Abidjan v Lusaka

It’s been almost half a year now that we’ve been living in Lusaka, Zambia, and as with previous moves around Africa, I thought it would be interesting to spotlight a few differences compared with Abidjan. Development wise, there are a lot of similarities. But there’s a very different feel, and I’m enjoying my first experiences of southern Africa. The continent is far from uniform!

SPACE – a key feature of Zambia is the huge size of the country (752,618km2) compared to its 16 million population. It’s more than twice the size of Ivory Coast, with two thirds of the population. This has implications in a variety of areas including refugee policy (the country is very generous in giving land), to provision of Government services (quite hard as people are very spread out), to the quality of the tourism. In Lusaka, it’s apparent in the large university campuses, the high numbers of football/cricket/polo pitches and golf courses, and the healthy sizes of people’s gardens. The house we’re renting has a plot of 3,350m2, – not uncommon in my area or in Lusaka (for the middle class). Such a size would be very rare in Abidjan, a city with an extremely high population density even for African cities. I was looking at the paperwork for my Abidjan house this week – the plot size there for our 4 bedroom house (same number as here) is 270m2.

GARDENING – undoubtedly related to this, there’s a real culture of gardening. Many of these large plots have beautiful gardens, and each morning you can see gardeners out with their sprinklers watering the lawns and shrubs. You get almost no rain for six months of the year, but still the place stays fairly green. Many of the roads in certain areas of the city are lined by mature trees which are really beautiful, especially in October when the city turns red with Flamboyant flowers. In Abidjan, gardens tend to be on the small side, and tree lined avenues are not a strong feature of the city.

MALLS – As many residents in Lusaka will tell you, the big change over the last few years has been the sprouting of numerous malls around the city, generally South African, and often on opposite sides of major junctions. Abidjan has perhaps seem similar growth, and in that sense you get the feel that both cities have a relatively good sized middle class elite. The design here tends to be a different, shaped perhaps by i) the greater amount of space, ii) the more favourable climate.

CLIMATE – We’re really enjoying the weather. After the sticky humidity of Brazzaville, Abidjan and Freetown, Lusaka is a treat. This week, I’ve been the coldest I’ve ever been in Africa, and we even tried to get the fire going in our living room (yes, we have a chimney). We don’t have any air-conditioners in the house, and those at work are more often used to heat rather than cool the room. With limited humidity, long dry summers, and a temperature that averages 20C across the year, it’s hard to complain.

FOOD – the staple dish in Zambia is nshima, similar to what Ivorians call toh, made from maize meal. In general, I think Ivorians have a much broader range of indigenous staples (yams, rice, foufou, foutou, attieke, sweet potato, plaintains), something that isn’t so common in other countries I’ve spent time in. Related to this, the Ivorian culture of eating out (not just for the elite/expats), is also something that you don’t often find elsewhere. It explains where many cities seem sleepy compared to Abidjan.

SHOPPING – I have an odd habit of reading packaging labels, and I’m struck that it is actually quite rare to find a product that was not made on the African continent. Most things are either made in Zambia or in South Africa. This applies to 19/20 items. It is extremely rare to find something Made in China, Made in the UAE, or made somewhere in Europe. The only things I’ve found recently are delicacy foods (olive oil from Italy and blue cheese from Denmark). West Africa really has a long way to go in this regard – how odd that despite being a longer boat journey away, so much there comes from the East. It’s really tiresome to be drinking milk from European cows in Abidjan. Here they can be a bit resentful of the South African economic power. But it’s interesting that such products don’t appear much in the West African market. This might perhaps change if South African brands like Shoprite have more success, and I guess Abidjan has a language barrier to overcome. My ‘prior’ that has been shattered has been to discover that almost all necessary manufactured products are in fact already being produced on the continent.

PEOPLE – people here tend to view West Africans on the whole as quite aggressive. I’m sure Nigerians have done a lot to influence this stereotype. But it’s also certainly true that people here are in the main more towards the passive end of the scale (as Nigerians might think of Ghanaians). When you arrive at the airport here, almost no-one greets you, offers to help, tells you about a service they are offering etc. For western visitors, I’m sure it’s more welcoming then the shouting match that frequently results on arrival in a West African city. I do sometimes miss it though.

STREET LIGHTS – one odd thing is that street lighting is rather rare in Lusaka. Even on the dual carriageway that runs close to our house, there are lights, but they don’t seem to work. This wasn’t apparently the case in the past. Our residential area gets extremely dark at night. In Abidjan, it’s not commonly appreciated how much street lightening there is (which again encourages people to be out and about). Our very minor residential road in Abidjan is lit throughout (indeed we have a streetlight almost on our front door).

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Abidjan taxis and other fragments

In April 2014, I made my first return to Abidjan after leaving for Dubai in late 2012. I published some blog posts at the time, but a few others sat in a Word document on my desktop, and four years’ on, they are still there. Sadly, the thinking that prompted me to write has long since moved on. But for what it’s worth, let me publish these fragments below. The main unpublished post was a list of ten tips for those venturing into the Abidjan taxi business – on this blog I had recounted starting out, but hadn’t concluded (the project was by and large a failure). I had drawn up ten tips, but these are all forgotten, and I just have what I wrote at the time.

Ten mistakes to avoid in the Abidjan taxi business

After nine months as the owner of a taxi, I think it’s time to throw in the towel. We’ve been metaphorically taken for a ride by many of our drivers, so I think it’s best to call it quits. My general conclusion is to advise against entering the business – and I increasingly think it’s best to disbelieve any statement by an Ivorian talking about any sector that ‘ca marche’. Frequently this is only a very superficial assessment of how a business sector works. But, clearly the business works for some – I suspect particularly Lebanese and Chinese business people who have their own garages and are a lot tougher on drivers and demand daily payments from drivers at above average rates.

