Ma Belle Côte d’Ivoire
Searing Heat. Incomparable allure. Unparalleled grace.
These are the evocations that wash over me when I think of la Côte d’Ivoire.
In 2010 I had the very great privilege of travelling to the arrestingly beautiful and utterly intoxicating West African sovereign state, a Francophone cocoa-growing powerhouse of relatively little renown. I fell in love with the place, with its people, and with the man that was to be my future husband. Though we are no longer together, I harbour nothing but fondness and affection for his homeland and my time there. These are just two of my exceptional experiences.
“Yes, the bus will be leaving soon, very soon mama!” Maybe there’s a gleam in his eye, a hint – something I miss through the relentless heat. I’m too busy trying to determine whether or not my foggy Anglophone brain has come close to translating the rapid-fire French correctly. “Quickly mama! Vit! Vit!”
My eyes widen and, slightly panicked, I scan the market place before hurrying towards a young vendor across the street. I need to move if I am to grab refreshments for the journey – by all accounts it was to be a long one, the roads questionable.
“D-l’eau-d-l’eau-d-l’eau” – the brightly garbed girl’s chant turns over and over in my skull as she plucks a plastic water sachet, icy and dripping, from the large metal bowl atop her head. I pay the 100 francs for the water and squash one of the chilled bags against my forehead, ever grateful for any chance to soothe sweat-soaked skin.
My then boyfriend and I had decided to make a weekend of it, head north from Abidjan in a rickety minibus and see the famed sights of Côte d’Ivoire’s comparatively small capital, Yamoussoukro. The jewel of the city, the Basilica of our Lady of Peace, a magnificent monolith rising over the African savannah.
Back near the bus my boyfriend, a local, seems far less harried. I watch a smile creep onto his face as a pair of giggling girls skip past him, all skinny arms and legs and clicking braids woven thick with cowrie shells. The girls stop and grin shyly when I offer to take their photo. They laugh hysterically on seeing their image played back on the grimy camera screen.
It’s Harmattan season, and the winds from the Sahara have coughed a dusty haze over the city.
“Apparently the bus was about to leave, lucky we got here in time!” I say naively, watching the girls run off into the sea of ragged plastic umbrellas. “Mmhmm.” He murmurs, unmoved by this assertion.
We pass the time singing and snapping photos – a mother nursing twins, one on each knee; countless cringe-worthy selfies; a boy taking a kip in a wheelbarrow; an infant tied to her mother’s back with a colorful pagne wrapper, chewing too enthusiastically on the handbag nestled close to her chubby face. There’s a certain amount of hustle and indeed bustle, yet it’s reluctant, wary of the heat, thick, cumbersome.
It will be another 4 1/2 hours before our glorified maxi-taxi, packed to the hilt and piled high with assorted luggage, lists out of Adjamé market place, bound for Yamoussoukro. Now though, we wait, wading through the molasses of mid-afternoon.
That table is breathing.
Heaving. Undulating. A coagulate mound on the ever-so-gradual move. Slow – but definite. I take a few steps closer, fascinated by the trick my eyes appear to be playing in the muggy afternoon light.
It’s half past siesta in Angré market place, Abidjan. The occasional whiff of rotting, sunburnt refuse competes with the scent of smoking eel and frying plantain bananas.
I’m pretty sure I just stepped on the discarded femur of a late primate, the bush meat bone picked clean of flesh, and marrow, too.
There’s at once a buzzing sense of urgency punctuated by a languid sleepiness, and this table seems to be at the epicenter. As I get closer it clicks. Escargot!
A roiling mass of African snails sits before me, piled high on a gunk-stained hessian sack. Each cone, bronze with a dull zebra striping and the occasional flash of red is size-ably larger than a man’s fist. I’m at once repulsed and enraptured. Before long. I’ve given each a name and an elaborate back-story.
An elderly woman casually herds the haphazard pyramid of muddy shells into shape. Periodically she picks up a gleeful escapee and plonks him unceremoniously atop the pile.
“Bonjour Maman,” I greet the woman. She is clad in a brightly patterned pagne wrap with matching headscarf and the obligatory free political party T-shirt. The leering mug of the President grins down from her shirt at the oozing pile before them both and waves at his sea of adoring invertebrate fans. I lean in for a closer look, wrinkling my nose. “C’est l’escargot?”
She nods, giggles at my intrigued expression and pokes one of her slimy charges in the eye. I look on as she holds them aloft one by one, jams a long metal baton deep into the shell, skewers a slimy kebab and twists it free of shelter. Silent shrieks ring out across the warm, thick air.
They ricochet off the woven plastic prayer mats for sale, (bonprix madam!), the candied peanuts roasting on charred hotplates, and the luminous dark skin of a bare baby’s bottom. Maman slops the naked snails tenderly into a blue plastic bag, chattering loudly about my bizarre facial expressions.
A crowd is beginning to gather, chuckling at la Blanche’s contorted visage. It’s clear from the raucous laughter of the ladies that I’ve turned a spectacular shade of verde. Probably time to go. “Bon appétit!” one of the women calls after me. I steal a glance back at them. They are doubled over with mirth, Maman leaning heavily on the still gasping table.