Growing up in Ivory Coast

As I start to think more about parenthood with a new-born on the way, I’m increasingly attuned to the contrast between raising kids in the West and in Ivory Coast. The latter has its attractions – for instance, finding babysitters is not a problem parents worry about; as my wife says, you’ll have to fight to see your baby with all the people wanting to take care of her. The extra hands will certainly make a difference.

In another area though I have more concerns. I have some very intelligent young children among my Ivorian nieces and nephews, but they spend all day watching television, and their parents can give them very little attention sometimes. It’s extremely rare to see children reading books and playing with educational toys, even in well-endowed families. iPad educational games are of course rare. While there are clearly dangers in the often seen western extreme of rushing children from one educational activity to the next (violin lessons, soccer practice, art class, etc), there’s something wonderful about getting that type of ‘renaissance’ education. With the means and the right approach, Abidjan of course offers extra-curricular activities in easy reach. My concerns I guess are wider; on the plus side, Ivorian children are raised with good social skills (they play with everyone and warm quickly to adults, even strangers) but without the well-rounded education/hobbies.

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Customers are kings

There’s a stereotype about how we-don’t-care attitudes ruin state companies. In Ivory Coast, the change of government sadly doesn’t seem to have changed much at all (plus ca change…). Take an example from the last few weeks. I was interested in finding out more about new projects by the long-running state building company, Sicogi. So, I went to the website ( – btw, an extremely heavy website) and downloaded the latest brochure. The website seems to be up-to-date because it’s wishing me happy ‘New Year 2014’ (note to self, check website on 1 January 2015 and post to FB if the banner hasn’t changed).

1. There was a project I was interested in, so I emailed the contact email provided ( I immediately received an error message from the domain: ‘email address unknown’. I took to Facebook to complain.

2. I happened to be in Abidjan for a few days, and there was a Sicogi billboard advert, this time with the contact email I sent them an email asking for information about their luxury developments in Cocody. No reply.

3. Then one of my contacts on Facebook wrote to me to say that he had a relative who worked for Sicogi, and provided me with their personal and work email addresses. I emailed and a day later I was sent a curt email (‘fichier ci-joint’ – ‘see attached’) with a PDF brochure that has a completely different set of projects to the ones on the site.

Now, I don’t think I really need to spell it out, but I will. You are in the construction sector seeking clients who are willing to invest up to $180,000 on one of your projects, and you provide old information on your website, faulty emails and curt responses to people possibly ready to send you their life-savings. L’emergence, ce n’est pas pour demain.

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Taking off…without me?

There’s a buzz about being back in Abidjan. I know if I lived here, the pace would appear slow, but it seems things are moving in the right direction, and that this is turning into an exciting place to be. I don’t regret leaving to pick up new experiences and skills, but I’m starting to worry that being away for too long will leave me forgotten and no longer a part of the scene. I feel more strongly than ever that the group of young web enthusiasts and creatives here will be doing some incredible things over the next few years. The dilemma of whether or not to return is I imagine a position the Ivorian diaspora finds itself in as well. I wouldn’t refuse a good job back in Abidjan, though I still think it’s good for my personal development to be elsewhere for a few more years. But even from far away, I need to stay attached.

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TedX Abidjan 2014

I’ve passed the last week in Abidjan spending time with family (who aren’t allowed to live with me in my current emergency posting in Bangui, CAR), to the unfortunate detriment of my friends. However, I was lucky that my visit coincided with the first ever TedX Abidjan – a series of 15 minute talks over the course of Saturday afternoon. I remember speaking to the organiser back in 2009/10 (?) at a barcamp event when the idea was very much in its infancy. The conference has been postponed at least once because of the intervening political crisis.

I caught most of the event, though a badly timed private meeting at 4pm meant I missed a chunk in the middle. Overall, the event was very professional, with multimedia, audible presentations, and above all a packed lecture hall. The speakers were a good mix of people from the web, development, communications and business world.

