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]