One of my greatest indulgences is taking taxi cabs. I live in Harlem and often take livery, a.k.a. gypsy cabs, to my destination. My neighborhood that is densely populated by West Africans many who drive these cabs. Being ever curious, I usually engage these taxi drivers in conversation as we head to my destination. Often, I find myself talking to African men from various parts of the Continent.
In recent years the number of immigrants from the West African nation Cote D’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) has swelled. When I first noticed this I was excited to connect with someone who was from a place I had visited and grown to love. Over time, I’ve come to realize that their very presence here is a double-edged sword.
Yes, America is the land of opportunity, the great melting pot of the world. But many of these people have come here not solely to improve their lot in life but fleeing their embattled, beloved nation. What once was a thriving democratic country with a healthy cocoa industry and growing tourist business has become a dangerous war zone — at least in parts — dating back as far as 2002, with its democratic underpinnings crumbling beneath it.
I didn’t know all of the details of current Ivorian politics until recently. So, with naivety, when I have gotten into their cabs and we have begun to chat, I was at first surprised to witness tension when they revealed that they are from Cote D’Ivoire followed by relief when I tell them that I have been there and that I loved it.
Our 15 or 20 minute trip down memory lane serves as a balm of sorts to an open wound for them. You see when I visited this African nation more than 25 years ago, there was no civil unrest as there is now. It was safe. It was viewed as a promised land of sorts.
Indeed, the seminal eye-opening moment for me as a young adult traveling abroad for the first time was on a trip to Cote D’Ivoire. It was in the mid-80s. My first job. A dream opportunity. I had worked for Essence magazine for only six months when I learned that I would be included on the annual voyage to another land to document a culture owned by people of African descent. We did our research. The Ivory Coast was a jewel in the African crown back then. The economy was prosperous. Abidjan was a thriving metropolis, robust with commerce. Many called it a mini-Manhattan. My job, as an assistant editor in the lifestyle department, was to help document the rich culture that these African people lived.
They were beautiful, strong, regal, smart and enterprising. I remember us talking to business owners, government leaders, entrepreneurs—female and male. They were clear about their destiny. They intended to succeed. Interestingly, they had adopted many Western ways of being, including wearing a combination of classic American business suits accented by a swath of their version of Kente cloth.
Part of my assignment allowed me the privilege of going into the offices and homes of many of the political and business leaders of that time. The well-appointed homes that we saw belied the image that was predominant back then about who Africans really are. They did not live in the jungle. Their women were not bare-breasted. They were powerful and contemporary. Abidjan was proof for us that black people could build businesses and wealth on their own.
A plane ride away, Yamoussoukro had just been named the new capital. It had become the other big draw in this lush country. There, the juxtaposition of traditional life and the promise of an industrialized future was oddly apparent. The first democratically elected president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who is credited with helping to decolonize the continent of Africa, was from Yamoussoukro, and he wanted his home to be on his turf. So he had a Cathedral-like palace built for him with a moat surrounding it. He had a boulevard built that rivals the grand boulevards of Paris or of my own Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard in Harlem.
What was so striking about this palatial residence and was that just beyond it remained tiny villages where people still lived a very simple, rural lifestyle. Here is where more classic images of African culture emerged. People lived in hand-constructed huts with thatched roofs. Women draped in African cloth sat outside their tidy homes and made food. Young boys sat on the ground peddling their feet on looms that stretched for yards, weaving their region’s colorful cloth that would later be sold in the market place and overseas.
Literally minutes away from the palace we visited a village and were greeted by the chief whom we presented a copy of our magazine. He received it from us and it was obvious he had never seen such a thing before, photographs included. At first he held the book upside down until we righted it for him. We had come to document these people’s history and we ended up being humbled by the realization that from the simple village life to the big city, these people whom we had been taught were our brothers across the water had a good life — one from which we could learn so much. We witnessed how the villagers honored the elders. We saw that their leader wasn’t afraid to dream big for his country. We felt that we would visit again soon and be entranced once more by the majesty that was the Motherland.
Imagine my horror all these years later to see in the news and learn firsthand from the hard-working brothers who are transporting many of us around in Manhattan that the great promise of Cote D’Ivoire has not been fulfilled. Instead, political discord has showed its ugly face in myriad ways, at the top of the list being a growing outrage over the way that Islamic people have been allegedly denied access to the same resources and roles that others have long enjoyed. Indeed, the democratic election that just named Alassane Ouattara as the new president is not being honored, many believe because he is Islamic.
The recently ousted president, Laurent Gbagbo, refuses to leave and is currently using military force to stay in power. The violence has been ongoing for years but has worsened since the election in 2010. According to the United Nations, about 500 people have been killed in the past three months as opposing forces wrestle over who will be in control.
Civil unrest has upturned much of the world in recent months. Across the Middle East and Africa, the people continue to rise up and fight for their freedom. Unfortunately, that fight also too often includes leaders who do not want to relinquish power.
What will happen to the gems of our world, like the once majestic Cote D’Ivoire, if we can’t resolve our differences and work together to build a better world? Will the world as we know it all turn to rubble? Say it won’t be so.