Hype and reality

From afar, you can easily get sucked in by all the hype that Abidjan is somehow completely transformed. I don’t doubt things are moving in a positive direction, but just an hour into my recent trip I’d understood that much was still the same.

1. I flew in on Air Cote d’Ivoire – the reborn Air Ivoire, which of course was to a greater-or-lesser-extent the reborn Air Afrique. The genes flow through the blood line, or as Ivorians say, the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree. The plane took off nearly four hours late on its direct flight to Abidjan, though with no explanation as to why. When we finally touched down the captain announced our arrival in ‘The International airport of…Accra’. Even the hostesses were surprised by this unscheduled change of route. Again, no explanation was given, though I suspect they just noticed that 9/10 passengers were heading to Accra anyway, so just decided to go there first. Very odd.

2. Outside the terminal, the gendarmes had clamped a taxi that had momentarily stopped to unload passengers (so the driver claimed). Anyway, favours were exchanged and the taxi driver was able to take me as a customer, providing my fare was paid in advice in order to liberate the vehicle. The taxi man complained the whole way about corruption.

3. The new third bridge not at the time being open, we took the old way through Treichville and Plateau to get to Cocody. The potholes on the lagoon front highway are as bad as I remember them, though I know a re-surfacing of the highway has been launched.

4. Last but not least, as we tried to head through the main Indennie interchange into Cocody, our route was blocked by flood waters. We then had to about turn and drive the wrong way down the highway to take another junction and reach our destination. Solving the Indennie junction problem seems to elude even the most technocratic of presidents. Despite millions of dollars no solution has yet stopped the flooding, even outside the principal rainy season.

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Letter to Daniella

My dear daughter,

It is five in the evening in one of Africa’s greatest cities, Abidjan, and you’re dozing under a mosquito net in the next room just hours after you left hospital. Your tired mum is asleep too, and so out in the corridor through the front door that is rarely closed is an elder half-sister and your auntie who over the next three months has been officially appointed to wash you – an important ceremonial responsibility that normally my mother would be doing if she were not thousands of miles away. It’s siesta time, and the only noise is the cheap Chinese fan keeping your mother cool. In an hour or so, your auntie will pull and contort your limbs in every direction. But when your screams have died down, you’ll be massaged with shea butter from Ivory Coast’s north, and cocoa butter from Ivory Coast’s south, and you’ll sleep even deeper than they are now.

Outside of course the city is bustling. As I write, in the Marcory district of the city, Africa’s greatest football club, al-Ahly, have just been beaten 2-1 in the first leg of the African confederation cup final. Nearby in Treichville, the country’s biggest pop group, Magic System, are preparing for their first major concert at the mythical Palais de la Culture in almost a decade. Here in Cocody, they’re clearing away the wine glasses and canapés at the Cecile Fakhoury contemporary art gallery, which opened a new expo of photographs last night. In the streets, there are young fashionable people everywhere, restaurants bustling and families moving across the city for a weekend of marriages, funerals, or regular house visits to get the latest news. When you’re older, I hope you’ll come to love this city as I do. Not a perfect city, but a place where for me every few 100 metres holds memories. It’s a city your mum and I have seen in celebration and in mourning, in peace and at war.

Will you see this magical city as your home? I don’t know. How much time will we spend here in the next few decades? I don’t know. But it’s a place that has a habit of surprising you. We’d only planned one trip back here this year, but now here’s our third. A break from the Middle East in April, then a break from the conflict in the Central Africa Republic in the summer, and now here for your birth.

But where will you regard as home? You were conceived in Dubai, and since then you’re already on your third continent. You will have several passports, maybe even several identities. You’ll ask where home is, and sometimes wonder where you come from; I start doing that myself. Life isn’t as neat as geographic lines on a map – instead you’ll have Ivory Coast, West Africa, England and Europe all spinning around inside of you. At home you’ll hear French, English and Baoule. With your future friends in Sierra Leone, you’ll no doubt be speaking Krio among your very first words.

Maybe sometimes you’ll wonder if you belong anywhere – you won’t be able to find a place where everyone looks and acts like you, like mum and I can do, albeit in separate places. I hope that doesn’t hurt you. As you grow up, you’re likely to see so many different parts of the world, and I hope you can feel at home in so many places; like I do here, so far from where I grew up. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not this or not that. Decide for yourself what you want to see yourself as, although I know Africa will be a part of this. They say this is Africa’s century, and I think this will be an exciting time for all of us associated with the place.

An hour ago you were filling the corridor of this apartment block with your powerful lungs. It was milk time, and your mother – just days after her caesarean – was rushing around the city to buy you milk while I deciphered the instructions on the sterilisation kit. Your mother is a remarkable woman. When you are older she will tell you her story, and I will write it down. The decorated bed you’re now lying in, the butterflies on the wall, the painted apartment, are all down to her. You’ll appreciate the beauty if this tiny studio when your eyes get used to seeing.

