Tag Archives: abidjan

Ivory Coast 2nd edition out in July

29 Jan

I’ve just submitted my final changes to the 2nd edition of Ivory Coast: The Bradt Guide (out 3rd July). It includes new material on the plantation region, digital culture and recent politics plus previously unpublished photos by Alexander Sebley.

Image result for Ivory Coast Tom Sykes"

‘Côte d’Ivoire: The Rhythm of Mystery’ in New African Magazine

5 Jul

While the West African republic of Côte d’Ivoire isn’t as highly publicised a travel destination as Kenya, Morocco or South Africa, it easily matches the depth and diversity of their charms. In just three or four days you can see and do so much, from visiting the trendy galleries and music spots of cosmopolitan Abidjan to watching traditional craftspeople at work in the rural north, spying on wild hippos frolicking in a fragrant river in the verdant south or admiring the stupendous views from the mountains of the cooler west.

Read more here.

Bradt Guide Review in Travel Africa Magazine

15 Nov


My deepest thanks to Travel Africa Magazine for this generous review of The Bradt Guide to Ivory Coast:

‘With this guidebook, the author puts the largely unexplored Côte d’Ivoire back on the map, following a period of instability. As well as being a celebration of the country, the book also offers a lot of practical information and background that any potential traveller will find invaluable. Personal stories and anecdotes are intertwined throughout, which add some fascinating texture and observations.’

New story on the Rasta Village in New Statesman

27 Jan

This Thursday’s New Statesman will feature my report on the struggle of Rastafarians in Abidjan, Ivory Coast to reclaim the land that was cruelly seized from them by a wealthy real estate developer in cahoots with repressive state forces. Photos by the redoubtable Alexander Sebley.

(Photograph by Alexander Sebley)

In Memoriam: André the Shaman

1 Jan


While Portsmouth-based author Tom Sykes was in Ivory Coast researching a Bradt guidebook, he and his photographer Alexander Sebley met  up with a fêticheur, a traditional African shaman.

Alexander and I are led by our translator into a courtyard in Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s biggest city, where women with babies in back-slings sweep up dust and kola nut shells. We scale concrete steps, pass through a greasy curtain and kneel to enter a cubby hole. Its main wall is spattered with burgundy dried blood. Either side of it the skulls of cats and chickens swing from hooks above overturned rum bottles strewn around the floor. Between the bottles are black spheres of rope covered in feathers which, we are later told, represent particular spirits. On another wall is a bizarrely Mughal Indian-style picture of an African fêticheur with an equine tail and two yellow-clad African kids trampling on the belly of a moustachioed South Asian-looking man.

André, the fêticheur, comes into the room and sits down cross-legged. He’s young, no more than twenty-five, but has the deadened eyes of an old man that fail to glow when he smiles and shakes our hands.

‘Why exactly do people come and see you?’ I ask him through our translator; André is Burkinabé and prefers to speak Mandinka to French.

He fastens his palms together. ‘If someone comes to me with a problem,’ he says, ‘I can perform a ritual that will allow me to contact a good spirit for assistance. If a bad spirit is causing the problem, I can ask him what we can do on Earth to gratify him.’

‘What sorts of problems do people come to you with?’

‘Money or family issues, sickness also. I can perform a ritual either in person or by phone.’ He goes on to tell us that he inherited his magical gifts from his father and that this been a place of fetishism for 47 years.

Alexander asks him which animals he has sacrificed.

‘Goats, chickens, lambs and cows,’ says André casually.

Looking this toilet-sized room up and down, I marvel at how he ever got a cow inside, much less slaughter it.

‘Do you use a knife on the animals?’

‘No,’ he smiles.

We ask him if we can take pictures and he tells us that the last foreigner who tried to do that here died instantly.

‘Best we don’t then,’ says Alexander.

A man wearing Snoop Dogg braids and a STOP EBOLA t-shirt enters the room. He gives André some sachets of gin and a plastic bag. From the bag the fêticheur removes a black chicken with its feet tied together, and lies it down on its front.

