Tuesday 25 June 2013

o : Abidjan

PAKO Gourmand Café
Rue des Jardins, Deux Plateaux
Ivory Coast

Dear o,

The city of Abidjan has skyscrapers, patisseries, freeways, traffic jams, big soft-drink and skin-tone adjusting product billboards, a white-collar office class, corrugated-iron-roofed slums, fast food restaurants and an historic colonial resort village just half an hour down a narrow island.  Since we crossed Gibraltar, we’ve visited urban centres of comparable size (Dakar, Casablanca) but nothing like this clustered, western-moulded New World style city.  Abidjan has the feel of a place that has never stopped moving, never stopped growing, never stopped cramming.  It has all the major centre joys and big city problems, glossed by a veneer of monuments, tall post-modern churches, and a shiny glass downtown.

And, just two years ago, it had war.

It’s hard to imagine a sniper positioned behind an accountant’s desk, looking out over wide, lined roads empty of all vehicles but tanks and APCs, taking shots at a city of millions in hiding.  Where did all the cars go?  Where did all the people hide?  How did they get food, water, fuel, electricity, medical care?  And how did they get all this back together so fast, with everything looking flashy and new, without bullet-holes or bomb craters?  Surely they couldn’t hide all the scars – they couldn’t even be scars yet.  A war that recent would still have scabs, open wounds, and blood.

Wearing a cloak of forced naivety, I asked a cab driver named Raimey if the war had come to Abidjan itself.  Bien sur!”  In the actual city?  Yes, he said, right in the centre.  For months.  Every night, pop pop pop, and every day, pop pop pop; there were no cars on the roads, no people out on the streets, everybody was hiding and waiting.  Many bad things happened.  3000 people died in the city alone.  It was the end of the world.

But everything looks so good now, I said.  It is good, he said.  It’s over, forever.  Never again, I said.  He agreed: never again.

It was only when I got out and paid him that I saw the deep, fresh scar around around his eye, pronounced by a broad full-faced smile.  What was his story?  Where did he hide?  How did he fight?

The Ivory Coast might have had the most recent civil war (2010-2011), but there is nothing at all unique about having had a contemporary conflict in this part of Africa.  In fact, a country here is terribly special when it has somehow avoided mass, organised violence.  Of the 20 countries we intend to visit on this overland crossing, 14 have experienced civil war, an international war fought at least in part on its territory, or significant violent insurrection/subjugation in the past 50 years.  Of the remaining six, only one (Tanzania) has avoided a military coup.

Sierra Leone’s long 1991-2002 civil war was one of the most notorious, because of the wanton brutality, unprecedented child soldiery, and nearly complete coverage of the whole nation.  Both Al and I read Ishmael Beah’s first-hand account, Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, prior to visiting the country, and the thing I couldn’t get out of my head as we approached the border from Guinea was that I was almost guaranteed to meet not only someone who had been caught up in the war, but someone who as a child was forced into service by the government or the rebels.  It might be crude to say, but a large proportion of people between the age of 20 and 40 in Sierra Leone have killed someone.  Can you see that, feel that, breathe that?

Tommy was the Sierra Leonean at Bureh Beach who organized our food, boat to Banana Island, and a tarp-roof over our tent.  He had worked in tourism on this beautiful beach near Freetown since 1982, showing people around the village, offering sweet-scented hash, and overseeing the groundnut sauce cuisine.  I asked him, knowing the simple answer but hoping for more, if the war killed tourism here.  He nodded.  Did the war come to the village?  This is what he said:

The war was here.  The rebels came.  Bad things happened.  When they came to the village all of us went in the cemetery, over that way.  We slept there, and we ate there, and we waited there.  We were sure we were going to die.  We stayed in the cemetery because if they were going to kill us, we would already be in the right place. 

After one night in the intense wind and rain on Bureh Beach, we left our car at the village to be guarded by Tommy and his team, and crossed over by fishing boat to the roadless tropical paradise of Banana Island.  We stayed at a beachside guesthouse operated by a man named Dalton, whose beefy face was visible throughout the nearby village, tacked to trees: he is running for election as Island Headman.  We came here for just one night in the hope to go diving off Banana Island at the recently established Dive Centre, but unfortunately, the British man who runs the centre had gone home for the almost-touristless (except for us, of course) rainy season just a few weeks before.  We were left to wander the island, read in an ocean-view treehouse, and wait several hours the next morning for our boat to return in the nasty weather (we got happily drenched on the way back from the island). 