As you grow up, you will realise you are in a family with a deep faith in God, and for us you are one of the richest blessings he has ever provided, and the result of long prayers from us and many of those you will grow up to know in our community. We hope you discover the same loving forgiving God, though it will be a choice you will have to make yourself. In Africa, you’ll find the idea that ‘Jesus saves’ so banal that it’s written on taxi cabs, while in Europe you’ll find it’s considered one of the most stupid things anyone could possibly say. We had it written on the car we used to have here, the one we all piled into before sunrise in March 2011 when we drove up to the north to escape the coming war. In which we survived unscratched the drunken youths scraping machetes in front of our front wheels at a check point on the outskirts of the city, and that was stolen for 5 minutes by militia from the other side when I drove down south again to follow the war.

Tonight you will pass your first night in what is for now the best candidate we have for calling home. It’s new for me too – since I arrived on Thursday night on the first plane from my new posting, I’ve been sleeping beside your mother on the hospital floor. They don’t normally allow that, but I think a combination of hiding myself discreetly behind the bed, and the fact of coming from so far, gave me some extra privileges. We’ve waited for you for several years now, so I want to spend all the time I can beside you before I head back. I haven’t been around you or your mother much over the past nine months. It wasn’t part of the plan but there are places my organisation doesn’t like you or mum to follow me – a summer in the Central African Republic where for several days the capital echoed to fighting between French and local forces kept us under curfew for three months. Now it’s one of the world’s nastiest diseases, Ebola, that is ravaging what is likely to be our next home. I don’t run after these crises, but there’s lots of work to do, and you see humanity at its best and worst. You’ll have some adventures with us and live in some remarkable places in the coming years, so I hope you’ll enjoy the ride. I just pray we can spend as much time as possible together.

I hope I’ll be a good father to you. I want to tell you so much about the world; I want you to be curious, wanting to find all you can about everything, to read and explore and ask questions. As a journalist, I was never one of the best – too much of a coward, and not putting enough value in being first with the news. But it took me to some amazing places, and experiences you’ll probably soon grow bored of me telling you. I hope you get to explore the world as well. Perhaps one day you’ll tell us about countries and continents that we know nothing about.

You arrived three weeks early, leaving me scrambling to travel back. But perhaps you came a little late as well. Nine months ago your British grandfather, my dad, went to be with his Saviour. You are his first grandchild and he would have given one of his famous big smiles just to hold you in his arms. I would probably have had to tell him not to hug you so tightly.

You don’t come from a rich family, but on the scale of things you’ll have a privileged life. Stay humble and full of love, never being arrogant but taking seriously the responsibilities your birth has given you. Change the world for the better, make us and your heavenly Father proud.
Daniella Ramissou J was born on 25 November 2014.

[Inspired by Fergal Keane’s famous 1996 FOOC]

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Abidjan v Freetown – street edition

Abidjan and Freetown are two commercial capitals in West Africa that are a proverbial stone’s throw away, and to the untrained eye you could see a lot that they have in common. But here are a few differences I’ve spotted.

Things you see a lot of in the streets of Freetown but not Abidjan…
Dogs – a taxi driver in Freetown explained to me that the reason there were so many stray dogs in Freetown was because unlike in Liberia, they are not seen as a culinary delicacy. I’m not sure if that’s the true reason and the insult of saying others are ‘dog eaters’ seems common in my West African experience. But there’s no denying the reality that Freetown has a huge number of dogs in the streets, and you can hear them howling throughout the night.

Motorbikes – you really notice in Abidjan the almost complete absence of motorbikes. In Freetown, motorbike taxis (okada bikes) are a regular part of daily life (though post-Ebola not permitted after 7pm). They certainly make driving tricky. Given the similar economics, it’s amazing that one city should have so many motorbikes and the other so few. One reason is that motorbike taxis are illegal in Ivory Coast. But even for personal transport, I’m mystified as to why more people don’t use them to get around.

Joggers – here’s something I really struggle to work out. Why does almost no-one jog in Abidjan and so many people jog in Freetown? Very strange, but that’s the reality.

Things you see a lot of in the streets of Abidjan but not Freetown…
Pharmacies – it’s amazing to see that Abidjan has pharmacies on almost every corner, but in two months in Freetown I’ve only once spotted a single pharmacy. Ivorians of course have adopted the infamous French habit of popping pills and visiting the doctor at the drop of hat.

Boulevards – one speculative reason for the plethora of moto-taxis in Freetown may be the absence of principal arteries on the scale of francophone African cities. In Abidjan you can catch minibuses and shared taxis up and down the major highways.