André looks to the north, the west, the south and the east. He places two blobs of karité butter onto the floor and one into the palms of my hands.

‘Is what you are doing in Ivory Coast your idea or someone else’s?’ he asks.


Into my hands he then adds a lump of shea butter, some sea shells, a kola nut and a 1000 West African francs note. He asks me to think about all my current problems and I do so. He then takes all the items away from me, cracks the kola nut in half and tosses it onto the floor. He stares at it while muttering incantations. The chicken looks on with beady eyes.

‘What are you doing here?’ André asks.

‘Researching a tourist guidebook.’

He looks puzzled.

‘I’m writing about hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions, that sort of thing.’

‘What do you want from life?’

‘Er… health and happiness, I reckon.’

He tosses the nut again, mutters some more and turns to me gravely. ‘You have to go out and buy a small can of Bonnet Rouge condensed milk and give it, along with 20 francs, to a poor person. When you get back to Britain you must fill a calibas jug with salt water and talk to it about your business plans.’

I try to think what my ‘business plans’ might entail. I’m not sure I’ve ever had any.

‘And in the short term,’ he adds, ‘I don’t see any health issues for you.’

‘Great.’ As a fairly committed rationalist and materialist, I struggle to comprehend how talking to a jug of water will have any direct bearing on my future life chances. But, at the same time, I’m fascinated by the rituals and symbols of fetishism – or more specifically their cultural meaning to and influence upon Ivorians. And, lest anyone for a moment think we in the “developed” West no longer believe in supernatural causality, don’t forget about Derek Acorah or the extraordinary political sway of Christian evangelists in the US.

André repeats the procedure for Alexander and tells him that he must purchase three different kinds of millet and one white kola nut, put them down in a garden and talk to them about his business plans. ‘Did you lose something important in England?’ he asks Alexander.

‘No, but I lost a camera tripod in Ivory Coast.’

‘Be careful,’ says André, ‘because you may lose something important in the future. To try to stop that happening you should buy another kola nut, a red one, talk to it and then throw it away. Your health is good too.’

André picks up a sachet of rum, tears it open, pours some of it on a calibas and chucks the rest over the other fetishism objects. He reaches into another plastic bag and withdraws some black medicinal powder that he won’t divulge the name of. He asks me to take two pinches of the powder and drop them onto the floor. He adds karité and mixes the substances together to create a paste which he uses to draw a cross on the inside of the calibas. He picks up the chicken by its bound feet and flips it onto its back, his hand pressing against its stomach. Eyes bulging, the chicken occasionally squeezes out a cluck. Using his free hand, André wraps up the calibas with a cloth, closes his eyes and incants some more. ‘I am asking the spirit if I am permitted to kill the chicken,’ he tells us. He then turns the chicken onto its side and breaks its wings in four places. The animal goes quiet, perhaps out of shock. André continues his incantations as he returns his hand to the chicken’s breast. Eventually its head flops to the side, eyes slowly shutting.

While Alexander and I suspect André choked the chicken using brute force, he is adamant he killed it by channelling his supernatural powers. ‘I didn’t press hard,’ he says. ‘I can do this to human beings too, but it would be an abuse of my position.’ I think of the cow again and how he could have possibly suffocated a beast that size.

At any rate, Alexander and I are now blessed. André douses his trinkets with a further sachet of rum.

‘What will you do with the dead chicken?’ I ask him as we leave.

‘I’ll have it for dinner,’ he smiles.

Postscript: André sadly passed away only yesterday, some three months after I met him. The official cause of death was untreated malaria, but those around him suspected he fell foul of evil spirits and dark forces.

Originally published in Star & Crescent.

The book will eventually be available here.

New Bradt Author Page

12 Dec

My silly mug and some bio data about me is now available on the Bradt website. Just need to get on and finish the book now.

