A bit of everyday life in the suburbs of Abidjan, Ivory Coast
There’s a wonderful lack of urgency on the sandy streets of Gonzague, this ramshackle development stretched out along the pedestrian unfriendly, coastal route to Grand Bassam. Why hurry anywhere, when you can dawdle in the sun and sea breeze, chat to neighbours or a shopkeeper, making a trip to the shop last twice as long as any westerner would? A goodbye to a parting guest might become a stroll to the end of the road or even as far as seeing them onto the bus home. Is anything really so important that it demands the refusal of an offer of sweet tea from an acquaintance, huddled with their friends around an enameled tea-pot, simmering over a charcoal burner? Surely not! Like the town itself, this behaviour is completely unremarkable for West Africa but one that needs to be celebrated.
If the words modern suburb summon up images of dainty fences, trimmed lawns and off street parking then you are a continent away from Gonzague. It’s only a modern suburb in the sense that it’s mostly in the last ten years that farmers have given up their coconut palms to make way for new buildings on the outskirts of the city but apart from the smattering of part finished, concrete structures, there is nothing of the polish that would suggest any of this had occurred recently. Many businesses and some homes are little more than dusty shacks or a minimalist assortment of breeze blocks forming a couple of rooms, with corrugated roof sheets, held down by whatever came to hand: stones, driftwood, broken chairs and rubbish. Tropical humidity soon adds a shade of dirty green, premature aging to walls. By western standards it would be called a slum but that’s an unfair characterisation of what is the simple reality of living conditions for millions in Africa. Life may be basic but no one is calling for a queue of NGOs to keep it functioning.
One of the factors that helps mitigate the effort of making a living is that the clear defining line we have between businesses and homes is almost meaningless here. At times it seems as though almost every home is selling something: some might have a well stocked stall outside the family compound, others may only be offering a handful of eggs or a few bags of homemade placali, a fermented cassava splodge that’s a common staple food. Many foodstuffs like oil or spices are sold in small bags, maybe only enough for one meal but it matches the purchasing ability of many customers and provides a small business opportunity for those who can invest a little bit in products to sell.
There may be no asphalt but some can afford cars; it may not be immaculate but the authorities provide enough of a system of rubbish collection to avoid the wafts of smouldering plastic you encounter elsewhere. What it does have is a sense of community, where everyone knows their neighbours and many more further afield; you’re never far from kids playing soccer in the street; families will sit outside their homes and greet passers-by, asking after their health and family; the local shop might offer credit when they can, as they too are no strangers to the problems of cash flow. Even though people may be quick to admonish others at times, such as when a parent slaps a child or someone’s driving doesn’t come up to the appropriate standard (a common enough occurence), it is rarely done with much fuss and is quietly taken in and maybe just ignored, rather than defended with abuse and fists.
Such cohesion might seem surprising given how recent many of the population are recent arrivals but even more so when you actually look at who they all are. You might hear a dozen languages in a short stretch of road, not just the numerous Ivorian tribal languages but people from Cameroon to Mauritania all mingle together, throwing in a few Lebanese businesses and a traditional Chinese medicine doctor for good measure. West Africa has a collective identity that Europeans will never have, as colonial borders never had any respect for tribal identity and family connections that are sometimes spread over several countries. That’s not to say there aren’t very distinct cultural differences between the groups, coastal Baule raised on agricultural traditions differ in many ways to their Sahlelian counterparts, the Peul with a semi nomadic pastoralist background, just to pick two of the hundreds of ethnicities. Differing national identities add to the incalculable variety of cultures, over which sits some indefinable, at least to me, Africaness. Maybe there’s a hint of solidarity in adversity at play? All that’s before you even get onto religion: Muslims, from chanting Sufis to niqab wearing Salafis; Christians, from solemn Catholics to ecstatic evangelicals; there’s traditional, animist religions, a Bahia centre and even a Buddhist, who lives in the same compound as the Muslim family I am staying with. Religion, although important, isn’t necessarily the main defining feature of people’s lives, so differences are easily put to one side when faced with having to get on in life on a meagre budget. Can’t say I saw any white people in the month I have been here but the handful of mixed race men and women in the community would seem to be evidence of at least a passing acquaintance.