– Aside from the French baguettes, the absence of kiosks is something I really find hard to explain. What better way to start the day than at a road side shack, designed like an American bar, where you can order omelette sandwiches, surgery tea and yogurt. Probably not something that can be described as uniquely Ivorian, given the people who run such joints tend to come from countries to the north.

– African cities can be tough places to drive in, but Freetown’s lack of street lights make it a place where you need to be constantly alert driving at night. I don’t think I’ve seen a traffic light yet either. In Abidjan by contrast the nights are times for lots of activity outside, from street food to market sales. Places like Rivieria II roundabout transform into open air informal markets  once the formal shops close.

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Trouble in the barracks

Bit of a sad day for Ivory Coast watchers yesterday with protests by soldiers throughout the country because of unpaid bonuses. The whole Ivorian crisis in 1999 started this way, so there’s a natural fear from déjà vu. Of course the country isn’t in the state of turmoil and stagnation it was in during the late 1990s, but still this is worrisome even if it’s unlikely to lead to protracted instability.

Firstly, it shows the remarkable incivility of the armed forces. The truth is that any country emerging from a protracted civil war is likely to have issues for many years with the armed forces. Four years on from the presidential elections, the disarmament process is yet to finish, and the armed forces are way beyond the numbers that would normally be needed, including a good number of powerful ex-rebels. The government made immediate concessions to diffuse the situation – we’ll see if this puts water on the fire or shows the army just how powerful a hand they hold.

The fact that the protests seem to have been widespread suggest that there was a real issue here, so there is clearly a felt grievance in the army. But it really seemed to come out of the blue. Other crises down the years have felt like they were ‘on the way’ – but even the most hostile anti-Ouattara papers had their gaze elsewhere, repeatedly claiming that events in The Hague were making the regime tremble, when in fact the trouble was closer to home. It serves to show that while the Ivorian elite dream that the country is now about fashion shows and start-ups, there’s also other stories in other places that are perhaps less attractive. Still, while the grievance seems widely felt in the military, it doesn’t seem related to wider unease; poverty is still worryingly persistent, but most people feel things are moving in the right direction, as far as I can tell.

Anyway, an important football match today so hopefully that can all help us take our minds of these things.

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Freetown and Abidjan

Almost four weeks in Freetown, so perhaps time for a few comparative thoughts. I won’t compare with my last place of residence, Dubai; I did spot ‘Freetown Mall’ here, but the only thing it has in common with Dubai Mall is the word ‘mall’.

A friend of mine used to have a photo of Abidjan’s Plateau district from the air on his computer, and he’d ask colleagues what city the photo showed. No-one guessed Abidjan, and in fact no-one thought the image was of an African city. I wouldn’t say you’d get the same reaction with photos of Freetown, but what is true is that like Abidjan, it is a city worth discovering because in a world of few undiscovered places, it is definitely worth putting on the map. There are plenty of cities I’ve never visited in the world – Barcelona, Rio, Moscow, Bangkok, Sydney, and yet I feel I know them from films, television, photos and literature. In a world that has become too familiar, African cities can still surprise. I already get the impression that this is normally a great city.

Like Abidjan, Freetown is on the coast, though the sea here is really part of the city’s landscape, in part because it is built on a bay, and secondly because of the steep hillsides that give incredible vistas. To an Ivorian, I would say it’s like Yopougon, built beside the sea like San Pedro, but on hills like Man. It’s not unusual here to have a stupendous view across the bay and ocean. I’ve only ventured out of the city once, but there are some amazing forested hills, deep ravines, and ocean views. Then there are the beaches and islands which are all to discover.

Some other comments compared with Abidjan. The French in Africa certainly did a good job of city planning – Baron Haussmann would have been proud. Freetown has small streets and clogs easily. But then again, it’s on a smaller scale (Abidjan’s population isn’t far off Sierra Leone’s) and has a stronger sense of history. Unlike the francophone cities’ Plateau commercial districts that grow ghostly at weekends, here the city centre feels much more lived in, and like old European cities has a stronger sense of being occupied for many centuries.

Rather different from Ivorian nostalgia, the pain is very raw here for the good times of just a few months back when the economy was growing a pace, development was perceptible and optimism was in the air. There seems to have been a real party spirit, with beach bars running till dawn. Ivorians are definitely a bit more ‘choco’ about celebrating too wildly. Spending time in Freetown, you also realise that Ivorians are a long way from being the continent’s most passionate football supporters. Here, Premiership football really does stop the city.

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Ivory Coast and Ebola

Ivorians take the threat of Ebola extremely seriously, and according to many predictions there’s a strong chance the country will soon register cases. A look at regional contagion maps shows a number cases in parts of Liberia along the shared border, while the very epicentre of the outbreak between Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia is not far from western Ivory Coast. Just one case would have serious repercussions on the country’s image – as much for the fear factor as anything else.