Fine Ivorian Fare (originally published in B Spirit Magazine)

4 Sep

2013-07-09 12.55.07

Few countries around the world have more scrumptious local dishes than Côte d’Ivoire. Writer/editor Tom Sykes has tried most of them…

Around the world Côte d’Ivoire is known for its Afrobeat and reggae music, its raunchy mapouka dance routine and its world-class footballers like Didier Drogba and Yaya Touré. However, few outside the country are aware of its delectable cuisine, which fuses French fine dining with traditional African ingredients and techniques. More than anyone else, Ivorians abide by George Bernard Shaw’s aphorism: ‘There is no love sincerer than the love of food.’ 

The hearty casserole known as Sauce Claire has a distinctively sweet-sour yet briny flavour that’s derived from slow-cooked aubergines, shrimp paste and fish scales. It’s best complemented by foutou (cassava dumplings), whose slightly sweet undertone comes from the small amount of plantains pounded into the mix.

Côte d’Ivoire’s other favourite stew is Sauce Graine, a rich and warming concoction of garlic, onions, tomatoes, chilli and palm tree grains. The vital ingredients, though, are kable, an indigenous aromatic leaf and akpi, an African spice that not only thickens the sauce but adds a smoky, barbecued dimension to the flavour.

Sauce Graine is so versatile it works with chicken breast, beef thighs and white fish. My preference is to mix it with agouti, a jungle rodent and Ivorian delicacy. When I first tried it, I was so surprised by its gamy aftertaste and tender texture that I wondered if the chef had decided that my foreign stomach wasn’t strong enough for this very local bushmeat and given me duck instead. But an Ivorian friend tasted the meal and confirmed that it was indeed agouti. In Côte d’Ivoire’s maquis (al fresco restaurants), Sauce Graine is often served with alloco (plantains pan-fried with onions, chilli and salt).

Like Moroccan tagine or Indian biryani, kedjenou owes its full-bodied and intense flavour to hours of cooking in a sealed pot, preferably over a wood fire. Healthy doses of ginger, fresh chilli and black pepper make this one for spice fans.

The literal translation of poisson braisé – “braised fish” – hardly does justice to the beauty of this dainty. Back in the late 1800s, French colonisers brought with them a very Gallic marinade – lemon juice, garlic, parsley, onions and tomatoes – and got delicious results when they rubbed it into perch, capitaine and other local catches, before putting them on the grill and wolfing them down with helpings of attieké (a cous-cous-like side dish made from cassava shavings).

Originally published here:


Cote d’Ivoire’s Colonial Capital

13 Jul

Here be my new Ivorian piece for Selamta.

The Fairground of Abidjan: A Nation Within a Hotel (originally published in New African)

14 Feb


Even on a bleak day during the West African rainy season, the modernist main tower of the Hôtel Ivoîre casts a luminous white reflection across the surface of the Lagoon Ébrié. At another angle, the tower throws a dark shadow over Blokosso, a village that survived the recent civil war unscathed because both sides believed it was protected by magic.

The Hôtel Ivoîre is itself a kind of reflection or shadow, albeit in a different sense. Over its fifty year existence, it has been profoundly shaped by some of the most significant events and personalities in the history of Côte d’Ivoîre. Many of the nation’s hopes, dreams, fears, contradictions and conflicts have played out in one way or another in the building that V.S. Naipaul described as the ‘fairground of Abidjan’.

My tour of the hotel begins outside the large French windows of the restaurant. I am joined by my friend and photographer C.A.R., an Ivoîrienne and an authority on her own country. Our guide is the Communications Manager of the Hôtel Ivoîre, Zaid Batoul. She is a small and bubbly Moroccan lady.

Naipaul’s fairground metaphor starts to make sense when I look around me and see various opportunities for hedonism. The largest casino in the country is here, thatch-roofed like a tribal hut. Later on it will be full of upper-crust Ivoîrians playing blackjack and roulette with Chinese engineers and Lebanese entrepreneurs (there are currently 130,000 Lebanese resident in Côte d’Ivoîre). Two guests sit drinking cocktails beside a lake-sized swimming pool, ignoring the pitiful weather. Zaid points up at a cross-shaped appendage to the top of the main tower. This, she says, is the Roof of Abidjan, a stylish restaurant run by a French master chef and frequented by pop stars, supermodels and politicians.

