Monday, 2 February 2009

Ariel (BBC weekly staff newspaper), Foreign bureau column

Your opinion of Abidjan probably depends on where you’ve come from. If you’ve just stepped off a plane from Europe you’d probably find it a bit shabby and rundown. If, as in my case, you’ve come directly from a previous posting in the Republic of Congo (the ‘other’ Congo) you can’t help being wide-eyed. After a hassle-free transit through a modern airport largely free of the usual hucksters, you descend a main boulevard lined by restaurants and shopping centres. Then you cross West Africa’s biggest lagoon towards a wall of looming towers plastered with the neon signs of the commercial district.

But even when you enjoy electricity that never cuts, taps that don’t run dry, and a range of French restaurants to die for, you also need to bear in mind you’re in one of Africa’s failing states. Not a Somalia or a DR Congo to be sure, but a country once as heralded as Ghana is now and well on the road to middle-income status. That all makes for a heavy feeling of nostalgia for the days of ‘le vieux’; Ivory Coast’s founding father and president-for-life, Felix Houphouet-Boigny. His photo still decorates buildings and offices fifteen years after his death. You can’t say that about many places in Africa.

In truth the decline started long before Houphouet-Boigny left the scene. From a high point in 1980, poverty levels have increased from one in ten, to half of the population. The government tower blocks may look impressive, but the majority of the lifts are broke and it’s no fun climbing twenty plus floors in the tropical heat when the humidity’s in the 90s.

The country has one of the wonders of modern diplomacy; a frozen conflict. A rebellion in 2002 quickly split the country in two. The fighting didn’t last long, but the north has now spent six years under the rebel administration with a separate army and tax system.

Abidjan itself remains a great place to live. OK, French ex-pats no longer water-ski on the lagoon and the famously luxurious BBC villa was lost when the regional bureau fled to safer waters. But the standard of living is still well above most African cities, and you can’t go wrong with 300 miles of white sandy beaches. The market places are full of fresh tropical fruit in a country that’s a major exporter of bananas, pineapples and 40% of the world’s cocoa. When it comes to the evenings there are thousands of outdoor bars or maquis serving fantastic grilled food and playing one of the three major music styles here; coupé decalé, reggae or zouglou.

Then there’s football, with the national side counting the likes of Didier Drogba, Saloman Kalou, Emmanuel Eboue and Yaya and Kolo Touré. Many of the stars come from the biggest local club, Asec Mimosas, which holds the world record for league games unbeaten (104 matches, 1989-1994). Asec may not lose many matches, but it does lose players at a rapid pace. Every season the team starts with a squad of youngsters replacing those who’ve left for contracts in Europe.

Speaking is fun too. Thousands of miles from the shackles of the Académie française, French becomes a fluid and dynamic language. Second hand cars are France au revoir (goodbye France) and white people are peau graté (scratched skin). The young men who’ve fled to France dreaming of a better life may be sans-papiers (no papers) over there, but when they come back in the holidays they sweep the local girls off their feet with the trademark designer clothes and gadgets of a successful Parigo (Paris go).

No comments: