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Where The Lagoon Meets the Ocean: Staying in a Village in Cote d’Ivoire

Faty, one of my couchsurfing hosts, invited me to a village two and a half hours west of Abidjan. Getting there involved the standard components of overland travel in Africa: poor driving, absurd delays, ten too many police checkpoints, and several different forms of ass-numbing transportation.

Adjame, the gbaka(a minibus, called tro-tro in Ghana)/bus station in Abidjan, is a nightmare. Too many people trying to hustle money from too few customers. Bus stations are generally miserable everywhere. The desperation is jarring when touts are grabbing you, yelling into your face at the same time they are trying to fight off competitors. Between previous travel experience and teaching middle school in DC, my skin is thick. But there is nothing pleasant about this experience.

suns fan in Cote D'Ivoire

Feenis Sun! This man is most likely not a Suns fan. Realize that many of the clothes you give away to Goodwill and thrift stores end up getting sold in African markets. These are called Dead White Man Clothes.

Once in a gbaka, you are more or less free from harassment. This is a good time for reflection, because you don’t know how long it will be before the gbaka fills up with passengers. On this particular day, our gbaka to Grand Lahou would take an hour to reach capacity and leave the station.

Twenty minutes after leaving, Alpha Blondy is blasting out the speakers, banana plantations out the window, a heavenly breeze taking care of sweat that had accumulated while waiting in the station.

The blissful ride was frequently interrupted by police checkpoints. Ivorian police are diligent in sussing out a bribe. They check every single passengers’ papers, search the car, and interrogate the driver. On our gbaka, they caught a Burkinabe couple in Cote d’Ivoire illegally. They paid 500 CFA, about a dollar, and we were on our way once more.

After the gbaka, we took two different shared taxis, three people in front, four in back, to the lagoon next to the village. From the second shared taxi, a taste of rural Cote D’Ivoire:

The song in the video is Culture’s “International Herb” and it is the actual song we were listening to in the taxi. The soundtrack to this trip was spot on so far.

After the shared taxis we took a motorized, canopied row boat on a fifteen minute trip across a brown lagoon.

The lagoon has several small islands, populated mostly by single families.

Upon arriving we were warmly greeted by Faty’s godfather. I would soon learn that he was also the chief of the village.

We met the rest of the family – the wife and ten children – and then took a walk to the end of the village. We were on a narrow strip of land straddling the ocean on one side, the lagoon on the other. There is a word for this. Isthmus? Ruins of a Portuguese slave trading outpost were everywhere.

Five hundred years ago the Portuguese were loading human cargo into ships on this beach.

The old slave castle had been claimed by some of the village fishermen. One of them, a smiling, chain smoking man named Emmanuel, invited me inside.

The interior looked like a squatters’ settlement. The floor was littered with coconut husks, tomato paste tins, and plastic bottles once filled with palm oil. A woman was smoking fish. The entire place stunk. Flies covered everything except for the chainsmoking Emmanuel. I was surprised at the disorder. Normally African homes are kept very clean. Even dirt floors are frequently swept.

Emmanuel gave us three fish, a generous gift.

Looking back on the slave castle from the end of the beach. This expanse of sand was once where the village stood. Four years ago, because of the rising sea, they moved the entire village a kilometer west to higher ground.

Ocean meets lagoon. This estuary once provided rich fishing grounds. No longer.

Walking back to the relocated village, the red earth of Africa.

Hey there baby goat. Whatcha doing creeping around the ruins?

This is Ezekiel. You can charter a pirogue from him for a few thousand CFA (about four dollars).

Bullshitting with the chief and village council over some palm wine. You know, wheeling and dealing, talking about how much we’re getting for a kilo of coconuts and which women we were going to take to bed from the village saloon.

I might be making this face because I just swallowed fifteen flies (mouches in Cote d’Ivoire). Or maybe because I realized that these men were complete sleazeballs. Andre, Faty’s godfather and chief of the village, complained to me about his family’s poverty. Well then why did you have ten children? Why are you using all your money to get drunk in the afternoon? When I asked him about this, he said “Felipe, I am still a man.” In other words, no matter how bad things are, I should still be able to sit on my ass and drink. This was revolting.

For every man I saw busting his tail on a fishing boat, I saw ten men idle – drinking or sleeping. Their wives and daughters were of course hustling fish, raising children, cooking meals, and maintaining a household. If development is what you want to see in Africa, here is a good plan:

1.Remove 80% of the male population.
2.Provide education to those that remain.
3.Set it and forget it

This seems like the appropriate next step for the West to take in their meddling history with Africa.

(PS – this is not a serious proposition and I recognize that there are indeed plenty of hardworking African men. Consider it a sharp reaction to what I experienced in Lahou-kpanda)

African women are incredibly industrious because they have to be. I can’t count the number of times Faty turned to me and said “African man iz lazy.” Faty’s boyfriend David is perhaps an even bigger critic of African men. It is heartening to see the two of them share the household workload.

Emmanuel’s gift on the grill. We would eat the fish with atchakay (the Ivorian couscous made from cassava) and a sauce of tomatoes, onions, and chili. My favorite meal in Cote d’Ivoire.