1. One of the main reasons small businesses fail in Abidjan is I think dishonest staff. The three key roles for a taxi owner are the day-to-day manger, the driver and the mechanic. In my case I had an honest manager, but we got in trouble with the drivers.

Starting with the driver, this person frequently has a motivational problem. They can hurt you by overloading the vehicle and driving recklessly. They are also in charge of your principal asset and out of sight for most of the day.

2. Taxi parking
At the end of the day, the taxi should be parked to rest with a full tank. Drivers will frequently want permission to park the taxi at their home. But this leaves you open to having the taxi used outside of hours for work, and even criminal activity.

3. Choosing the right car
There are very few exceptions to Toyota Corollas on the streets of Abidjan, though you get the odd Peugeot, and most recently some use of the famous Mercedes 190. Get to know your Corollas – they all have local names, generally associated with the historical era when they were introduced, so the latest Corolla is called an ‘Obama’. The major expense you’ll have when you’re on the road is vehicle repairs, so you need a car that is reliable and has cheap and readily-available car parts. Ask widely for advice so you don’t fall into unknown traps – for instance, some Corollas have a Peugeot engine, which will have a considerably shorter life-span than a Toyota equivalent.

Also, spend time making sure you’re bringing over a decent model. Newer models can save on import charges designed to punish older cars. And given the vehicle purchase cost is likely to be a minor part of your initial start-up costs, it can be worth paying a bit more.

[My draft ended here. I was sure to get on to the problem with mechanics – the major fault of the business venture. By placing spots of glue on engine parts, we discovered mechanics were removing them, to be replaced with cheaper/broken ones.]

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I’m a real fan of the easy community in Abidjan. After a few days I feel I already have a connection with the people who work at my bank, the policewoman who produced my new identity papers, and the city’s taxi drivers. Human relations are real and alive in Abidjan. People also tend to really put down roots here – Abidjan is THE major city in Cote d’Ivoire, and once people have a house they tend to stay there. The same applies for jobs – once Ivorians are employed they try and hold on as best they can. Things are far different in the UK where you may work for a couple of years in one city, buying a house for a few years and then reselling and moving to another city.

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Here so much of conversation consists of catching up on the well-being of extended groups of people. You can listen to people in the street when they meet…they can go through the list of everyone who lives in their neighbourhood getting an update.

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Ivorians love their soap operas, and in fact we’ve arrived in Abidjan just as a film my wife starred in is being shown on the state television. I’m actually surprised the Brazilian soap operas are so popular here, because real life seems far more extreme. In the past few days I’ve heard numerous stories of mistresses, affairs, cheating, witchcraft, double-crossing, sudden death, falls from grace, etc.

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A full house

It might be personal taste, but one thing I appreciate about our life in our particular corner of West Africa is having a full house. There are six of us in our two bedroom place – two small children, myself and my wife, and our two house helps (one who has worked with us for almost a decade, and one a relative). In the West, this might be seen as odd and cramped, but I think it would have been quite familiar to people just a few generations back.

For me, when all is friendly and full of trust, it makes for a lively house, full of people for the children to interact with, and plenty of laughter. We might have less personal space than elsewhere in the world, but we don’t have much to hide.

(This was a post fragment from last year that never got published).

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Cocoa ramblings

The dust hasn’t quite settled, but it has certainly been an interesting season for cocoa in Cote d’Ivoire. Even just looking at the last few days we’ve seen the death of former all-powerful cocoa baron Henri Amazou, ex-boss of the FDPCC, and the official opening of the global HQ of the International Cocoa Organisation (ICCO) in Abidjan (interestingly, in a building that was once the FDPCC office).

I remember when I first arrived in Abidjan, the newspapers were regularly filled with the feud between Amazou, and the BCC boss, Tape Do. This old blog post from those days is a good reminder. The smell of corruption had been strong for years, but in 2008 the then president decided enough was enough and had almost everyone arrested and tried. The sector’s governance system then faced a massive overhaul – we now no longer have the BCC, FDPCC, ARCC and FGCCC (set up in the previous cocoa sector reform), all replaced by the CCC.

Speaking of great blogs that are no longer active, this week I discovered the insightful At Origin Blog, which is sadly now on hold, though still has a treasure-trove of past articles focused on Cote d’Ivoire and cash crops. I was particularly intrigued by this post on the cocoa price dated 3 October 2016 (the first week of the cocoa season). The cocoa farmgate price ended up being set at a higher level (XOF 1,100/kg) than almost anyone expected. To quote:

The CCC wanted to double the “rainy day” fund [by having a lower farmgate price]— which guarantees 60% of the international price to farmers even if the market collapses — to XOF 150bn, reflecting a conservative and prudent management on part of the regulator. But, the Ivorian government didn’t take the CCC’s advice, opting for the modest hike. This won’t break the bank. The CCC can well afford it, having forward sold the 2016/17 crop when international cocoa prices were still buoyant.

Hindsight is of course a wonderful thing when looking at investment mistakes. As we now know from the other side of the season, the previous years of massive production and high global prices didn’t last (indeed the peak had been in July 2016, and since then prices have dropped 30%). One would hope that the CCC stabilization fund built up in the good years would provide a cushion. But we witnessed far more unraveling than I’d expected – farmers protesting, cocoa piling up in the port, a cut to national state budgets, and almost immediately urgent appeals to the IMF and World Bank to step in (which they are doing). One hoped for a little more resilience.

