MAW HARMATTAN HIBISCUS
New Year’s Day saw my return journey to Abidjan, and having failed to sleep on a long route from a freaked Frankfurt via Addis Ababa, I was very tired when I arrived in the heat of the following morning. After much va-et-vient with cash cards, keys, suitcases and documents, I got to the flat I had reserved before Christmas. But it did not take me long to realise that it was completely unsuitable. The musty pre-Christmas smell was a lot worse. No cleaning was evident, the curtains and windows were filthy. In the kitchen the food surfaces were grimy and there were chicken bones in a dirty bin with a broken lid. The fridge did not work properly, there was no wi-fi and only one small bath towel in the bathroom. There were mosquitoes everywhere and many of the electrical points had been jammed into holes in the wall, with some not working at all. Incompetent quick-fix evidence was everywhere. It would have taken days to clean and sort it all out.
Overnight I slept fitfully. I was downcast about my choice of flat, after a series of decisions and events that I should have managed better. By the morning it was too much. I knew I could not stay another night. Alli certainly couldn’t if she was to come here. I had to leave as soon as possible. I told a very unhappy agent that I had changed my mind (providentially I had not signed the contract and so needed to pay only for one week). By lunchtime my driver had packed and taken all my possessions from the flat and put three large suitcases and boxes into his car. We then went emergency flat hunting. After a couple of acutely dispiriting visits to dirty, dingy and desperate flats my driver said he had seen a good place recently. It felt like the last chance saloon before the suicide motel. The flat was in a road on a hill over the lagoon with banana, papaya and coconut trees, and friendly street sellers of fruit and vegetables. It had a happy aura. It had the Italian Embassy. It even had a street name – Rue Cannebière. I was shown into a clean, tidy but tiny studio flat on the second floor with a small kitchen, working air conditioning, and a good balcony view, and all for a price so cheap it made me catch my breath. My driver Mohamed then needlessly but hilariously haggled it down still further. Within thirty minutes I was the legal tenant of a flat that I both needed and wanted. I had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and success from the maw of despond. It was a miracle, unimaginable just an hour previously. In the evening I celebrated with a drink, going to a maquis for a beer by the lagoon where I sat looking across the night water at the winking lights of the Abidjan Plateau. The cloudy sky had darkened to the crimson haze of the sand-laden Harmattan, crowned with a crescent moon and a single star.
A few days later, some disaffected soldiers mutinied in Bouake, the country’s second city. Mutinies had also occurred in two other towns and the trouble was spreading to Abidjan. As I came back to my flat on the Friday evening the streets were empty and road blocks had been set up near the barracks. The population, normally copious at that time, had suddenly disappeared. The next morning I scanned the view from the balcony under a foggy sand-blown sun. I had intended to go on my first Hash House Harriers run for decades but it was cancelled for security reasons, and the Bank had warned all employees to stay indoors. As I looked across to the Plateau, from the general direction of the barracks, I heard shots, sounding just like popguns at a children’s party. I went inside promptly and spent the rest of the weekend at home, watching BBC iPlayer and Netflix. The next day, the President announced an agreement with the soldiers on their conditions. This was after they had temporarily kidnapped the Defence Minister who had come to discuss matters with them in Bouake. Apparently, he was forced to sit on a sofa and listen to Johnny Clegg for a couple of hours.
The African Football Confederation Cup kicked off in mid-January, and took over many of the channels I have on my cable television. I went to watch the first Cote d’Ivoire game live on a big screen in the open air of the Cocody Centrale district. The presenter from the sponsor and local energy company made a perky speech at half-time, giving a few energy tips which included dusting the light bulbs regularly. It seemed like good, practical, helpful PR.
Shortly afterwards, I was approached and interviewed live for Ivorian television on the result (0-0) and Cote d’Ivoire’s prospects (good – but I was wrong about that). The interview was broadcast on television at the weekend but I missed it.
I was still keen to re-join the Hash House Harriers after a gap of more than thirty years (and as many kilos) in an effort to get fitter, and so after deciphering a very confusing web site, I arrived in nearby Bassam (by the sea) for a Hash that was introduced to me as “difficult” in the gather-round preamble. It certainly was. Not being au fait with modern Hash lore, which postdates my first involvement in Brussels with the globalised group (whose tag line is “the drinking group with a running problem”), I wrongly chose to join the runners’ group from the outset. I should have chosen the walking group. It was a ferociously hot and muggy day, and most of the course was along the beach, rendering the markings invisible. I was immediately straggling and had to retrace my steps twice after missing checkpoints and turns. I jogged heavily for half the 11k course, then felt too light headed to go on. I made my way alone back to the girls’ orphanage where the run had started. I shall be much more careful next time.
The following day I was ceremonially invited to lunch by Mohamed with his family: mother, grandmother, brothers, their wives and children. We ate “foutou banani” (pounded yam and plantain with a peanut sauce), crab and Capitaine fish. I came back replete and with much of the leftover food and drink, which kept me going for days, especially the “Dégé”, a mixture of millet, curds, yogurt and honey, “Gnamakoudji”, a spicy ginger juice, and “Bissap” a red juice made from hibiscus, vanilla and sorrel. The following weekend I went to Assinie and had lunch in the shade on a perfect beach. I also walked around Abidjan’s golf course, where I gorged on a fresh coconut offered to me by a gardener. With my scanty social life so far I am seriously considering joining the golf club. I never imagined that I would do such a thing.
Yours in suspensa credulitate,