The roof of thatched palm fronds is a good place to store your toothbrush

There is no electricity in the village. In the evening, we played an uno-like Ivorian card game called American 8 by kerosene lamp. To the delight of my under-12 opposition, I did not win a single hand. I drank more palm wine and enjoyed the company of the family sans Andre – I had earlier turned down an invitation to drink with him in the village bar. Later, a belly full of palm wine and fish, I had a transcendent moment while taking a leak, looking at the sea colored by moonlight and listening to the call and response drumming and singing of fishermen in the distance.

We rose early the next day to buy fish, but there weren’t any. The boat inscribed with “Jesus Never Fails” is Ghanaian. In an earlier post I described meeting an Ewe fisherman on a deserted beach in Western Ghana. This was unusual because the Ewe are from Eastern Ghana and Togo. Turns out Ewe fishermen are also in Cote d’Ivoire. They are here because they have larger boats and they are not afraid to navigate the open sea. The Ivorians have fished out the lagoon and they are now dependent on transplanted Ghanaian fishermen for their primary source of protein. I nearly killed one of these Ghanaian fishermen when I greeted him in Ewe.

Waiting for fish.

Faty petting a pregnant cat.

A boat of fish eventually arrived, and the purchased fish was taken back to the house to smoke. The smoked fish would be sold in a larger village over the next several days.

An afternoon walk on the beach before heading back to Abidjan. Faty looking radiant in the national orange.

Other news:

I am digging Cote d’Ivoire and I have decided to run out my visa. Then it will be on to Mali. I considered traveling west to Liberia, but I asked myself why I would be doing that. The only reason seemed to be that I wanted to say I had been to Liberia. This is a bad reason to travel somewhere.

I miss Ghana and considered backtracking. I may still, but I have some other ideas about my return to the land of Twi and Banku. Till next time…

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{ 14 comments… add one }

  • John September 17, 2010, 6:56 pm

    What was the name of the village/town? I’d love to know where the slave fort was.

    • phil September 23, 2010, 4:15 pm

      Hey John, the village is Lahou-kpanda

  • phil September 20, 2010, 11:49 am

    John, I will find out the name for you. It is near Grand Lahou. B well, Phil

  • Meghan September 23, 2010, 3:32 am

    Hey Phil,

    Reading your blog makes me miss you! Your trip sounds awesome, but not something I think I could handle (the thought of violently shitting over a mosquito infested hole in the ground makes me hesitate). But, pretty much everything else seems great. I want to see more on people drawing camels.

    Also, it’s interesting how you say you don’t want to travel some place just to say that you’ve been there. I watched a lecture on memory, and the speaker proposed an interesting thought experiment: imagine that you were picking a place to go on vacation, but at the end of your trip you wouldn’t be able to remember a minute of it. So it’s not some place you go to be able to tell people about after, it’s some place you would go just to be in the moment and enjoy it while you were living it. I sort of think I would just go some place beautiful and sit on the beach and do nothing. What’s the point of doing something if you can’t remember it? But maybe that is the point – living to enjoy life in the moment, rather than living to enjoy the memory of your life… ? Or maybe it’s a bit of both. Anyways, whatever it is, I hope you’re well and enjoying your life and the memory of it.

    xoxo from NYC,
    Meg*an

    Btw – I love the clever name for your blog

    • phil September 23, 2010, 3:19 pm

      Meghan, good to hear from you! That is an interesting thought experiment. I am trying to be in the moment as much as possible on this trip and it has more or less worked out. On the other hand I am also spending time documenting most of the trip on this site… How is life in NYC?? Much love, Phil

      YES you spelled your name the right way

  • Francine Paknik September 29, 2010, 1:05 pm

    Hi Phil,
    I am so amazed every time I read your blogs, worried, scared and wondering when your journey might be over and you will return to the states? any idea? Will you go back to teaching?
    I’m so disappointed to see how poor and neglected the areas you have stayed are. I guess I never knew how awful it is there.
    Hope your safe and eating some “real” type food which will agree with you.

    Francine

  • phil October 1, 2010, 2:22 pm

    Francine, I will probably return sometime soon after new year’s. As for teaching, I’m not sure yet. I miss my kids dearly. But I also have a lot of ideas in my head. We shall see. Right now, I am eating excellent food and I would say I have a clean bill of health. **knock on wood** Take care, Phil

  • an american February 2, 2011, 10:53 pm

    Hello Phil,
    It is amazing how you choose to take public tranportation and complain about the wait time.
    I suppose you are a teacher common sence rent an avis car or any other company like most people.
    faty and her family welcomed you in their home for free,and the thank you they received on your blog is your sarcasm.The village has a hotel managed by an american woman with a pool. Grand lahou is the best place to surf in the world. You didn’t take picture of the beautiful homes on the island. You only looked for the ruined europeens invaders era house.

    • phil February 3, 2011, 1:02 am

      Hi,
      Thanks for the comment. I’m not so much complaining as I am describing what is going on. I rather enjoy the chaos and uncertainty of public transport and I understand why it comes across negatively. Read this post http://philintheblank.net/2010/11/19/inside-my-head-five-months-alone-in-west-africa/ for a better idea of why I like public transport despite the delays.

