What’s in a name?

I’m not sure I’d ever heard anyone use the phrase ‘Drogba’s Country’ when I selected it for this blog. But it was pretty clear that the only thing most people knew about Cote d’Ivoire back in 2011 was that it was the birthplace of Didier Drogba. Football stories were almost the only times the country was referenced in the English-speaking media. Ivorians around the world would see quizzical looks around the world when they mentioned the name of their country, but if they said Drogba, that transformed into smiles and handshakes. My wife uses it frequently.

But I was little surprised just now hearing the blog’s name referenced by none other than the Queen of England (perhaps a regular reader) from the lips of Ivorian president, Alassane Ouattara in this video interview (1:24):

“There are specific events which put a country on the map. For example, we have one of the world’s best soccer players, Drogba. He puts Cote d’Ivoire on the map…When I met the Queen of England three years ago, I said ‘Your Majesty, I’m the President of Cote d’Ivoire’ and he said ‘Ohhhh, Drogba’s Country’.”

I won’t comment on some of the other statements in the video, including that Ivorians now are perfectly bi-lingual.

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From Freetown, farewell Chris Simpson (1963-2016)

Over the last few days a diverse range of Africanists discovered they all had one friend in common, and that he had just died in an apartment in Dakar. The reporting legend that was Chris Simpson has left us.

Others undoubtedly knew him better. But as the outpouring over the last few days has shown, Chris’ life was appreciated by many – myself included – who recognise that we have lost a unique individual. A man who in his annual missives and social media updates would regularly celebrate the passing of low-culture stars of 1970s British television, or obscure cricket legends, surely deserves a few pages of send-off. Here’s mine.


Chris’ writing voice was distinctive. The (more popular) posturing of the daring-and-dashing foreign correspondent in exotic danger wasn’t for him. His was a regular riff on the bumbling British reporter, full of very hapless calamity but who always survived the hard-drive meltdowns and drainage ditch stumbles to see another day. It was half innocent abroad, half schoolboy antics. The last time we chatted, in January, he had just received a “stiff summons from the chief”, and had offered an explanation that “didn’t really cut it”. In his own – typically self-aware – words he was: “disorganised, comic and naïve”. His knowledge was encyclopaedic, his intellect first rate. But those talents weren’t enough to keep him from transforming the most mundane material into a crisis.

Many thought immediately of journalism’s most famous fictional hack, William Boot. Chris was proud to have met Bill Deedes, often cited as the inspiration for Waugh’s lead character, in Luanda (as well as the less glamourous Cheltenham). Simmo would generally arrive for appointments after some public transport misadventure, rather flustered and – at least in tropical Africa – soaked in sweat. His passport – often necessary for police checkpoints – was at constant risk of being lost. Telephone numbers were reissued in quick succession. Lost keys sometimes meant a rough night in the garden. Friends’ washing machines came away irrevocably damaged. But if his copy rarely arrived on time, it was never poor.

At the heart of the story for many of us was Simmo in Africa. His character and budget constraints added a unique twist to the account. His perspective came above all from a basic belief that you could learn the most by speaking to ordinary people, often well away from the capital. It was reporting with humanity. Through his dispatches we heard from teachers and taxi drivers, market women and miners. It was the outlook of a radio-man needing to get his microphone in front of the real people at the heart of the story. This was how he got the nuance and depth when faced with challenges like understanding the ethnic complexities of Congo or the assorted acronyms of the opaque armed groups on Chad’s southern border. In later life, he could get lost for weeks writing a think piece on an obscure Malian rebel group (the deadline long since passed) or spend Christmas penning a report on the “structural problems in the Central African health system”.

This all gave a depth to his reporting that easily saw past the tired clichés. As Kate Adie said this weekend in a tribute, his was “knowledge lightly worn”. He was humble about what he knew, and particularly about who he knew. On meeting a Mali source at a Paris airport he wrote, “We swapped contacts: he gave me the movers and shakers; I gave him the man who does my laundry.” [Laundry – ignored as a topic by other writers – turned out to be rich seam for disaster stories.] Meeting a Cameroonian taxi driver in France, or a Senegalese waitress in New York was a safer source of information than a politician. Interactions weren’t always amicable. One too many times at airports he encountered the faux bonhomie of the “Welcome to Africa my brother!” touts. Frustration would occasionally boil over, like when he shot back at a bribe-seeking checkpoint officer in Ivory Coast “Is this the life you wanted?” While sometimes cynical, it was more that he had a deep respect for the complexity of each situation. Reporting from Angola, Rwanda, Mozambique, DR Congo, The Gambia, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Guinea and Senegal, among others, he’d seen one too many peace ceremonies and new heads of state wrongly heralded as a break with the past.

Not for him the upmarket Novotels and Radisson Blus (“the horror, the horror”). Instead it was an underwhelming search for a decent place to sleep that wouldn’t break his meagre budget. He preferred an honest one-star hotel to a fake three stars. The local Catholic mission was a frequent choice, though this often meant the extra expense of a small bribe to the night guard to let him back inside after post-curfew drinks. He wrote a memorable piece for From Our Own Correspondent full of anecdotes of African hotels. His fellow-travellers included backpackers and the overly religious. This latter group could be obnoxious zealots, although aged nine, Chris had himself declared his ambition to be a missionary. He told me in January that “Ladbrookes still have that at 33-1”, though he was a definite agnostic. Christmas regularly found him on the continent – generally in a drab hotel room, surfing TV channels in the hope of chancing on a half-remembered 1970s ITV sitcom.