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Boulevard VGE

I was a little taken aback yesterday reading in Fraternite Matin an interview with the architect of the new Azalai hotel in Abidjan, Ibrahima Konare, saying: “Personally, I consider the Boulevard Giscard d’Estaing as one of the most beautiful in the world. From the airport to the different bridges…we have a boulevard with two carriageways [‘contre-allees’ – not sure if I translated this correctly] that function perfectly. That exists almost no-where else.”

I can think of many things to say about the Boulevard VGE. For a start, it’s named after a French president without any of the glamour of De Gaulle or Mitterrand. Sometimes the francophilia of the FHB years definitely went too far. Secondly, it’s probably the place in the world I feel must uncertain about driving. At night you’ve got around six lanes in both directions, without a barrier in between, and junctions on which people just stop in the middle of the road waiting for a left turn. Don’t forget low lighting and people crossing all over the place with little regard for their safety.

Perhaps more relevant to this discussion, it also has nothing that takes one’s breath away, whatever your aesthetic sense. The buildings are almost uniformly ugly (Playce, Azalai, Cap Sud and Orca being perhaps exceptions), and most of them are decrepit and lacking grandeur – squat office blocks, humble flats, and quite a few used-car forecourts. While peaking over the buildings, you’re starting to see modern apartment blocks in Zone 4, there’s not much yet on the highway itself. The VGE junction to the third bridge has a certain impressiveness, but there’s a limit to the beauty of road bridges wherever you are in the world. Although I’ve seen several articles (including Bloomberg) describing Abidjan’s third bridge as an ‘architectural joy’, it couldn’t be more bog-standard despite its evident usefulness.

What could the highly respected architect actually mean? As he mentions there is something to the urban design. From the airport to Plateau, you get a smooth highway whisking you to the heart of the city. That’s certainly not a given in every city. In the article, direct comparison is made with Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed road, but we’re a very long way from that now. Overall, I read the quote as in line with a certain praise-language that sees the current ’emergence’ as moving forward in a perfect way in the most wonderful places in the best of all possible worlds.

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BRVM update and other economic notes

Twelve months ago, I announced the end to my series of annual posts focusing on investments on the Abidjan-based stock exchange. The posts seemed to be getting very similar – double digit growth reported, all in the (relative) safety of a currency tied to the Euro. Things hit a new high in 2015 with portfolio value growth of 44%. In that year the exchange, which covers countries in the West Africa CFA zone, but is dominated by Ivorian companies, was the fastest growing in Africa.

Well…skip forward 12 months and things aren’t so rosy, and so, in the interests of balance, I thought it best to write again and record that this year hasn’t been quite so good. After annual growth of 17.8%, 27.2%, 31.4%, 18.6% and 44.1%, 2016 saw growth of 4.4%. Looking more closely at 2016, I was basically up 20% in the first six months, and then falling back rapidly, roughly from the time of brexit (though I don’t think there’s much of a link). The downward trend doesn’t look to be abating – I’m down around 12% in the first 30 days of 2017. The overall figure of +4.4% for 2016 isn’t too bad on the surface, especially given the strengthening of the Euro against Sterling, but the downward trend does appear to be something new. This seems slightly at odds with the surface story of the country being one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

I’m no expert, but let me speculate on a few possible explanations, which have a bearing on the Ivorian economy. You can decide for yourself which you think holds the most water:

  • The explanation when I asked at my investing bank in Abidjan was that new listings on the exchange in 2016 hadn’t attracted new funds, but simply led people to sell-to-buy the new stocks.
  • Some World Bank analysis I read talked of the Ivorian economy ending the post-crisis dramatic growth phase, and moving to a more sustainable but lower level of growth. Growth remains high of course – by many accounts, the highest in Africa in 2016/17 and by some reports second only to Myanmar globally. A good proportion of this growth is through heavy public sector investment, so perhaps this doesn’t necessarily filter through to private sector stock value.
  • Globally it’s been a pretty depressing economic year. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, growth fell to 1.6%, the lowest levels seen for many years and signalling for some the end of the Africa Rising story. A rebound to 2.8% is predicted for this year. Nevertheless, Ivory Coast and Senegal have been exceptions, and the vast majority of the BRVM companies come from these two countries – so why have stocks not done well?
  • Given that Ivory Coast has a media profile as the economic success story at the moment, investors/new money gets drawn into the country, leading to lots of new start ups which make life more competitive for the established (and in some cases BRVM-listed) companies.
  • There was some interesting data in the Fraternite Matin newspaper yesterday from a survey of Ivory Coast-based businesses by the Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie France-Cote d’Ivoire. Here are some of the key findings from respondents (224 businesses, 80% small and medium-sized, 20% large):
    • 75% had thought 2015 was a better year for their business than 2014, but only 18.48% thought that 2016 had been better than 2015.
    • 20% had seen their workforce grow, 80% had seen a decline [not sure about those staying the same]
    • A key difficulty seems to be relations with the public sector (getting access to the right officials, getting paid on time), though on the positive side, relations with banks had reportedly improved, and the new commercial tribunal seems to be appreciated.
  • Perhaps the poor performance in January is a result of recent social unrest which signal bad news to some investors who might have thought there were no medium-term effects of coming out of a ten year crisis.

So, in summary, the Ivorian economic growth story needs nuance, and doesn’t necessarily transfer to the stock market or to major business growth. For my own part, I’ll continue investing in the BRVM, though I’m a little more wary and will look to see if the balance is tipping towards investing in housing, or keeping funds outside the country.

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Yesterday I read in the Sierra Leone press that two new companies listed on the Sierra Leone stock exchange last week…bringing the total number to three.

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7 things we learned from Didier Drogba’s ‘Commitment’

The other weekend I read a blog post about Didier Drogba’s latest autobiography ‘Commitment’, and after a quick Kindle purchase, the book had been downloaded and read by Sunday evening. I do have his previous autobiography (unread) on my shelf, and I suspect this is simply an update, though I haven’t examined the two side-by-side. Last year I read ‘Didier Drogba’ by Ian McShane, which is similar though not as insightful.

Here’s my run-down of a few things I learned from the book:

  1. Drogba believes divine power has helped him become the football player he is today. I’ve never known Didier mention his Catholic faith, though he sometimes wears a cross. But it turns out he’s often praying in the middle of games, particularly key ones, and that he feels his prayers have often been answered. Interestingly, his Marseille shirt hangs as a sort of relic in the cathedral in Marseille, the city where he used to play. His wife also invokes the Almighty in the famous video of them watching the African Cup of Nations penalty shoot out victory. He does of course have an incredible record in these big matches.
  2. When his parents moved to France (long after he’d been living there with his uncle) the whole family lived in terrible conditions squeezed into a tiny flat. His father went from middle class banker in Cote d’Ivoire to menial jobs in France. Drogba clearly believes the line between becoming a successful footballer, and a struggling inner-city immigrant in France was a narrow one.
  3. Drogba’s footballing career started late, and you can feel the pain when he sees people of his generation like Thierry Henry already playing for France while he’s fighting for places at minor teams. Like his footballing uncle, he moves around the small league sides before (in his case) finally making it big. When he moved to Chelsea as a big money signing, all these lower teams got a financial pay-out, enough for one of them to build a new stadium (named after Drogba). Perhaps his late start is one reason why he opted to play for Cote d’Ivoire – he might have initially struggled to fight for a place in the French side. When he finally wins the Champions League, a good number of these friends and coaches from these early days join him to celebrate.
  4. Leaving Marseille was tough for Drogba. It was the team he’d supported when young, he was culturally comfortable in France, and he had bought a nice house on the coast. In some ways it represented the height of his ambitions. But looking back, the more difficult path to Chelsea was the only way he could have achieved global greatness.
  5. Drogba speaks excellent English now, so it’s hard to imagine him moving to England with barely a word of English. That caused some problems in the early days, notably with the sometimes-I-dive MoTD interview. Interestingly, Drogba it seems doesn’t speak bete, the language of his ethnic group in Cote d’Ivoire. I hadn’t actually realised this – I’d just assumed that with two bete parents, he would have heard a lot of the language. It shows how French really is the mother tongue for most Ivorian children in the big city.
  6. It’s not explicit, but I get the impression from the book that Drogba has been one of the players to pioneer having a personal support team. He has two sports scientists who have worked with him for many years who help him with his post-match recovery, putting him in better shape. I was intrigued by how much of a difference these little things apparently can make. Similarly, the discussion of just how important the pre-season period is for a future successful season was fascinating.
  7. Drogba’s wife Lala has been a vital support in his life, including during his difficult first year at Chelsea. The family seems to have really settled in England and they stayed there during his move to China and Turkey. Lala had a child before hooking up with Didier, and the boy has been adopted into the home alongside his biological children.
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What’s in a name?

I’m not sure I’d ever heard anyone use the phrase ‘Drogba’s Country’ when I selected it for this blog. But it was pretty clear that the only thing most people knew about Cote d’Ivoire back in 2011 was that it was the birthplace of Didier Drogba. Football stories were almost the only times the country was referenced in the English-speaking media. Ivorians around the world would see quizzical looks around the world when they mentioned the name of their country, but if they said Drogba, that transformed into smiles and handshakes. My wife uses it frequently.

But I was little surprised just now hearing the blog’s name referenced by none other than the Queen of England (perhaps a regular reader) from the lips of Ivorian president, Alassane Ouattara in this video interview (1:24):

“There are specific events which put a country on the map. For example, we have one of the world’s best soccer players, Drogba. He puts Cote d’Ivoire on the map…When I met the Queen of England three years ago, I said ‘Your Majesty, I’m the President of Cote d’Ivoire’ and he said ‘Ohhhh, Drogba’s Country’.”

I won’t comment on some of the other statements in the video, including that Ivorians now are perfectly bi-lingual.

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From Freetown, farewell Chris Simpson (1963-2016)

Over the last few days a diverse range of Africanists discovered they all had one friend in common, and that he had just died in an apartment in Dakar. The reporting legend that was Chris Simpson has left us.

Others undoubtedly knew him better. But as the outpouring over the last few days has shown, Chris’ life was appreciated by many – myself included – who recognise that we have lost a unique individual. A man who in his annual missives and social media updates would regularly celebrate the passing of low-culture stars of 1970s British television, or obscure cricket legends, surely deserves a few pages of send-off. Here’s mine.

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Chris’ writing voice was distinctive. The (more popular) posturing of the daring-and-dashing foreign correspondent in exotic danger wasn’t for him. His was a regular riff on the bumbling British reporter, full of very hapless calamity but who always survived the hard-drive meltdowns and drainage ditch stumbles to see another day. It was half innocent abroad, half schoolboy antics. The last time we chatted, in January, he had just received a “stiff summons from the chief”, and had offered an explanation that “didn’t really cut it”. In his own – typically self-aware – words he was: “disorganised, comic and naïve”. His knowledge was encyclopaedic, his intellect first rate. But those talents weren’t enough to keep him from transforming the most mundane material into a crisis.

