Greetings from the Hotel Ivoire, one of the grand projects of Cote d’Ivoire’s 1960s coffee-and-cocoa boom. I am on the balcony of our red-and-white minimalist room looking out over the lights of Blockauss, a village on the southern bank of Abidjan’s great lagoon. Blockauss is popularly believed to be sacred territory, protected by a magical tree that was once the property of an ancient king. In the recent civil war, neither side dared go near the village for fear of enraging a higher force. While all around it buildings were levelled or looted, Blockauss remained pristine.
A belief in a different kind of magic – the power of symbolism – is evident in almost every corner of the Hotel Ivoire. A tortoise-shaped building reflects the slow but sure progress of the nation since independence. A giant sculpture of a telephone is supposed to help Ivorians “contact” and understand the future when the present seems uncertain, such was the claim of Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the first president of the nation who, since his death in 1993, has attained demigod status in the eyes of most Ivorians. In and around the hotel are tribal masks from every region of the country, representing the ethnic and cultural diversity that was also part of Boigny’s vision.
Forty-eight hours earlier, my thoughts had been far from Boigny and magic symbols. I was sat in the back of an old Citroen taxi, C-A by my side (laughing at my pidgin French), trying to decide what kind of city – socially, economically, aesthetically – Abidjan was. While its barefoot street vendors and houses wrapped in barbed wire remind me of Southeast Asia, its relatively sane traffic and jungley tendrils creeping over all the roofs do not.
The French influence is obvious enough from the Canal + billboards, hypermarches and patisseries on almost every main street, although I was surprised to find that such influence runs so deep that many Ivorians (especially middle-class ones) speak French fluently but have never learned any indigenous African language. For similar reasons it has been hard to find African food, though not impossible: at a maquis (open-air restaurant) last night, during a power cut, we ate attieke (cassava couscous), alloco (fried plantains) and – falling partly under the Gallic shadow – snail kebabs. And very nice it was too.
Tomorrow we are off to Grand Bassam, the beach where I am to teach.
(Photos by C.A.R.)