Essential escape from the hotel was provided by those two essentials of the British male – beer and football. Haunts like the ‘Cave de Lyon’ (Bangui) and ‘Taxi Brousse’ (Ouagadougou) became home away from home. Electricity couldn’t always be guaranteed, and neither could the quality of the music. This aficionado of 1980s British rock was rarely at peace with West Africa’s regular diet of Michael Bolton, Akon, Celine Dion and Westlife. Music aside, the night spots were also frequently empty, though that didn’t mean one couldn’t stay till dawn. He had locals in a host of capitals, and would mourn their closure like the passing of an old friend. He was often around for several months, meaning close bonds with hotel and bar staff, or the chance to move out and rent somewhere on more agreeable terms. On a longer stay in Bangui he had a flat-share in a villa owned by a relative of the president. He wrote, “It is not as palatial as it sounds, with some very LV Price fixtures and fittings. This could be a useful ice-breaker with Mr Bozizé when I finally get to interview him: “just before we get started, Mr President could you have a word with your nephew about the shower…””

If many wondered how he kept the show on the road, his blunderings also shined a heart-warming light on the large network of people regularly lending a hand. He had contacts and friends across the UK and the African continent, and their spare rooms, sofa beds and laundry services were gratefully received. Many of his hosts on the continent were hacks and humanitarians who ended up staying far longer than planned. There were also plenty of kind strangers along the way; a jacket left behind in a restaurant with wallet and passport would be magically returned. Most capitals contain at least one computer technician who was at one time called upon to resuscitate one of Simmo’s laptops.


There was close to a decade in London, though he never fully warmed to the capital, saying he was “happier arriving at Manchester Piccadilly than London Euston.”  The City journalism course (“lots of good mates, but a pretty ropy course”) was followed by three years at the cult West Africa magazine (est. 1917). The magazine nurtured almost as many Africanist hacks as SOAS, but its financial situation was never rosy. Then came four years at the BBC (Bush House?). The struggling finances at WA magazine were a foreshadowing of what was to come. For those passionate about reporting the continent, it wasn’t easy to pay the bills. Perhaps a generation or two ago, he could have been the eccentric West Africa correspondent for a London broadsheet, living royally and filing very occasional copy accompanied by wild expense claims. But journalism had changed, and almost no-one could afford a staffer in West Africa.

Chris could be his own worst enemy as well: expense claims were an administrative step too far (as sometimes was invoicing for work done) and he was frequently conned out of what finances he had. In Abidjan his landlord duped him out of a hefty rental deposit with some trumped up costs. A nickname he frequently used for himself was ‘soft-touch Simpson’. His generosity was also famous – the large signing on fee obtained when starting with a UN radio project went on property for a friend in Rwanda. In his final month, precious finances were spent on a sheep for a friend’s family. It all meant he was often broke. His talents in reporting, writing and analysis in West Africa were immense, but undervalued by those with control of budgets. So, he mixed the reporting with short contracts encouraging UN-types to write reports in plain English, occasional consultancies, and above all media training (‘capacity building’ as the donors preferred it).

He loved teaching radio, whether in Ivory Coast, Liberia or Guinea, working with the likes of IRIN (then a UN outfit), Internews and West Africa Democracy Radio (WADR). The outpouring of comments in the last few days from community radio reporters he had supported showed his contribution had been important, and fatherly. These training organisations depended on the willingness of donors to fund, and projects were often on shaky ground. As the expat trainer, he would also be involved in the managerial work behind the scenes – not his strong point. When we first met in 2007 for a drink in Abidjan at the now defunct “Les Perles” on Boulevard Latrille he talked with frustration about the spreadsheet gremlins and deadlines missed for paperwork.


I don’t recall every hearing about Chris driving a car. Maybe he never got his licence. As one of his blog profiles said: “Only person I know to cancel his own driving test halfway through.” Whatever the truth, he was a man for public transport, whether a crowded and bumpy road trip in West Africa, or the UK’s National Express. And there was plenty of travel – back and forth to the continent on the most inexpensive airline available (a short stop in Tripoli anyone?), catching up with friends, or discovering a new country on assignment. Some of his very best anecdotes came from travel with “Simpson Tours”:

“With less than a month to play with in between London landing and Liberian ‘holiday’, Simpson Tours was under pressure and came close to collapse after a series of increasingly pathetic own goals. Great to beat the summer rush with an early, online bargain booking for Berwick-on-Tweed. Not so smart when you lose the ticket code, tearfully run through the Yahoo inbox for details, convince yourself it was all a dream and book afresh. Arriving late at Kings’ Cross, a nonplussed ticket officer handed me the original, now useless reservation along with my new, much more expensive ticket. I lurched dispiritedly towards my over-packed train. No seat until Newcastle. Oh well. “I must put the return ticket somewhere safe”, thought the man and promptly lost it ((to be found behind a bookcase in 2014….).”

And this time in Bangui…

It took me a while to work out the taxi system and the difference between course and relais. In the first weeks, I looked on shamefully as packed yellow vehicles disgorged their passengers and monsieur le blanc was ushered into the front seat. “Ah…..you were taking your mother to the hospital. Sorry, I am off to get some croissants. Not the same direction”.’


As many have noted, technology was also something of a bête noire for Chris. One update from Bangui could have been repeated with little variation from many other places: “a catastrophic week. Cash and computer disappeared in a taxi, another example of ‘Simpson syndrome’, which has blighted my life.” He couldn’t be held entirely responsible – he was filing reports from places with unreliable power and internet, while the cybercafés he loved to hate were easy places to pick up a virus. Network Africa producers at Bush House would spend their nights making anxious calls to Luanda and other such places: “Chris…where’s the piece you promised six hours ago?” Each generation of journalists has their tales of late nights at the telex machine, or dictating over the phone at the national exchange, or mini-disc malfunctions (‘TOC error’?). Chris struggled to file on anything of greater complexity than a cleft stick. In London in 2010 he even reported failing to get a usable image from a passport photo booth.