Many thought immediately of journalism’s most famous fictional hack, William Boot. Chris was proud to have met Bill Deedes, often cited as the inspiration for Waugh’s lead character, in Luanda (as well as the less glamourous Cheltenham). Simmo would generally arrive for appointments after some public transport misadventure, rather flustered and – at least in tropical Africa – soaked in sweat. His passport – often necessary for police checkpoints – was at constant risk of being lost. Telephone numbers were reissued in quick succession. Lost keys sometimes meant a rough night in the garden. Friends’ washing machines came away irrevocably damaged. But if his copy rarely arrived on time, it was never poor.

At the heart of the story for many of us was Simmo in Africa. His character and budget constraints added a unique twist to the account. His perspective came above all from a basic belief that you could learn the most by speaking to ordinary people, often well away from the capital. It was reporting with humanity. Through his dispatches we heard from teachers and taxi drivers, market women and miners. It was the outlook of a radio-man needing to get his microphone in front of the real people at the heart of the story. This was how he got the nuance and depth when faced with challenges like understanding the ethnic complexities of Congo or the assorted acronyms of the opaque armed groups on Chad’s southern border. In later life, he could get lost for weeks writing a think piece on an obscure Malian rebel group (the deadline long since passed) or spend Christmas penning a report on the “structural problems in the Central African health system”.

This all gave a depth to his reporting that easily saw past the tired clichés. As Kate Adie said this weekend in a tribute, his was “knowledge lightly worn”. He was humble about what he knew, and particularly about who he knew. On meeting a Mali source at a Paris airport he wrote, “We swapped contacts: he gave me the movers and shakers; I gave him the man who does my laundry.” [Laundry – ignored as a topic by other writers – turned out to be rich seam for disaster stories.] Meeting a Cameroonian taxi driver in France, or a Senegalese waitress in New York was a safer source of information than a politician. Interactions weren’t always amicable. One too many times at airports he encountered the faux bonhomie of the “Welcome to Africa my brother!” touts. Frustration would occasionally boil over, like when he shot back at a bribe-seeking checkpoint officer in Ivory Coast “Is this the life you wanted?” While sometimes cynical, it was more that he had a deep respect for the complexity of each situation. Reporting from Angola, Rwanda, Mozambique, DR Congo, The Gambia, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Guinea and Senegal, among others, he’d seen one too many peace ceremonies and new heads of state wrongly heralded as a break with the past.

Not for him the upmarket Novotels and Radisson Blus (“the horror, the horror”). Instead it was an underwhelming search for a decent place to sleep that wouldn’t break his meagre budget. He preferred an honest one-star hotel to a fake three stars. The local Catholic mission was a frequent choice, though this often meant the extra expense of a small bribe to the night guard to let him back inside after post-curfew drinks. He wrote a memorable piece for From Our Own Correspondent full of anecdotes of African hotels. His fellow-travellers included backpackers and the overly religious. This latter group could be obnoxious zealots, although aged nine, Chris had himself declared his ambition to be a missionary. He told me in January that “Ladbrookes still have that at 33-1”, though he was a definite agnostic. Christmas regularly found him on the continent – generally in a drab hotel room, surfing TV channels in the hope of chancing on a half-remembered 1970s ITV sitcom.

Essential escape from the hotel was provided by those two essentials of the British male – beer and football. Haunts like the ‘Cave de Lyon’ (Bangui) and ‘Taxi Brousse’ (Ouagadougou) became home away from home. Electricity couldn’t always be guaranteed, and neither could the quality of the music. This aficionado of 1980s British rock was rarely at peace with West Africa’s regular diet of Michael Bolton, Akon, Celine Dion and Westlife. Music aside, the night spots were also frequently empty, though that didn’t mean one couldn’t stay till dawn. He had locals in a host of capitals, and would mourn their closure like the passing of an old friend. He was often around for several months, meaning close bonds with hotel and bar staff, or the chance to move out and rent somewhere on more agreeable terms. On a longer stay in Bangui he had a flat-share in a villa owned by a relative of the president. He wrote, “It is not as palatial as it sounds, with some very LV Price fixtures and fittings. This could be a useful ice-breaker with Mr Bozizé when I finally get to interview him: “just before we get started, Mr President could you have a word with your nephew about the shower…””

If many wondered how he kept the show on the road, his blunderings also shined a heart-warming light on the large network of people regularly lending a hand. He had contacts and friends across the UK and the African continent, and their spare rooms, sofa beds and laundry services were gratefully received. Many of his hosts on the continent were hacks and humanitarians who ended up staying far longer than planned. There were also plenty of kind strangers along the way; a jacket left behind in a restaurant with wallet and passport would be magically returned. Most capitals contain at least one computer technician who was at one time called upon to resuscitate one of Simmo’s laptops.

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There was close to a decade in London, though he never fully warmed to the capital, saying he was “happier arriving at Manchester Piccadilly than London Euston.”  The City journalism course (“lots of good mates, but a pretty ropy course”) was followed by three years at the cult West Africa magazine (est. 1917). The magazine nurtured almost as many Africanist hacks as SOAS, but its financial situation was never rosy. Then came four years at the BBC (Bush House?). The struggling finances at WA magazine were a foreshadowing of what was to come. For those passionate about reporting the continent, it wasn’t easy to pay the bills. Perhaps a generation or two ago, he could have been the eccentric West Africa correspondent for a London broadsheet, living royally and filing very occasional copy accompanied by wild expense claims. But journalism had changed, and almost no-one could afford a staffer in West Africa.

