The bus ride to Yamoussoukro takes four hours, and five if you count the time waiting for the bus to depart. After one week of orientation in Abidjan, you would think I’d have relaxed my Westernized conception of time. But I still sit in my exhaustion and hunger and an overwhelming sense of ”Finally!” as our bus enters the city.
Our landlord meets us at the station and drives us to our new apartments. He introduces us the house manager, Mr. K, and the 19-year old R who lives across the street. We ask for two things: a place to eat food and a bank to get the security deposit. R brings us first to the ATM, which can only give us one-fourth of what is due next Friday. He then sits us down at a local maquis, where we talk as we wait to be served.
R says something to me, but I can’t understand him— probably a mix of his Ivorian accent and my weak French.
“He wants to know if you have a partner back home.” Esther says.
She speaks so little French, and yet, by observing the language of his body and face, she is able to comprehend. We discuss if this has something to do with her West African upbringing, or if this is simply another one of her rare intuitions. I think that I too used to have the latter at one point, before I became too focused on things like phonemes and morphology.
Between my broken French and her gestural prowess, we get our point across. Esther and R teach me how to signal “sorry” in this part of Africa. You make an ‘L’ with your thumb and index finger and place it up against the side of your face. Or you hit your hands together in front of you, palms up.
I wonder what I’m going to have to apologize for. For not knowing enough of the local language and culture? For constantly having to ask people to repeat themselves for me? For having to rely on others for basic everyday things? My mind fills with thoughts as I fall asleep to the steady hum of the AC.
Yamoussoukro is such a strange, fantastical place. The late president Felix Houphouët-Boigny designed this city to be the nation’s capital, and yet its wide streets feel empty and abandoned. Amid the brutalist architecture and clashing landscapes, one can find mazes of open-air markets, pink-green lakes filled with carnivorous caimans, and the largest Catholic basilica in the world. It’s as if the president found a piece of something from everywhere, and then put all those pieces in the middle of nowhere. No wonder I feel like this place understands me.
Our studios happen to be twenty minutes to city center on foot. We take our first full day to unpack and explore the neighborhood. Esther and I are the odd-couple in our community: the colorful, high-energy, Ghanaian makeup artist and the soft-spoken, awkward man with China written all over his face. One might not guess that the two of us come from the US, but it’s obvious we’re not from around here.
Nevertheless, Esther makes it a point to greet everyone she sees. Her reasoning goes like this: people will know you’re a good person if you greet them. And if they think you’re a good person, they’ll be more likely to help you when you need it. While I’m inclined to agree, I realize my introverted tendencies will clash with her advice every time I leave my house.
After lunch, Esther decides to take a nap. I decide to venture out by myself to visit the ATM again. Mr. K sees me walking down the street and asks me where I’m headed. I tell him where I’m going, and he yells at R to accompany me. R, who is eating his lunch, reluctantly gets up to follow me.
At that moment, I feel something I haven’t felt since the first time I visited West Africa. I’m an individual, I think to myself. I’ve figured out how to get by in over 25 countries all by myself. Why, in search of freedom, did I travel miles and miles across the world to be instructed how to go to a bank by a teenager?
So I argue with Mr. K; I try to tell him not to worry. But I don’t have enough French to back up my case. They don’t have the English to make up for it, but that’s not relevant. I’m on their territory now. And I guess that means they’re also responsible for me too.
I take an hour in the morning to do a self-check in. How am I feeling physically, mentally, socially, emotionally? I recounted the strong emotions that came up yesterday as my younger neighbor guided me. I remind myself to be grateful that someone was willing to help. Thanks to him, I will go out without anyone’s help today.
Esther and I go back to the ATMs to see if we can take out more funds. On our way out, we see Mr. K digging a hole next door, surrounded by four or five local teenage boys. He sees us pass by and waves for us to come over. He instructs me to dig, but before I can grab the shovel, Esther jumps in and scoops a few clumps of dirt into the bucket.
