Saturday, October 30, 2010

Fed Up, Yet Hungry at the Same Time

"I think that today, it is the population, the citizens, who will impose peace to [the] politicians [and elections]…People will kill each other never again."
--Acouba Outtarra, Bouke city school teacher

Anticipation. If I had to describe the atmosphere of the country right now in one word, that would be it. Ivoirians are nervous about the potential for violence, but excitement to exercise their right to vote outweighs any hesitation. A very watchful international community, including the large UN and French contingencies on the ground, is keen on seeing this election happen peacefully.

The excitement is pervasive. Everywhere you could hear people talking about the election, and go by almost any school and you’d see snaking mob lines of people waiting for their identity and voting cards, which the election commission is furiously trying to get distributed in time (I say "furiously" half laughingly, because of the African context). I went with Cisse, my translator, to talk to some of the waiting citizens (see pics 1 and 2). One woman had waited in line for four days, each day being turned away. This was par for the course. And people arrive early. Cisse’s sister was sent at 4:00 a.m. to wait, and was replaced by Cisse’s 70+ year-old mother, Salimata Bakayoko, when Cisse’s sister had to go to school. For four days Salimata waited in the heat, finally getting the cards. I am expecting a very high voter turnout.

At the root of the country’s excitement to vote is that they are simply fed up with instability. It’s impossible for a country to plan when the administration in power doesn’t know if there will or will not be a presidential election in one year's time, and the effects are compounded when this happens every year, for five years. And it shows in the country's infrastructure and business activity. No foreign business, or local business for that matter, is willing to make any investments until the elections happen, and happen peacefully.

This became very clear when I took a trip to Yamoussoukro, the official capital. There I stayed with Regis, a
really cool Ivoirian working in a bank. He made me feel right at home at his place, organized group dinners with his Ivoirian friends (who could also speak English!), and connected me to Kinda to serve as my translator. Kinda had been an English teacher at a local university, and introduced me to the director, a very traveled, educated, and impressive guy. He explained that he went ahead and began funding the school himself because no investor was willing to put in their chips until the election. As for Kinda, we quickly became good friends, and I could certainly write an entire post just about him. Abandoned at birth and adopted by American nuns, he has been in and out of jail five times for being an outspoken supporter of foreigners’ right. Two years ago he walked for eight months from Cote d’Ivoire to Mali to raise awareness for a proposed UN commission to support foreigners’ rights. Immensely fascinating guy. As a side note, I even had time to see the basilica, which is the largest Christian place of worship in the world (bigger than the Sistine Chapel).

From Yakro, as they call it, I hired Kinda and went to Bouke, the stronghold city of the rebels in their once northern-controlled area and one of the most affected from the wars (last pic: weeds and brush now growing in the abandoned structure of one of the city's most prominent hotels). Most people advised me not to go, which is exactly what drew me to the area. Plus, I generally think hospitality wins out over hostility. During my time there I heard incredible stories about schools closing for years and people scrapping by during the war, and now how excited they are to vote.

But the most interesting thing about Bouke might have been the large security presence, which is most evident at the city’s entrance. Arriving into the city, I was confronted with the biggest security checkpoint I’d ever seen. Fifty or so armed soldiers patrolled the area. Kinda and I were told to get out of the gbaka and funnel through a large hut, almost like we were at a border to another country. There we met an officer. He demanded a "toll" for us to get through, much higher than ordinary
Ivoirians because of my status. "Why?" I heard Kinda ask in French. He responded, "Here you don’t talk much. You give or you don’t pass." When we were leaving the city, an officer, wearing a ragged, badge-less but official uniform, begged me for some money. These soldiers are mostly former rebel soldiers who failed to make the cut (e.g. they were illiterate) to be absorbed into the national forces. The government’s employment project for them didn’t pan out as planned, and so many are forced to take tolls at the city gates to survive, or in some cases, beg.

From Bouke, we headed back to Yakro in a horrendous gbaka ride (a story in its own right) just before I jetted off to Abidjan for an amazing opportunity to be part of the election activities.

(Note: I have been behind in posting because of my travel, and am no longer in Cote d'Ivoire. The election takes place tomorrow, and of course I am excited to see the outcome.)

1 comment:

  1. It was great to read so many realities we we used to ignore or stay indifferent from.Through your writings,I believe more has been acquired and we hope that added to our intellectual strength,God Jesus will help us grow this dear Africa like what is like the USA today.God keep on bless you and directing your steps throughout Africa!