The ‘Christmas letters’ were no exception to his struggles. Each year he would ask friends to send him their email addresses, as the previous year’s list had been lost. Many of the letters had been re-written several times after files had somehow got deleted or corrupted (perhaps the modern equivalent of Byron’s memoirs being destroyed or Hemingway’s World War One novel vanishing in a suitcase). Despite their name, these legendary missives could arrive at almost any time of the year. The shortest in my collection is 12 pages long, the longest 34. It was a mark of their obvious craftsmanship that many of us kept these for posterity – how many Christmas mailings could you say that for? It often took the cajoling of friends across the world for the mailings to see the light of day. He would act surprised that anyone requested another one. “Did anyone make it to the end last time?” he wondered out loud. We all made it the end of course. And then re-read from the beginning. These were his masterpieces.

The content was a mix of many things, especially Africa, friends, alcohol, Crystal Palace and Simmo mishaps. Sometimes the themes all came together in one paragraph, as here at a bar in Ouagadougou: ‘The beers certainly flowed freely after John Terry headed into his own net for Chelsea at Selhurst, the only time I have kissed a TV screen. An Irish Liverpool fan was less happy with Chelsea’s strutting win at Anfield and even more downcast after an afternoon with the Nigerian barber (my idea). I was accused of contributory negligence, by the bar staff if not the victim. “How could you let this happen? Your hair is nothing to write home about, but he had such lovely, flowing locks, all gone…”’

A regular section in the letters would look back on those who had passed away over the previous 12 months. With the deaths so far this year, 2016’s letter was already looking sadder than most. As any reporter knows, notable deaths frequently occur at just the wrong time. He reflected on his own skills in obituary writing after describing the death of an ex-president in CAR, hours after he’d flown out. He commented: “I do not have the finely-honed obituary-writing skills or gravitas of Kaye Whiteman, but can, if pushed, deliver some diligently-researched (not Wikipedia, PLEASE…) words of tribute on presidents I never met. I still wince at the memory of a dismally thin send-off for Léopold Senghor when last in Dakar (which did not go unnoticed).”

Radio lovers the world over know the frustration of their medium’s ephemeral nature (almost impossible to share…reports generally unavailable online). And so, these written missives were often our one connection to his talent and adventures. Blogging could have been another. One blog project after another spluttered into life…and died almost as quickly. One of at least six attempts got underway in April last year called ‘BordersBoy63’. It’s still online (https://bordersboy63.wordpress.com/) and promised “MID-LIFE MEANDERINGS ON AFRICA, POLITICS, CINEMA, CRICKET, FOOTBALL AND SHOPPING”. We got nothing of the sort. In fact, it lasted no more than two posts – the first one being having no main text but just a long title written at “a cyber café on Old Kent Road.” Three weeks later we got the second and final post – a lengthy discussion of Duran Duran’s career inspired by a cheap memoir, predictably picked up at a charity shop.

An earlier and longer lasting blog project, ‘Simmo’s Magic Garden’ (http://simmosmagicgarden.blogspot.com/), lasted a respectable 26 posts in 2011, only one of them having anything to do with Africa. His interests were wide, and, critics might add, a little undiscerning. That would be unfair, because I think in his heart was a valuing of the under-valued and a deep dislike of snobbery. Chris would rather have the honesty and candour of a 99p memoir and cheap charity shop T-shirt (friends tried and failed to help him dress smarter), than a puffed up literary festival and a gastro pub. The Frontline Club was judged “rather pretentious”.

I inherited a good deal of the charity shop detritus from his Abidjan days via mutual friends. Without him, I would probably have never read John Motson’s autobiography. When I left, I gave the books to the local university English department. A generation of students in Cocody are appreciating the joys of Alan Bennett’s diaries, or the hubris of reading Lance Armstrong’s prelapsarian memoir. As for the inherited CDs, the pleasures of New Order and Joy Division were lost on me, and even my dad (who loved Zappa and Moondog) found the collection obscure. Music though was among his greatest passions:

“Last time I had been in the US, I needed to brandish ID to buy a beer.  Now I lived in fear of being barred from Bleeker Street bars (largely frequented by NYU student hearties) for being middle-aged and sad, “Is Happy Hour still on?”, or being turfed out at dawn having slept through my jukebox selections, and spilled my drink.  In fairness, I don’t think this ever happened. There was even the odd free pint. “You realize you’re the only person here that is really excited about this?” a drinking companion asked as I punched the air on hearing the opening bars of “How Soon is Now?” by The Smiths.”

What tied it all together? He clearly had a loyalty to the unappreciated and unfashionable, whether West African politics, post-punk New Romantics, or Crystal Palace FC. On these topics he developed an expertise that few could surpass.

The lifestyle described above had rather inevitable health consequences, despite regular attempts at a “booze ban”. Sport was as passionately watched as it was avoided. A game of tennis with the BBC’s James Copnall at the fabled Rue Lepic residence in Abidjan was a rare exception. A Portuguese doctor in the city got special praise in 2007 for an acute diagnosis when he “realized quite early on that I had the eating habits of a 12-year-old, and that ten years plus in Africa had taught me next to nothing about basic health care.” In one Dakar patisserie he was nicknamed ‘Monsieur Mille Feuilles’. Things were hardly better back home, where the only hint of exercise was a running joke about his weakness for the budget high-street bakery Greggs. His Skype motto still reads: “Bring me a pastry and some piece of mind.” Poetry was written on the subject, as were a couple of lengthy odes to Greggs in the style of Jackie Collins.


If the overall image I’ve painted above seems a rather improbable figure, those of us who met him never doubted the sincerity of his character. Some writers deliberately put themselves in sticky situations just for comic effect (touring Ireland with a fridge?). But the fact that he told it all so well, didn’t mean it wasn’t true. To echo Mrs Clinton, they represented exactly who he was. He knew his faults better than anyone, but that didn’t mean it was an act.

Most of us have a travel anecdote or two from our younger days that we can dust off in the pub. Yes, we too had slept in some bad places, found ourselves on a tight budget and done a few months in a remote country our friends couldn’t place on the map. That meant we felt a bond with Chris, and it added to our pleasure in reading his accounts. But while most of us gradually abandoned public transport, grew more comfortable, and settled into boring lives, Chris was still having those (mis)adventures. The continued shortness of his contracts, budgets and postings was in a way our gain. I never felt the courage of the man more than when in his mid-40s and after a six year break from reporting, he moved to the Central African Republic to string. He kept at it, perhaps because he could do no other. He was a writer and a reporter to the marrow, and so year after year he could stay in those places, get lost a hundred times, and then always get back to London and through the hallowed archway of Bush House to tell an improbable round of new anecdotes.