Chris could be his own worst enemy as well: expense claims were an administrative step too far (as sometimes was invoicing for work done) and he was frequently conned out of what finances he had. In Abidjan his landlord duped him out of a hefty rental deposit with some trumped up costs. A nickname he frequently used for himself was ‘soft-touch Simpson’. His generosity was also famous – the large signing on fee obtained when starting with a UN radio project went on property for a friend in Rwanda. In his final month, precious finances were spent on a sheep for a friend’s family. It all meant he was often broke. His talents in reporting, writing and analysis in West Africa were immense, but undervalued by those with control of budgets. So, he mixed the reporting with short contracts encouraging UN-types to write reports in plain English, occasional consultancies, and above all media training (‘capacity building’ as the donors preferred it).

He loved teaching radio, whether in Ivory Coast, Liberia or Guinea, working with the likes of IRIN (then a UN outfit), Internews and West Africa Democracy Radio (WADR). The outpouring of comments in the last few days from community radio reporters he had supported showed his contribution had been important, and fatherly. These training organisations depended on the willingness of donors to fund, and projects were often on shaky ground. As the expat trainer, he would also be involved in the managerial work behind the scenes – not his strong point. When we first met in 2007 for a drink in Abidjan at the now defunct “Les Perles” on Boulevard Latrille he talked with frustration about the spreadsheet gremlins and deadlines missed for paperwork.

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I don’t recall every hearing about Chris driving a car. Maybe he never got his licence. As one of his blog profiles said: “Only person I know to cancel his own driving test halfway through.” Whatever the truth, he was a man for public transport, whether a crowded and bumpy road trip in West Africa, or the UK’s National Express. And there was plenty of travel – back and forth to the continent on the most inexpensive airline available (a short stop in Tripoli anyone?), catching up with friends, or discovering a new country on assignment. Some of his very best anecdotes came from travel with “Simpson Tours”:

“With less than a month to play with in between London landing and Liberian ‘holiday’, Simpson Tours was under pressure and came close to collapse after a series of increasingly pathetic own goals. Great to beat the summer rush with an early, online bargain booking for Berwick-on-Tweed. Not so smart when you lose the ticket code, tearfully run through the Yahoo inbox for details, convince yourself it was all a dream and book afresh. Arriving late at Kings’ Cross, a nonplussed ticket officer handed me the original, now useless reservation along with my new, much more expensive ticket. I lurched dispiritedly towards my over-packed train. No seat until Newcastle. Oh well. “I must put the return ticket somewhere safe”, thought the man and promptly lost it ((to be found behind a bookcase in 2014….).”

And this time in Bangui…

It took me a while to work out the taxi system and the difference between course and relais. In the first weeks, I looked on shamefully as packed yellow vehicles disgorged their passengers and monsieur le blanc was ushered into the front seat. “Ah…..you were taking your mother to the hospital. Sorry, I am off to get some croissants. Not the same direction”.’

___

As many have noted, technology was also something of a bête noire for Chris. One update from Bangui could have been repeated with little variation from many other places: “a catastrophic week. Cash and computer disappeared in a taxi, another example of ‘Simpson syndrome’, which has blighted my life.” He couldn’t be held entirely responsible – he was filing reports from places with unreliable power and internet, while the cybercafés he loved to hate were easy places to pick up a virus. Network Africa producers at Bush House would spend their nights making anxious calls to Luanda and other such places: “Chris…where’s the piece you promised six hours ago?” Each generation of journalists has their tales of late nights at the telex machine, or dictating over the phone at the national exchange, or mini-disc malfunctions (‘TOC error’?). Chris struggled to file on anything of greater complexity than a cleft stick. In London in 2010 he even reported failing to get a usable image from a passport photo booth.

The ‘Christmas letters’ were no exception to his struggles. Each year he would ask friends to send him their email addresses, as the previous year’s list had been lost. Many of the letters had been re-written several times after files had somehow got deleted or corrupted (perhaps the modern equivalent of Byron’s memoirs being destroyed or Hemingway’s World War One novel vanishing in a suitcase). Despite their name, these legendary missives could arrive at almost any time of the year. The shortest in my collection is 12 pages long, the longest 34. It was a mark of their obvious craftsmanship that many of us kept these for posterity – how many Christmas mailings could you say that for? It often took the cajoling of friends across the world for the mailings to see the light of day. He would act surprised that anyone requested another one. “Did anyone make it to the end last time?” he wondered out loud. We all made it the end of course. And then re-read from the beginning. These were his masterpieces.

The content was a mix of many things, especially Africa, friends, alcohol, Crystal Palace and Simmo mishaps. Sometimes the themes all came together in one paragraph, as here at a bar in Ouagadougou: ‘The beers certainly flowed freely after John Terry headed into his own net for Chelsea at Selhurst, the only time I have kissed a TV screen. An Irish Liverpool fan was less happy with Chelsea’s strutting win at Anfield and even more downcast after an afternoon with the Nigerian barber (my idea). I was accused of contributory negligence, by the bar staff if not the victim. “How could you let this happen? Your hair is nothing to write home about, but he had such lovely, flowing locks, all gone…”’

A regular section in the letters would look back on those who had passed away over the previous 12 months. With the deaths so far this year, 2016’s letter was already looking sadder than most. As any reporter knows, notable deaths frequently occur at just the wrong time. He reflected on his own skills in obituary writing after describing the death of an ex-president in CAR, hours after he’d flown out. He commented: “I do not have the finely-honed obituary-writing skills or gravitas of Kaye Whiteman, but can, if pushed, deliver some diligently-researched (not Wikipedia, PLEASE…) words of tribute on presidents I never met. I still wince at the memory of a dismally thin send-off for Léopold Senghor when last in Dakar (which did not go unnoticed).”

