It is Saturday, cold and crisp, and I read that our Secretary of State is just back from Africa. It seems that Antony Blinken was there because the Chinese are there — reminding one of the 1970s when the Russians were messing around in Africa and our eyes and interests were momentarily diverted to Congo and Angola.
Blinken’s trip coincides with a story in the Washington Post that centers on five African cities — Lagos, Kinshasa, Khartoum, Mombasa and Abidjan. The Post tells us that these five cities, and six others in Africa, may hold 1/3 of the earth’s population by 2100.
All of which takes me back to 1992, just after Bill Clinton’s inauguration, when I made my first trip to Africa. That trip began in the Ivory Coast — actually in the basement of Abidjan’s International airport where I was detained, interrogated and then released.
The abrupt release part was, of course, the best part because I went from a dark, hot, underground room to a posh French-run hotel. At the hotel I was taken to a swimming pool that came with topless French expats and obsequious servants who helped me recover with Johnny Walker Scotch. In many ways this uneven, incomprehensible introduction to Africa foreshadowed the rest of my time on the Continent.
The next time I was in Abidjan the eastern part of the Ivory Coast was occupied by Libyan-backed rebels. I was with a group of five Americans who had been hired to make a film about the fighting.
When approached about this job, I dreamed of becoming a war correspondent in the tradition of Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn and Edward R Morrow. The reality was filming a succession of French educated, Saville Row-attired ministers who gave us commodity statistics — cocoa and peanut production — and insisted that the rebels would soon be defeated. But we were lodged at the Hotel Ivoire’ where Ukrainian mercenaries, then flying Sukhoi-25 jets in support of President Gbagbo’s infantry, told a different story.
Today that war is over and Abidjan is a destination for millions of Africans who have left their homes in Niger, Mali and Senegal. They have fled the Sahel for several reasons — the relentless western movement of Saharan sand being one of those reasons — but all are lured by jobs and the possibility of owning a Renault, a television and sending something home to mother and their malnourished siblings.
There are other Africans who use Abidjan as a point of departure for Europe. These young people — mostly young men—are willing to pay thousands of dollars to get themselves across the Sahara, the Mediterranean Sea and into Italy.
This is a journey that usually ends in drowning, enslavement or death. Yet millions accept these long odds and take their chances on getting themselves a life that comes with basic guarantees provided by the European Union. And the European Union currently pays billions of dollars to a host of West African nations in order to stop those same European-bound Africans.
The Washington Post quotes the UN as saying that most African immigration is not to Europe, rather it is into one of eleven African cities. The newspaper quotes various Ivorian officials who say that the 2.5 million West Africans who have made their way to Abidjan have had a positive impact on the country’s economy.
During my time in Abidjan there wasn’t any discussion about migration into Abidjan or into Europe. The focus in those days was the civil war and whether the insurgents were going to split the county in half. For our part we pestered the government about getting out of Abidjan — “How about a helicopter ride over the front?” But our requests were routinely denied. All of which frustrated our cinematographer, LeeAnn Kornegay, who wanted something more than “talking heads” in custom-tailored suits.
In desperation, we fled Abidjan driving south along the Atlantic Coast ending up in a small town. As we walked through this village we spotted a wedding and saw incredible color and heard actual laughter. We started filming (at a discrete distance) but the bride came over and invited us into the reception tent.
And it was here — amidst translated, champagne-enhanced conversation — where we found our story. A story about ordinary Ivorians who were living modest lives; and for the most part liking the life they were living; but determined to find music and dancing — a dollop of happiness — in a world awash in turmoil.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.