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Red Roofs of Yop City Part III: Abbey and Jula

The following is the 3rd and final part of a piece on Toits Rouges, a neighborhood in the Yopougon quartier of Abidjan. I have spent a lot of time in this neighborhood over the past several years. I hope this offers an accurate picture of that place. See part 1 and part 2 first.

If you knocked down one of Mr. Konate’s walls, you would find yourself in the living room of the Boni’s, the Abbey family that lives next door. You would see Mr. Boni, sitting on the edge of a love seat, shirtless, playing free-cell on a computer that has defied all expectations of age. And then you would see Jean, the three-year-old son of Laurence, the Boni’s housekeeper, sprawled across the thin carpet, toying with Mr. Boni’s wheelchair. Looming above Jean, an armoire filled with plastic flowers, stackable bowls and family photos. In earlier times, a civet cat named Princesse Loulou patrolled the room.


Every now and then Mr. Boni will yell for Priscille, his youngest daughter. “Prisciiiillee!!!!!!!” His voice often cracks when he does this and Priscille, who is probably playing 8 Americain (a card game) with her friends while selling tomatoes, onions, peppers, maggi cubes, chewing gum, and chilled sachets of water, rarely hears his initial call. Baby Jean will then squeal his own “Prisciiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!!!” (“Prisciiiiiiii” was actually the first word he spoke as a child) in a higher register, and this is typically followed by a shorter, much angrier “PRISCILLE!” from Odile aka Didy aka D-lo, the oldest daughter, who has at this point grown tired of all the yelling coming from the living room. If Priscille has not yet responded, la Vieille Mere, Mrs. Boni, will launch a “PriscillloooOOooooh!!!!!!” that will be heard in the toits rouges allocodrome, half a kilometer away.


La vieille mere with baby Jean

La vieille mere is a tall and very sturdy woman. Her foutou is unmatched in the neighborhood, possibly the country, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better storyteller. If you need a laugh, ask her about the time neighborhood kids tried to climb the mango tree in front of her house. Or ask her about the time she found herself on a bus headed to Burkina Faso with a trader that was moving large quantities of Thiouraye (Senegalese incense that can perfume a house, a bedroom, or women’s clothes…).

With her husband, la vieille mere has 5 children: Odile, Fabrice, Fabian, Isidore and Priscille. Four of the five children live in the family house. Priscille is in junior secondary school, Fabian works in a cyber cafe, Fabrice has an accounting internship, and Odile is trying tirelessly to pass the BAC, the end-of-high school exam that all students have to take before moving on to higher education. Isidore is a plantain farmer in the village, but he takes frequent trips to Abidjan, profiting from Yopougon’s nightlife and la vieille mere’s cooking.


Fabrice with Loulou

Mr. Boni lost the use of his legs after a stroke some years ago. He has vowed to walk by January 1st, 2014, and is currently logging heavy hours with a physical therapist to make that a reality. Prior to the stroke, Mr. Boni had a well paying job with Cote d’Ivoire’s national power company. He continues to receive a state pension which, along with occasional remittances from a brother living in France, supports the Boni family financially.


Le vieux pere

Le vieux pere, Mr. Boni, holds the high score in freecell, solitaire, spider solitaire, Zuma and minesweeper on the family computer. He has also exhausted the uses of Microsoft Excel. In general, Mr. Boni has great facility with anything that runs on electric current. I have seen him repeatedly resurrect the same tired fan for nearly 3 years now. When he is not on the computer, or rewiring and repairing household items, Mr. Boni is often sitting in the walkway between his front door and the kitchen, a perch that allows him to survey the neighborhood. In the hot season, he sits outside underneath the mango tree.

Mr. and Mrs. Boni love each other. I learned this early on, but evidence regularly presents itself. Several days ago, I watched them have a 20 minute conversation about Mongooses (Loulou the civet cat ran away and now the Boni’s are considering a mongoose to replace her. For real. I thought Mongooses were nasty, aggressive animals, but the Boni’s assured me that they make excellent pets. Was I thinking about muskrats?), and in this conversation about a bush animal, they smiled at each other and laughed hysterically. I laughed also, but mostly because I think this whole mongoose as a pet thing is absurd.


A mongoose from wikipedia

The Boni’s come from southern Cote d’Ivoire. Their village is an hour by road from Abidjan. Some would call them a typical Yopougon family. Southern, Christian, pro-Gbagbo. To an extent, they fit that description. They consider Ouattara’s election illegitimate and Gbagbo’s detention at the ICC, illegal. “Sarkozy” is practically a curse word in their household and you wouldn’t be surprised if you heard a crack about the ambulant Dioula traders that walk through the neighborhood – la vieille mere could be particularly derisive, often talking about a Dioula merchant in their presence, making the assumption that they didn’t understand French.

But earlier this year, I saw a different side of la vieille mere. It was a Sunday and one of the daughters from a wealthy Dioula family living in the neighborhood was getting married. The intersection at the opposite end of cinema boissy was closed down for the event and neighbors didn’t waste any time wandering over to see what was going on. Wedding guests guided their boubous of bazin riche to plastic chairs ornamented with garlands of fake flowers. Affou Keita, a popular Ivorian singer, rolled up in a shiny 4×4 (she would serve as both MC and griot). The bride emerged and reemerged in increasingly elaborate outfits, and women danced in a line behind her as she made her way down a red carpet to an oversized chair.


The bride. Sorry for the quality, the lighting was poor and the photo was taken with an iphone 3gs.

Affou Keita singing at the wedding

La vieille mere was standing next to me when the bride made her first appearance. When she leaned over to tell me something, I braced myself for the knock on some Dioula cultural practice. Instead, she told me that the bride was stunning and that it was one of the most beautiful weddings she had ever seen. I left before the wedding was over, but la vieille mere stayed until the end, having sent Priscille to fetch both her glasses and a chair.

Several months later, la vieille mere created a new income stream for the Boni family. She began selling tete de boeuf (cow heads) in the toits rouges market. Almost all of the merchants in the market are Dioula and la vieille mere was obligated to learn a few basic words. Before long, she became friends with many of the women who sold alongside her and some of them regularly stop by the Boni household in the evenings to greet the family. It’s been a while since I’ve heard la vieille mere make fun of a Dioula trader.

Yopougon hosted some of the uglier scenes in Cote d’Ivoire’s post election crisis, and politicians have done little in the way of genuine reconciliation efforts. But in many cases, reconciliation is happening on its own. That doesn’t mean that top-down reconciliation doesn’t need to happen. It does. It does because each time attention turns towards Gbagbo’s trial, or elections at any level, the same political and ethnic tensions can reemerge and there are politicians and party activists that won’t hesitate to harness them.

In Yopougon, Abbey families live next to Dioula families and most residents have the same interests – better public health, infrastructure, education and job opportunities. There are areas of Cote d’Ivoire where ethnic divisions involve land rights and a history of inter-community tension, but often it’s politicians that have put in work to divide people. Let us hope that they start taking their responsibilities seriously.


That’s it for this series on the Toits Rouges neighborhood of Yopougon. For parts 1 and 2, click here and here. I am back in Abidjan now, working with friends to scale up our food biz. More updates on that and other things to come.

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{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Nick (theboywander) July 10, 2013, 2:39 am

    That sounds incredible. Off I go to read Parts 1 and 2 though!

    • phil July 10, 2013, 8:18 am

      what sounds incredible?

  • Maggie Dodson July 10, 2013, 8:16 am

    It’s riveting reading, Phil. Please don’t give up on telling these stories.

    • phil July 10, 2013, 8:19 am

      Thanks a lot, Maggie. Appreciate that.

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