Posts Tagged ‘religion’

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.

meanwhile, away from the pomp and the parades…

April 4, 2010

No newspapers today. It’s a holiday, of course. No work for the newspaper vendors. They’re off for the day. So while they enjoy the Independence holiday,  let me tell you how you get your shot of news in Dakar.

Independence special from Walfadjri ("Dawn"), arguably the best paper in town

Method number 1. Walk down any main street and signal to a newspaper vendor who is doing his usual rounds that you want “les journeaux”. Oddly enough, even 50 years into Independence, all newspapers are in French. But they are lively, critical, well-written and not shy – even though they will pussyfoot around issues to do with Islam and upper echelon corruption.

Method number 2. Order “les journeaux” from a taxi or indeed from behind the wheel of your own vehicle, as many Dakarois are wont to do.

Method number 3. Go to a vendor who is always in the same place. On the main corner of L’Autoroute (yes, the one that leads to the airport), there’s one who holds an impossibly large pile under his arm, day in day out. He’s diminutive, wears a cap and a smile and knows exactly what every one of his many clients wants to read. (In my case, that’s everything.)

Incidentally, just try it: take a pile of up to 100 – I’ll make it easy for you: 50 – tabloids and hold them under your arm for one hour. He does this from 8am every morning. Luckily, a lot of people buy their papers with him so by noon the bulk of papers under his arm is noticeably smaller.

Method number 4: that wonderful old (admittedly French) addition to street life and still very much in evidence in Dakar: the kiosk. There is one next to my flat. Ousmane runs it. He’s a young lad, in his twenties. Every morning, he takes his papers in, opens up the wooden shutters revealing a counter. That’s where he puts today’s output, carefully. And then he takes a bunch of pegs and suspends newspapers, magazines and one-off publications off a small iron railing, that has been mounted on the inside of the shutters he’s just opened. If the newspaper you want is finished on the counter, you take the last copy (it’s basically the one for public reading) off the railing. Leave the pegs, please.

morning scene at home

Ousmane is inseparable from one of those small headphone pieces you plug your ear with but I suspect there is very little music coming out of the mobile phone it is connected to. He also has a permanently worried look on his face, which unfailingly lights up when a client passes. Yesterday, he explained his problem.

It is as simple as it is devastatingly unsolvable.

He has been the eldest in the family, ever since his father died. He works here because the family needs the money to feed, clothe and educate itself. His brother is going to school, he is not. ‘Because I must work. But this job only pays me 35,000 CFA Francs (that is 53 euros).’ Per month? Yes, per month.

So Ousmane wants a better job. How does he get one? With better education. But he left school because he had to work and he hasn’t got the money – or indeed time – to finish his school because he must work and the salary is terribly low. Conversation over, he summarizes this catch 22: ‘It will take long…’

Yes it will take long. And a bit of luck. A rich visitor. A benevolent uncle, friend, someone, anyone.

So who does exist for Ousmane and everyone like him, trapped in the Catch 22 the life has cruelly dished out?

I’ll give you a clue. Every Friday, at 2pm, he closes his kiosk for half an hour. , He calls on the powers of someone bigger than himself. It’s not the government he turns to. The government does not exist for people like Ousmane. The government is for big people, the ones that today show up on the VIP tribune today when the parade goes by. The same people who were whisked, sirens wailing, through the traffic yesterday on their way to the inauguration of the Monument for the African Renaissance.

So who does he turn to? What is the last word in almost every conversation you have here? There’s a reason this is perhaps the most deeply religious continent on the face of the earth. Talk to Ousmane.