As I reflect on five years in Ivory Coast/Cote d’Ivoire (more details to come in a later post), I thought I might try and pass on some advice for expats coming to live in Abidjan. While we all feel at home in our own cultural group, most people enjoy working in new countries because they want a new experience – hanging out with people from back home after all, was easy enough back home. Beyond that, any expat who stays anywhere for more than two years knows that after a while you find yourself going to one leaving party after the next and before you know it, your ‘generation’ has left, to be replaced by a new group ‘discovering’ the place for the first time, a ritual you’ve already been through. Finally, at some of these leaving parties you may look around and realise that there are almost no Ivorians present, which you might think is a bit of a shame for anyone after several years in a country.
Having said all that, the spirit is often willing, but the ‘how to’ bit is trickier. So, over the next two blog posts I’ll be trying to give a bit of advice. Firstly, how to find out more about Ivorian society and culture, and then how to make Ivorian friends.
Music is a key part of Ivorian life – and is perhaps the principal form of mass media. While Ivorians listen to imported music (something you don’t always find across the continent), home-grown music is far and away the most popular. The three main types are reggae, zouglou and coupe decale. The latter is probably what you’ll come across first – and it’s the newest. It’s the loud fast electronic music you hear playing in a lot of bars, clubs and maquis. At first you might take it as ‘white noise’, but you’ll probably soon be tapping your foot. Most of these songs come and go very quickly and have a related dance, that everyone from 2-30 years old quickly grasps.
Reggae music includes big local stars like Tiken Jah Fakoly and Alpha Blondy. Live music isn’t particularly common in Abidjan, but reggae is the genre most often performed live. Parker Place is well known in the ex-pat community.
Finally, there’s zouglou which perhaps is the music from that will most open a door to local culture and worldviews. Coupe decale doesn’t have much in terms of lyrics, while reggae can be instructive though it often takes broader global or continental themes. Zouglou will tell you a story, often with local expressions and language, and full of Ivorian humour. You’ll probably find colleagues more than happy to explain what the songs are saying. Magic System are the most famous group, though a lot of their modern hit singles are not lyrically strong as they are rather bland offerings for the European market – investigate the album tracks though.
Finally, a few other musical genres that you might come across – Malinke singers similar to the music you find in Mali and Senegal sometimes organise concerts, particularly around Islamic festivals. Then there’s Meiway who has a category of his own (zoblazo) and is worth hearing in concert. Finally, if there is one artist you should listen to it is rapper Billy Billy. If you can follow his lyrics you’ll have made a huge step towards understanding how things work.
2. Comic books
This gets its own category because I couldn’t write this blog post without mentioning Aya de Yopougon, a successful comic book that charts the life of a teenage girl growing up in 1970s Yopougon (a western suburb of Abidjan). It’s probably the best and most accessible entry into Ivorian culture and even includes a glossary of local slang. Full of humour and beautifully illustrated, this is a real must if you want to even scratch the surface. I know they have been translated, but do try to get this in French so you can become familiar with the expressions that will open up the language of the street.
I’m not quite sure what to put in this category and can only make a few suggestions. If you spend much time in Abidjan, you’ll notice that Ivorians are not big readers. Many will have had to read the Ivorian classics (Kourouma / Kone) in school as set-texts and these are worth getting hold of. I haven’t come across any fantastic modern books. Many recommend Robert et les Catipilla by Venance Konan as a good way to understand the Ivorian crisis in story form. For non-fiction, many recommend Christian Bouquet’s Geopolitique de la Cote d’Ivoire as the book on the crisis. In English you are seriously limited to the admitedly excellent if academic Making War in Cote d’Ivoire.
4. News media
The press is not particularly well developed in Ivory Coast even if there is basic media freedom, and most Ivorians depend on non-traditional or non-indigenous sources of news. Fraternite Matin (Frat Mat) is the highest selling newspaper and the government paper, and it has the resources to produce the country’s highest-quality paper, even if it clearly adopts a pro-government slant. Unless you’re desperately keen to get into local politics, you’re probably best just picking up the main stories on the abidjan.net website and particularly reading the newspaper frontpages, which appear here. Although many Ivorians don’t buy newspapers, the frontpages do get well read at points in the city where they are pinned on the wall. The people you see in small crowds observing the frontpages are called ‘Titrologues’. You do at least get a good spread of the different opinions by reading the frontpages, even if the headlines are frequently misleading. Outside the daily newspapers, the weekly comic newspaper Gbich is an excellent introduction to Ivorian humour.
A few other stops are worth making on your journey to understand Ivorian culture and society. The state television RTI is unwatchable most of the time, but if people do tune in it tends to be for the evening news at 20h00 (or the Brazilian soap just before). Sometimes you can catch locally produced TV series – and if you are lucky you’ll stumble across something with comic actor Michel Gohou (otherwise watch on Youtube). Magazine-wise, check out the Vodoo titles – Life magazine and Tycoon, again just to get a feel of things and what’s out there. And finally, perhaps your best resource is the web. On Twitter, check out the hashtags #civ, #kpakpatoya. There’s a lively community on Facebook and in Ivory Coast people don’t generally limit their networks to ‘people they know’. The blogging community is growing stronger – many are regrouped on the civblogs platform.
Of course there’s no substitute for actually meeting Ivorians, and that’s where I’ll turn to in the second half of this post.