Noticing a statue of a ram’s head on one bank of the swimming pool, a different connotation of fairground springs to my mind. The hotel’s architecture already feels like a fairground ride: by turns beguiling, amusing and confusing.

C.A.R. suggests one reason for the confusion: almost every brick of the Hôtel Ivoîre is invested with a complex symbolism that can be hard for an outsider to grasp. ‘So what does the ram’s head symbolise?’ I ask her.

‘”Boigny” means “ram”,’ she replies.

It is impossible to discuss the Hôtel Ivoîre without reference to its founder, the first President of the Republic, Félix Houphouët-Boigny (1905-1993), and his belief in what some might call magic and others might call the power of symbols over the collective unconscious of an entire society. Zaid leads us to an edifice that resembles a tortoise. Apparently Houphouët’s intention here was to reassure his people that, while the nation’s progress may be slow, it is also steady. Next to that is a curvilinear, Henry Moore-esque sculpture of a telephone that is supposed to reflect the nation’s modernity and avant-garde perspective. In times of trouble Ivoîrians can, metaphorically, “phone” the future to find out what lies in store for them. As we go inside the hotel, we pass model doves and ceremonial masks from every tribe in the country: reminders of the virtues of peace and racial tolerance.

The potency of a symbol depends upon its referent being at least partly truthful. The above examples are no exception. After gaining independence in 1960, Côte d’Ivoîre took an unusual path for a post-colonial African nation. Its economy modernised quickly and grew at a First World rate, the standard of living soared and social relations stayed harmonious. More unusual still, “Le Vieux” (“the Old Man”) as Ivoîrians nicknamed Houphouët, set up a Western European-style welfare state that brought free healthcare and education to the most deprived. According to Faustin Toha’s book Houphouët-Boigny in One Hundred Thoughts, the Old Man said ‘racial discrimination is painful and appalling … for our dignity’ and invited immigrants to work in the coffee and cocoa plantations that formed the backbone of Ivoîrian prosperity. For four decades, Ivoîrians regarded themselves as one big happy family and the Old Man as their old man, the father of the nation. Whenever Houphouët met one of his children he would ask them, ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ When the request was for money he would tell one of his treasury ministers to handle it. Towards the end of his life, Houphouët set up a peace prize in his name, so proud was he of gaining independence without a shot being fired and, after that, avoiding the kinds of internal conflicts that have blighted Côte d’Ivoîre’s neighbours.

This was the cheerful narrative that Houphouët wanted the Hotel Ivoîre to tell. Many would argue that the truth is more ambiguous than that. Houphouët’s enlightened policies came at a cost to democracy: he banned opposition parties until almost thirty years into his presidency. Indeed, it has been said that Houphouët’s increasing autocracy and paranoia in old age incited the civil war that followed his death. If he was generous to the nation he was also generous to himself, his personal fortune amounting to $9 billion. His “economic miracle” was soured by his sycophancy towards foreign corporations: they were allowed to send 90% of their profits home and pay a pittance for Côte d’Ivoîre’s exports. His penchant for peace rings less true when we consider how he aided brutal right-wing coups in Ghana and Burkina Faso. He may have been a fan of science and technology, but he was also a deeply superstitious man who performed pagan rituals and consulted feticheurs (clairvoyants). The Ivoîrian writer Venance Konan tells of a rumour that Houphouët used to feed albinos to his pet crocodiles. Albinos have long been persecuted in Africa due to their perceived association with witchcraft. Another rumour is that Houphouët drank albinos’ blood in the hope that he would acquire some of their spiritual puissance. If any of this is true, it would seem that Houphouët was a little selective in his definition of discrimination.

The rationalist soothsayer. The social democratic dictator. The anti-albino anti-racist. The pacifist who fought proxy wars. These may seem like epic, insoluble contradictions to Westerners, though not so often to Africans. Besides, we are often more shocked by the contradictions of other cultures than we are by the contradictions of our own. As my friend Jacques, an Ivoîrian scientist who lived in the UK for sixteen years, says, ‘Tony Blair said he was a man of God, peace and unity. Then he started an illegal war that killed many more people than Houphouët ever did.’

