27 May 2014

Abidjan Diary Continued

Friday May 23rd

I write these notes as I lie back on a student cot in Yamassoukro, the official capital of Ivory Coast that has the world's biggest cathedral: an exact copy of St Peter's Rome, except that is it one yard bigger !

We are all in this extremely smart National Polytechnic Institute created by the first president of Ivory coast, Felix Houphouët-Boigny, bringing American students to see how the Africans study and how might it become possible to establish exchange programs between Virginia and West Africa. This place is very prestigious and it therefore has literally dozens of international partnerships. We have been brought here to a Grance Ecole show-place, to meet the elite of Africa! The private engineering + business college we are visiting in Abidjan, AGITEL, offers more scope for concrete VCU partnership, because it has none in USA until now. The same is true of Bamako and Segou universities. And since all their students want to learn English, the offers are there for the taking !

INP is not just a STEM system; it is an elite STEAM system combining seven different schools, and it is all the more impressive for that. Houphouët-Boigny added Agriculture to the science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

We sat in on a class on ‘accounting software’ for young people who will become CPAs or bankers. Every one of them had been accepted after rigorous examination of their high school dossier: and of 7000 applications last year, 690 were accepted. There were eight young men and five young women in the class, all dressed in gray business suits as if they were already sitting on the Board of a major bank. In AGITEL, the uniform consists of beige pants or skirt, and a dark blue blazer with embroidered pocket and a matching tie. Both sexes wear the tie; but this is compulsory only on Mondays. The uniform certainly adds smartness and unity to the student body. VCU student dress does not offer either, except on the sports field.

This campus reminds us of the elite, luxurious park atmosphere of University of Richmond, quite unlike the VCU urban campus (which I prefer). But here, the elite is cared for by the State, as an investment in Africa’s future prosperity.

Michelle and I are traveling with six of the most charming people it is possible to find in Virginia. Each is very different, and absolutely delightful. They are model students and model traveling companions. Even when – as this morning – quite unrealistic demands were made for them to rise at 5am and be at the AGITEL before 06.30 … no one complained. Anyhow the vehicle only arrived at 08.30 bringing Ramata who was apparently on a different (and more realistic) schedule, and we got away after 9am to “hit the highway” : in fact the brand new stretch of 4-lane road between Abidjan and Yamassoukro, which is one part of the African Highway project linking all the commercial capitals of West Africa. That realization remains a dream, for all Africa’s infrastructure until now has been built solely for white people’s corporations to export raw materials from Africa to the industrial West. There are railways that lead from the mines to the nearest seaport, and nowhere else (think Liberia, Nigeria, and the also Dakar-Bamako railway built solely for cotton and peanut exports to France).

Friday night we were all invited by the INP to dinner at Les Perles restaurant downtown, where we ate fish and chicken and delicious kejene stew (beware of the hot pepper) and we danced. There was a women’s merchant association holding their annual meeting, and dancing to African pop hits of the 1970s and 1980s – some Congo, some Antillais, and some Ivoirian dance music (check out the great Ivoirian voice of Mayeté). There were 30 or 40 mature women, evidently prosperous, all dressed in the same dark blue damask cloth embroidered with orange; but all the embroidery was different. Some was delicate, some was extravagant, but every single outfit was spectacular and they all wore big, starched head ties in the same fabric. Very spectacular. Some of the dancing too… for West Africans are very explicit in their dances, showing how men and women are different and how they enjoy each other. The rule is here for women on the dance floor, that if you have it, you should flaunt it. And they mostly flaunt a lot of it, with joy and generous abandon!

On the whole, white people / cultures are so constrained and formal, they are painful.

I am not racist: some of my best friends are white. My family too, but mostly of them do not know how to enjoy themselves with ‘gay abandon’.

Saturday May 24th

The highlight of the visit has to have been our visit to the world's biggest cathedral: an exact copy of St Peter's Rome, except that is it 23 yards bigger (22 metres) ! I must say this is one of the most beautiful buildings I have seen, for the proportions replicate St Peter's Rome (a sculptor has even reproduced the Michelangelo PIETA in the same proportions, but as a wood carving ) and the colored windows are very lovely. The light inside the Basilica is therefore very special and every window tells a Bible story - some in modern dress, some in medieval robes, and others in Palestinian clothing of the New Testament period. The East window has Christ in glory. In the west is his mother in glory, and their portraits both show brown faces that could really be Palestinian Jews from Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. I have always been offended by representations of Jesus as a perfect model of uncircumcised German manhood. As our favorite Australian comedian puts it: "We need to face up to the fact that Jesus was a small black Jew." Anyhow, the Basilica of Yamassoukro is stunning, and President Houphouet-Boigny donated the building and its 130 acres of formal gardens to the Vatican. So we were standing on Vatican Marble (one kilometer of it) as we toured the sanctuary.

But we did other exciting things as well, and when Mr Serge Gnepa asked them for their strongest memories, most of the students mentioned our visit to a farm and a village. Driving along a lane to the plantation was exciting enough: this is a land where a peanut dropped from your packet of munchies, will germinate over night and give you a leaf the very next day. If you cut a path through the greenery in the morning, you may not find your way back in the evening. Warm sun and constant humidity breed fertility – and we had one of those generous tropical rainstorms as e prepared to set out, with huge warm drops of rain splashing across the landscape, and veritable clouds of rain drifting across the campus on the wind.

A plantation of oil palms (there are plenty of them here, where the oil palm originated) is a fine, regimented sight with little undergrowth. But a plantation of coffee and cocoa (which were brought in from South America) is a veritable undergrowth of overgrowth, with lianes and other plants springing up all over the place. We discovered the tubers of yams (igname) and cassava (manioc) which provide much of the staple food. We learned that young cocoa trees are planted under the leaves of banana trees, which protect them from the brutal African sun until they get established for a 20-year production cycle of cocoa pods. We saw coffee bushes with immature beans, which will be harvested for Arabica coffee in a few months. Ivory Coast was turned into a plantation zone by the French colonial power, and has become the world’s biggest cocoa producer and the second biggest coffee producer (after Brazil). A visit from the president of Nestlé is more important here than any national president. Most of the Nescafé sold in Europe comes from Abidjan, which also makes a bit of chocolate; but most of the coca and coffee beans are sent to Europe for processing, and so Europe takes most of the profits.

Mr Jean-Pierre Musomo, the local agricultural agent, is a graduate of the INP and so we were able to see the results of a good INP education at work in the field. He explained which plants provide shade, which help fix nitrogen in the soil, etc so that we could all understand why mixed-cropping is the most effective agricultural system in this tropical climate. The farmer (paysan) then took us to his village, where we tasted palm wine. The plastic container (fortunately it had not been used for kerosene, and there was only the bitter taste of the palm juice) held his supply for the weekend; it would become more bitter as the fermentation process advanced and the alcoholic content increased. Sitting on our wooden chairs in a circle, we drank most of his palm wince: he will be having a sober weekend! But Mr Thomas Ngoren – the head of protocol for INP and our most generous host for the weekend - assured us that the honor of receiving us in his farm and in his village was more than enough compensation. Well, the farmer also got a tip and his children received a package of balloons as well as the thrill of having their photos taken with all our students.

We cam back to Abidjan in the evening, just in time to celebrate Mother’s Day with our host mothers and to offer them our small gifts of bananas, pineapples and pawpaw fruits bought along the side of the road home.

Happy Sunday, everybody! Happy Mother’s Day!

Sunday midnight: May 25th

Professor Macki Samaké arrived safely at 11.30 pm in Abidjan airport. 

The VCU students are hard at work discovering the language and culture of Ségou.
We have been able to sit in on a few minutes here and there of Professor Macki's classes and one of the discoveries for me has been that the word Jamu = surname (like Tall, Koné, Sissoko) actually means something quite different.

Jamu = praise

So when I ask someone's name togo, in Bambara, and they say 'Brahima' - that is just the name their father chose (and probably the name of an uncle or a grandfather) but when I ask their Jamu = the fame they inherited. This is the name of their ancestors, which is the indeed the name the griot praise singers take and multiply a thousand times in their singing (provide you pay them at least 1000 francs)

So Professor Brahima Koné - when he hears the name Koné - hears the name and fame of his ancestors.
When I greet him "i Koné" = 'you Koné' I am greeting his family, his grandfather, his hunting and warrior and intellectual and spiritual ancestry.

A Tall is proud of his Tall ancestry. A Koné is proud of his Koné ancestry.
Prof Samaké says that when he hears 'i Samaké' he vibrates with pride. When he hears 'Macki' he merely hears that someone wants to speak with him.

best wishes
TALL !!!

23 May 2014

May 24: Oumar Konate & DJ Graybeard at Balliceaux


Malian music permeates! intubates! laminates! vibrates! illuminates! creates! 

Saturday, May 24 at 10pm

Malian guitarist Oumar Konate will perform with his band.

Graybeard from WRIR 97.3 FM will spin hot Afro dance tunes.

Click here to visit the Facebook event page and read the comments!
for example:
"Oumar Konate and his band were Incredible!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

22 May 2014

June 2: Our own Hotel X



will share the very cool bill with the wonderful Bolero group Miramar on June 2nd at The Camel

May 21: Travelers to Cote d'Ivoire in Abidjan

Monday May 19th

08.30 at AGITEL, a smart engineering and business school started in the 1990s by the man who – today – has been made Minister of Industry. This private school, with strict rules and a uniform of blue blazer and blue-yellow striped ties (for both men and women) has 1200 students in its full-time education cycle of three years for a first degree, with a possibility of a Master’s thereafter. Three years ago they switched from the French system, to adopt the international “LMD” used in the USA: Licence, Master, Doctor.

In addition, AGITEL has 400 students following evening courses, which allow professionals to upgrade their qualifications while still working. They can earn credits as they go along, allowing them to take as much time as they need to graduate.

The current Director-General (replacing His Excellency the minister) is Colonel Sorry Bamba, a retired marine engineer who received us graciously in his office, and led us to the plenary hall in front of 250 students in their smart blue blazers. Each of the VCU students stood bravely in front of this massive (but very friendly) audience, and gave their name and their area of study. So each was forced both to be brave, and then also to be fluent in French. VCU was represented proudly! It became clear from the presentations (by professors, and by student leaders in the various areas of study) that the Ivoirian students were very excited by the VCU visit, and very well briefed about the university. Where does VCU excel? Well, definitely in the arts – VCU is No 1 in the USA for this; and in medicine (VCU is always in the top 50); and in other areas such as the life sciences, business and engineering.

Why, we were asked, did VCU have a campus in Qatar ! Well, you do not get that sort of question from someone who has done no prior research ! The audience was interested in the origins of VCU, with the fusion of medicine and the arts (VCU’s reputation in the latter explains why there is a VCU arts campus in Qatar).

Dr RE Poulton was then asked to give an address. He took as his theme the book by Ernst Schumacher Small is Beautiful: a study of economics as if people really mattered. Everyone, he said, has ambitions and they do not need to be huge ambitions to become important. The global economy is composed of myriads of small projects, each one following the logic of its own commercial or cultural environment. This is the true meaning of the American Dream. The individualism of US society has its strengths and weaknesses; so to does the family-community structure of West African society. President Barack Obama’s career provides s great example of improbable success into an American Dream. The smart thing for AGITEL students to do, is to seek to draw out the best from each system and culture: to create their own personal fusion of the best they can find, in order to fulfil their own personal dream. Start small, said Dr Poulton, for Small is Beautiful. But if you can articulate your ambition, and harvest your skills and energies successfully, each one of you can have a dream, and bring that dream to fruition.

The organiser of our trip, Mr Sadiku, then built on Poulton’s remarks to encourage ambition and vision among the students. He asked how many students wished to pursue heir studies in Africa (2); in the Arab lands (1); in Asia (a dozen); in Europe (a score); in American (150 hands went up immediately).

It became suddenly apparent that the cultural visit for six VCU students had become a vast public relations success for VCU and the opportunity for the university to receive and education African students. Many already come to VCU for English language training; but here we are dealing with the business and engineering children of affluent Ivoirian middle-class professionals.

The VCU students were then kidnapped by the various student associations, for one-on-three discussions about life in America and on their first (very favorable) reactions to Ivory Coast…. Before lunch in the AGITEL staff canteen where we were treated to chicken with rice of friend plantain or atieke, the coucous-like speciality of the Ivoirian coast made from manioc. And after lunch they were kidnapped again: this time to visit a clinic for a compulsory lecture on tetanus, polio and malaria ! The group is being well cared-for, and their medical vocabulary has been enriched.

In the afternoon at 4pm, a discussion was organized around the gender distribution of tasks in an Ivoirian household. Mlle Sefora Kodjo of the NGO CEFIS attended as expert witness on “l’implication des jeunes dans l’organisation du foyer.”

The question of ‘maids’ had somewhat concerned some of the VCU students, who are not used to young girls carrying their luggage and serving their food. Sefora explained that while some are simply ‘hired hands’, mostly in Abidjan you will find family members who have come from the village to earn a bit of money, and to be trained in the new ways of urban living and urban cooking (often they are girls who did not have the opportunity to attend school). The VCU students were encouraged to learn the names of the young girls in their household, and to call them by name as a sign of friendship and respect. You can also praise their cooking , and ask them to show you how they made such a delicious sauce.
Gender equality and schooling for girls is a campaign that is led, in Ivory Coast, by the president’s wife; but it also a worldwide movement.

