Apparently the president of the country requests that it officially be called Côte d’Ivoire by everyone, even those with English as a first language. This seems to be a bit of an anomaly amongst the world’s countries as all countries have differing names, be it local variations, French, English, Portuguese, but Côte d’Ivoire should always be Côte d’Ivoire! The only other example I can think of is East Timor, which is often referred to as Timor-Leste, even amongst many English speakers.
I arrived in Abidjan, the de-facto capital of Côte d’Ivoire after a short flight from Benin and was certainly taken aback by what I found. At first I thought I may be in Ireland, with their flag dotted around the airport terminal building, but upon closer inspection the national flag of Côte d’Ivoire actually has the orange and green stripes on opposite sides to the Irish tricolour. Still, wandering out in to the arrivals hall I still didn’t feel like I was in West Africa. I was greeted by shiny pharmacies, a posh(ish) deli counter and a well stocked newsagent with foreign magazines and newspapers. And on top of that there wasn’t a single taxi driver trying to get my fare in a mad scramble to fleece the arriving passengers.
Abidjan is a fairly big city, with a population approaching four million. Although not the official capital (the much smaller town of Yamoussoukro is), it is the country’s major port and centre of industry and commerce. Some areas of the city have a bad reputation for crime and nefarious activities but, as one would expect, the areas frequented by expats and international travellers are much safer. The shopping centres have countless numbers of security staff dotted around the entrances, around the car parks, and around inside the malls themselves, so it’s clearly a much needed deterrent.
This security guard overload is possibly a reaction to the troubles which the country faced only two years ago. After a coup in 1999 a nationwide civil war ensued for over two years from 2002 to 2004 but then the country had several years of relative calm and peace after a UN peace keeping force arrived to protect civilians. However, trouble flared again in March 2011 between the government and rebel forces from the north who felt ostracized and discriminated against by the politically and economically powerful south. The troubles culminated in the ‘Battle of Abidjan’ which occurred in the first two weeks of April of that year. Most foreigners took refuge at a French base near the airport but many international companies ended up having to evacuate their expatriates from the country altogether. After UN and French military intervention, including air strikes, disorder abated and by the end of April calm had been restored to most of the city.
Today, Abidjan is a bustling city, with bridges connecting the several island groups which make up the metropolitan area. I was very surprised by the shopping environment too. There are several malls and three huge hypermarket chains selling everything an expat would hope to find back home. There is certainly a much better choice of goods in Abidjan than there is in Nigeria, which surprised me considering Nigeria is home to eight times more people than Côte d’Ivoire. A sign of how progressive Abidjan is compared to the surrounding countries was the presence of disabled toilets in the shopping malls – a sight I never thought I’d see in West Africa! The malls even have fairground-esque rides for the kiddies.
Côte d’Ivoire produces 1.25 million tonnes of cocoa a year, which accounts for over a third of the global production – an impressive feat for a country of its size. So when I was munching on my daily Twix fix I felt I was giving something back! The country is somewhat of a powerhouse in West Africa, and contributes 40% of the total GDP of the West African Economic and Monetary Union. However, the country has failed in recent years on the sporting front (they love their soccer here). Famed as a producer of many of the world’s current top football players (no fewer than 11 of the current squad have played in the English Premier League!), they haven’t won the Africa Cup of Nations since 1992 and this is a perennial disappointment to the vociferous locals. Still, they continue to smile and hope things improve next time round.
I’d like to finish this post on a personal note. I’m English. And I love my cup of tea. I drink way too much of the stuff, up to seven or eight cups a day. So when I’m hopping around the world on the data collection trail it is always a huge relief when I swing open my hotel room door for the first time and see a kettle, tea bags (only English breakfast will do), sugar and milk (be it dried sachets or those small liquid pots). I often spend many an evening in my hotel room writing up data, or indeed this very blog, and a cuppa every now and then helps keep me going. Alas, the Novotel in Abidjan had no milk powder or small pots and so I was sans tea whilst in Abidjan. And previously in Benin, there was milk and sugar but only mint tea! So I’ve now decided that on all future trips I will take my own tea bags, sugar and milk as it can be a pain having to source my own tea survival kit as I had to in Abidjan. I’m flying to Djibouti, in East Africa, this afternoon and top of my ‘packing’ list is Twinings best English breakfast tea. Mmm, I’m looking forward to the trip already!