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Thoughts and Photos from Abidjan a Year After Elections and my First Visit

1. In this part of the Yopougon neighborhood of Abidjan, a row of houses backs up to a sandy tree-filled corridor where you’ll find 4 twenty-something Ivorians playing monopoly. The properties are all Parisian landmarks. Gare de Lyon costs $125 in monopoly money.

In the same corridor, you will find small roadside bars and barbershops, women frying plantains and doughnuts, boutiques selling baguettes and firecrackers, and boxy cafes with built in bar stools serving up hyper-sweet nescafe, spaghetti, and avocado, cucumber, tomato, and onion salad.

I love all of these things.

2. A recent Al Jazeera article speculated that coupe-decale (I talked about this music here) could soon be coming to an end as a music genre. The argument went something like this: coupe-decale was born out of Cote d’Ivoire’s civil conflict. Now that the conflict is over, there will be a return to the more mellow music of zouglou or perhaps something altogether different. Nice argument, but not the case at all. Coupe-decale, a genre created by Ivorians living abroad, is very much the music of Abidjan.

“The reasons of [coupe-decale]’s birth make it a movement that will come to a close.” That quote from an Ivorian professor and performance industry developer. Not surprising that a performance industry developer would predict the demise of coupe-decale – coupe-decale has little in the way of performance or live music – but what he needs to understand is that coupe-decale is dance music and Ivorians still like to dance to it. Civil conflict is not part of that equation.

Coupe-decale on Christmas. If you don’t dance to it, it will just rattle your brain.

3. Reconciliation is going to be difficult. Every street in Abidjan is lined with news stands. The newspapers are tacked to a board and anyone who stops by is treated to a war of headlines, many of which border on libel. Pro-Gbagbo newspapers take shots at Ouattara and pro-Ouattara papers fire back from the other direction.

I have a friend who was/is a fervent Gbagbo supporter. I can’t have a political conversation with him. He gets too upset. He has not bought into the new government at all and he’s confident Ouattara is going to ruin the country. There are many who feel this way.

While northern Cote d’Ivoire is decidedly pro-Ouattara, the south and west are more evenly split with Gbagbo carrying a majority of support in some areas. Within much of Abidjan, lines of support are hard to discern. Many people say that Yopougon is a pro-Gbagbo neighborhood. At the same time, I stayed in a Yopougon house of 3 families, one Malian and two from northern Cote d’Ivoire. Dioula and Bambara were commonly heard and everyone supported Ouattara. The fact that Yopougon is a neighborhood of mixed political allegiances is one reason there was significant violence there.

The political situation is complex. It was never as clean or straight forward as North vs. South or Christian vs. Muslim. Reconciliation is going to be an enormous task. It will take years. Ouattara has formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but it’s not enough.

If Ouattara wants to convince the opposition that he is serious about reconciliation, he is going to have to first address the charge that he is ignoring/allowing/sanctioning impunity when it comes to the soldiers that fought for him. He is in a fragile spot politically. He doesn’t want to prosecute those that fought on his behalf, but there is clearly a lack of discipline within the ranks of FRCI forces. No FRCI commanders have been sent to the ICC or prosecuted within Cote d’Ivoire, despite the fact that there was clearly a massacre committed in the western part of the country. It remains to be seen whether something will be done about this.

The Christmas menu included crocodile steaks. Not bad.

4. Cote d’Ivoire’s economy is on the move. Ouattara is an economist and his background is clearly having an impact. The central business district of Abidjan is filled with construction projects. There is road reparation going on throughout the city (as well as throughout the country – saw road work being done into the evening on a Friday night on the road to Yamoussoukro). Samsung recently announced that they are building a store in Abidjan that will rival the size of their Paris and Dubai outposts.

I strongly recommend reading this post from Martin at Hotel Ivory. I can vouch for many of his observations. The reduction in checkpoints is entirely accurate. Last year, I dealt with close to ten checkpoints between the border of Ghana and Abidjan. This is a relatively short distance and close to two hours was added to our trip specifically because of the checkpoints. This year, there was one and we weren’t even stopped. Want to encourage trade with your neighbors? A good place to start is by making it easy to transport goods and people throughout your country.

