This week marks one year in West Africa. Always being on the go, I know a small amount about a large number of places. And while I no longer see rural areas as much as I’d like, the cities I’ve visited offer much insight to a region whose urbanization has more than quadrupled in the past few decades. Here are some superficial observations captured in brief:
Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire
Abidjan is an illustration of contradictions. Despite its vastness, copious volumes of traffic and the post-conflict atmosphere, there’s something special about this city. With its tree-lined curvy roads, a lagoon bordered by forest and skyscrapers and an evident affluence mixed into the local African flavor, it’s no surprise that Abidjan used to be called, “The Paris of Africa.” During my most recent one-week trip there, the electricity went out only once whereas in other West African countries it goes out everyday, several times a day. One expat I met didn't even have a generator at home, something that is an absolute necessity in Côte d'Ivoire's neighboring countries.
Signs abound however of recent conflict: Bullet holes in walls, sandbags and cement blockades left behind by foreign armed forces and the ever-continuing presence of UN Peacekeepers, milling about town in their blue caps. Many international and local actors continue to address residual tensions through peacebuilding activities and awareness campaigns. The passing traveler might not see all this when interacting with Abidjaners. The level of politesse and kindness from Abidjan’s people is a formidable display of the capacity for resilience. One can only imagine how the city might have been if the conflicts had never occurred.
Accra is a moving, shaking city, where one can zip from one end of town to the next at all hours of the day. It’s also one of the most developed cities in Africa. One can pamper themself here: spa treatments, swim in pools at five-star hotels, browse contemporary and traditional art galleries, dance salsa, listen to live jazz and dine at sushi restaurants. Accra is enjoying the economic boom of a country headed towards BRIC status. Every couple months I visit, a handful of new restaurants and businesses has cropped up. In fact, many expats and middle class Ghanaians live this incubated life, never seeing how one third of Accra residents live.
In my limited time spent in Lomé, I noted three things. First, there are many English speakers. Lomé’s 20-minute proximity to the Ghanaian border has resulted in a large volume of business activity between the two countries. Many educated Togolese have studied and/or lived in English-speaking Ghana at some point. Second, there appeared to be a general fear and frustration with a government perceived to be difficult and oppressive. Third, I found people to be very kind and warm. Even the busiest “grand chef” of an office would speak with me until I cut off the conversation, then walk me out to my car and wave as I drove away. Conversation would wrap up with a sweetly delivered, “Au plaisir!” (It was a pleasure.) Yes, I’m a sucker for politesse.
Cotonou is basically a beach village with city aspects. The soil is sandy and the air filled with ocean. Motorcycles and big shipping trucks congest busy intersections, while fishing communities mobilize to pull in 50-meter-long nets from the ocean. Benin is also the shipping importation hub for used vehicles that are, in turn, transported throughout West Africa. Both African and non-African expats alike find the Beninois to be very difficult. Benin is consistently ranked one of the least happy countries in the world, an odd phenomenon considering its relative economic prosperity and political stability compared to other least happy countries.
For the first time visitor, Nigeria is a bewildering place, where the volumes of everything are set to maximum. Abuja is a little like Las Vegas with African complexities. Twenty-five years ago, Abuja the capital did not exist. It was a small semi-arid town, consisting of Gwari villages. In the 1970s the oil industry boomed and the country decided to move its capital from Lagos to Abuja. Today it is a sprawling, multi-ethnic metropolis, with neatly planned converging and diverging highways and a display of new wealth like none other in Africa. I touched upon this in a long ago written post. Despite my initial bewilderment, I’ve grown to appreciate Nigeria for it’s richness in history, it’s complexity and the direct, what-you-see-is-what-you-get nature of people who just come right out and say if there's a problem and then forget about it the next day.