One of course hopes that such lives end with a golden retirement reminiscing and reflecting with those who spent a few hours alongside you on the road. When it came to it, it ended in full flow within days of us hearing him back on From Our Own Correspondent, a programme that was perhaps made to measure. For all the mishaps, he’d never lost his way.


It seems proper to give Chris the last word, with a passage from the 2010 letter about a city where he would spend his final days. On the surface the tone is typically mocking. But underneath it shows a romantic attachment to places many of us have fallen in love with, and to which he repeatedly returned.

There are those who like Dakar a lot and those who don’t.  I am, on balance, still a fan and will always be thankful to the BBC colleague who steered me here close to 10 years ago. After five years out, there was a definite surge of nostalgia as the shared taxi spluttered into Colobane’s Gare Routière on the last day of October, having worked its way north from the Gambian border up through Kaolack and then on through Dakar’s unprepossessing hinterland.

From the point of view of an old dog seeking out favourite haunts, much has changed, but enough is mercifully the same. At “Le Ngonal” off Bourguiba, French owner and Bob Dylan fan François still holds court. The cheerfully down-market ‘Palace’ on Rue A offers the same menu as before. Hang around too long and there will be familiar, slightly dangerous invitations to pop round the hotel across the road for tea and scones. 

A friend and colleague has the old house in Amitié 1. Without getting too dewy-eyed, it is strangely touching to be greeted by people you have not seen in seven years:  the woman who sells bissap by the French Cultural Centre; ‘Mr Magazines’, with back copies of ‘Newsweek’ and ‘Time’; CD vendors on Félix Fauré; Latyr the famous driver.

It is easy to get over-lyrical about Senegal and start spouting guidebook clichés: oh……don’t we love the sharp, staccato bursts of Wolof in the bustling markets of Sandaga and Kermel; drinking minty, blood-coloured Bissap to cope with the afternoon heat; the chocolaty greeting of a Biskrem biscuit; brightly-coloured pirogues nestling on the beach at N’Gor;  haggling with a gowned driver in the back of a clapped-out yellow-and-black taxi; fleeing the dusty highway as an over-packed, uncaring Car Rapide thunders out of nowhere; late nights in the bars off Avenue Ponty and taxi rides home through the Medina as the M’Balax rhythms pound in your head and you hear the first call to prayer…. Shall I go on? The lemony tang of a good Poulet Yassa, or a rich, nutty Mafé washed down with a river of Flag beer. The scrawny, doe-eyed Talibés with their tomato tins, hustling at the traffic-lights. The splendid panorama from the Pitman balcony, “man, the view from here…..” The chaloupe pulling into the Ile de Gorée harbour. The endless glories of the Meridian Hotel. The smell of the old canal…

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Vive les vloggeuses

Just over a year ago, I wrote a blog post entitled ‘The Rise of the Female Blogger‘ about the explosion of a talented generation of women Ivorian bloggers, in what was a rather male-dominated sector in the early years. I think if anything that trend continues to increase with some fantastic new bloggers, notable for the quality and regularity of their posts. Symbolically the president of the Association of Bloggers of Cote d’Ivoire is now the indefatigable Edith Brou.

But I want to pick out a new trend: 2016 seems to have witnessed the take-off of the video sector. Good quality video on DSLR cameras has been available for a few years now – I recall giving a workshop for Akendewa on home video production back in 2012. But 2016 seems to be the year in which we’ve had the sudden emergence in Abidjan of i) personal video channels, ii) people finally working out how to get decent quality audio, and iii) the rise of the auto-play feature on Facebook. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the pioneers have been the very same female bloggers that have emerged over the past couple of years.

It’s worth reminding ourselves how extraordinary this whole thing would have appeared just a few years ago. Young people in Cote d’Ivoire are setting up their own online channels, recording video and sound quality regularly superior to that provided by the state broadcaster RTI, and publishing for a global audience. All this with little formal training, and minimal resources (though yes it is often a Cocody elite).

Here’s a round-up of some of the ones that have impressed me.

  • Let me start with the aforementioned Edith Brou and her online show ‘Le Divan Numerique‘, which launched three months ago, and already has 18 video interviews. On her sofa, Edith receives young dynamic guests doing interesting things in Cote d’Ivoire. Professional titling, a cool decor, and a lively host.
  • The winner of this year’s female blogging award, Sonia Guiza, focuses on cinema, and has branched out into some online tutorials – ‘Lecons de Cinema’ – on her channel ‘Lagozi TV‘. For someone who likes to take a critical view of Ivorian video/tv productions, the quality and style is there as an example to others.
  • The previous crown for best female blogger in Cote d’Ivoire was on the head of cultural enthusiast Orphalie Thalmas (pronounce the ‘s’). Her ‘Ici C’est Babi’ videos (first episode from 1 March 2016 here) are increasingly high quality productions, and take more of a reportage approach at various cultural activities in Cote d’Ivoire and beyond.
  • Every blogger has their subject area, and for Tchonte Silue, it’s African literature (or Senoufo). Les Chroniques de Tchonte started four months ago and were getting lots of good press when I was last in Abidjan.
  • Three more channels to briefly mention. Food blogger Aida is launching SerialFoodie TV, fashion blogger L’Abidjanaise (Marlyse), has been experimenting a lot more with video, and finally, while not a blogger (to my knowledge), Aline is almost certainly one to watch with her A’lean & Friends initiative.
  • It would be unfair to focus entirely on the fairer sex, and I want to pick out two male pioneers to close. Firstly, Christian Gomis’ Ma Vie Mon Choix began around the start of the year (though difficult to tell exactly as many of the videos seem to have recently been switched to private). There are 16 interviews so far which see Ivorian entrepreneurial role models speak about their career path and inspiration.
  • Finally, I need to mention Daouda, whose Chroniques 2Daouda monologues have launched him into the vanguard of ‘voice of the people’ social/political commentary (sometimes provoking the ire of the Government).
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Seeing Abidjan with Freetown eyes

I’ve written a couple of blog posts in the past comparing Abidjan and Freetown (post1, post2). Travelling between two such cities would be an effective antidote for anyone who thinks you can treat African countries and cities as being basically the same. For a start, the respective countries, near neighbours, are at the extreme ends of global economic growth in 2015.