Everyone is shocked. Mr. K’s eyes glaze over to me; now you try.
I fill up the shovel with dirt and empty it slowly into the bucket. Mr. K and the boys laugh and say something we cannot understand. À tout à l’heure he tells us. See you later.
In the taxi to the bank, Esther and I describe all the possible meanings of our encounter. Did they laugh because they didn’t think a Westerner could do manual work as well as they could? Did they find my way of shoveling weak and effeminate? Did they ask me (a man) first because they assumed that my female counterpart wouldn’t (couldn’t) do the same work?
While we could’ve filled a few pages of hypotheses about this single moment in time, I can’t prove any of it. Not yet, at least.
I often think about the first anthropologist who entered communities to learn about them (not that communities want to be studied and picked apart, anyhow). But how brave to be the first, and how brave to go alone! I wonder how the local people feel about us when they see us— the new, weird kids on the block. Will we ever reach a point of mutual understanding?
The water has been out since yesterday. I woke up four or five times last night between the strange dreams I can’t remember. The mini-fridge was also making weird gurgling noises, so I make a mental note to tell the landlord before I leave today.
I peer out my window and watch the women who have been up working since the crack of dawn. They pull up water from a narrow well and then carry the buckets on their heads to the entire neighborhood. Part of me wants to go down and help them, or at least draw my own water, but as Esther mentioned earlier, they would never allow me to do this kind of work. I want to thank them somehow, but I have to get to school this morning.
I meet my supervising teacher, Mr. N, who introduces me again to the proviseur and the rest of the administration. We walk into two different English classrooms, where Mr. N introduces me and prompts the students to ask me questions.
The children are shy at first, but then burst out into a million questions. How can I study in the US? Do you speak French? What is your favorite food in Côte d’Ivoire? What is the best way to learn English? Are there poor people in America?
One student asks me how to be successful in life. I give them Epictetus (or whoever else said the following): with two ears and one mouth, you should listen twice as much as you speak. It seems like Mr. N is impressed by my response, and I see some of the students writing down what I said.
Then they start asking the more important questions. How old are you? Where do you live? Can I have your phone number? Do you have a wife?
After returning to my neighborhood, I visit the local Senegalese restaurant and order a delicious plate of tchep for less than a dollar. As I sit down, the people ask about Esther’s whereabouts.
Où est ta femme? one of them asks. Where is your wife?
I laugh when I realize that Esther and I cannot avoid being seen as a married couple. And I guess that’s okay. I decide to let these comments flow into the blank sea of assumptions we all make of each other.
On our penultimate trip from the bank, Esther and I share a bowl of sauce graine with foutou at an expat joint by the lake. We talk of religion, of the human body, of the afterlife. I’m not sure how we got on the topic, but it’s funny how many more deep conversations we have in English, given that most of our daily speech is in a foreign language.
A neighbor invites me to go running with him in the park that evening. It’s been years since I last ran outdoors, but the night air is fresh. After four laps around the central plaza, we walk around for a bit until we return to our street.
When we get back, two other neighborhood boys greet us. We talk about how difficult I find it to understand Ivorian French, but they speak slowly to me and get their point across. Mr. K comes back with a motorcycle, and Esther and I take turns learning how to drive it around the town. Everyone cheers for us each time we pass by.
The sky begins to darken, and I watch the colonies of fruit bats fly overhead. As people start to leave, my new running partner and I linger in the street, and he begins to share some of his hopes and dreams with me. He loves learning languages and wants to work in business after he graduates. But he doesn’t know if he’ll have the money to fund his studies. His situation is complicated, he says.
At first, I feel a bit of resistance; has the time come when the new “friend” begs me for money? It’s sad that I feel the need to resist. But in the end, I decide to choose the optimistic view: he just wants to be happy, like all of us do. I think he just wants someone who can listen— especially someone like a teacher who can help him reach those goals. I wish I could point him in the right direction, but I’ve also got a lot to learn from living here. Perhaps I’ll figure out a thing or two over these next nine months.