Most of the residential areas in Abidjan, at least the more wealthy ones, have gatekeepers for their streets. It’s kind of a communal decision, and everybody within the “cité” pays their tribute. Anyways, this one gatekeeper kept calling me “Le blanc” (the white guy) and saluted me every time I enter or exit my cite. Saluting, not figuratively, but literally – putting his hand up to his head and standing straight, as in military. It was funny in the beginning, but when I realised also outside the cité I was being called le blanc, I started to sense there is a certain image or expectation linked to it.
As a white person in Cote d’Ivoire, you have already won the minute you set foot in the country. People will treat you with respect and friendliness unparalleled in your home country. You will be offered marriage multiple times a day if you’re among people, you will be offered food and drinks everywhere you go, people have been asking me to visit them at their homes and to meet their families. When you leave your friends’ places, they ask you to give them a call when you arrived home safely. Taxi drivers will offer their services as soon as they spot you from hundred metres away, up to the point where it gets annoying. Security controls will let you pass without any questions asked.
But why this favouritism, unconditional trust and respect? The situation in Cote d’Ivoire is very special. There still is a big French ground force in zone 4 of Abidjan, and in total there around 10.000 men of UN troops in the country. During the reign of President Felix Houphouet Boigny, the country opened its borders to foreign immigration from far and wide, and especially drew in experts and entrepreneurs from France. His policy was that “Cote d’Ivoire is a friend to all and an enemy to none”. The result was a great rise of economy in the private sector. Unfortunately, the 90s were a tough time due to financial mismanagement, economy collapsed and didn’t rise again. The country divided into south and north, and ten years of civil war followed. During war, a country cannot develop. People are focussed on survival in the moment, instead of looking into the future. This way of thinking still persists up to now, when times are peaceful.
When President Laurent Gbagbo came to power, his approach was to get the whites out of the country. “Go home, French!” was one of the mottos. When he lost elections to Alassane Ouattara in 2010, he didn’t accept the result and still “crowned” himself President. One cannot follow two masters, so unfortunately an armed conflict broke out. Many of the families that I know here escaped to Ghana, others withdrew to safe zones like the hotels which were hosting foreign workers and ministers, and were defended by the national army. During this time though, a great part of European, American and Asian immigrants fled the country, never to return again. As a result, many companies collapsed, and the unemployment rate rose. Furthermore, about 65.000 ex-combatants were left without a job, but with their weapons, mostly old Kalashnikovs, imposing a great threat to public security. Who in his sane mind would return to a country in such a condition? Only the bravest did.
After Gbagbo’s forces diminished due to his not being able to pay them anymore, he was brought before the ICC (International Criminal Court), and peace once returned to this country. President Ouattara now speaks of “regaining our former glory”, and he is opening up again for foreign investors and immigration.
So, that was a bit of a background info. Unfortunately in other places there is such strong resentment, such as The Gambia and The Republic of South Africa, where politicians and even Presidents openly degrade and speak against “European Colonialism”. Cote d’Ivoire is very different in its approach toward whites.
I’ve been reading the “New African”, a pan-African magazine in English. Going through the interviews, my heart is split. The general agenda is anti-UN, anti-Europe and anti-ICC (from most authors). There is pride and ambition to develop a strong Africa, but often the scapegoat or source of inspiration is hate against whites, against Europe and the US. One reason why I came here is to help the country develop and for it to improve the living conditions of its population. But if many African countries rise to power and become prime countries of the world, will this spirit of anti-Europeanism result in anything good? Will the former slave turn against his former master, once he feels the power to do so? Are nationalism and racism an inevitable crutch on the path to a profound African identity? Whites have exploited and still are exploiting Africa to this day. I am only wondering what I can do to apologize and bring reconciliation. Is it enough to buy fair trade products? What can I personally do?
So what I thought I’d do is that I tell the gatekeeper my name. He still salutes me, but we also shake hands now. 🙂