Abidjan miniatures 6

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.

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