“Anyone speak French here?” the soldier calls through the bus, Kalashnikov firmly in hand.
“I do,” I say and immediately regret it.
“Come with me!”
I climb out of our rickety minibus and am taken into a small hut by five soldiers.
“Do you have weed on you?” one of them asks.
“We could smell weed,” adds the other.
“No,” I retort and wonder if it was a good idea to lie. I talk myself out of it, explaining that we all work here and have been for a long time, telling jokes that the stony-faced soldiers find anything but funny. Yes, we have weed on us, I know that and so do the soldiers. I give them money. I don’t know how much the crumpled-up note in my trouser pocket is worth, but it seems to be enough for them to let me go. I am escorted back to the bus by a guy with a Kalashnikov. My friend Titi steps on the gas. Nobody says a word. Beads of sweat are on my forehead.
We are on the way from Grand Bassam, in the southern Ivory Coast, to Yamoussoukro, around 250 kilometres to the north. It’s a route that’s like a minefield of military and police bases. They are everywhere, barely visible – and when you do see them, you are at the mercy of them and their corruption. Titi and his brother, Richard, pelt along the street until the little hut of the military base fades into the dust of the dry highway. Then they roll themselves a joint and laugh heartily, as if nothing had happened.
Welcome to the barren nowhere of Yamoussoukro
The street is clear. Not a single person is around. Only the thousand lanterns are faithfully going about their business – they have been for over the past 30 years. We are completely alone. There aren’t even any cars. The street is so wide it could be the Champs Élysées of West Africa, just without the crowds of tourists, splendid buildings and beeping cars. It’s also two metres wider than the one in the French capital. Even the customary scent of fresh vegetable soup, grilled fish or the Ivorian banana paste, foutou, cannot be smelt here. We are standing in the middle of Yamoussoukro, the dying capital of the Ivory Coast. This is what an abandoned city looks like, I think to myself, as I stand in the middle of the empty highway and take a photograph of the barren distance.
Yamoussoukro is the failed monster project of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, a megalomaniac who once had the absurd idea of building his own city out of nothing. The founding father and first president of the Ivory Coast was in power between 1960 and 1993. As opposed to the vibrant city of Abidjan in the south, the city has one bragging right: it’s the birthplace of Houphouët-Boigny. This was reason enough to make it the centre of the country and regenerate it completely.
I stroll down the wide street, even though there isn’t really anything to stroll past. The fully air-conditioned restaurants are empty, just like the residential and government buildings. If I dropped a needle here, you’d probably be able to hear it. Yamoussoukro is a ghost city; a city of nothing and of insanity, when you look at the oversized houses and streets. And this is in a country that needs help in every corner: 61% of the Ivorian population is illiterate, 43% lives on less than €250 a year and lives below the breadline.
The thriller of Notre Dame
We keep driving to the end of the street, until we see the giant dome of a cathedral, unnaturally sticking out the nothingness. Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix, our dear Lady of Peace, is standing there in all her glory – massive and with seaweed on the steps, displaying slow disintegration. I get a neckache as I tilt my head back to look at the top of the dome. The cathedral is 128 metres high – 26 metres higher than St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Compared to the tourist magnets of the Vatican, however, this monument is deserted and left to decay. Nobody – really, nobody – is here. It has always been like this. The cathedral can be used neither for weddings nor for funerals. There aren’t any church services here, either. A useless cathedral, for just about €130 million. There are only been two occasions here that have drawn really large crowds. In 1990, Pope John Paul II came on a personal visit to the cathedral and gave it his blessing, if reluctantly. Two years later, Michael Jackson, the King of Pop himself, came by to research his African roots and was appointed not just Prince of the Kingdom of Sanwi in the southeastern village of Krindjabo, but was also led through the cathedral by the President. What an honour.
