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Articles Blog

Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire

Karyn Planett

Yes, it's time to practice your high school French.  That is only if you don't speak Mande, Malink, Dan, Senoufo, Baoul, Agni, or Dioula.  Chances are, however, that you'll run into enough people who speak English in Abidjan because the Ivory Coast is a relatively well-developed African country.  And, Abidjan is a very new city.  It only really came into full existence in 1951.

Some Fifty Years Ago

Thankfully, this country never really experienced the slaving that was carried on in neighboring nations.  That is because Côte d'Ivoire's harbors weren't as accessible for slaving ships to call in as those further along the coast. 

Our history books tell us the French were established here as early as the 1840s.  Through a commercial alliance drawn up between the local chiefs and representatives of the court of King Louis-Philippe, France monopolized commerce in the area. 

Crops such as coffee, cocoa, bananas, and palm trees were cultivated.  Settlers settled.  Forced labor became an institution. 

Local personalities eventually emerged as leaders and voiced their objection to France's involvement.  One of them, Felix Houphou‘t-Boigny, became known as the "Father Of Independence".  In fact, he was the first African accepted into the French National Assembly in Paris, therefore also the first from his continent to become a governmental minister in Europe.  Houphou‘t-Boigny led this nation for 33 years, until his death in 1993.

Independence came to Côte d'Ivoire in 1960.  Even so, a workable economic arrangement continued with the French.  The country experienced relative prosperity.

But everything really exploded for Abidjan when, in 1951, something known as the Vridi Canal was completed.  This channel successfully connected the Eberle Lagoon with the sea.  Within the last five decades, Abidjan's population multiplied from a mere 60,000 to a staggering three and one half million residents. 

Somebody Has To Do All Their Laundry

In fact, the men do it.  They're called fanicos.  A group of 375 of them sticks to a rigorous code of rules detailed by their union that states in which order they go to the river to pound the laundry on the rocks; where they spread their clients' clothes to dry, etc.  In fact, this blizzard of drying laundry stretches almost one-quarter mile. 

For soap, the fanicos use black palm oil soap supplied by the local ladies.  This whole drama, similar to the one played out daily at Bombay's Dhobi Ghats, is quite intriguing to witness.

For the record, note that most of these washermen are not Ivoirian, but men who have emigrated south to Côte d'Ivoire from Burkina Faso.

Art and Entertainment

Like so many of their brethren across Africa, the Ivorians are marvelous artists.  The Senoufo people, respected farmers in their own right, perform several celebrated and lively dances.  Their masks are elaborate and created for specific purposes, such as driving away evil spirits.  Their fabric, known as Senoufo cloth, is also quite decorative and lovely.  Even their woodcarvings are to be treasured, as are those of the Baoul_ people.  You might find their carvings of colons (colonists) offered for sale by master carvers.  Many of these items are displayed at Abidjan's Marche de Cocody.

The wood or copper masks worn by the Dan people are extraordinary, as well.  It is said that they do more than simply hide the identity of the wearer but also give members of the clan knowledge and a code of ethics.  They can, it is also believed, even influence such important matters as the sex of someone's unborn child or the outcome of a farmer's agricultural efforts.

And, if all this isn't just thrilling enough, there's something called "Child Juggling".  Practiced by certain Ivorians, these trained jugglers (who spend years in isolation learning this skill from their fathers) literally catapult very young girls high into the air then catch them as they tumble back down.  All the while, these girls remain calm and quiet so the jugglers can concentrate.  There is a great deal of fanfare and, well fear, that goes into this drama.  While we may frown on such an acrobatic terror, it is a part of this country's culture and something we should learn about.

Well, the most important thing you'll probably be juggling is your time.  While your visit to the Ivory Coast is limited, your day will be quite fulfilled with enough tales to dazzle even your most jaded friend back home.