An African tourist in Africa: Cote d’Ivoire, Otherness and Ebola.
By Audrey Sebatindira
There are few things better than being a tourist. It’s that sense of wonder that comes with seeing the ordinary from the perspective of an outsider; nothing is taken for granted. Everything is strange and new and therefore worth stopping in the middle of the street for, camera in hand, oblivious to locals who sidestep you in pursuit of lives that seem far too banal for their setting. That said, the appeal of strangeness and newness is quickly lost the moment you realise you have become a tourist in your own culture.
I recently moved from the suburbs of Maryland, USA to the relative chaos of Abidjan, the de facto capital of Cote d’Ivoire. Bordering other West African nations such as Liberia and Ghana, it was inevitably a massive change – though it shouldn’t have been.
I am African (Kenyan to be more specific) and grew up on the continent; and even though I am not in fact Ivorian, and even though Africa, like all other continents, is not home to one single and homogenous culture, my status as an African surely means that the last thing I should have felt upon landing in Abidjan was Otherness. Yet the feeling that I am a tourist – and, therefore, an outsider – in Cote d’Ivoire has yet to fade.
The difference between tourist and local is thrown into sharpest relief in the marketplace. There are markets of varying size and stock dotted around Abidjan, but each follow the same unwritten rules of barter. To pick on one market in particular – the Marché de Cocody – it’s easy to get lost among the streams of colourful fabric, quietly folded and unfolded by the wind, the pyramids of grapefruit ripening on their pedestals, and the gold and silver trinkets laid out for the highest bidder. But the calls of the owners of these stalls draw me back to reality.
The first problem is that they speak in French, of which I don’t speak a word. But there is more than one kind of language barrier. It’s the same every time. The stall-owner’s eager anticipation of a challenge quickly turns to surprise at my inability to speak the language. This is followed by confusion as to why this person who looks nothing like the average tourist is haggling with all the timidity and reluctance of a foreigner. If anything comes after that I’ve yet to see it, as usually by this point I’ve given up and gone to the nearest supermarket instead. The ability to haggle is by no means an inherent part of being African, but, to me, it’s the clearest reminder that my claim to “African-ness” feels superficial at best.
Despite this, a lot of my experiences have been positive. Particularly noteworthy are the refreshingly realistic beauty standards for women in Abidjan. Beauty standards are, as a rule, undesirable, but I can’t help but feel giddy whenever I watch a music video or drive past a billboard, because all the women look exactly like those I encounter in day to day life. Across the media some are dressed in revealing clothing, while others are not. Some are twerking like the best of them, while others are still. And always there is this rejection of the idea that there is one single woman that all Ivorians should strive to be or to have. Make no mistake, these women are still being objectified and there are a myriad of problems with some of the ways they are portrayed, but the Ivorian media seems to genuinely embrace the average woman, and this has been a welcome change from what I see in the West.
The most pleasant surprise, though, was finding that I still have an emotional connection to the continent as a whole, and with that has come a desire to tell the stories that I come across. Not from the perspective of an African or a Westerner, but as someone in the limbo in-between, not really belonging to either group but able to empathise and identify with both.
An example of one these stories would be that of the Ebola epidemic. News of its spread has been impossible to avoid: we’ve all read the statistics. Yet I worry that the numbers hide the faces of those whose lives are affected by the disease, while also brushing over the efforts taken by Africans themselves in combating the crisis. It’s wrong to ignore the story of the Ivorian driver whose neighbours, caught up in the Ebola hysteria, have taken to drinking salt water to prevent the disease. Contrast this with the case of Fatu Kekula, the 22-year-old Liberian nurse who has single-handedly revolutionised the way civilians across West Africa care for their Ebola-stricken families. We can’t ignore the work that the African Union has done in pledging $1 million to the cause and sending teams of healthcare workers with experience of treating the disease to affected nations. And Nigeria’s success in finally containing the disease should not be underplayed.
On a more general level, it would be impossible to ignore the clear signs of development that are present in Cote d’Ivoire, particularly in its larger cities. Often the term ‘development’ takes on an inert quality, evoking images of sub-Saharan African countries floundering in perpetual debt and corruption. Yet my brief time so far in Abidjan has proved that this image is far from the truth. Development there is not defined by how influenced the nation is by occidental values. Rather, it is a meeting of Western and African traditions.
The population of white-collar workers in Abidjan alternate between going to work in African dress and in the sort of suits you would find worn in the City in London. Both are considered equally professional, showing that, in the move towards modernity highlighted by the very existence of white-collar workers, one culture has not been rejected for another.
On a wider scale, similar changes can be seen in the use of language in Abidjan and other urban centres. There are over 60 individual languages spoken in Cote d’Ivoire, but the official lingua franca there is Ivorian French, due to its history as a French colony. Increasingly, it has been fusing with ‘street’ French, which borrows far more from the Ivorian languages. As a result, the French in Cote d’Ivoire is becoming more vernacular, moving away from its Western heritage and drawing more from its own traditional past.
These changes are but a few out of the several developments that show that Cote d’Ivoire is moving towards a more dynamic future. And stories like these need to be told alongside the usual stories of suffering and chaos.
Which brings me full circle to the problem of being an African tourist in Africa. The feeling of Otherness is difficult, but my status as an outsider allows me to see the country from a more objective perspective than I otherwise might have had. Nothing is obvious and therefore nothing is missed. So I carry these stories with me and share them much like friends bore others with photos taken throughout their holidays. And like a foreigner I am forever in child-like awe of everything I see in Cote d’Ivoire. Perhaps, then, this is a better way to live. Always learning, always challenged, always a tourist.