Sharp Suits and Natural Socialism (Cote d’Ivoire 13/07/13)

13 Jul

On Saturday morning we squeezed into a minivan bound for Grand Bassam. Outside the window, women in tribal headdresses were selling Barbie doll magazines and men in Cote d’Ivoire football shirts were holding tiny puppies in the palms of their hands. C-A told me that the puppies cost about £20 each.

As we left the city, I noticed two white jeeps with “UN” painted on them and light machine-guns pointing out of their rear doors.

‘Are you sure there isn’t perhaps still just a tiny little bit of a civil war going on?’ I asked C-A.

Nooooon,’ she replied. ‘Not still happening. These are just here to keep the peace.’

‘So are there still parts of Abidjan where rebels hang out?’

‘Shhh,’ she said, putting her index finger over my lips. ‘Best not talk politics here.’

All this – UN jeeps, peace-keeping, the risk of talking about politics in public – may sound scary, but so far I’ve had an extremely pleasant and comfortable time in Cote d’Ivoire. I find it hard to believe that, just a few years ago, C-A could hear gunfire from her bedroom. So far I haven’t seen any craters in the ground or holes in buildings, nor any hint of enmity between individual people. Indeed Ivorians are unfailingly polite, saying ‘Bonjour’ and ‘Bonsoir’ to each other at every opportunity and, like the British, apologising far too often, especially when they bump into each other in the street. They are also incredibly tolerant and patient of outsiders like me, as I must seem like a rare breed of idiot to them, what with my decent French accent (I can pronounce my “rs” like the sound of a motorbike revving), yet limited vocabulary (only so often can you pick a pretentious or archaic English word and hope that it means roughly the same in French) and truly abysmal grammar. In fact things have been going so well that I’m a little disappointed, because, whenever I travel, a very small and perverse part of me hopes for something to go disastrously wrong so that I’ll gain a more profound experience and, therefore, a better story. Irresponsible, I know, especially when there are loved ones at home who might be worrying about me.

We alighted on a long stretch of dusty road outside the International University of Grand Bassam. I called Marcel, the Dean of Studies, and he appeared a moment later in a faded Nike T-shirt and a pair of shorts. I like people who laugh a lot and Marcel definitely falls into that category. He was even able to laugh – and I was able to keep liking him – as he told me that, unfortunately, it was almost the end of term and there was so little teaching left to do that it wasn’t really worth me bothering. I’m not sure who had misunderstood who in the discussions leading up to my trip, but it doesn’t really matter because I have enough writing work to do anyway and Marcel has kindly invited us to stay at his house for as long as we want (the student digs originally offered are, he believes, no place for a lady). Furthermore, if I want to go to Ghana, Marcel has some contacts at universities there who may be foolhardy enough to let me loose in their lecture theatres.

Grand Bassam is a town I could happily stay in for a long long time. We took a stroll in La Quartier Coloniale (The Colonial Quarter), the site of the original French settlement on the west coast of Africa. Built between the 1880s and 1920s, the grand pastel-coloured mansions remind me of Gone With the Wind, their vast verandahs and gatehouses crawling with umbrella-like papaya trees and fan-shaped banana leaves.

On our first night, Marcel insisted on taking us out to what is reputed to be the biggest nightclub in West Africa, just a street away from his house. The evening was a crash course in modern African music, and it was a great help having two African music aficionados beside me to explain which Francophone country a given artist came from, which of the numerous sub-genres a particular song belonged to and what various lyrics meant in English. My pick was a Congolese band called Extra Musica, whose breakneck guitar arpeggios and galloping beats gave me the kind of thrill I used to get from drum ‘n’ bass back in the delirious day. A Gabonese chanteuse – who was also once the first lady of that country – very nearly got me moving my conspicuously pale, overweight and ungainly body. Had I sunk many more Flag beers I might have actually moved aforesaid body. Also impressive were a Martinique (so not strictly African) jazz band called Kassav and another Congolese artist called Rumba Koffi Olomide.

Perhaps the most intriguing figure in Ivorian music is Lougah Francois. His overnight success brought him fabulous riches which he promptly blew on sharp suits, curvaceous women and a deluxe suite at the Hotel Ivoire. He also donated a great deal of his Francs to young, struggling Ivorian artists. Lougah’s profligacy has spawned a proverb that every Ivorian knows: “You’re spending your money like Lougah Francois”. Check out this link to find out how much of a dude he was. I have decided that, when I get to the age of forty, I will model myself on him.

That evening in the club Marcel told me a little about himself. He was the first black student to earn a first-class degree in mathematics at London Metropolitan University (then North London Polytechnic). In a wide-ranging career he has worked in the London Stock Exchange and for the EU as an advisor on pollution. While he was doing his PhD, he was head chef at Bill Wyman’s Sticky Fingers restaurant, regularly rubbing shoulders with Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton.

In 2008 he moved back to Cote d’Ivoire to take up his current post at the university. He has recently bought the land on which to build a brand new university devoted to awarding scholarships to poor yet bright youngsters: a project that has never been tried before in Cote d’Ivoire.

When I mentioned that I’d seen the UN jeeps in Abidjan he laughed and waved his hands. ‘Total and utter waste of time. The UN has done nothing here for two years. Nothing for two years. Even during the war all they did was evacuate all the Europeans.’ He went on to tell me that the best thing the international community can do for Africa is leave it alone and let it develop by itself. ‘Africans have a different idea of democracy to Westerners,’ he said. ‘We have to mix it with traditional power structures such as our tribes and our religions. This is what Westerners find hard to understand.’ He also told me that he was a socialist and that all Africans are, he believed, ‘natural socialists, but we do it our own way on a community level by sharing with our family members, friends and neighbours. For example, I was recently helping a friend of mine who fell on hard times. I bought him a sack of rice every week until he was able to support himself again.’ I could talk to Marcel and C-A all day about their country. So far they show no signs of boredom with my incessant questioning.

OK, my menthe au lait is almost finished and my internet time up. Having realised that my Cote d’Ivoire visa is in fact multi-entry (even though this is not what I applied for in the UK), we have decided to go tomorrow morning to Ghana to check out Marcel’s universities. I’ll tell you all about it in the next few days.

Love, peace, solidarity, etc.

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