Posts Tagged ‘racism’

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 dark side of being generous

July 2, 2020

It’s boys. Aged between, say, six and twelve they approach you on the street or call you when you’re passing by. Bright smiles, while they take a break from playing football or just bright smiles beaming straight at you.

“Toubab!” That would be me.

“Hello!” I say back to them, or him.

And more often than not, the next word out is…: “Argent.”

Money.

Sometimes it comes specified: the amounts demanded have ranged from 100 CFA (a mere fifteen eurocents) to fully one hundred times more than that. “Ten thousand francs.”  Eyes unblinking, smile still in place. We are in Ségou.

I have spoken about this in a previous blog and explained this behavior as the result of the extremely pernicious effects of colonialism and its sequel, international development aid. But individual behavior (to be very specific: individual white behavior) makes things worse, especially in places like Ségou, where I am at the moment, a city that used to thrive on tourism before international fear of jihadism and then the Corona crisis put a stop to it.

Now I have previously complained about being seen as a stupid loaded European but very seriously: being regarded as an ATM on two legs is a) annoying but insignificant and b) a symptom of something deeper.

This ‘deeper’ manifests itself in the domestic sphere in ways you only become aware of when you listen to stories like this, told by a friend here in Ségou. It goes like this.

“When Ségou was not yet overrun with tourists, I used to make a little extra money as a schoolboy shining shoes. This still happens today: you go to a place where clients are seated, you ask if they need their shoes polished and when you have done the work you return them and they give you 50 or 100 francs.

One day, one French tourist called me. Remember, there weren’t loads of them at the time so this was special. He was seated on the terrace of one of those posh hotels they have in Ségou. When I returned his shoes to him he gave me two thousand five hundred francs. I was over the moon! I ran home at high speed to tell my parents what had happened.

I showed my dad the money and what did he do? He hit me, saying that I had stolen it. Nobody gives such an idiotic amount to a shoe shine boy. We never managed to return the money since the man had disappeared and it’s stayed an issue for a long time. And I learned a lesson.”

I want you to reflect on this story, as I discussed it with my friend after he had finished his tale. First off, the amount given was indeed completely ridiculous and it did, rightly so, arouse suspicion. Second, while it most probably made the ‘generous’ tourist feel good about himself, it put life at my friend’s home on edge. Not just because the insane amount of money the young boy suddenly carried in his pocket, no. This works on another level, too.

Giving cash to people who are perceived ‘poor’ in places like Ségou or in many other parts of the continent where Africans come into contact with white lifeforms is principally not about the receiver. When you give money to a boy you perceive as poor, and especially when it is a large sum, it becomes all about you, the White Saviour.

And what’s more, as my friend stressed a few times while we discussed his story, it undermines parental authority at home, something that is taken very seriously here. Giving ten thousands francs to a kid, which has obviously happened because how on earth could that boy have come up with such an amount to ask of me…? Giving ten thousand francs instills in this young boy the idea that Mum and Dad don’t provide as well for me as this White Man or Woman could. The White Person is capable; my own parents are not, even though they put food on the table. Look, money! In my pocket.

In short, it reinforces once again the idea that Whites are superior and Africans should be grateful for whatever gets sent their way. In reinforces the racist mindset present through slavery and colonialism and perpetuated through the aid industry. We give – we feel good. They receive – we feel good.

All this is learned behavior and therefore it can be unlearned, on both sides. Whites with their Superiority Syndrome, Africans with their forced-upon-them Dependency Syndrome, especially egregious in tourist places like Ségou, which does indeed tend to get infested with mindless loaded do-gooders. Visitor, this is not about you. In fact, while you are here, nothing is.

OK. Here is how I ended one particular Ségou episode. I looked at the spokesman of the football team who had asked me for money, for some time. He looked back. Something dawned. He said: “Pardon.” We made our peace. Walking away, the realization came that he may have been apologizing to me in person. But far more importantly, he was, in fact, saying “sorry” to his parents.