Radio lovers the world over know the frustration of their medium’s ephemeral nature (almost impossible to share…reports generally unavailable online). And so, these written missives were often our one connection to his talent and adventures. Blogging could have been another. One blog project after another spluttered into life…and died almost as quickly. One of at least six attempts got underway in April last year called ‘BordersBoy63’. It’s still online (https://bordersboy63.wordpress.com/) and promised “MID-LIFE MEANDERINGS ON AFRICA, POLITICS, CINEMA, CRICKET, FOOTBALL AND SHOPPING”. We got nothing of the sort. In fact, it lasted no more than two posts – the first one being having no main text but just a long title written at “a cyber café on Old Kent Road.” Three weeks later we got the second and final post – a lengthy discussion of Duran Duran’s career inspired by a cheap memoir, predictably picked up at a charity shop.

An earlier and longer lasting blog project, ‘Simmo’s Magic Garden’ (http://simmosmagicgarden.blogspot.com/), lasted a respectable 26 posts in 2011, only one of them having anything to do with Africa. His interests were wide, and, critics might add, a little undiscerning. That would be unfair, because I think in his heart was a valuing of the under-valued and a deep dislike of snobbery. Chris would rather have the honesty and candour of a 99p memoir and cheap charity shop T-shirt (friends tried and failed to help him dress smarter), than a puffed up literary festival and a gastro pub. The Frontline Club was judged “rather pretentious”.

I inherited a good deal of the charity shop detritus from his Abidjan days via mutual friends. Without him, I would probably have never read John Motson’s autobiography. When I left, I gave the books to the local university English department. A generation of students in Cocody are appreciating the joys of Alan Bennett’s diaries, or the hubris of reading Lance Armstrong’s prelapsarian memoir. As for the inherited CDs, the pleasures of New Order and Joy Division were lost on me, and even my dad (who loved Zappa and Moondog) found the collection obscure. Music though was among his greatest passions:

“Last time I had been in the US, I needed to brandish ID to buy a beer.  Now I lived in fear of being barred from Bleeker Street bars (largely frequented by NYU student hearties) for being middle-aged and sad, “Is Happy Hour still on?”, or being turfed out at dawn having slept through my jukebox selections, and spilled my drink.  In fairness, I don’t think this ever happened. There was even the odd free pint. “You realize you’re the only person here that is really excited about this?” a drinking companion asked as I punched the air on hearing the opening bars of “How Soon is Now?” by The Smiths.”

What tied it all together? He clearly had a loyalty to the unappreciated and unfashionable, whether West African politics, post-punk New Romantics, or Crystal Palace FC. On these topics he developed an expertise that few could surpass.

The lifestyle described above had rather inevitable health consequences, despite regular attempts at a “booze ban”. Sport was as passionately watched as it was avoided. A game of tennis with the BBC’s James Copnall at the fabled Rue Lepic residence in Abidjan was a rare exception. A Portuguese doctor in the city got special praise in 2007 for an acute diagnosis when he “realized quite early on that I had the eating habits of a 12-year-old, and that ten years plus in Africa had taught me next to nothing about basic health care.” In one Dakar patisserie he was nicknamed ‘Monsieur Mille Feuilles’. Things were hardly better back home, where the only hint of exercise was a running joke about his weakness for the budget high-street bakery Greggs. His Skype motto still reads: “Bring me a pastry and some piece of mind.” Poetry was written on the subject, as were a couple of lengthy odes to Greggs in the style of Jackie Collins.

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If the overall image I’ve painted above seems a rather improbable figure, those of us who met him never doubted the sincerity of his character. Some writers deliberately put themselves in sticky situations just for comic effect (touring Ireland with a fridge?). But the fact that he told it all so well, didn’t mean it wasn’t true. To echo Mrs Clinton, they represented exactly who he was. He knew his faults better than anyone, but that didn’t mean it was an act.

Most of us have a travel anecdote or two from our younger days that we can dust off in the pub. Yes, we too had slept in some bad places, found ourselves on a tight budget and done a few months in a remote country our friends couldn’t place on the map. That meant we felt a bond with Chris, and it added to our pleasure in reading his accounts. But while most of us gradually abandoned public transport, grew more comfortable, and settled into boring lives, Chris was still having those (mis)adventures. The continued shortness of his contracts, budgets and postings was in a way our gain. I never felt the courage of the man more than when in his mid-40s and after a six year break from reporting, he moved to the Central African Republic to string. He kept at it, perhaps because he could do no other. He was a writer and a reporter to the marrow, and so year after year he could stay in those places, get lost a hundred times, and then always get back to London and through the hallowed archway of Bush House to tell an improbable round of new anecdotes.

One of course hopes that such lives end with a golden retirement reminiscing and reflecting with those who spent a few hours alongside you on the road. When it came to it, it ended in full flow within days of us hearing him back on From Our Own Correspondent, a programme that was perhaps made to measure. For all the mishaps, he’d never lost his way.

___

It seems proper to give Chris the last word, with a passage from the 2010 letter about a city where he would spend his final days. On the surface the tone is typically mocking. But underneath it shows a romantic attachment to places many of us have fallen in love with, and to which he repeatedly returned.

