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.