Of course French is the one language they can all share but even this is seasoned with random borrowings from indigenous languages. Africans regularly embarrass the often defiantly mono lingual Brits and French. Being acquainted with at least two languages is a basic starting point but I know many who can converse in four, five or six tongues. Abidjan even has its own slang: Noussi, which is as fundamental to its culture as Rhyming Slang is to Londoners or Verlan to Parisians but without a system of rules for word creation, so it’s an entirely organic process that determines what catches on or not. Although it often contorts French into new meanings it can embrace a variety of regional languages and even some English.
Like everywhere in West Africa there is always music to be heard but almost nothing of what western, world music critics would have you believe was African music. Zouglou and Coupe Decale, the most popular styles are unapologetically urban and largely electronic, whether with a pop sheen or raucous energy, it’s never music to stand still to. Like the Griots of ancient times, modern performers still spread the news and are not afraid of telling people what the government doesn’t want them to hear, when the mainstream media won’t. Of course, sex is always the most popular subject and even the kids will have all the pelvis thrusting moves from their favourite artist’s video hardwired into their hips. When the national football team needs some support the musicians come out in force to support them: I have a whole CD of tracks created only for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations tournament. Every weekend the sound systems come out to celebrate someone’s wedding and it never occurs to anyone to issue invitations, if you want to join in, just turn up and enjoy yourself. You’ll never be asked if you are with the bride or groom in West Africa. I’ve wandered into several wedding parties over the years and have always been made most welcome, despite clearly not having even a modicum of African blood or the remotest possibility of having been invited.
It would be remiss of me to not make at least a passing mention of toilets, that quintessential gauge of foreign experience for the English. The typical examples I experienced were by no means as challenging as some but don’t expect an expanse of white, glazed tiles, a flush or shower powered by anything other than a bucket, a toilet roll holder, or toilet paper for that matter, or even a ceiling. I was soon on first name terms with the two cockroaches, Dave and Trevor, in our household’s combined toilet and bathroom facility and was most distressed when they ceased to visit a week later. Maybe the cat had eaten them.
Like most rules there’s an exception and the one for the rule that nobody runs in Gonzague are the balanceurs. These are the guys who hang out of the side of baka, the Noussi term for the minibuses that form the backbone of public transport in Abidjan, and hustle for prospective passengers. They are the personification of free-market driven incentivisation, as more punters mean more money in a highly competitive market. Shouting destinations in a staccato blast of syllables whilst on the move they will often hit the ground running before the vehicle stops to grab someone’s heavy bags before they get a chance to pick another baka, shepherd an old lady politely but firmly in the right direction or charm her daughter with the smoothest of patter. As they want to be full with passengers before they reach the heavy traffic of the city they entice customers in with a call of “deux places deux places”, implying they only need two more before they will leave, this is usually a complete fiction but to complete the impression of urgency the driver will keep nudging forward, as if about to leave. Five minutes later you could well still be sitting there listening to the balanceur shouting, “deux places deux places”, as he enthusiastically runs around among the shoppers and workers. With ritualistic flair and scant regard for common sense, they will only jump back onto the baka once its moving. With the freestyle nature of West African driving it’s difficult to say quite how many don’t survive each year, but without them Abidjan would be a duller place.
Gonzague, in many respects could be almost anywhere in West Africa or further South even, as it shares so much that is representative of life for so many. It’s posh neighbour Grand Bassam may have got in the news for all the wrong reasons of a terrorist attack but like all the bad news about Africa you will see and hear it has virtually nothing to do with how people live their lives. The media won’t tell you that you can walk out of your house and say hello to anyone you meet and have a lovely conversation with a complete stranger, who wouldn’t for a moment think it strange. They wouldn’t tell you that a stranger would invite you to join them in their place of worship, play a game of dominos or share a cup of tea. Would they tell you about the small child who wobbled up to me and silently hugged my legs in unquestioning affection. I’d love to imagine that somewhere in an English suburb a young, white kid would hug a strange black man. But………….