Posts Tagged ‘London’

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…

The Africa Express – 2

September 30, 2012

A bland, corporate, bland, nanny state-run, apparently inescapable surveillance society. It’s everywhere and if there’s one thing that exemplifies it – it’s probably pop music. The ubiquitous conveyor-belt drone without a tune, without a story. Tweedledee – the singer goes up two notes. Tweedledum – she goes down two notes. Bland offensive nothingness. It makes me want to take out every single irritating loudspeaker within earshot. That would make me an “unusual object”, if not a public nuisance. Pointing out that the public nuisance is actually hanging from the ceiling by the hundredfold will be remarkably unimpressive to the officer charging me with vandalism.

But one can dream.

So is there any escape from this? Looks like there are two options: when you’ve got too much money – or too little. An advert in a national daily (a quality broadsheet of course) advertised “Yoga session at sea”. Apparently you’re being taken offshore and then subjected to yoga. You will have to part with one thousand three hundred pounds for the privilege.

Meanwhile, somewhere in town, one elderly man who can only dream of splashing huge amounts of money on an offshore wellness session stands, completely unconcerned, next to a square piece of street furniture, probably a distribution facility belonging to a power utility. It’s large enough to spread a tabloid on. He reads, roll-up cigarette in mouth and a can of cheap beer in his hand. Another one sits on an bench in the morning when I pass by on my way to the Underground; still there in the afternoon when I return. He may have been there all day; he may not. But he appears to be his own boss, though he’d likely be astonished, not to mention annoyed, to hear anyone professing to envy his lifestyle.

Earlier this month, there was blast of non-blandness criss-crossing the United Kingdom. Aboard a steam train, a relic of a non-bland past (well, ok, people did die like flies of pneumonia), was traveling a motley crew of musicians. Judging by the reviews it must have been a riot. The Africa Express it was called and there were quite a few artists on it that I once interviewed. Baaba Maal for instance, the regal singer from Podor, North Senegal, where I had visited him (briefly) at home early 2010. Or the hugely original Fatoumata Diawara, whom I interviewed for Radio Netherlands and whose debut album (“Fatou”) I cannot recommend high enough.

In a country where corporate chains pretend to sell “authentic food” in places where people are constantly reminded that “we are committed to delivering solutions to our customers for their own safety and security” under a blanket of tuneless pop on a constant loop, the Africa Express went down a blast for those who were there, even when the performances were (reportedly) chaotic at times.

And that’s of course precisely the point. Most lives here and elsewhere are not nearly chaotic enough, most of the time. And it seems as if the majority are fine with that. Being an “unusual object”, I find that frightening. But I cannot possibly imagine someone walking away from the rhythms and the steam and the heat and the sheer musical  genius of The Africa Express – back into the world of cubicles and corporate food stalls and back to “…for your own safety and security…”…

…and not wanting to smash up at least one of those damned droning speakers.

The Africa Express

September 27, 2012

Two visits to London, one just been, one coming up.

I always arrive by train – best way to travel from Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris. And the new arrival place is brand new, pristine place called St Pancras International.

It has scared me to death.

Between the time you set foot on it until the time you step out, voices drone on and on and on over the public address system.

Train departures? Sure, we’re in a railway station. Makes sense. But every single inbetween station from start to finish? Spare me.

But it gets worse. In the fog of drones droning on about everything under the sun you get a female voice intoning that “for your safety and security” you must do this or not do that.

There are cameras everywhere, as the drone never ceases to remind me. Twenty. Four. Hours. A. Day. Seven. Days. A. Week.

Surveillance. It’s accepted. That’s scary.

Walking through the railway corridor I see bland corporate stores selling bland corporate stuff at extortionate prices. Except newspapers; these are remarkably cheap.

So I want to get one. I enter a store, grab a paper and want to pay. But the cashier has disappeared. No, not the person working the till having gone out for a ciggie or a toilet break – no: the entire thing. No longer exists. I have to go to a machine and scan my paper. As my hands are full with a bag and a coat, I put both items somewhere so I can scan the paper. As a matter of fact, a very nice man in the shop does that for me. He could have been at the cash register.

I am now busy fishing out coins to pay the 1 pound something for my paper and some other item. Find the coins. Put them in the machine.

The machine refuses. Why? I am informed that there is an “unusual object” on the tray. Please remove.” Annoyance level goes up considerably. First off, you little insolent so-and-so: those are not unusual objects, those are my coat and bag and since the store has provided no other place to put them, they are on your stupid tray. I also object to being told by a piece of soulless technology what to do. Yes, talking elevators is another pet hate of mine.

But the damn thing refuses to take my cash until I remove said unusual objects. Where do I put them? On the floor? On the display over there?

Needless to say, I leave in a huff, paper in bag. I can imagine the other customers looking at me and thinking: unusual object. But the scariest thing is this: it seems that this nonsensical, soulless non-service is largely accepted. At least in railway stations. Why?

Back to the hall and “for your safety and security, cameras are in operation…”

Tune in next time, when I will explain why this piece is called The Africa Express.