their origins across the borders and where intermarriage is wholly unexceptional.

And one other distinction must be made: only on very rare occasions is this rhetoric and violence directed against Whites; controlled on-and-off xenophobia (for want of a better term) is almost always directed against fellow West Africans. Under normal (i.e. non-political) circumstances, this colossal metropolis of maybe six million is a remarkably relaxed place, where people do not go around telling people with a different skin tone to “}@(# off to your own country” or get told off for not speaking English in an English public house. Instead, here we get an English conversation in a country that speaks French everywhere and more than 60 languages that were already here before the French arrived.

So if you happen to be on the long thoroughfare through the Septième Tranche, have a beer with the lovely gentlemen at Espace Diaspora. Chances are that I will be there, too…

Abidjan miniatures 1

December 24, 2020

Yes I was supposed to have gone to other parts of the country no this did not happen because I seriously did my back in and was confined first to a bed then to my room then to the street because at some point you simply MUST MOVE in order to save your back and then finally I let myself loose (within limits) in this loveable city. In between bouts of seriously serious pain in a most inconvenient place (the lower back), here’s a few bits and pieces of what I saw, consider them maybe a bunch of very loosely related End-Of-Year Tropical sort of Christmas tales…

There’s this youngish rasta driving a taxi. He’s not very good at it so in his haste to get to a client he veers dangerously close to my legs and feet. I jump aside – and yes, give my back another unwanted jolt.

This kind of thing happens very frequently in a city with an endless supply of vehicles and a similarly endless supply of people driving them, forever in a hurry. So what do you do? The opposite of what your urban dwelling instincts tell you to. Instead of going full-blown “What the devil do YOU think you were doing???”… go the Abidjan way. Smile. Make a gesture to the effect that it’s not too bad. ‘C’est pas grave…’

Sure, it does not always work out; some traffic situations do get out of control and result in slanging matches, which is the precise moment you will discover that the good city dwellers of Abidjan have an absolutely endless reserve of highly effective invective and voices that can fill a stadium, unaided, and that they all act out as if there is a camera permanently trained on them. It’s not just the nondesctript achitecture and the endless sprawl in some parts of this city that remind you a little of the US of A…

But much more often, it goes like this. Here’s the sequel to my case.

Rasta driver pulls out of his temporary parking space and as he drives away he turns his head apologetically and mouths “Pardon”. What do you do? Simple: you smile again and stick up your thumb reassuringly: it’s alright…c’est pas grave… End of the scene. Nobody leaves in a huff; everyone departs with a tiny reassuring inside glow that everything just got ever so slightly better in the world. And this is of course most decidedly NOT how they do things in, say, Washington. Here though, it makes perfect sense: you just cannot function in a city this size with six million (give or take) people in it without a generous dose of human tolerance. And humour. Never forget it: Abidjan is officially the Capital of Laughter. If you can’t make a joke out of it then what’s the point?

Speaking of which: L’Afterwork, the satire radio show that knocked Radio France Internationale off its perch on prime time radio, is still running.

***

At the bank. These things always sort themselves out, don’t they?

Here we are, in a thoroughly modern, state-of-the-art banking building, with monitors beaming the bank’s adverts and a display of the many modern ways in which you can get in touch: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, email, website… Slick adverts for a 21st Century West African bank.

But there’s one small problem. The electronic counter, which normally tells you when it is your turn, is out of order. I only vaguely cotton on to this when I notice the crowd in the waiting area is moving in a particular way and the counter keeps displaying the same number: 2G. A guard has seen that I don’t quite get how it works without the counter and taps me gently on the shoulder. “You chair is there”, he gestures, pointing to my place in the queue,folks seated in neat rows on hard plastic chairs. Those chair, yes. This is where the last century still reigns very much supreme.

Here’s how it works in the old-fashioned way: you take your place next to the person who came in before you and when the teller calls “NEXT!” from behind her window, the first person, on the first and leftmost chair closest to said teller, gets up and goes to the counter that is free. Everybody else moves one seat. Oh and they do keep one seat free between themselves and the next person. Covid19. Social distancing. Washing hands on entering this building is mandatory. Very 2020…

But the old system still works. Now if only this very modern regional bank could make those chairs a little more comfortable……..

***

If you have been away from this city for any length of time, you will not recognise some areas. This is in Zone 4, not far from a Chinese-run hotel on December 7 Boulevard. Half a decade ago, the building on the left was the only tall-ish building on this crossroads. There was a very nice Lebanese-run coffee shop on the ground floor. That building has now been dwarfed, not only by the neighbour you see under construction here but by four more: the one you see in the background and two more towers that are going up across the street. The pace is frenetic and relentless. Is this just the visual manifestation of those spectacular growth figures Côte d’Ivoire produced until Corona hit? Is it money laundering via real estate? Or is it action that follows the dictum: invest in stone, not in money? I have been told that apartments are currently sold before they even get built…

So it’s probably all of the above and maybe more. Whatever the cause, the scale and the pace of these developments are truly breathtaking.