Zaid leads me to the reception over which silver lamps hang, their images mirrored in the sparkling marble floors. We flick through the Hôtel Ivoîre’s bulky guestbook and spot some famous African names: Nelson Mandela, the first recipient of the Houphouët Peace Prize; Winnie Mandela; Léopold Senghor, the great poet-president of Senegal; Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Shaka Zulu. There is also the lavish, looping signature of Michael Jackson, who stayed here while visiting his ancestral village on the Ghana-Côte d’Ivoîre border. While there, he offended Ivoîrians by wearing a mask over his nose. They thought he objected to the smell of the place, but Jackson insisted that the mask alleviated an illness. Although I don’t see their signatures, Zaid assures me that Jackson’s musical confrѐres Barry White and Stevie Wonder also stayed here.


Perhaps the most important figure in the history of Ivoîrian music, Lougah François, moved into a luxury suite in the Hotel Ivoîre when he made it big in the 1980s. He soon blew his fortune on high living and natty leather suits. The latter vice is common amongst Francophone Africans, particularly certain Congolese who spend so much on clothes that they end up hungry and homeless, yet remain dapper. François’ profligacy was so legendary that you now sometimes hear one Ivoîrian warn another: ‘You’re spending your money like Lougah François.’ Similar to Houphouët, François was affectionately known as ‘Papa National’ (‘Father of the Nation’) so it may be appropriate that he died in 1997 just as Côte d’Ivoîre’s belle époque was giving way to civil war.

The Hôtel Ivoîre found itself in the middle of the fighting and fast went out of business. It quickly fell into decay, and the fairground became a junkyard. The ciphers for a bright future were replaced by the dystopian images of a JG Ballard novel: drained swimming pools, graffiti-stained walls, dishevelled prostitutes. In 2003 the hotel was taken over by Kalashnikov-toting supporters of Laurent Gbagbo, a jingoistic demagogue who is now on trial for war crimes at the Hague.

We take the elevator up to the Presidential Suite, which is filled with black leather furniture, and go on to the balcony. Under a smear of fog, a funeral procession winds past lean-to shops and two-storey shacks. This is Blokosso, a village believed to be overseen by a supernatural king who lives in a nearby tree. Anyone who threatens Blokosso risks provoking the wrath of the king. For this reason, both sides in the civil war gave it a wide berth. While all around the rockets were falling and the soldiers were looting homes, Blokosso remained untouched.

‘So you see,’ says Zaid, ‘a kind of magic was at work after all.’

‘Or rather,’ I reply, ‘enough people believed Blokosso was magical and left it alone. A self-fulfilling prophecy.’

‘Maybe,’ she smiles.

We crane our necks and look down into the hotel grounds. Here an incident took place ensuring that the 9th November 2004 would be remembered as the worst day of the Hôtel Ivoîre’s life. A crowd was gathering, angry about the destruction of Côte d’Ivoîre’s tiny air force by the French contingent of the UN mission in the country. Exactly what happened next remains contentious to this day. An Ivoîrian eyewitness, Colonel Guiai Bi Poin, claims that French soldiers stationed on a balcony fired on the unarmed protestors without warning. The French say they acted in self-defence against armed militants. That seven people – all Ivoîrians – were killed is perhaps the only point everyone can agree on. Some commentators raised doubts about the French version of events when their general in charge of the operation was quietly suspended some months after the fracas.