The status of women is intimately linked to their economic contribution, and even to their capacity to attain economic independence: but the husband will always be Head of the Family. All the Ivoirian girls agreed with this statement, although some of the Americans were surprised at the insistence on a family Head.

Tuesday 20th started with visites médicales

AGITEL one time had a French student visitor who got sick with dysentery. Since then, they are determined to make sure that their visitors see a doctor so that they know him (or her) and so that their own medical advisor gives the students a good examination. The VCU students seemed quite pleased : they felt ‘looked after’ and ‘cared for’. It so happens that Minsun Kim had turned over her ankle in Paris, and so the doctor took a look at her mild sprain. He recommended an X-ray, and his patient immediately lost her prescription. Never mind, the clinic was happy to issue a duplicate.

Dr Poulton was asked on what subject he would like to lecture? He asked what the audience would be… students of what age-group and studying what subjects? This question had not been considered. Later it transpired that he might have to lecture for three hours tomorrow morning (THREE HOURS ?!) on the subject of what America brings to Africa, and what Africa can bring to America.

LUNCH was spectacular. Yellow Foufou and Achiéké made respectively from banana mash and cassava mash, and cooked with palm oil (hence the color) making them both delicious and fattening. Served with fish soup (pike cooked in a sauce flavored with pounded smoked fish) it was delicious. Stil, Amanda did persuade one of the cooks to turn up with an additional plate of fried potatoes (most of which Luke downed at tremendous speed, like he was in a race… which he was, because we had been summoned to a dance party).

The Communications and Human Resource department had a graduation party.

In the afternoon we visited the arts school

Wednesday 21st

9.00h The VCU students were in various AGITEL classes, while DR RE Poulton gave a class to the 30 members of the Master’s student class (Master II) on the USA and Africa:
Les différences entre l’Afrique et l’Amérique
et ce qu’il faut savoir comme jeune Africain destiné à vivre (que vous voulez ou non!) à l’ombre de l’influence des Etats Unis d’Amérique – de Macky TALL

1. Les relations des Américains avec leur famille et leur identité
2. Les relations de la personne avec la société américaine
3. Les relations de l’individu avec une économie globalisée

He has been asked to give the same talk to the undergraduates in the main lecture hall, sometime next week. So presumably it was OK.

Noon: Aminata Traoré then came in to lecture on female genital mutilation and to promote her book Le Couteau brulan (an autobiographical novel). She is author, researcher and activist who was herself excised at the age of 8. She is in a cycle of conferences in Abidjan, sponsored by the French embassy.

The first slide shows a small girl’s unhappy face, partly hidden behind a razor blade. The rest of the pictures were worse. There is no doubt that VCU has gained a new awareness of this problem and a new insight into threats to the rights of women.

Elle ne lutte pas contre une ‘tradition’ mais contre une pratique, contre une violence. Auj on fait des vaccinations, on accouche à la maternité, ce que nos ancêtres ne faisaient pas: donc arrêtons la MGF! Elle a sauvé les filles de sa famille et elle a convaincu de nombreuses exciseuses à arrêter.

C’est devenu du commerce et les parties rituelles disparaissent: le clitoris est vendu 10 000; les petites lèvres à 5000; le sang des excisées est collecté et vendu – tout cela pour les raisons occultes, réduits en poudre et exploités pour le maraboutisme.

Il y aura bientôt un long-métrage; elle étudie avec UNICEF la création d’une bande dessinée; elle attend avec la délégation VCU une traduction en anglais. (!)

As a result of this appeal, Minsun Kim and Amanda Radke announced that they would translate Aminata’s book, and Michelle Poulton will give them support. That is an exciting VCU project in prospect.

In the afternoon we visited the National Museum of Arts and Culture where we saw some spectacular masks – including those that changed the course of Western art when Picasso and Braque saw African masks and invented Cubism. There was also an amazing display of bronze weights, of every size and shape and creativity, that were used during the medieval period and afterwards for weighing gold: for the Ivory Coast in just next to the Gold Coast. We are due to visit a gold mine this weekend near Yamoussoukro.

Meanwhile “tous les enfants” as they say at AGITEL, have received African names. They may very well receive a new set of Malian names in a couple of weeks, but right now they have Ivorian (mostly Akan) names:

Taron Kwakou
Luke Kwame
Amada Coco
Lindsey Dewin
Minsun Aïssata
Samantha Ramata