After a little delay, here’s the follow-up post to last month’s first part of my little guide on how to leave the ex-pat bubble in Ivory Coast. The first part gave some advice on how to find out more about Ivorian society and culture. This half will look at meeting Ivorians.
In most countries (except perhaps the UAE where I am now), coming across nationals is not particularly difficult. However, forming genuine relationships tends to be tricky. I was recently at the Village Market shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, where they have a large food hall with cuisine from all over the world. It’s a cosmopolitan place in terms of food and people, but the tables were almost entirely mono-national – Kenyans, Somalis, Brits, Asians, Russians – all were sitting with their own people (my table was the exception, I was with a Japanese friend). It reminded me of an obvious truth – that we feel most comfortable with people from our own cultural group.
But, the rewards of moving out of this group can be tremendous – you’ll generally have to adapt a little yourself, but you can grow a huge amount as a person and pick the best bits from a new culture, that in some areas may have a better strategy for life than your own. However, as I mentioned last time, ex-pats who want to move out of their circles, often feel the barriers are insurmountable. So, here are a few tips.
To begin with, I’d say that although you may be struck by the exotic appearance of the place on the journey from the airport, there are a good number of Ivorians in the city who share similarities with you – similar education, similar languages, similar interests, similar ages, and yes, even similar incomes.
1. “People are only after my money” – if you have a standard Western income then you will almost certainly be struck by the fact that you have suddenly become part of an elite rich class in a place with a lot of people who don’t earn 1% of what you do. This is likely to be something that’s forefront in your mind when you meet Ivorians, and it causes some people to retreat to expat enclaves. No-one likes being seen as a walking ATM and sadly that is the view of some. Let me say a few things on this about this;
- Don’t be a sucker (gaou) – try to avoid obviously exploitative relationships
- Don’t be afraid to say no – many people are just trying it on, and you can laugh it off with a smile
- Money plays a bigger role in relationships in Ivory Coast than in the West – ordinary richer Ivorians are involved in far more social financial transactions than perhaps you are comfortable with – small loans, the richer party picking up restaurant tabs, etc.. Without wanting to exaggerate or get into exploitative relationships, it is in some sense the richer persons’ role and honour to pay more
2. Income differences Try not to let your likely higher level of disposable income become too great a barrier. In genuine relationships, poorer Ivorians may feel a sense of shame about not people able to contribute much financially. Perhaps your Ivorian friends will be far from comfortable splitting the bill at Montparnasse restaurant with you – either because it’s too expensive for them, or because they have a different sense of how resources should be used. They may find it painful to spend 30-40,000 cfa on a night out when relatives are at the door asking for help with medical bills or schooling. Let’s be honest – frequently as an expat you are being ripped off, but you just don’t know it, and your Ivorian friends do (try taking an Ivorian friend to dinner at the Novotel hotel restaurant and see what happens; “two dry chicken wings for 9,000 cfa!”). So, be open to cheaper forms of socialising – and certainly maquis are great places for all nationalities, serve amazing food, and are more affordable (even if you pick up the entire bill).
3. “I have no problem making connections, but my ‘friends’ are annoying me”. If you’re open to Ivorian friendships, you’ll probably have no shortage of people asking for your number and calling you up – possibly just for a ‘bonjour’. This is socially normal though you may find it bizarre that people call just to say hello. I did develop a strategy not to reply to ‘beepers’ – people who call and hang-up so you call back. My feeling was that if people are genuinely interested in your friendship, they will be ready to pay to call you, and I found that relationships with people who beep never went very far.