Of course, already Africans in general are being discriminated against around the world because of Ebola. One Ivorian friend in Dubai was held for more than an hour at the airport just because he’d come from Dakar, Senegal, which has had only one case (a Guinean) who since recovered. Another senior Ivorian couple were travelling on a tour bus in Dubai when they noticed that everyone was sitting as far from them as possible. They wondered what was going on when an Australian on the bus plucked up the courage to ask them: ‘Do you have Ebola?’ Unbelievable.

As one of West Africa’s key economies, the results of one case in Ivory Coast would be severe, not least to goals of double-digit growth. Of course the country now has had plenty of time to prepare – unlike the three principally affected countries, there’s no excuse for being caught on the back foot. Since I visited in April, it’s not been possible to eat bush meat, and now controls are in place at the airport (though I hear VIPs generally get excused the hand washing). Even salutations have changed and prayers at the mosque, so I hear.

Without wanting to be complacent, one would hope that the country is now in a good position to cope. Communication campaigns are underway, emergency procedures practicised, and guidelines issued. Privately, Ivory Coast’s web community have been playing their role to spread the word about the importance of washing hands. The government’s measures probably rank as the most severe in terms of shutting borders and banning flights from affected countries. The examples of Senegal and Nigeria are heartening that when Ebola arrives in more developed African states, things can be controlled. Let’s hope it never arrives.

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Finding a tie for the president

President Ouattara was in Dubai this week – not for the Lady Gaga concert, but rather for a West African monetary zone investment forum. There wasn’t the time for a general meeting with the Dubai Ivorian community, but there was a meeting with 20 or so Ivorian ‘cadres’ of which I was lucky enough to be counted among. We met the president in a hotel suite at the Jumeriah Beach hotel for about an hour; a rather formal affair with a speech from the (self-appointed) representative of the ‘Dubai Ivorian community association’ (for which the association earned $20,000), and then a decent pep talk from the president.

It had been a busy week and a busy day left me with 15 minutes to throw my suit on and get out of the door for the presidential meeting. At that point I discovered that I’d already sent all my ties back to the UK. I rushed out the door hoping to find a shop, but as I left the building I noticed the security guard had a rather nice blue tie. I asked if he had a spare I could borrow, and he said no. Ten metres out of the door, he came running after me and said his colleague might have a spare one, and so it came to pass that I wore the parking attendant’s tie to meet the president.

The president seemed pleased (and surprised) to see me, as did several ministers. Being a journalist really opens up access to high places. Funny that these guys used to be all trapped in the Golf hotel, and you could only visit them by helicopter.

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The world of English-language blogs on Ivory Coast is not a big one, so I was delighted to discover this new blog today: Attiekeland. Enjoy!

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The web

The World Wide Web was really well-named. Most days on social media feel like I’m trying to attach strands to all the content that’s out there to link it to my online world. It wasn’t like that in the beginning. In the embryonic stages in Abidjan everyone on Facebook added everyone else in Abidjan on Facebook. You felt it was manageable.

But the growth is exponential. Every few days I discover a new Ivorian blog, which goes immediately into my Feedly reader. Or I find new pages and new dynamic people doing things I never heard of. I’m pretty organised about this, though I realise 2013 was a bit of a lost year on social media for me. But I’m sure most people aren’t so thorough, which stresses me out a little. It means some people are doing cool things in Ivory Coast but they may never have heard of Edith Brou, JP Ehouman, Federic Tape, Diaby Mohamed, Akendewa, Fanta, Yehni etc. How can we work together and form a community when we’re generally not listening and following each other? My goodness, a lot of people just read blogs when they remember to visit because they haven’t worked out RSS and readers.

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If there’s one sector that’s buzzing at the moment in Abidjan, it’s contemporary art – so much so that some friends of mine have just started a hashtag dedicated to the scene –
#‎ArtBidjan. During my few days in Abidjan, there was a lot to see, with new exhibitions at the Rotunde in Plateau and at galleries in Cocody, including an entirely new gallery, Basquiat run by Ivorian artist Jacob Bleu.

On Thursday afternoon/evening (17 July) you could have caught the expo of top Ivorian artists at Cecile Fakhoury, at 6pm watched the film avant-premiere of 21 at the Maison des Architects, which is about 20 metres away, and then travelled to either the Donwahi, less than 1km away for a talk by Ivorian-Lebanese photographer Moustafa Cheaiteli, (and where there’s also a great display including new work by Joana Choumali), or travelled to the INSAAC for a William Tell play, or even (from memory), writer Veronique Tadjo at the Institut Goethe. All of this is roughly in a 1km radius in old Cocody.

Hopefully the new hashtag should help us all keep track.

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