What the journalists Stéphane Haumant and Jérome Pin have described as “Black Tuesday” was the nadir in France’s convoluted relationship with Côte d’Ivoîre, likened by my friend Jacques to a mother who cannot accept that her child has grown up and left home. Fifty years after independence, France still exerts huge influence over so many aspects of Ivoîrian life. Restaurants everywhere – including the Hôtel Ivoîre’s – serve brochettes, poisson braisé, saucisson and jus d’orange. Most TV channels you watch are run by Canal Plus, the French national broadcaster. Any mall you go to is packed with quintessentially French brands. Many Ivoîrians – C.A.R. included – are so committed to French that they have never learned a native African language. They holiday in Paris and copy the latest Parisian fashions. As children they read Asterix and Lucky Luke comics, and grow up into Balzac, Proust and Gide. Côte d’Ivoîre’s political, legal and educational systems are high-resolution copies of the Gallic originals. I have travelled all over the postcolonial world and no nation in it – not even India, which was dominated by a foreign empire for five times as long as Côte d’Ivoîre was – retains such a close bond with its former master. That is not to say Côte d’Ivoîre doesn’t have its own vivaciously indigenous culture – especially with regard to food, literature, music, art – it is just that France’s shadow, like the Hôtel Ivoîre’s, is long and conspicuous.

As the three of us pass a framed photo of Charles De Gaulle in the corridor, I ask C.A.R. why the French are so embedded in her country.

‘You white men want to control everything,’ she winks.

The British historian Basil Davidson concurs. After the horror of the Algerian War of Independence during which over a million mostly Algerians were killed, the French public had little appetite for more of the same. Thus, as the clamour for freedom in French West Africa grew, De Gaulle visited Côte d’Ivoîre and offered independence with a great many strings attached. This way, according to Davidson, “France was able to retain a tight financial and even military control, a control that was going to endure for many years into the future.” Houphouët was France’s man to lead this transition because he’d been a member of the French parliament and broadly supported French interests in Africa. The French didn’t seem to mind that, earlier on in his career, he’d led an anti-colonialist farm workers’ union, been hated by landowners for his “un-French” attitudes and campaigned energetically against la corvée, the system of forced labour that was abolished as late as 1946. But two decades on Houphouët was content to hand over Côte d’Ivoîre’s security to French troops and much of its economy to French companies. He even went as far as to construct an emergency tunnel between his palace and the French Embassy.

An ironic outcome of Côte d’Ivoîre’s unconditional love for Maman Francaise was that a number of young Ivoîrian men – amongst them Jacques’ father – signed up to fight for the French Army as it tried to suppress liberation movements elsewhere in the empire. By the time he retired, Silue Sr had seen action against revolutionary nationalists in Algeria and Vietnam. His reward for such loyal service was French citizenship.

But while Jacques’ father may have been invited to the new multicultural France, such generosity hasn’t always been extended to Jacques himself, even though he holds a French passport. After he started working for the EU as an adviser on pollution, he went into his bank one day and found that he couldn’t access his first month’s pay. When he asked for an explanation, his bank manager had assumed that any black man earning 4000 Euros a month had to be a drug dealer or worse.

When I tell C.A.R. about this, she isn’t as shocked as I expect her to be. Her mother suffered from the same kind of prejudice when she visited Paris and tried to convert her hard-earned West African Francs into Euros.


Our tour ends in the lobby lounge. C.A.R. and I cross the velvet carpets and sit down on holy-white chairs. Zaid points to a psychedelic photo of smiling tribespeople taken by Paul Sika, a local boy who trained in London and now exhibits in New York’s most prestigious galleries. A well-groomed Malagasy barman brings us rich macaroons and drinking chocolate: the tastiest by-products of cocoa, which remains Côte d’Ivoîre’s main resource. I feel as if we are in the eye of the PR storm Sofitel has conjured up to sell the assets of both the hotel and of the country. ‘We are just trying to carry on with Houphouët’s vision,’ says Zaid in parting. I wonder if Côte d’Ivoîre’s next fifty years will be as lively as its last, and what fate has in store for the Fairground of Abidjan.

(Originally published in New African, December 2013)

Upcoming feature in the New African

9 Dec


Just heard that my feature, ‘The Fairground of Abidjan’, about the Hotel Ivoire, the Ivoirian civil war and the power of symbolism, will be appearing in the next issue of New African Magazine. It is available only in print format so do try and grab yourself (or better still, buy) a copy when it appears in newsagents on Wednesday 18th December.