Let me pick out a few further observations that occurred to me on last month’s trip:

  • You immediately notice that Ivorians just love to eat out, and there are so many possibilities to do so. I don’t know whether it’s the result of having a significant middle class, or a difference of culture (or a mix of the two) but as you drive through the streets, there is an abundance of options to eat out. In the space of a hundred metres in most parts of the city you’ll have a few maquis options with grilled food, single item sellers like chokuya, meat skewers, grilled bananas, French stick sandwiches, (itinerant) coffee, alloco, kiosks, African donuts, etc. This is on top of the variety of regular restaurants. It’s no surprise to see the runway success of the annual Festival des Grillades (Festival of Grilled food), and its numerous copy-cats. In Freetown, it took me several months to work out where I could buy prepared food in the city.
  • While not wanting to over-emphasize the new sense of prosperity (Plateau’s skyline for instance has yet to register a significant new building, aside perhaps from the new Ecobank office), you can really see that the place is on the up. From overseas, we read about the major infrastructure developments, but driving around the city, you notice the lower-scale investments where businesses and people are investing. New branches of banks and insurance companies, new malls and apartment blocks. I was also struck how institutions of one type or the other almost all look cleaned up and functional. In Freetown, you don’t see this sort of public or private investment.
  • In the last week or so, the Sierra Leone government has announced a range of emergency measures to cut government expenditure. Reading the 2017 government budget (worth around $11bn) couldn’t give more of a contrast – indicators are up across the board, infrastructure projects (new roads, bridges, schools, universities) and tax reductions. In fact in September, the Ivorian government made a slight positive adjustment to the 2016 budget for which the adjustment was about the same value as the entire annual budget in Sierra Leone. The latter has a budget at 5% of the former although the population is a quarter.
  • Freetown is a naturally beautiful city, with multiple vistas across the hills, bay and the ocean. Abidjan is in the main not an especially attractive city. The pollution levels in particular felt extremely high – and as far as I could see the worst culprits were the public buses. Improvements are on the way though. The investment plans for Cocody bay should create an impressive postcard scene that puts a glitz marina in front of the already impressive view across the bay to the cathedral and the towers of Plateau. It’s a big project, and you can already see the work progressing on phase one. The 2017 budget dedicates around $50m to the project – no small amount for a prestige scheme in a country with continuing high levels of poverty. But it will add a visual reinforcement of the ‘growth miracle’ narrative.
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Cultural update

Arriving in Abidjan a few hours after the birth of my son, the space to visit friends and engage in cultural activities during my two weeks in Cote d’Ivoire were understandably limited. Coming from Freetown – which I increasingly view as more of a town than a city – the abundance of cultural activities is impressive. Among other things, I ended up missing the latest TEDx event (bizarrely my visits to Abidjan almost always coincide with a TEDx event), the Festival des Grillades, the Top 10 Fashion awards, and a modern dance festival at the Institut Goethe and French cultural centre. On almost my final evening, I had to skip the launch of artist Aboudia’s latest exhibition at the Cecile Fakhoury gallery, despite being keen to catch up both Aboudia and Cecile. It sadly clashed with the literature event mentioned below.

Nevertheless, the two events for which I obtained permission from my wife to attend proved to be well-chosen: the award ceremony for the annual Ivorian blogging awards, and the kick-off event for a new literature event, AbidjanLit. At the former, I’d had the privilege of being one of the judges (even if most competition entrants probably see more website visits than this blog :-)), and even more oddly, at the literature discussion, I was placed on the panel (officially as the event’s anglophone Twitter-er) despite my grand total of zero published works of fiction. I would have felt distinctly happier at the back of the room, rather than sitting next to the event’s main guest, Ivorian author Regina Yaou. To cap it off, I was even late, although perhaps oversleeping with exhaustion can be excused in the father of a newborn.

Both events, allowed me to see a maximum number of friends in just two settings. There are truly some amazing people in Abidjan that I certainly miss hanging out with. At least these brief visits are a way to remind people of my continuing existence, with the hope of keeping ties going until an eventual return can be worked out.

One observation to close. I was rather surprised at both events to be mentioned by name during the presentations. In one acceptance speech at the blog awards, the winner in the female category said that she was fearful about applying for the awards because she didn’t know any of the judges, except…me. I was rather surprised, as we’d never met or spoken. However she said that she counted me among her acquaintances because I had left several comments on her blog posts. At the literature event, Tchonte Silue, said I’d sparked her into thinking about getting a Kindle because of a comment I’d left on one of her Facebook posts. Anyway, I thought it highlighted the small but occasionally significant impact we can have from a far just by adding a comment occasionally to blog posts and other work. It encouraged me to do more of this, as I know it can be an encouragement to me (hint hint).

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My ex-neighbourhood – Cocody Danga

Cocody Danga apartments

Cocody Danga apartments

Last month I spent just over two weeks in Abidjan for the happy arrival of our new son Joshua. I hope to pen a few blog posts from the visit, but as a start, let me try and ramble a little on my old neighbourhood: Cocody-Danga. For me the area is little discussed but has some hidden charms that I enjoyed seeing again during the several days that we were encamped at the PISAM hospital for the birth.