Mama Africa is serving up
Titi starts the motor. He’s hungry. So am I. But I wonder where you can eat in an abandoned city. There seems to be no restaurant in sight that looks like it would have anything edible in its kitchen. Only the menus are lushly stuffed, But Titi knows where we can get food. We leave the giant highway and head onto the gravel path from Yamoussoukro in the direction of the jungle. So this is where they live, the inhabitants of the capital. Some of them have been here since the Houphouët-Boigny era. They came because the former President had promised them a glorious, opulent life, with education and work for everyone. He wanted to settle 400,000 people into the city. Today, barely 280,000 live there, most of them being farmers who moved from the surrounding area of the Savanna. But not everyone – the old lady diligently running her little restaurant has been here from the very beginning. Maria is a true local and greets us with a wide smile – so wide, in fact, that you would barely guess how difficult life in Yamoussoukro really is. She is certainly over 60 years old, dressed in a colourful, typically Ivorian outfit consisting of a top and a long skirt. Both are very skimpy, of course, but that’s how it is. The restaurant is doing well. So this is where the people are who I couldn’t see on the streets.
Maria is pleased to get white customers. Tourists who come to Yamoussoukro at all and then end up in her small restaurant really are rare. She cheerfully beckons me into her kitchen. Ivorian kitchens are traditionally outside the house, as it is frowned upon to cook in the place where you sleep. This is not something that Houphouët-Boigny had in mind when he built housing for his desired residents: apartments similar to Western ones and thus going against all the rules of building in this region. No wonder people turned their backs on these apartments and decided to build simple clay huts on the city’s open spaces instead. Just as food is cooked outside at home, this is also the case at Maria’s restaurant.
We stand in her kitchen and she proudly shows me what’s about to land on my clay plate: agouti, or bush rats, an Ivorian speciality. A giant mountain of animals begins to pile up in front of me. I’m disgusted, but I try to flash a grin, a plan that is made easier only with the look of the lady who is now ardently reaching into the rat mountain and pulling out two of her magnificent creatures.
Minutes later, it is in front of us – cooked agouti in a house sauce. Titi is excited. He hasn’t eaten this in a while. I have to overcome this. A rat’s head – virtually unrecognisable – is swimming around in what I think is soup.
“You don’t want that, do you?” Titi asks me and snatches the head to suck it out bit by bit. I stick with the pieces of meat, almost able to forget that it’s a bush rat since it tastes like a mix of lamb and chicken. I’m thankful that the sauce is, very hot and spicy – a natural distraction for both mind and tastebuds. While we eat, Maria keeps looking over and is happy when she sees our plates are empty. Luckily, she didn’t notice that Titi took most of mine.
For me, the scenery of this moment is above all else a snapshot of life in a city that lost any sort of liveliness a long time ago. Even if the old lady’s restaurant is in the bush, off the main street, it represents what I had always imagined the Ivory Coast to be: a smorgasbord of people constantly smiling so widely that it almost touches their ears. In other words, just the thing that has been long gone from the streets of Yamoussoukro.
The wake in the crocodile ditch
Even if strange, there is some life around the former President’s palace. Countless crocodiles swim around in the ditches, meant to protect Houphouët-Boigny from the hoped-for crowds that never came. He has been dead since 1993 and the crocodiles are still swimming their usual routes. Titi and Richard are beaming – they know what’s about to come next.
“Hey, big or small?” an Ivorian standing at the crocodile ditch asks me.
“Big,” I answer.
Next thing I know, a giant, living chicken goes flying into the ditch and is immediately grabbed from the air by the crocodile. We have paid around €2 for this chicken. A small income source in a city that once cost €130 million to construct and is now completely uninhabited, yet a great joy for Ivorians who time and time again look forward to seeing an unsuspecting chicken get thrown to the crocodiles. Surreal, just like everything else in Yamoussoukro.
We leave the void of Yamoussoukro behind us, meaning the only tourists who have ventured to the dying city in a while have also disappeared. We make our way to the south, where there are no roads, only sand paths, and where chickens are only eaten after they’ve been on the grill. And where sometimes there is so much life on the streets that you almost long for a bit of peace. We are on our way to where the Ivory Coast is as it should be: lively, chaotic and colourful.