A calmer period followed the frenetic, cloud-bursting month of June, and the weather was more temperate as I again spent large amounts of time in my apartment with the windows open and the air conditioning off, being entertained by Netflix material and live streaming from ITV and BBC, to which I am indebted for satisfying my addiction to detective films and ancient history. I took a trip to Rwanda where I spent some days in Kigali (unfortunately, mostly stuck in a hotel room dealing with media issues) but I was impressed by how clean and orderly much of the city seemed to be, and my Ivorian friend on security detail (an ex-soldier in the Cote d’Ivoire army) drew my attention to the fact that 100% of Rwandan motorcyclists were wearing helmets – a unique mark of genuine personal discipline in Africa. The city was founded in 1907 by a psychiatrist from Bayreuth, Richard Kandt, as part of German East Africa. It’s now the capital where, 23 years ago, between half a million and a million people were massacred in less than 100 days while everyone outside the country just wrung their hands in horror and passed resolutions against it. The UN Security Council managed three resolutions during the massacre, the European Parliament two. There can have been but few moments in world history quite like that, and all Rwanda’s history, understandably, is divided between life before and after the genocide. I attended a youth conference where hundreds of enthusiastic young people waved balloons and made pledges about starting businesses. At the conference, young Africans from Rwanda and many other nations wanted to shake my hand and thank me for coming to the conference, expressing genuine interest in what I was doing. No one asked which tribe I came from. On the evening of the conference I got talking with some of them. They all wanted the political and economic union of Africa. The conversations, which made occasional polite and respectful references to Brexit, made me feel sad about the UK’s self-inflicted fate, the disaster of which is now starting to become so horribly obvious. I feel very proud now to be helping in my minuscule way with the establishment of an African Union, which every African wants except the dictators who have lost their moral compasses and their apologists, supporters and financiers, and too many Europeans and Americans, who clearly want Africa to stay poor, divided and starving forever.
I am fascinated by the small differences between the Cote d’Ivoire and France. These include the scarcity of sink plugs, difficult to find even in new apartments or in shiny supermarkets specialising in bathroom DIY. I am mystified that I cannot find plugs to fit my sinks, and get blank looks from those who should, but don’t, sell them. I try to explain that it is a requirement for shaving (in the old fashioned way, with a sink of hot water) and for washing the dishes properly. There are even good environmental reasons to have them. I did manage to buy two of them for a fortune from someone who didn’t even know what they were, but neither of them fit the holes for which they were intended.
Then there’s the issue of small change. The smallest denominations are in some ways the most valuable, since the basic street economy deals in hundreds of West African francs whereas the expatriate community deals in tens of thousands. If I want to take a taxi, buy something from a street stall or in the market, or offer a tip, the amount to pay requires the smallest denomination notes and coins available and they are as scarce as hen’s teeth. When I see a 500 FCFA note, it’s like finding a first edition Charizard and I feel the need to hang onto it. It is a note so thoroughly used that it often looks like a used tea bag. But nobody at street level who drives a taxi, offers a cheap meal, or sells from a stall, ever has any small change. Even banks don’t offer it. I therefore have to stock up, because otherwise I must wave away change that should be forthcoming but isn’t. The shadowy money changers who haunt the entrances to Banks are not offering foreign currency in exchange but small denomination notes in exchange for large denomination ones, and a 5% – 10% charge is applied.
On the last weekend I tried to be inspired culturally and went to the Fondation Charles Donwahi, where the exhibition of Ivoirian sculptor Jems Koko Bi, “Terre d’Origine”, was in its last couple of days. Koko Bi only works on the trunks of dead trees, carving them with a chain saw into rough and immense sculptures which seem foreboding but grimly impressive, set like huge menhirs in a large walled garden at the rear of the gallery. I think his talent would be quickly recognized in Europe, but Mohamed told me that Ivoirians are not that interested in modern artists. We went on to visit the more popular National Museum of Ivory Coast Civilisations, free to enter during the Francophone Games which are taking place in the Cote d’Ivoire. I shall probably only remember a comprehensive guided tour of an Environmental Consciousness Tent by a wonderfully confident and determined local 10 year old girl holding forth in the grounds of the museum.
Little by little I am forced to becoming accustomed to living in Abidjan, and although Alli has concluded that she could not, she has done such a great job of preparing our house for sale that we have received and accepted a very good offer and so she now has her hands full in negotiating the transaction as well as finding somewhere convenient to live and storage for most of our furniture. With the Brexit revolution close and already turning fretful (there’s no difference between hard and soft), we should be careful where we move next. Lawrence Durrell, Britain’s best known novelist in the 1950s and 60s, was stateless for several years because of the UK Government’s historical hang-up about Britons who lived outside the UK for too long. He had to apply for a visa to visit the UK every time he wanted to visit his two houses there, despite working for the Foreign Office and apparently paying UK taxes.
I don’t expect that the FCO will ever learn from its incompetence through the ages, having been responsible over many years for diverse and spectacular blunders prompted by that uniquely British mix of stupidity and arrogance displayed all the way from the treatment of pre-Independence America via the Congress of Vienna, China, Tamil Nadu/Sri Lanka, the Versailles Treaty, Israel, Palestine, Ireland, India/Pakistan, Lebanon, Aden, Suez, Ghana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Commonwealth generally, and many others right up to the comprehensive fubar of Brexit. I remember being appalled by a young buck from the FCO when I was working in the European Parliament during the debates about the UK budget rebate. Having professed surprise that such a vote was even needed, he told me several times that if the European Parliament or the Council would not agree then “HMG would piss upon them from a great height”. This same man – 30 years on – is now caught in the ghastly maelstrom of the negotiations, from where he can be seen through a glass darkly, being pissed upon from an even greater height by many, anxious to relieve themselves in the UK’s abject mess.
Yours in high water,