I’m not quite sure on the geographic extent of Cocody-Danga, but at a guess I would say that it runs from the PISAM / Nestle HQ in the west, bordered in its lower half by the Corniche road that runs up to St John junction, and then up Boulevard Latrille past RTI. Now, I’m not sure after that, but personally I would include the area from Lycee Technique, through the teachers’ residential area and up to the Hotel Palm Club.

In the main, it’s upmarket residential villas, with for instance the Swiss and Italian ambassadors’ official residences, though there are a few institutions – notably the PISAM hospital, the Providence hospital, Lycee Technique, Cite rouge (student residential block) and the Angolan embassy. Hidden largely from sight, there was also a smallish slum along a drainage channel – this was cleared by bulldozers a couple of years back and I didn’t get to see if people have returned (probable I suspect).

I lived in the area from my arrival in November 2007 up to December 2010 when we moved into our home in Riviera. From the journalist I replaced, I inherited a very pleasant two bedroom apartment at the bottom of Rue Lepic (home to the RDR political party). There was a very large swimming pool (once used by Meiway for a video) and a tennis court. The block was owned by the family of a former, now deceased, mayor of Abidjan (Emmanuel Djibo if I’m not mistaken) who’s huge home was next-door, though since his death the family hadn’t found a new use for it (so often the case for the families of deceased ‘barons’ who’ve set-up unsustainably large show homes).

For me the area is something of a hidden gem in Abidjan. Firstly, it’s the very first bit of Cocody you get to when coming from the Plateau business district, which makes it well placed if you happen to be working in the centre of town. On top of this, it’s also relatively congestion free because most traffic stays on the main Corniche Road (or on the more northerly Boulevard Mitterrand) and heads straight past. To access the area from the west, you need to come off the highway at Carrefour Indennie and head up the hill past Nestle. Despite being so close to Plateau, it has a quiet residential feel, with some very pleasant roads. My favourite is the tree-lined Rue Cannebiere which houses the Italian embassy. If you peep over the walls on this road, you’ll find some beautiful colonial and independence era homes (in a city in which I’d rarely use the word ‘beautiful’ and ‘architecture’). Some of these homes have spectacular views over the Cocody Bay to Plateau.

On my recent return, it was noticeable that the roads have been repaved in several areas (particularly around the gently bending Rue des Jasmins). But perhaps the biggest development is the arrival of  large Lebanese financed luxury apartment blocks (see photo) around the Pharmacie Lycee Technique area. Some of these were underway in the Gbagbo era, but progress seems to have really accelerated, and with accompanying institutions like banks following in their wake. I recall seeing some of these apartments for sale at 170 million CFA ($290,000) a piece, which seems extremely high for a flat without any amenities like a garden or pool.

This gets me to a final point. Perhaps the area’s biggest drawback has always been the near total absence of anywhere to eat. There was supposedly a place on the upper floor of the small commercial area around the Pharmice Lycee Technique but this was rumoured to have just closed before my arrival in 2007. You can get chwarmas at the Lebanese butcher in the complex, but it never looked particularly hygienic. This time around, I had a lunchtime snack (chicken wrap and chips) in a brand new place that’s right on the junction photographed above (behind the Vlisco billboard). In the future, I suspect the ground level of some of these apartment blocks will have eating options. Otherwise, I think the assumption is that you’ll head into Cocody St. John or Plateau, which admittedly are just next door.

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Decolonising Ivory Coast

I was interested to see a reference to Ivory Coast in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s classic ‘Decolonising the Mind’ from 1986:

Speaking of the racist literature of Haggard, Huxley et al:

“In such a literature there were only two types of Africans: the good and the bad. The good African was the one who co-operated with the European coloniser; particularly the African who helped the European coloniser in the occupation and subjugation of his own people and country. Such a character was portrayed as possessing qualities of strength, intelligence and beauty. But it was the strength and the intelligence and the beauty of a sell-out. The bad African character was the one who offered resistance to the foreign conquest and occupation of his country… One can see the same schema at work today in the portrayal of the various African regimes in the Western media. Those regimes, as in Kenya and Ivory Coast, which have virtually mortgaged the future of their countries to Euro-American imperialism, are portrayed as being pragmatic, realistic, stable, democratic and they are often shown as having achieved unparalleled economic growth for their countries.”

That would seem to add grist to the mill to those who’d want to classify the Houphouetist wing in Ivorian politics as the sell-outs, and the Gbagbo wing as the anti-colonial heroes. We accept the idea of decolonisation as (rightly) good, which makes Houphouet’s reluctance on the move rather confusing.

But it’s not quite so simple. NWT is criticising a bi-polar stance in colonial literature about the good or bad African, so actually, responding that ‘Yes that’s right, the colonial’s ‘bad guy’ is our ‘good guy’, and vice-a-versa’, is a twist on the same fallacy. Instead, it strikes me as odd – a couple of generations after independence – to want to portray the world as made up either of independence fighters or colonial lapdogs (admittedly tempting coming from a Marxist viewpoint). My own view having seen both sides in power, is that the practical experience of governance would seem to be remarkably similar, with differences probably more down to competency than any supposed radical intrinsic divergence.


As a side note, interesting to see a linguistics expert like NWT use the English ‘Ivory Coast’ rather than the preferred ‘Cote d’Ivoire’. He would of course classify both versions as being in a ‘colonial language’, but the Ivorian regime has always felt ‘Cote d’Ivoire’ was their proper name in their own language.

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Jobs for the boys

If there’s a story that depresses me almost more than any other when I survey the Ivorian newspaper front pages, it’s the headlines from ruling party youth members that they’ve been “forgotten”. Youth employment is a tragic and major issue for every government on the continent (if not in other parts of the world as well).  That’s not my issue. My beef is with the line of reasoning that goes: we were part of the successful election campaign, so we deserve (government) jobs.

What I can’t work out is whether the most depressing thing is seeing these views expressed publicly, or not seeing any reaction to them, as if they’re perfectly normal. What the party youth are effectively saying is: we want cronyism, jobs for friends, nepotism and recruitment based on political affiliation not competence. You could probably add in ‘and give us a bloated civil service to boot’. One needs go no further than Ghana next door to see how much a costly civil service can weigh down the entire economy.

