Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast

  • Date
  • 10 April 2000
  • Lodging
  • Hotel President
  • Distance
  • 218 KM
  • Total
  • 70015 KM

Basilique de Notre Dame de la Paix (the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace) in Yamoussoukro left me speechless. Consecrated 10 September 1990 by Pope John Paul II, the interior of the cathedral holds 7,000 seated and 11,000 standing; the exterior court holds 30,000 and another 150,000 in the space between the columns of the esplanade. Who the government is expecting to fill these spaces is a mystery since fewer than 10 percent of Ivory Coast’s 15 million people are Catholic. When we visited no one was worshiping or visiting. We did see about 30 employees on the payroll who napped in the pews.

Built in just three years, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace is modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome, which took over a century to complete. Inside are 7400 meters of stained glass (more than the extraordinary cathedral at Chartres) and individual air conditioning ducts at each of the 7000 seats (used only twice: when the Pope visited and at the funeral of Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the former president and mastermind of the cathedral). Supposedly a papal request is the only reason the cupola is just a hair lower than St. Peter’s dome. Houphouet-Boigny wanted his shrine to be bigger and better than the best.

How could Houphouet-Boigny and his government justify spending this massive amount (over US$150million) on a structure to be used by so few of the population? Muslims make up about 25 percent of Ivory Coast’s population and 65 percent favor traditional religions. Only 12 percent are Christians. As might be expected Houphouet-Boigny avoided talking about costs and when pushed said, ‘The price was peace’. Ivory Coast is one of the more developed countries in West Africa, yet poor living conditions and the lack of education, sanitation and health care are realities here. When I look at the massive cathedral complex including two mansions (one built for the Pope and one for the local priests), the closed snack bar and shop, the lush, green gardens and lavish, yet empty parking areas – I just kept thinking how could the former president ever rationalize that he was doing the people’s business or God’s business for that matter?