A few comments:

- The theme was ‘Voyage vers le future: Abidjan 2057′ (Travel to the future: Abidjan 2057). I must admit to being slightly bemused as to why the year 2057 was chosen. The only indirect indication I caught was that Ivory Coast being 54 years old, now is the time for a new generation to rebuild (?), but I did feel it was never really explained, especially given the absence of a host on stage (there was a disembodied voice, but much of the event simply ran of its own accord from one talk to the next). It seemed a very random year to choose – not only that but rather distant. Even 18 year olds in the room would have been thinking that they’ll be knocking on retirement in 2057. As for us slightly older (but not old) folks, we may not even be around. For me, it was slightly too far in the future, making it difficult to be concrete about what needs to be done to achieve the dreams we have for that date. The year 2025 I can start imagining with some effort, but 2050+?

- Ted talks can sometimes get a bit cliched – ‘follow you dreams/passions, believe in yourself, you can do it’, etc. There was a bit of that, but there was a good variety in approaches. Some told their life story, others talked about their sector in the future, others described the type people we should all become (the excellent Nnenna). It was a good mix. I didn’t personally feel that I came away bouncing on inspiration, but it was a good start.

- For me the key room for improvement was the lack of clarity both about what the future of Abidjan will look like, and also what exactly we need to be doing to get there. Cedric Lombardo was perhaps the most clear with his presentation of the predicated weather pattern data, which looks very negative for cocoa farming in the coming decades. Irie Lou Colette’s talk was inspirational, but in her vision for everyone being able to eat well for 2,000 cfa in 2057, it was all very ‘we can do this’ rather than something with much detail. It’s a general fault – it’s rare to see any statistical data used in Ivorian newspaper articles for instance.

- I was very interested to hear Fabrice Sawegnon’s talk, one of the most interesting people in Abidjan these last few years for his work setting up Voodoo Communications. But his talk focused on teaching a personal idea, which looked a lot like the well-known law of diminishing marginal utility. The point made was that rich people gain little more by becoming richer, while the poor gain a lot by being just a little bit more rich. But it was presented without any policy propositions (although he said he was a capitalist rather than a communist). So we were left scratching our heads as to whether we should be selling our cars and giving our money to the poor, or introducing a more progressive tax system. I don’t think the speaker left on a push bike.

- A very minor gripe, but I notice local video-makers, are still struggling to get good interview audio on their videos. There were lots of great cameras being used to record the events, but perhaps $100 spent wisely on an audio recorder would go a long way. Maybe I should organise a workshop on this in the future.

Anyway, a great effort and a great event. Well done to the team.

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Web shopping, Abidjan-style

I was pleasantly surprised the last time I was in Abidjan to hear talk about the arrival of web-based shopping, which seems finally to be gaining traction. Jumia is the main player, but in the last couple of weeks there’s been some blogging buzz about both and a Hellofood app. Beyond consumer experience blog posts, I haven’t seen anyone else picking up on this as a general trend, but it does strike me as extremely positive (well, as much as consumerism is positive). I can’t quite see what’s set this off, outside of an improving business climate and entrepreneurs feeling safe to try out new things. Paypal recently opened the doors to Ivorian customers, though this doesn’t seem to be directly linked. If anything, it seems that the mobile phone companies are behind this, specifically MTN, which offers payment services for Jumia and is reportedly one of the investors in Hellofood. For Wasiri though, the payment model is through cash paid on delivery.

These trends, plus increasing access to e-payment options and the internet, are going to open up some interesting avenues in the future.

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Visiting Europe

For Ivorians wanting to visit friends and family in Europe, getting a visa is usually an incredible headache. You might think that if you’re married to a citizen of that benighted continent things would get a lot easier – surprisingly the answer for some countries is ‘yes it makes a big difference’ and for others ‘it barely counts’. If you’re married to a citizen of a Schengen country then when you apply for your Schengen visa you can skip about a third of the questions on the application form (all the tough ones) and with two photos, a marriage certificate and travel insurance you’ve got your visa almost guaranteed (and the charges are waivered). The odd things is that in the UK, the fact that you’re married to a UK citizen hardly makes a blind bit of difference – oddly the test remains on whether as an Ivorian traveller you are likely to return home.

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Ivory Coast disappoint

Perhaps the most remarkable thing over the past two days following Ivory Coast’s early World Cup exit is that despite the agony of losing out on a qualification place in the final seconds of the match to a penalty that most see as a refereeing mistake, fans seem to be almost entirely happy to see the result as just. Speaking to Ivorians, the team are going to have to work hard to restore fans’ love for the side.