What you almost certainly won’t see in the press tomorrow is arguments from political leaders along the lines of i) ‘We were grateful for your support in the election, but we thought you backed us because you judged we had the best policies for the country, not that somehow you might personally get a job out of it’, ii) or ‘What you’re proposing has a very good chance of negatively impacting the whole country, iii) or ‘State employment is not the future’. The opposition press don’t seem to address these issues either – perhaps there’s recognition that it’s normal for a political side to ‘eat’ while in power. As I say, rather depressing.

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Film review, Bronx-Barbes (2000)

Many years ago I inherited a copy of the film Bronx-Barbes from a journalist leaving Abidjan. Sadly it was on VHS and I never manged to find myself in a place with a player (and the cassette). Two years ago I bought a copy when the film came out on DVD. But I don’t own a DVD player, and with the baby, time to watch films has been in short supply. Finally last night – with a borrowed DVD player and the family out of town – everything came together.

French film maker Eliane de Latour’s Bronx-Barbes (2000) is the story of two young criminals in Abidjan looking for their place in the world; interacting with a multiplicity of gangs in the poorest parts of the city. Both have their dreams of escaping this violent underworld, perhaps even to travel to the West, but they struggle against the realities of poverty. In a very French way, there’s not necessarily a strong story-arch, but we get a series of scenes which see the characters integrate a gang, make friends, and for the main character, Soul B, fall in love.

Overall the film is excellent and done to a very high quality, though the violence will not be to everyone’s taste. I can’t think of any stock characters – everyone had three dimensions, despite the large cast of characters. de Latour is as much an anthropologist as a film-maker, with extensive experience in West Africa. Apparently she carries out a deep ethnographic survey before each film project. It shows.

To my surprise, searching the film credits, all the senior positions (actors aside) seemed to be taken by European names. I’m sure this cannot have been entirely the case, because the language, gestures and attitudes in the film are deeply rooted in the nouchi-speaking underclass of Abidjan.

The irony is obvious when you think that most recent Ivorian films and tv series focus on the Cocody-based middle classes, and ignore either the urban underclass or rural life. They tend to be aspirational rather than gritty. They’re filmed in bourgeois family homes, while in contrast, Bronx-Barbes covers the full drama of Abidjan’s cityscape, taking in urban spaces like the FHB bridge, Plateau, the port, and a series of slums.

If I had to pick faults, I sometimes found the dialogue a little stiff and lacking spontaneity, I didn’t feel every scene served the story (did the section with Jimmy Danger really advance the narrative much?), and perhaps to be expected from a film dating from 2000, the DVD images have sadly come through an interlacing process which rather spoiled one of the final scene. Those who haven’t spent a huge amount of time in Abidjan may want to put the sub-titles on to grasp the dialogue. The soundtrack was authentic, though perhaps we could have had a little less Magic System to broaden the range.

Nevertheless, it’s one of the best films to come out of Cote d’Ivoire in the last two decades, and I’m excited to see the follow-on, Apres L’ocean, which sits unwatched on my bookshelf. For me, Bronx-Barbe’s key strength is the incredible and authentic portrayal of street culture. The choreography of the funeral scene I found particularly moving. If you’ve lived in Abidjan and haven’t met anyone who speaks and gestures like this, you were probably living a very sheltered life.

Finally, while not having overt political messages, I think it casts an illuminating light on phenomena that were to play a leading role in the decade following the film with its Jeunes Patriotes and Charles Ble Goude. There are parallels with the documentary Shadow Work. Scholarly studies like Mike McGovern’s Making war in Cote d’Ivoire point at the ‘playfulness’ of the Ivorian conflict, and while you might be tempted to see this as an anthropological metaphor too far, Bronx-Barbes certainly points – with a certain amount of humour – to the heavily stylised use of Hollywood images (cowboys, kung fu, Vietnam movies, American rap).

Anyway, a great film, sadly little known in Abidjan.

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Taking a taxi in Abidjan

Last week I was chatting with a friend of mine who is about to move to Abidjan for a new job. She was asking lots of questions about taxi transportation, and I thought it might be useful to share some general info on the subject for a wider audience.

So here are six starting points for metered taxis in Abidjan:

1. Types of taxis
– My advice to visitors, especially those on a budget, is that it’s not absolutely necessary (as in many other places) to hire a vehicle. Abidjan has a variety of transport options, but by far the most widely used option for visitors is the city’s red/orange metered taxi (‘taxi compteur’). These have the remit to work throughout the city, and are equipped with a meter. They are hired privately and you won’t find anyone else getting in along the way as it travels to your specific destination. At almost any time of day, in almost every part of the city, you’re never too far from a red/orange taxi (the vehicles are either as orange as red can get, or as red as orange can get – depends on your perspective).

As you travel around the city you will quickly notice taxis in other colours, depending on the area (commune). These communal taxis (called locally ‘woro woros’), travel on fixed routes (like a bus), and take on passengers along the route whenever they have space and people flag them down. The cost is minimal, though these vehicles tend to be in a poorer state of repair, not quite as clean, and they are more of a security risk (keep an eye on your phone/wallet).

To finish our round-up of transport options, there are also the public Sotra buses, the private buses (gbakas), non registered taxis that behave a bit like woro woros and are generally close to falling apart, and boats on the lagoon (Sotra and others). In the coming years we can also add private boat transport companies, and…the Abidjan metro.

2. Discussing the price
– Perhaps the essential point about the metered taxis, is that the meter is basically never used. Instead the price is almost always negotiated. ‘Tricky for first time visitors!’ you may well say! And that is indeed the case. With the help of a local (who novices should use where possible to negotiate the price, particularly if you look foreign), you should hopefully soon get the hang of it. If you’re a foreigner, you’ll probably end up paying at least 500 francs ($0.90) more than the local rate, unless you’ve worked out the finer points of pricing and negotiation.

