If I have any ambitions for this blog, one would be to communicate something of just how enjoyable it is to live in Abidjan. I understand that for many in the West the thought of wanting willingly to live (with no hardship pay) in West Africa is difficult to comprehend. But yet what you see of ‘Africa’ in popular western culture seems so far removed from the place I actually live in as to resemble another continent. Perhaps there’s ‘West Africa’ and ‘The West’s Africa’.
We’ve lived in our neighbourhood for less than a year now, but we know all our neighbours. Every week or so the doorbell rings and it’s the servant from next door saying that ‘Auntie’ has sent us some honey porridge, or cakes, or a whole meal. My wife reciprocates with cake and other deserts (creme caramel goes down well). For secular holidays we always have a family invite – our large Ivorian family likes to get together. For religious festivals I always get an invite from a colleague, and Muslim and Christian find themselves around a roasted sheep.
In poorer (‘popular’) areas of the city, neighbours are even closer – people frequently live around a shared courtyard (like a tiny Oxford quad) with people’s homes (normally just a couple of rooms) accessed through separate doors. I don’t have statistically data, but I get the impression in Abidjan that these are normally of mixed ethnic groups and religions.
A colleague of mine who lives in flats designed in a European style for well off Ivorians (and where most people are rich middle class Ivorians) told me she doesn’t know her neighbours, which is quite unusual in the city. An Ivorian woman we know who lives with her European husband in Zone 4, the most foreign part of the city (large French and Lebanese community), told us she was unhappy living there because everyone stayed in their big houses and there was no sense of community.
So perhaps there’s a pattern. The richer the household, the more isolated. I sometimes wonder if that’s also revealed on the road – compare a stuffed private taxi full of people chatting, with some grumpy 4×4 driver trying to force his way through traffic all alone.
But the key point is about sharing and community. We frequently borrow kitchen instruments from our neighbours, and in return I suppose my contribution is to give the codes to the wifi. The best bit is sending the girls around to bring one neighbour’s cute toddler to our place for an hour or so. Babies here are public property.