4. “I was lucky enough to get an invite to an Ivorian party, but no-one talked to me.” The majority of Ivorians – even those that can afford to – don’t go to bars and clubs, even if these are popular social places for expats. There’s a certain negativity in the culture towards such places. Instead, a lot of Ivorian ‘socializing’ takes place at family gatherings; large meals for religious events, weddings and funerals etc. Let me say though that I’d probably avoid these, at least after checking them out a few times. I’ll say one thing for ex-pats – they have great parties – everyone moves around, chats, meets new people, etc. Ivorians don’t really have a decent equivalent – they tend to be more formal and people are more concerned with how they appear than reaching out. It’s considered perfectly normal for you to go to an Ivorian ‘fete’ and just talk to the people you came with, wait hours for bad food, and then go home. Frequently Ivorians will be watching everyone else eagerly and making sarcastic comments to the friends they came with about how someone is dressed, a particular couple, or how badly organised everything is. Decent fun if you came with a good crowd, but rarely too interesting.
So, a little more positively, here’s what would I suggest.
- Spend time getting to know Ivorian culture and society as recommended in the first post, and of course improve your language skills.
- The maquis (or perhaps shwarma joint) is probably THE venue for meeting and socialising with Ivorian friends.
- At parties organised by your international friends, you’ll probably meet Ivorians who are very close to you in terms of interests, comfortable bridging the divide to international cultures and gate-keepers to other Ivorian friendships and cultural experiences. Look out for Ivorians at these events who look uncomfortable – often they are just a bit nervous and waiting for someone to talk to them – a great opportunity.
- Get out of your house to events and places where you can meet a good mix of people (but not nightclubs) – religious associations, sports groups (e.g. the hash), interest groups (web, arts, etc), events (concerts, art expos, seminars etc).
- Take advantage of opportunities with Ivorians at work – these people will be used to internationals (like you) and will at least be people with a steady income which can help some of the problems above.
- The web is your best tool.
A final note on romantic relationships, which if they work out are without doubt the best way to open up local contacts, language skills and friendships. Let me put it bluntly – if you have a Western passport, a Western income and speak a small amount of French, getting an attractive boyfriend or girlfriend is not going to be difficult. This may be enough for some – and it is for many. It’s not my job to preach (though I do want to strongly object to those who use their financial power to use and abuse Ivorian partners). But let me say that certainly in the more extreme examples of age and beauty, the Ivorian partner is often unhappy and in the relationship for material reasons. I say this from often spending time at parties with the Ivorian side of such couples or at least getting the gossip from my wife afterwards.
In pop culture, there are plenty of stories about Ivorian girlfriends having multiple partners – perhaps a rich older guy for material reasons and someone else more their age for love. While I know of examples and such stories are popular, I wouldn’t say this is the norm, and it is far more common to see Ivorian men with multiple Ivorian partners (perhaps a wife and a mistress) than the other way around. Have your eyes open though.
So, my recommendation would be to tread with caution, but by no means close off the possibilities. To enter into a loving relationship, I’d recommend avoiding romantic relationships with people you meet in bars and clubs. Use the above networks to meet people who whom you share interests – from work or interest groups. Spend time getting to know partners before committing – and here in Ivory Coast I’d recommend getting to know the family as well. The wider family can be the downfall of even the best relationships if the in-laws are constantly intruding on your home life and asking for things. Several adapt the rule ‘no inlaws living with us’, which is probably recommended. Without wanting to stereotype, some ethnic groups are known to be worse than others for this. You’ll generally be safer with a middle / upper class family, and in some cases may find your partners family is wealthier than your own.
To conclude, make the effort and you should be rewarded. The wide use of French means relationships are far easier for Westerners than in many other countries, even officially francophone ones. Ivorians are very open and hospitable, rarely reticent about sharing contacts and in many settings you can strike up conversations with complete strangers and quickly develop friendships especially if you’re around for a while.
Anyway, I hope some of these comments were useful, and feel free to add your own tips or questions below.
Perhaps I should have entitled this post ‘Leaving the ex-pat bubble in Africa’ to get more traffic. However, when others say ‘Africa’ they usually mean ‘the country I live in’ and I can’t say with any confidence that I know about ‘Africa’ – the term is too vast (cf. Kapuscinski).