Friday May 23rdI 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 24thThe 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 25thSTOP PRESS !
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.