Ivory Coast were truly awful against Greece. They were so bad that even the most hard core fans seem less to feel bitter at fate snatching a second round place away in the dying moments than flabbergasted at how bad Ivory Coast played. Going into the match, it’s hard to think of a more ideal opportunity to progress in the tournament. All they needed to do was not lose against a low-ranked team that hadn’t yet scored in the tournament.

It was a sorry end to what is sometimes called ‘Generation Drogba’. It’s now time for the country to turn a page and rebuild, though the prospects of future greatest aren’t too obvious. The best three Ivorian players in the World Cup performances were Gervinho, Bony and Serge Aurier. So there is some hope. But Ivory Coast notably have a lot less strength in depth nowadays – a few years back they would field a subs bench that would have been the first team in most African nations. In defence things look most worrying – in four years’ time Kolo, Boka, Zokora and Barry are likely to be in retirement and there aren’t obvious replacements. Yaya Toure might have another World Cup in him, but he’s really disappointed – one of those people heralded as among the world’s very best who have looked rather ordinary on the World Cup stage.

Much of the criticism over the last few days has headed towards coach Sabri Lamouchi. He was never a favourite with the fans. But the players have to take most of the blame – they looked nervous, naïve and lacking inspiration. The central midfield has frequently gone AWOL in the tournament. Still, fans are nostalgic for Francois Zahoui, who nurtured a defence that didn’t concede in the entire 2012 Africa Cup of Nations. Lamouchi’s Ivory Coast always concede bad goals first and then need to claw back something.

But a variety of coaches over the years haven’t yet cracked the puzzle of how to make Ivory Coast seem greater (rather than less) than the sum of its constituent parts. A new coach and someone with a longer period in charge could rebuild, but this team is likely to be less of a threat in the future and qualification for the World Cup in 2018 could be a challenge.


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No Ordinary Book

I’m getting a fair bit of reading done here in Bangui, where there’s frankly not a huge amount to do what with the security restrictions. One book I polished off yesterday was ‘No Ordinary Book’ by Phillip Saunders et al, and seen as it’s one of the few books in English that talks extensively about Ivory Coast, I thought I should give it a mention here.

The first thing to say is that it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, because it’s essentially the memoirs of a missionary family who spent a couple of decades learning the Kouya language (an ethnic group who live in centre-west Ivory Coast) with the goal of translating the New Testament into Kouya. For many of you who don’t share the authors’ beliefs, you’ve probably already concluded that this isn’t for you, and it probably wasn’t written with you in mind.

In it’s favour though, I would say that although missionaries in Africa are often stereotyped as arrogant know-it-alls, such memoirs are actually far more open-minded and humble than many journalistic accounts. There’s very little politics, and there’s none of the Western journalists’ frequent desire to ‘explain the African’ or give cut-out solutions to the highlighted problems. Instead we meet real people, we learn about cultural differences and similarities, and we come away with a far more human account well removed from the ‘othering’ frequently found in western literature on Africa, whether it be by anthropologists or journalists. In short, I found it a far truer account to the the Ivorian life than many others, even if my Abidjan-life was far removed from the village.

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Five media myths about Didier Drogba

While this blog has no formal connection to Ivory Coast’s greatest footballer, we do think he’s one of the best players of his entire generation and a nice guy to boot. His appearance as a super-sub in Ivory Coast’s first match at the World Cup finals helped galvanise his team mates, as well as lift the crowd, and within a few minutes the team had gone from 0-1 down to 2-1 up against Japan.

Nevertheless, the frequent wave of media profiles of the great man regularly slip into some lazy and repeated errors, that we think it’s worth correcting. Here goes…

1. Didier Drogba does not have a village named after him in Ivory Coast.

It’s true that there is a place called Drogbakro in the commercial capital Abidjan, which in the baoule language means ‘village of Drogba’, but it is actually no more than the house of a super-fan (the self-proclaimed chief of the village). Didier has never met the super-fan or visited the village for reasons that I fully understand. It’s a nice journalism story, and I’ve featured the place a few times myself, but it’s a bit over the top to describe the fan-shrine as a village.

2. Didier Drogba did not single-handedly halt the Ivorian civil war.

His contribution was I think important and significant, but it was part of a wider process with many actors, and it’s unfair to just talk about one man, just because he happens to be one of the few Ivorians people have heard of. His efforts were laudable, but the myth-making has at times pushed the truth a little too far.