There are those who like Dakar a lot and those who don’t.  I am, on balance, still a fan and will always be thankful to the BBC colleague who steered me here close to 10 years ago. After five years out, there was a definite surge of nostalgia as the shared taxi spluttered into Colobane’s Gare Routière on the last day of October, having worked its way north from the Gambian border up through Kaolack and then on through Dakar’s unprepossessing hinterland.

From the point of view of an old dog seeking out favourite haunts, much has changed, but enough is mercifully the same. At “Le Ngonal” off Bourguiba, French owner and Bob Dylan fan François still holds court. The cheerfully down-market ‘Palace’ on Rue A offers the same menu as before. Hang around too long and there will be familiar, slightly dangerous invitations to pop round the hotel across the road for tea and scones. 

A friend and colleague has the old house in Amitié 1. Without getting too dewy-eyed, it is strangely touching to be greeted by people you have not seen in seven years:  the woman who sells bissap by the French Cultural Centre; ‘Mr Magazines’, with back copies of ‘Newsweek’ and ‘Time’; CD vendors on Félix Fauré; Latyr the famous driver.

It is easy to get over-lyrical about Senegal and start spouting guidebook clichés: oh……don’t we love the sharp, staccato bursts of Wolof in the bustling markets of Sandaga and Kermel; drinking minty, blood-coloured Bissap to cope with the afternoon heat; the chocolaty greeting of a Biskrem biscuit; brightly-coloured pirogues nestling on the beach at N’Gor;  haggling with a gowned driver in the back of a clapped-out yellow-and-black taxi; fleeing the dusty highway as an over-packed, uncaring Car Rapide thunders out of nowhere; late nights in the bars off Avenue Ponty and taxi rides home through the Medina as the M’Balax rhythms pound in your head and you hear the first call to prayer…. Shall I go on? The lemony tang of a good Poulet Yassa, or a rich, nutty Mafé washed down with a river of Flag beer. The scrawny, doe-eyed Talibés with their tomato tins, hustling at the traffic-lights. The splendid panorama from the Pitman balcony, “man, the view from here…..” The chaloupe pulling into the Ile de Gorée harbour. The endless glories of the Meridian Hotel. The smell of the old canal…

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Vive les vloggeuses

Just over a year ago, I wrote a blog post entitled ‘The Rise of the Female Blogger‘ about the explosion of a talented generation of women Ivorian bloggers, in what was a rather male-dominated sector in the early years. I think if anything that trend continues to increase with some fantastic new bloggers, notable for the quality and regularity of their posts. Symbolically the president of the Association of Bloggers of Cote d’Ivoire is now the indefatigable Edith Brou.

But I want to pick out a new trend: 2016 seems to have witnessed the take-off of the video sector. Good quality video on DSLR cameras has been available for a few years now – I recall giving a workshop for Akendewa on home video production back in 2012. But 2016 seems to be the year in which we’ve had the sudden emergence in Abidjan of i) personal video channels, ii) people finally working out how to get decent quality audio, and iii) the rise of the auto-play feature on Facebook. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the pioneers have been the very same female bloggers that have emerged over the past couple of years.

It’s worth reminding ourselves how extraordinary this whole thing would have appeared just a few years ago. Young people in Cote d’Ivoire are setting up their own online channels, recording video and sound quality regularly superior to that provided by the state broadcaster RTI, and publishing for a global audience. All this with little formal training, and minimal resources (though yes it is often a Cocody elite).

Here’s a round-up of some of the ones that have impressed me.

  • Let me start with the aforementioned Edith Brou and her online show ‘Le Divan Numerique‘, which launched three months ago, and already has 18 video interviews. On her sofa, Edith receives young dynamic guests doing interesting things in Cote d’Ivoire. Professional titling, a cool decor, and a lively host.
  • The winner of this year’s female blogging award, Sonia Guiza, focuses on cinema, and has branched out into some online tutorials – ‘Lecons de Cinema’ – on her channel ‘Lagozi TV‘. For someone who likes to take a critical view of Ivorian video/tv productions, the quality and style is there as an example to others.
  • The previous crown for best female blogger in Cote d’Ivoire was on the head of cultural enthusiast Orphalie Thalmas (pronounce the ‘s’). Her ‘Ici C’est Babi’ videos (first episode from 1 March 2016 here) are increasingly high quality productions, and take more of a reportage approach at various cultural activities in Cote d’Ivoire and beyond.
  • Every blogger has their subject area, and for Tchonte Silue, it’s African literature (or Senoufo). Les Chroniques de Tchonte started four months ago and were getting lots of good press when I was last in Abidjan.
  • Three more channels to briefly mention. Food blogger Aida is launching SerialFoodie TV, fashion blogger L’Abidjanaise (Marlyse), has been experimenting a lot more with video, and finally, while not a blogger (to my knowledge), Aline is almost certainly one to watch with her A’lean & Friends initiative.
  • It would be unfair to focus entirely on the fairer sex, and I want to pick out two male pioneers to close. Firstly, Christian Gomis’ Ma Vie Mon Choix began around the start of the year (though difficult to tell exactly as many of the videos seem to have recently been switched to private). There are 16 interviews so far which see Ivorian entrepreneurial role models speak about their career path and inspiration.
  • Finally, I need to mention Daouda, whose Chroniques 2Daouda monologues have launched him into the vanguard of ‘voice of the people’ social/political commentary (sometimes provoking the ire of the Government).
Posted in Culture, Web | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments