While I and my colleagues at the Bank are paid good salaries, even by European standards, most families in the Cote d’Ivoire have perilously low incomes and virtually no long-term savings. I can’t prove it with statistics but I estimate that I am earning in a month what an average working adult in Abidjan earns in four years. We in the Bank are the equivalent of Premier League footballers to Abidjan’s working class, which is stalled in poverty and condemned to live in a different world with only occasional contact with the stubborn shatter-proof bubble of the rich. This is made terrifyingly obvious by revelations of the financial impact of illness on the poor. Sudden healthcare costs, for example for a relative suffering from long-term illness, or treatment for injuries following a car accident, or even just a dental bill for a tooth extraction, can ruin the lives of whole families. Health insurance here is dominated by international companies, accessible only to expatriates, the very rich, and a minority of those in permanent employment. This is why most tooth extractions are by pliers and most medication involves boiling plants, roots or flowers according to traditional recipes. The average family, including uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, nephews, step-children and step-parents, normally together discuss and deal with any major costs arising, and seek assistance from those in the family with money, if such exist. This is why the small proportion of Africans who have money to spend should not always be assumed to have plenty to spare. Their wealthy-healthy status means that they are often the sole providers of funds when anyone in their family needs help. For Africans are natural sharers and givers, and spare money is used first for close relatives in need. However, even this is changing as free market values replace those of religion, morality, family, and community. Money from benefactors is reducing. Nevertheless, Africans themselves contribute more money to their continent’s economic development than all the development aid from the world put together. This is through millions of transfers of small change from the huge African diaspora working and living around the world. This can make all the difference between family survival and starvation.
Most families’ first healthcare recourse is to the potions and remedies of healers and others whose home made products often heal just as well, albeit more slowly, than the manufactured pill or potion of the all-encompassing multinational company. There are local and natural cures for many ailments and conditions from diarrhoea and malaria to arthritis and cancer, often based on original and fresh versions of the very same herbs used, mixed, sold, and intellectually “owned” by multinationals. I have tried some of these home potions and there can be no doubt of their healing properties. But the public hospitals of Abidjan indicate the dereliction and decline in community solidarity. They do not treat people without the money to pay the bills, so the entrance halls and approach ways to hospitals are often peopled by the seriously ill and dying, men, women and children unable to enter for more applied treatment. Their hands are outstretched for the miracle of being given money for the care they need. For come, their traditional benefactors are no longer assisting with their small change contributions. For their families and erstwhile benefactors it’s a false economy. Some of the lapsed benefactors will soon have to buy the coffin and pay for the burial. I am told that poverty is now increasing fast amongst the already severely poor across Africa as wealthier family scions increasingly decide that they need not be bound by family ties. It is disturbing to witness examples of extreme poverty, knowing that while many of the overall causes might be self-inflicted at a macro-economic level, they could still be remedied with the understanding that this is about how human beings on this planet treat each other. A few days ago I was in a market buying some cola nuts. I saw that they could be either cream or purple. I asked the vendor what the difference was apart from the colour. “No difference at all” said he, “They’re just like you and me”.
For reasons of sympathy and curiosity, I went with a friend to the Williamsville cemetery located between Adjame and Abobo in Abidjan. My friend’s father was buried there seven years ago while the civil war in the Cote d’Ivoire was raging. Snipers in a building nearby were shooting indiscriminately during the ceremony, and the mourners had to hide behind gravestones and dart out bravely to perform the formalities. She bought flowers, noting briefly but not bitterly that they had cost her more because I had come with her. She sat by her father’s grave silently for a few minutes to wish him a happy birthday while I wandered around the gravestones and tombs. The place was unkempt but not unattended, although many gravestones were broken. A huge proportion were from the years of violent conflict in the Cote d’Ivoire (2002-11). The security guards at the entrance seemed normal and helpful, leading us to the tomb and giving us useful information. But with the complicity of security guards and hearse drivers, there are many illegal burials across Abidjan’s five cemeteries, again directly attributable to extreme poverty. In such cases, security guards tell the families not to dig too deeply because they might strike another buried body.
I spent a very relaxing weekend on the beach at Bassam, where I stayed in a hotel with a view to the smooth and calm lagoon on one side and the rhythmic crashing waves of the sea on the other side of the long thin peninsula of the Azuretti. I spent some time in the salt-water swimming pool, as well as in bed, sleeping excess hours. A short-circuit in the air conditioning unit nearly killed me when I switched on the shower at one point, but it was repaired promptly and efficiently, and I lived for another day. While the hotel only had seven rooms, hundreds of people arrived in big cars just for the day, a popular Abidjani custom. They filled the pool with happy splashing children and encumbered it with pool-toys, encouraging me out of the pool and into the bar for a glass of rose wine.
Lionel and work colleagues mark Breast Cancer Awareness day, 31 October 2018
Somewhat inevitably, I was involved in a Bank PR stunt to publicise Breast Cancer Awareness month, and so on the last day of October I lined up for a photo which was published on the Bank’s web site. I reproduce it above (I’m the one second from the left).
The hot weather has arrived. But Abidjan, like an addict with periodic relapses, has still not shaken off occasional but persistent storms and violent, torrential rain. Having bought my flight ticket to Basel, I am thinking ahead to Christmas and to seeing my family at last after a long solo run in this darkest of light years.
Jessie and Jurrat are welcomed back to the UK by Ella, November 2108
Moreover, Jessie arrived back in the UK after four years’ working in Bangladesh, accompanied by her partner Jurrat Hasan. They were met at the airport by Ella (see photo above) who also organized a Skype call for the whole family to welcome them back on the spot. After Christmas, I will have three months back in work before my official African retirement next March at the tender age of 62. I will return, I assume, to Europe and possibly the UK, although news from the Albion has put me off returning to a country apparently paralysed by arrogance, cupidity and immeasurable political stupidity. Those MPs need to come to Abidjan for a guided tour.
Yours chewing the cola nuts,