Blokosso: Where Angels Dare to Tread

20 Mar

2013-07-09 14.10.19

The Ebrié tribespeople of Côte d’Ivoîre traditionally believe that the land is protected by the ghosts of their ancestors and a large pantheon of deities. Historically, ritual offerings of human blood, spider’s webs, gunpowder and alcohol were made to such figures as Nyangka, the god of the earth. Although these days tribal values have broadly been supplanted by Islam and Christianity, Ebriés still retain a healthy respect for the spirit world and its influence on the material world.

Once an important Ebrié village, now an attractive district of Côte d’Ivoîre’s capital city Abidjan, Blokosso (sometimes called Blockhauss) is widely regarded as sacred territory ruled over by the spirit of an eminent king. The power and ubiquity of this belief is such that, during the Ivoîrian Civil War, neither the rebels nor the government forces would go anywhere near Blokosso. It was a surreal sight: while the rest of Abidjan was bombed and burned, Blokosso’s hovels, churches and maquis restaurants remained intact. Death might come from a bullet, so soldiers on both sides reasoned, but a far worse fate would befall anyone who damaged the property of the sovereign in the sky.
This is not to say that Blokosso has never had its troubles. After the economic failure of the late 1980s during which the number of citizens living below the poverty line trebled, Ivoîrian politicians began to exploit ethnic and religious divisions in society. Although in the 1960s and 1970s people from Burkina Faso and other nearby countries had been invited to work on Côte d’Ivoîre’s cocoa plantations, in the 1990s laws were passed to rescind the basic rights (such as suffrage) of these migrants and their offspring. Indeed, the man who is currently the President of the nation, Alassane Ouattara, was originally barred from standing for office due to his Burkinabé extraction.
Such tensions visited Blokosso in 2001. According to a Human Rights Watch report, at least six people were killed when armed apparatchiks of the RDR party attacked the district for its apparent support of FPI leader Laurent Gbagbo, who had just won a contested presidential election. Eyewitnesses saw men with machetes cutting the throat of a Guinean café owner and locals lying on the ground, their heads smashed with boulders. It seems that for one frenzied day only, Ivoîrians stopped caring about the consequences of damaging this holy domain.

These days violence is a rare occurrence in Blokosso. Arriving there myself on an overcast July day, I find it to be a gritty yet friendly working class community, the kind of place that wealthy visitors to Abidjan never see, confined as they are to a shiny micro-world of shopping malls and deluxe hotels. Such malls and hotels are staffed by poor people – some from Blokosso – who themselves are invisible to the wealthy because they travel to and from work on buses rather than in private cars and serve behind the counter rather than buying products on the other side of it.

Other Blokossans run businesses in the district itself. Fans and refrigerators are arranged outside a shack with a corrugated iron roof, prices written in felt tip on a piece of card nailed to one of the beams. Lebanese men sell sachets of Milo hot chocolate and packs of Hollywood chewing gum through the prison-style bars of a prefab convenience store. Sheltering under big black parasols, teenagers vend mobile phone top-up cards to passers-by. Taller concrete buildings painted yellow and indigo house pharmacies and photo booths. On the roadside, women in flowing dresses carry all kinds of objects on their scarved heads: small pieces of furniture, buckets of shrimps, sacks of fruit. They take it slow and easy, never breaking a sweat.

Lucky to earn enough for food each day, life is hard for these local entrepreneurs. But rather than nurse grievances, they show solidarity with their neighbours and warmth towards outsiders. I realise that I must look like the ultimate outsider to them: a chubby, sun-burned Westerner taking notes and photos of every corner of the neighbourhood. When I go into the fine-smelling Boulangerie Sibopa de Blokosso, the owner smiles, takes a little bow and says, ‘Bonjour monsieur. Enchanté.’ As my mouth waters over hot, fresh croissants, brioche and pains au chocolat, other customers treat me with the same degree of respect. In fact, everyone else I meet in Blokosso – from kids playing football on the street to elderly passengers in a shared taxi – exhibits the kind of placid decorum that disappeared from most Western cities a long time ago.

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The mood changes as soon as the sun goes down. Taking a seat in the open-air, speakeasy-style Sex Boss Bar (the name sounds more salacious than what actually goes on inside it), I hear the babble and the laughter grow as the men sink Flag beers and the women Smirnoff Ices. Waiters slam down bowls of steaming Sauce Claire, a slow-cooked chicken casserole that owes its rich yet tangy taste to a distinctively African spice called akpi; Sauce Graine, an aromatic stew made with palm tree grains; and cassava and plantain dumplings known as foutou.

As soon as it’s dark, the stereo starts playing a polyrhythmic Afrobeat song by Magic System, one of Côte d’Ivoîre’s biggest bands. The lyrics, so someone tells me, are about Ivoîrian men who marry European women and are shocked when they are expected to do household chores they were brought up to believe were the responsibility of females.

It isn’t long before girls in the Sex Boss Bar are bending over and shaking their behinds in a dance style called the Mapouka, which the Ivoîrian government tried to ban in 1998 in case it corrupted the youth. The Mapouka has since mutated into what the non-African world now calls “twerking”. One of the dancers grabs my sleeve and points to the floor.

‘I can’t dance,’ I protest. ‘I don’t know how.’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ she says. ‘Just do what you feel.’

Knowing that I’d need a lot more beer to find the courage to join her, I stay in my seat while two women in skin-tight clothing howl with joy and dance the Mapouka around me. I begin to feel like even more of an outsider, more of a square than ever before in my life. But I’m happy enough to listen to the music and watch the others do as they feel.

