Posts Tagged ‘wôrô-wôrô’

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 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.)