Dazed and Confused in Abidjan

My overwhelming impression of Abidjan was that it was hot. And not just hot – the humidity is so high I constantly felt like I was swimming, whether in my own sweat or the moisture-laden air, I’m not sure. It’s also the rainy season, so it rained every day I was there.

My other overwhelming impression of Abidjan was that it’s incredibly stupid to visit there without speaking French. The idea of learning a colonial language to communicate with an indigenous population makes me uncomfortable, but with over 70 languages in the country – all of which are spoken in the multicultural de facto capital of Abidjan – everyone relies on French to communicate with each other.

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The incredible St. Paul’s Cathedral, one of Abidjan’s architectural marvels

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The botanic gardens of Bingerville

I employed a wonderful translator to conduct interviews, a local university student studying English. However, even getting to an interview was challenging. Trying to figure out how to get from the airport to my first host’s house, I realized how hard my time in Abidjan was going to be: since there’s no formal address system in most of the city, taxis rely on directions to get around, directions I could not give without French. I tried showing the men at the taxi rank a dropped pin on my Google maps app, but they ultimately called my host in frustration. I know the driver dramatically overcharged me for the fare, but I kind of feel like I deserved it.

Transportation ended up being a regularly hilarious, if slightly unnerving, experience. Initially I decided I would walk everywhere, since that way I would at least always know how to find my way back. But ultimately, showing up to interviews drenched in sweat after a 5-mile walk seemed a bit unprofessional, so my method evolved: I would write down my destination, which by nature had to be a well-known landmark (a large bus station, for example, or a university), and show this to a driver at a bus or taxi rank, into whose hands I placed my fate. Thankfully, everyone I met was incredibly kind and helpful, bending over backward to make sure I ended up where I was trying to go. At one bus station, I got shooed into the office of the Station Chief, an extremely kind man who spoke a bit of English. He escorted me across the bus rank himself and gave the driver firm instructions about what to do with me. The bus crisscrossed the city several times, filling up with passengers and then emptying them all back onto the street: every time the driver made sure I knew to stay on the bus. Finally he deposited me on a minibus headed to the town I was trying to reach. The chief of the station had given me a complimentary ticket for the whole affair, and his card to call him in case I got lost. I wish we treated people in the U.S. who can’t speak English with the same level of kindness.

Red taxis can go anywhere in the city, while color-coded taxis like these yellow ones in Cocody or the blue ones in Yopougon run only on preset neighborhood routes.

img_4896.jpgThe more exciting transport option is a gbaka; young men hang out the door during the entire ride and try to shepherd you aboard. My hosts advised me to avoid them, but I had an easier time predicting where they’d end up than with a shared taxi, so I found them quite useful.

Although my total failure at French made a lot of things about my time in Cote d’Ivoire challenging, I learned a lot and saw many beautiful places while I was there. (The biggest takeaway – if you want to visit West Africa, do yourself and everyone around you a favor and learn some French!) I stayed with two hosts during my time there, a Turkish family in the city on a work assignment and a Guinean man named Mohamed who spoke both English and French. Mohamed was a blessing because he helped me untangle the city’s twisted transportation system. Both families were fasting for the holy month of Ramadan, and were generous enough to share iftar with me several times. Mohamed asked his cook to make a wide variety of traditional Ivoirian and West African food while I was there so I could try them – from blaqali (mounds of doughy, pounded cassava) to fish stew to kedjenou (a spicy vegetable and chicken stew), it was all delicious. I also learned to eat everything with my right hand, since utensils are for noobs and using your left hand is rude.

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Beyond Abidjan, I visited Grand-Bassam and Yamassoukro during my time in the country. Grand-Bassam was the French colonial capital before moving to Abidjan: now, the strip of land between the lagoon and the sea is mostly decaying colonial architecture, giving the feel of a ghost town. The shore was beautiful, but a violent riptide means you can’t wade in past your knees. A street vendor who spoke a bit of English gave me a detailed and horrifying chronicle of all the people he’d watch drown in the current.

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The decaying colonial architecture of Bassam

Yamassoukro was even more surprising than Bassam. It is the official political capital of Cote d’Ivoire, because the first president wanted to move the capital to his hometown, but before that it was a remote village. He ensured that everything was built for a capital city – wide, straight roads lined with streetlights, a grand hotel, even a golf course – but nobody has bothered to move out of Abidjan, so everything lies empty. Emptiest of all is the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, the tallest church in the world. It towers over the city, dwarfing everything else as soon as it comes into view. It can accommodate 18,000 worshipers, but rarely sees more than a few hundred on a Sunday morning. When I visited, it was completely deserted besides me, Mohamed, and our tour guide. With more square meters of stained glass than any other building in the world, hundreds of thousands of tons of marble, and the soaring dome scraping the sky, it is extraordinarily beautiful.

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Basilica of Our Lady of Peace — see the people in the lower right for size reference!

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Inside the chapel

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The view from the roof of the church

I’m so grateful for my time in Cote d’Ivoire, for the obvious warmth of the Ivorian people, and for everything I saw and did there. However, I must admit that I’m relieved to have made it to Berlin, where nobody shouts “blanche” at me on street corners and where I can get around with languages I speak!

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4 thoughts on “Dazed and Confused in Abidjan

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  1. I am awed by your courage, Cassidy! I’m glad you are meeting kind people to help you along your journey. Your posts are so educational. I am embarrassed to say I don’t know much about the region and your posts are making me at least wiki some questions I have and explore more.

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  2. Your posts are wonderful – I am learning so much from your adventures. Your observations about the people and surroundings are vivid even before the pictures further the experience.

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  3. You have opened a new world for me that expands my understanding of other cultures. This brings me to wonder how strange it must seem to visitors coming to our country, such a diverse difference in cultures. Is there no conflict of these many different beliefs living side by side? Thanks again for including us on your journey.

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  4. Love reading your blog and keeping up with your journey through your beautifully written tales! The fact that Yamassoukro lies virtually deserted is just crazy to me. The church is beautiful but so few in the area to appreciate it!

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