Abidjan, Ivory Coast

  • Date
  • 14 April 2000

West Africa pulls me in. The people, much like in China and Russia, are the highlight verses museums and churches. Sites don’t distract. I’m drawn to the diversity of desert, savanna and now green, North Carolina-like landscape with changing flatlands, hills and small mountains. Livestock grazes on next to nothing and donkey carts (one hit our parked car) fill the streets along with trucks, cars and motor scooters. We ride through towns lit only by candles in the evening; we see homes with no running water or sanitation and a hospital where chickens run freely on a dirty floor.

The women are strong, the men hustle and children are eager to interact. Women wear colorful fabrics and effortlessly carry atop their heads massive bowls overflowing with laundry, bananas or sometimes eggs. Seems like every young woman carries her baby strapped on her back, yet this part of the world has one of the highest infant mortality rates. Young people – often less than 10 years old – fill the streets shining shoes to earn much-needed money instead of sitting in a classroom to learn book knowledge.

In Mali, I found myself sweating to death, yet not minding as I admired an 11-year-old operate his own tea stand beside the road. His wall-less teahouse included two kettles, sugar, tea, mint, coal and small stove top, washing tub and four small glasses. Here in Abidjan – the hustlers on the streets create jobs for themselves – ‘finding’ us a parking space even though the spot was open – or selling fake and stolen perfume, watches, sunglasses, babies clothes, leather mobile phone holders and more.

From country to country and even region to region, religion plays an overwhelming role. Some markets are filled with animist items and some towns have mosques and churches. But tribalism is perhaps an ever-stronger influence; the significance of the tribe should never be underestimated. The farther we travel into West Africa, the more I hear people define themselves as a Mandinka or Wolof verses a Gambian or Senegalese.

Daily we see Old Africa sometimes battle and other times embrace New Africa. I am captivated by this changing, yet compelling part of the world.