Early next morning, feeling a little worse for wear, I take the tugboat ferry to Blokosso across the Lagoon Ebrié. Spreading 300 kilometres across the eastern part of Côte d’Ivoîre and all the way up to the border with Ghana, the Lagoon is protected from the rough swells of the ocean by a large coastal landform. From the boat I watch the sun rise over Abidjan’s attractive skyline, its rays sparkling against the iconic Hotel Ivoîre and the ornate metalwork of Félix Houphouët-Boigny Stadium. The beauty of the sight belies the environmental damage being done to the Lagoon itself, which for time immemorial has provided Blokossans with abundant fish and seafood. As the Francophone magazine Jeune Afrique reports, wastewater, household rubbish and scrap metal are regularly dumped in the water, causing a hazardous build-up of sediment. Twenty years ago, the Lagoon was sanitary enough for people to practise watersports on it. Only the brave or foolish would dare do that now. However, in March of last year, the government decided to act. It began a collaboration with the Eco Africa NGO to clean up 125 acres of the Lagoon over the next four years. So far the project appears to have been successful.

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Once ashore at Blokosso, I breakfast in the Maquis la Pirogue des Grandes, a humble, unpainted brick restaurant serving real food to real Ivoîrians. Its locally-caught tilapia and capitain fish are charcoal grilled to perfection, dressed in garlic butter and accompanied by tomato and onion salad, attiéké (a cous-cous-like dish made from grated, fermented cassava) and alloco (fried plantain chips). The Maquis’ piѐce de resistance, though, is agouti, a field rat served in a creamy gravy that tastes like a cross between venison and suckling pig. Other kinds of bushmeat available include hedgehog, snake and jungle rabbit. Along with these traditional African delicacies, you can order French favourites that were introduced during the colonial era: rare steaks, fresh salads and juicy brochettes of snail, chicken and beef. Overall, the Maquis is doing a good job of contributing to Côte d’Ivoîre’s reputation as one Africa’s gastronomic centres.

All the dishes at the Maquis – and many other products sold in Blokosso – are surprisingly cheap compared to the more touristy areas of Abidjan. Those Ivoîrian commentators who have been complaining about the rising cost of living (some goods and services are near enough Western prices now) ought to spend some time – and some money – in Blokosso.
The colourful Fête de Generation (Generation Festival) takes place in Blokosso every August. It is a crucial rite of passage for young Ebrié men and women who must prove that their generation is qualified to lead the village into the future. In the past when the Ebriés were constantly at war with the sixty or so other tribes in the region, aspiring warriors would lead the new generation through the streets of Blokosso, overcoming obstacles such as snakes with their fighting skills and avoiding hidden traps with the assistance of shamen.

Conceptions of age and lineage are particularly important to Ebriés. In a somewhat scientific manner, each generation is sub-divided into four units: Gnando, Tchagba, Dougbo and Blessoué. Children born within fifteen years of one other belong to the same generation and are expected to treat each other as brothers and sisters whether they are blood-related or not. A generational cycle elapses after the passing of four generations (or sixty years).
The modern day Festival is more symbolic than it was in the past. After weeks of painstaking rehearsal, young Blokossans dance from one end of the district to the other, metaphorically progressing from childhood to adulthood. Men are selected as warriors according to their bravery and intelligence, but they are expected to lead the dance rather than to fight. Women put on their finest clothes and jewellery and take presents to the homes of these titular warriors.

The preoccupation with war is perhaps appropriate for a tribe that, in the eighteenth century, was violently forced out to the West African coast by the Ashanti people of what is now central Ghana. In fact, it was this ignominious defeat that gave the Ebriés their name, as it means “filthy” or “humiliated” in the Abouré language. Before that they were known, more flatteringly, as Achan, meaning “chosen ones”.

A century before the French colonisers built Abidjan, the first wave of Ebrié immigrants settled along the shores of what was soon to be known as the Lagoon Ebrié and established villages like Blokosso. Aside from fishing in the Lagoon, Ebriés became subsistence farmers, growing the sorts of plants the French would later export as lucrative cash crops: cocoa, coffee, rubber and sweet potatoes. If contemporary Ebriés are welcoming toward strangers such as me, their forebears were too. Over the years, Baoulés and Dioula tribespeople from other parts of Côte d’Ivoîre as well as Mossis from Burkina Faso have moved in to Ebrié lands and integrated peacefully with the locals.
At present, Ebriés are to be found living in and around Abidjan, the Lagoon Region and the subprefectures of Bingerville and Dabou. There are thought to be 57 Ebrié villages, 27 of them in the vicinity of the capital. Around 0.7 % of the population of Côte d’Ivoîre are Ebrié.

While the Generation Festival has always been a vital element of Ebrié identity, other facets of tribal life have changed significantly. In the early 1960s, the American sociologist William Kornblum was living in Blokosso when the community had its first ever experience of burglary committed by outsiders. “It was not the goods themselves that they missed, for these could be replaced,” Kornblum recalls. “It was a loss of a way of life, a social world, that they lamented.”

From that moment on, Blokosso could no longer regard itself as an isolated fishing village based on clan ties and communitarian principles. In a short time it had been swallowed up by a vast modern city driven by relentless commerce and technology. Ebriés were suddenly under pressure to buy consumer goods and sell their produce at Abidjan’s markets. Hitherto unknown concepts such as greed, envy and profligacy infected the community. There were more incidents of robbery. Monsieur Joseph, a community leader who was despairing over his wives’ jealousy of one another’s possessions, led prayers to ancestral spirits asking for help in confronting this scary new world.

Whether these prayers were answered or not, the attitude of Ebriés ever since has been one of acceptance and adaptation. They now tend to work in the service sector rather than in fishing and agriculture, and have witnessed the palm forests and plantations around them morph into business centres, apartment blocks and chic restaurants. They have stepped into modernity, but they have not lost sight of the past.

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