In discussions, you generally initially name your price, after which three things tend to happen:
i) if the price is ridiculously low, the taxi driver may just drive off without another word
ii) in most cases, when you’re around the right mark with your first offer, the driver will reply with a price 500 francs higher
iii) or, the taxi man will accept your price (either because you’ve given the right price and he thinks you know what you’re talking about, or because you’re paying way too much).

A few other things to bear in mind:
– With the new toll bridge, you may want to check if you are paying for this as an additional charge of if it’s included
– Rush hour and rain will increase the price, along the lines of supply and demand. These are also the two events that most create those moments where it can be difficult to find a taxi.

3. Change
Once you’ve discussed the price, it is extremely important to alert the driver if you only have a large bank note (e.g. 10,000 CFA). Early in the day, drivers are unlikely to have much change available. In fact, in the morning if you only have a 10,000 cfa note (the purple one), you may find it rather tough to get a taxi that can give you change.

Drivers may sometimes motion you to get in anyway, and they’ll look to find the change on the way. But from experience, this can frequently be a frustrating experience in which you stop at various places (especially petrol stations) where the driver will try (often unsuccessfully) to ask for change. The best thing is to be organised and keep a hold of those smaller notes for morning taxi transport.

4. The airport
A separate word should be said at this stage about taking taxis at the airport because it’s the only place in the city where slightly different rules apply. It’s also of course where most visitors first need to take a taxi…and it’s probably where you’ll have the worst taxi experience.

At the airport there’s an official taxi rank on the left as you come out of the terminal. This needs to be used with extreme caution. The taxis are lined up in a queue, so you’re supposed to take the first one in the queue. Before arriving at the rank, you may already have experienced a taxi tout try to take over your suitcases and direct you in the right direction. As well as a good number of taxis lined up with their drivers (generally not in their vehicles), you may also observe representatives from the taxi trades union (something which adds to the cost).

If you are obviously foreign, the first driver will almost certainly do two things: name a very high price (e.g. $20 to Plateau) or insist on using the meter (which from the experience of friends of mine may well be tampered giving a far more expensive ride than it should).

When you refuse to be ripped off, as you should, you kind of have two options. The first general approach is to try and negotiate a better price (if your French is up to it). It may be that you agree a price with the first driver that you find acceptable, even if you know it is likely to be higher than the going rate. He’s at the top of the queue so is unlikely to give you a fair price because he’s probably thinking that he’s in prime position for a subsequent tourist who may succumb to an inflated price.

When you start discussing you may then be able to tempt other taxi drivers in the queue to offer you a fairer price as you insist that you know what the real price should be and that what you’re being offered is ridiculous. The taxi driver who offers you a lower price from further back in the queue may then create tension because he’s technically jumping the queue system.

A second option is that instead of turning left out of the terminal, you turn right and you start walking a little way down the road. You’ll see plenty of taxis dropping off passengers who will be interested in picking you up. But you need to be careful because this is not allowed within the airport zone, and there are generally gendarmes hiding in the trees who will immediately clamp down on such practices by leaping out of the shadows (and generally ask for a 500 franc bribe from the taxi driver). You will probably need to walk as far as the petrol station to clear this airport zone.

Please don’t let any unpleasantness at the airport turn you off taking taxis. It’s a rather singular place, and any tension/aggression you may experience there is not something you come across elsewhere in the city.

5. My insider tips for getting a good price
– There are some nice new cars doing the rounds, and you may even hail a taxi which has air-conditioning (though you’ll almost certainly pay a higher price, and may be even metered). Nevertheless, if you’re price sensitive, my feeling is that you have more chance of getting a cheaper price from a tatty vehicle. I don’t know if that’s because you pay less for less, or perhaps because such taxis have different ownership situations (maybe the capital invested in the car has already been recovered, or perhaps the driver himself owns the vehicle).
– Another thing I’ve found from experience, is that if you happen to come across a taxi that is just discharging, my feeling is that you get a better price, with the rationale that the driver is feeling upbeat because he’s just been paid for a trip, and now has the good fortune to immediately find another customer i.e. he’s in a good mood. You’re also in a better situation on the spare change front (see above).
– If you’re trying to pick-up a taxi in an area associated with rich and inexperienced international travellers you probably won’t get a good price. You may want to put a few metres between you and that 5 star hotel before hailing a taxi.
– For those who enjoy the price negotiation, a few good stock phrases (in French) are:
o Do you think I arrived here yesterday?
o I live in Abidjan, I’m not a visitor
o I do this route all the time, and I always pay X
o OK, if there really is a traffic jam I’ll pay that much, but if not it’s X

6. Some final comments
– Taxi rides in Abidjan have given me an immense amount of pleasure over the years. One of Abidjan’s great advantages is that for those who speak French there generally aren’t any difficulties in communication. While sometimes you come across a grump (particularly if you’re not paying well), you are just a likely to find a wannabe intellectual, or a frustrated comedian. It’s not uncommon for them to share their food with you when having a snack. For these sorts of experiences, you’ll almost certainly need to take the passenger seat at the front.
– If you don’t speak French, don’t expect much knowledge of English.
– In terms of safety, I’ve never had any bad experiences (apart from a telephone which went missing and that I suspect the taxi driver took). However, if you want to be extra careful, I have heard some very rare stories about muggers hidden in the boot, so you could check.
– Some foreigners can find it unpalatable that perhaps because the colour of their skin they get ‘ripped off’ by taxi drivers who would transport locals for far less. My two remarks on this would be:
o With a bit of local knowledge you can often get local prices
o Following a principal of ‘gleaning’, I tend to think that when you’re richer, you shouldn’t be too miffed about paying a little bit more for your ride. Is it fair that everyone should pay the same price for the same service, or that a richer a person should pay a little bit more? In discussions over price, I believe there’s a moral framework of what is ‘fair’. But that’s just me.

Happy travelling!

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