      I was not in Grand Lahou. I was in Lahou-kpanda. There is no hotel or pool. There were no beautiful homes. It was not the home of Faty, it was the home of her godfather, who happened to be the chief of the village. If my behavior seemed inappropriate, understand that Faty was also extremely upset with her godfather and the way he acted while we were there.

      This post is a transparent narrative. It is me reporting what I experienced in Lahou-kpanda (NOT Grand-Lahou – I have no experience of Grand-Lahou other than getting a shared taxi to the lagoon). I’m sorry that you find this post sarcastic, but understand that Faty is a good friend of mine with whom I talk frequently.

      I am keen on showing Africa in a favorable light. It is one of my favorite places to travel. I don’t just want to show pictures of “ruined europeas invaders era house.” But that was Lahou-kpanda. Take it or leave it.

      One day, I will visit Grand-lahou in earnest.

      B well,
      Phil

  • an american February 5, 2011, 5:24 pm

    well, Lahou kpanda is a part of Grand Lahou.The place you took the taxi is also a part of Grand Lahou. if you go Up state and take picture of a swamp, a dirt road or a shack.You visited New York you may not have seeing a beautiful home. It doesn’t mean they don’t exist in the area.The place you visited was called Grand Lahou until 2008 and it is Grand Lahou. The hotel is called “le ravin” you can see the picture online.

    You also said the ivorians are fearful of the ocean.
    In Grand Lahou beach , all the children knew how to swim at an young age. You can not talk about a nation. When you only base your analyse on one place. In any case, it seems to me you assume a lot. I’m refering to the Ewe fishermen.If your grand father was a fisher man. It doesn’t mean your goal is to be a fisher man. For example your grand father may have being a milkman or iceman does that mean you have a fearful of the cow. Are you a milkman or iceman?
    I think we both know the answer.
    A cave may be beautiful to you but it is not to me. The ocean, the coconut trees and sea sand is beautiful to me.

    You and I can agree on a few things. You didn’t see any beggar, homeless man or woman.
    Grand Lahou is a vacation place for the Avikams, away from their homes in the big city.
    The Land you visited is dear to my heart.

    • Phil February 5, 2011, 9:17 pm

      You need to understand a few things.
      1. I write about what I see and experience. I take pictures in the same vein. It was not like there were big houses but I chose not to take pictures of them or talk about them. I simply didn’t see them. The story above is my experience of Grand Lahou/Lahou Kpanda. I’m sorry if I didn’t experience it enough to offer an accurate picture. Understand this is a personal blog. It is not a travel guide for Grand Lahou.
      2. Aside from Faty’s godfather, I enjoyed my time in Grand Lahou/Lahou Kpanda and I would love to go back. In fact, as a whole, I loved Cote D’Ivoire and on my next trip back (In May) I hope to visit friends as well as see more of the country.
      3. I often use sarcasm and dry humor in my posts. Ivorians afraid of the ocean, getting rid of all men in africa, these are not serious claims. If you spend some time reading this site, you will understand this is part of my writing. I am not here to provide objective reports on the places I visit. If someone is researching a place to travel they should consult multiple sources.

      I appreciate your feedback and I appreciate the fact that you are setting me straight on what Grand Lahou is truly like. Even if there were not fancy hotels or nice houses, I still enjoyed myself. I understand the sentiment, though, that Africa is often misperceived. That is something I need to be better at reporting. It will be a big part of my next trip – showing people that there is much more to africa than they know.

      I’m sorry our experiences don’t align right now. Hopefully they will in the future.

      B well,
      Phil

  • Nyatepe July 13, 2012, 4:05 am

    Nice experience

  • Florence Pitman February 24, 2016, 4:52 pm

    Dear Phil,

    First able i want to say thank you to you for this authentic trip and sharing with us. I want also to encoruage you and fair play to you to even publish negative comment. It is always like that peole get defensive onc eyou touch to the truth. yep yep this is the reality no pool , no hotel even if grand lahou is beautiful this is where you were and what you experience. yes most African men drink and spend the household money and fair play to you , to give your support to our sisters , mothers who work hard to support the family. I am Ivoirian, immigrate since 2000 and i wont have done half of what you did during your trip. thank you to have shown the ruin, so important and symbolic of our lost history. Your trip really moved me tonight. and yees every ivoirian complain about the traffic that is insane and i am so happy you mention and use sarcasm mean you well in your shoes and fell free to be yourself, and be real, and actually love the experience you had more than people can understand. (sorry for my bad english) thank you

  • guillaume laubouet April 28, 2016, 7:18 am

    Hi phil its amazing how your narration is real . im ivorian and back in mother land since a year.Lahou-kpanda and my village get the story and probably the same end DISAPPEAR.
    And unfortunatly all the coastal villages of ivory coast will disappear soon or late.
    My village is ADDAH,close to Jacqueville ;on the way to ABIDJAN. So we decide to register a non government organisation to warm ,inform and educate people.
    So i do hope that we can exchange experiences and help a better way people
    thanx

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