We visited another guesthouse, this one run by a vodka-faced Latvian man named Harry who had come to Sierra Leone only a few months after the war ended.  He ran a newspaper in Freetown for some years before suddenly turning his back and getting a boat to the island, where he now lives in great contentment with his family and friends, eating peanuts and fish, both of which he gets for himself.  When we stumbled on and were welcomed to his guesthouse, he and his circle were gathered for the afternoon chat, under the shade of a gazebo.  Everyone was sweating, everyone was listening, and everyone was chipping in: maybe they do this every day, talk politics to whisk away the heat, while the blonde and tanned young boy bounces his plastic ball.  In any case, the conversation shifted from how island-life beats city-life, to the evil of big corporations and government, to the war, to slavery.  

Sierra Leone was founded in the 19th century by the British as a colony for freed slaves, much like neighbouring Liberia by the United States.  There is an acute awareness of the history especially here on the island, which was a major slave trading post.  But like the much more recent war, there is no sign of the slave-trade, or at least not one we can see.  A fisherman who sat on the gazebo railing at Harry’s spoke up in the discussion: there are apparently some old British cannons up on the island’s big hill, built in the slave-trading years to protect the human cattle, now buried in the earth.  Someone is said to have found them once, but no one at Harry’s can verify the rumour.  He’s been looking for months, because he loves history.  He says that history is only real when you can see it.

Another fisherman showed us back to the village, from where we turned to Dalton’s guesthouse.  On the walk he told us he was the Headman during the war, and that 16,000 people came to the Banana Island seeking a safe haven.  The war itself never touched the island, but fighter jets flew over every day, and from the shores the islanders could watch the navy ships bombard the forests of the mainland.  I asked if the rebels or army tried to come to the island, bringing their guns and knives and minds drugged by bloodlust, and he said yes.  What happened?  Bad things happened.

Liberia tells another of Africa’s saddest stories.  The freed slaves who founded the new nation, using an almost identical flag to the father country, the US, with just one star in the blue corner, eventually became in all but name slaveowners themselves.  The nation’s tribal people’s, who today outnumber the Americo-Liberians (descendants of freed slaves) almost 20 to one, were forced into hard labour for little or nothing in return, many on plantations reminiscent of the Caribbean and American South, while the ruling class lived away and on high.  In the 1980s, the majority rose up, and a generation of nasty civil war ensued.

In Liberia, too, the past is hard to find.  There is poverty and hardship, of course, but also some of the friendliest and welcoming people we’ve met.  Everyone wanted to say hello and talk about what we’re doing, where we’re going, and what we think of Liberia.  There is still a huge pride in the history of a nation founded almost 200 years ago on a principle that we today, even if it is threatened by spies or warped by the powerful, take for granted – liberty.

In Liberia we spent a night in a school playing field, much like in Weling, and an elderly man approached our truck to say hello.  We asked permission to stay and he shook his head as if we shouldn’t ask, and said that would be fine.  He spoke about his village, his people, and its history.  When he told me that the war came to his village, I didn’t prompt him, but I did ask what happened.  He said what I have come to expect, the phrase that comfortably buries the past but still says everything you fear: bad things happened.

It was when he said this that I looked at his face and saw a scar, not so fresh as cab driver Raimey’s, but also around the eye, and just as deep.  It was the same sort of scar I see on the faces of the military at checkpoints in Abidjan, on the face of the kid who sold us banana chips on the out-of-the-blue freeway, on the woman in the unnamed village who waved at us with glee.  It was a scar that changed the way he moved his mouth when he spoke, and said goodnight to us.  It was a scar that made a smile look difficult.  But the man did smile.  He only smiled.

I don’t know if I want to know what lies beside the buried rusty British cannons, what sliced into the flesh to make so many scars, what bad things happened.  But I do need to know, as do we all, that they did.  Somehow, maybe, burying is not quite forgetting.



Bureh Beach, Sierra Leone
Mako the fisherman and Tommy the middleman
View from the Treehouse, Dalton's Guesthouse, Banana Island
Dalton for Island Headman
Advertisement in Liberia
Heading towards downtown Abidjan