Growing the economy may do more for reconciliation than anything else. Ivorians have dealt with years of economic stagnation, mostly because the political situation remained uncertain for close to a decade. Even before the crisis of 2002, the country suffered from a one-dimensional economy that was rocked by falling cocoa prices. Right now, there are clear efforts to eliminate corruption and diversify the economy. If these efforts are sustained, Cote d’Ivoire will once again be the powerhouse of West Africa.

One my partners in the restaurant/catering biz serving up a delicious lentil stuffed chicken.

5. I am officially going into business in Cote d’Ivoire. Over the past year, I have created a mini online business that has sustained my travels. This will be something altogether different. I have partnered with two Ivorian friends (former couchsurfing hosts, actually) and we’ve now made our initial investment, worked out contracts, salaries, and profit-sharing. There is a good chance I will be returning to Abidjan as the project takes on a more physical form.

It’s going to be a joint restaurant and catering business. The catering will be specifically focused on offering lunch to office buildings in Plateau, the central business district. In Plateau, affordable lunch options are limited outside of a few areas that are concentrated with vendors. The idea is to offer an affordable menu (3 different plates each day) that would be delivered to the office.

Right now we are securing the space and assembling the team. From there, we will be preparing a sample menu and delivering some free meals along with our pitch. One reason I am so confident in this venture is that Faty and David, my partners, are incredibly motivated and hardworking and, importantly, they seriously know what they are doing in the kitchen.

I’m very excited about this project. Even if it were to fail completely, I could survive losing the initial investment. That said, I think it could be really successful. At the very least, it will be a learning experience. Stay tuned to the blog for my updates on this.

I am in Bamako at the moment, enjoying the cool night air, reconnecting with friends and familiar faces, figuring out what’s next. For now, here are some more photos from Abidjan:

Cooking up some onions. Notice the camel.

Fabrice drinking Efes Extra (9% Turkish beer) with a civet on his shoulder.

The lagoon at Assinie, a short drive down the coast from Abidjan

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{ 12 comments… add one }

  • Skott - Get Up and Globe January 5, 2012, 10:14 am

    Good luck with this business venture Phil – wishing you all the best!
    Say hi to Matt and the team in Bamako…Happy New Year!

    • phil January 5, 2012, 12:43 pm

      Thanks Skott! Will do. Happy New Year to you as well 🙂

  • John January 5, 2012, 11:55 am

    You might want to take a look at the competition…

    • phil January 5, 2012, 12:45 pm

      I don’t think we are in the same league as your wife 🙂 Our whole thing is weekday office lunches – does she do that as well? In any case, if she does, we are screwed.

  • Dalene January 5, 2012, 12:04 pm

    Glad to hear some relatively good news coming out of that area. And BIG congrats on the business, can’t wait to hear more about it! Who wouldn’t want to do business with a guy that has a camel shaved in his head? 🙂

    • phil January 5, 2012, 12:46 pm

      hehe, thanks for the vote of confidence, Dalene!

  • Martin January 5, 2012, 1:17 pm

    Thanks for the mention! Great photos – I really wish I was in Abidjan. And welcome to the club of small scale business starters in Abidjan! Wish you all the best!

  • Ben Gubits January 5, 2012, 4:39 pm

    Curious to hear how your Coupe-decale moves are coming long. I think we need some flip vid action of the hotness!!

    Fantastic pictures bud. This site is such a perfect escape from work. Let me know the status of your trip North to the Festi……

    One Love

  • Katrina January 6, 2012, 5:29 am

    I really liked this post. It got an, “OH, MY GOD!” out of me when I saw the crocodile steak. Wow! That’s amazing! How did it taste? (I made Dario guess what was in the photo, too, heh heh.)

    Looking forward to hearing about your new business venture. I hope it goes wonderfully well!

    ps: I want a civet!

  • Andi of My Beautiful Adventures January 6, 2012, 1:39 pm

    Congrats on the new biz venture! GOOD LUCK!!!! Happy New Year 🙂

  • Bed and Breakfast Luray January 13, 2012, 12:12 am

    Your pics shows that life is coming back there as we can see happiness on their face.

    Good Luck for your new business.

  • Pettina07 January 25, 2012, 8:07 am

    Every image contains a very wonderful happiness. Love it.

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