3. Didier Drogba would not get elected if he stood for president tomorrow.

He is extremely popular in Ivory Coast and his mere appearance in public can provoke a riot, but Ivorian’s know how to make the difference between a sportsman and a politician (cf. Weah in Liberia). Maybe one day he will go into politics, though I think he knows politics is often a dirty game and he’d become less of a universal figure. In public declarations he quite sensibly says that politics isn’t for him.

4. Didier Drogba is not treated as a god in Ivory Coast.

I think this myth is fused with a lot of rather negative stereotypes about tribal Africa. I’ve never heard any Ivorian every describe Didier Drogba as a god. People him treat him as he deserves – as a superstar footballer.

5. Although the phrase ‘Generation Drogba’ may be a useful shorthand, Didier Drogba himself is rather atypical of this extraordinary talented crop of Ivorian players.

At times the Ivory Coast starting XI has been ten Asec Mimosas academy recruits plus Drogba (who grew up in France). The Drogba phenomenon is an individual one, but the Ivorian football phenomenon in a wider sense is the story of the Asec academy and the quite extraordinary players that took to football in the 1990s, many of whom featured in Asec’s African super cup triumph in 1999.

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Impressions in Abidjan

This blog post should have been written fresh from Abidjan, but sadly my thoughts have gathered dust, and almost certainly much has been forgotten. In April I was back in Abidjan for a three week holiday, almost 1.5 years since I left. Here are some impressions (many related to the differences from Dubai).

In all but the most upmarket districts, Abidjan is a buzzing city full of people and activities. Mosques, churches, markets, phone credit sellers, taxis, people carrying stuff, birds singing, conversations. There’s a real life. You can’t beat chatting with a friendly taxi driver, who shares his food with you, as you sail through the city. On that note, I encountered very few traffic jams.

It also felt very safe. Not that I’m the most hypersensitive person, but I personally feel different travelling around the Middle East/Central Asia where I feel I could be targeted for being Western. In Abidjan, I was suddenly aware of a feeling of being in control of the situation and having no real dangers. Perhaps the very worst that could happen is being mugged, but even then such experiences are very very rare.

What’s changed? Not a huge amount would be the immediate response. There’s a paper 500 franc note now! There are some impressive infrastructure projects on the way (especially the third bridge), but then I’ve seen so many photos from pro-government folks on Facebook that these things came as no surprise. The new university campus looks pleasant but was almost entirely empty, and outside the university buildings there appear to be major equipment problems. I picked up an identity paper at the local police station and the officers look very smart in their new uniforms. Taxi drivers told me that police checkpoint corruption was now extremely rare. I was controlled twice during night time travel, the first was extremely professional. The second was without hassle, but I was asked for a tip, which I refused to give. Nothing menacing though.

Below the huge infrastructure projects, you can see signs of the government working, especially when it comes to roads. As one person told me, life is still tough, but at least these building projects give us hope that things are heading in the right direction. On the political side, many of my friends and family are Gbagbo voters, but in the last year or two several had benefited from promotions in their public sector jobs despite their known support for the opposition camp. They also recognized that the government was working – something you don’t pick up from the extremist positions in the press.

Work in the private sector remains something that’s not for the faint-hearted but there are incremental changes, including the commercial courts. Corruption remains an issue. Another widespread issue that won’t go away soon is the ‘make do’ attitude. So much work seems to be done just to the standard of ‘it’ll help us get by for a certain amount of time’. You see the word ‘excellence’ on church buildings and higher education schools, but there’s really very few signs of excellence. Sloppiness is the rule from the plug sockets that come out of the wall when you pull, to the Chinese made fans.

Abidjan is a lush green place, and a clean lagoon will no doubt one day make this a very attractive city. But there is much in the urban landscape that is not beautiful. Areas like Zone 4 and II Plateaux, and streets like Rue des Jardins, which are meant to be the centre of bourgeois life, are in the main eyesores. About the only exception is the area around Hotel Ivoire and Rivieria 3.

It would be a joy to live in Abidjan again. I really enjoy the city. What I need to do that though would be an income, a car and a purpose. If I came back it would be to accomplish something – or failing that, at the end of my days to enjoy the good life. This remains a place where you can live very well provided you don’t need all of life’s luxuries. Mangoes and local food are humble but top notch, and the basics are there.

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