Crocodile teeth and ivory towers

I was at an ex-pat party at the weekend. Very enjoyable conversation even if my contact with this particular community has fallen drastically in recent years. Near the end of the evening, the conversation turned to Dicko, the keeper of the sacred crocodiles in Yamousosukro, who met a grisly end several weeks ago. To my great surprise though, almost no-one had heard of the incident.

I was a little taken a back. The story had been on the front pages of virtually every Ivorian newspaper, it dominated blogs, facebook (especially the youtube videos of the event) and twitter. There were three tv reports on the nightly Ivorian news including an interview with the governor of the capital city. The incident has even given rise to a local expression ‘as ungrateful as the crocodiles in Yamoussoukro’, who of course literally bit the hand that had fed them for several decades. It was without doubt one of the main topics of conversation among Ivorians during August.

And yet, I suddenly found a group of well connected and intelligent people, living in Abidjan, who hadn’t heard the story. It made me wonder how well informed humanitarian actors really are about life here – how close are they to Ivorian matters if such a major event escaped their notice? If you’d asked what the party-goers thought about Michelle Obama’s convention speech or the last episode of House they’d probably all have an opinion.

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5 Responses to Crocodile teeth and ivory towers

  1. eric says:

    I’m can’t tell if you’re actually surprised by this or feigning surprise because of the implied critique of the ex-pat bubble. It makes me think of recent events in Mali, where the “development” community was aghast at and completely surprised by the overthrow of the government, only to find out that the coup leaders were overwhelmingly popular among Malians (they had something like 60-70 percent support, according to the limited polling that was done).

    I think many ex-pats in Africa are quite aware of their isolation from their host country. It’s a problem much more easily identified than solved. Language is often a huge barrier–even people who are skilled enough to work in their host country’s official language are often pretty clueless about the language(s) in which people actually speak, and through which culture is effectively transmitted. There’s also the problem that many ex-pats only plan on living in countries for relatively short periods of time (say 2-4 years), which makes them feel like it’s not worth it to invest the considerable time and resources necessary to pop their ex-pat bubble.

    But in my experience, even ex-pats who recognize the problem and really make an effort to break out of the ex-pat fortress are rarely successful unless they have some kind of anchor in the local community to hold on to. Having a local spouse (and by extension, a local family) is a big one. Having a network of friends and adoptive family members established outside of “professional” circles is another one, like in the case where Peace Corps volunteers or missionaries continue to work in the countries they lived after their service is over.

    A final thought is that your observations of ex-pats’ isolation from local events is not unrelated to your remark that your contact with that community has fallen in recent years. Very few people, I think, are able to move seamlessly and continually between the ex-pat social scene(s) and local social scene(s). Ultimately people have to choose the community to which they primarily belong and to which they’ll devote most of their limited social time and resources. Being a part of an ex-pat or local community necessarily limits how involved you’ll be in others.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for your comment – I certainly agree with this. As you say, there are a number of intrinsic difficulties for ex-pats even those wanting to break out of the circle. The first, as you hint, is that it can be difficult to combine the two, so it’s sometimes about making a choice. Secondly is finances – a UN professional at say the lower-mid level (P3) is earning $100,000 a year tax-free, which is roughly the equivalent of a government minister in Ivory Coast. So, ex-pats frequently frequent restaurants and nightclubs that Ivorians simply can’t afford. Thirdly, I think there can be a religious factor as well – most Western ex-pats tend to be middle class liberals and religious matters are frequently mocked in conversation. Another part of this, is that being part of a religious community is actually one of the best ways to escape into a more authentic local community. Finally, ex-pats can frequently feel ‘under attack’ from needs and put off by people asking for money/favours etc. This also can happen in relations between the sexes. A related satirical article recently appeared in the Nigerian press…
      (How to get foreign friends)

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  3. Marc says:

    I hope you’re doing fine. Didn’t see any post since almost 2 months. Just checking on you to see if everything was Ok on your side. Keep up the good work! Will be leaving Amsterdam this weekend to be in Abidjan next week (for just the week) and then returning to Amsterdam. Maybe a good idea to meet up and exchange views? What do you think?


    • admin says:

      Doing well thanks. I’ve got lots to write about and I certainly need to get back to this. It’s in the forefront of my mind. Sadly, I won’t be in Abidjan next month for reasons that will soon be explained here.

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