Welcome back! In part 1 I described a few of my encounters with Abidjan’s single men. This is attention that I have (to some extent) become used to and learnt to dismiss to the best of my ability. What still surprises me though is when men “on duty” act in a way that, in the UK at least, would be deemed unprofessional. Mike the policeman for one, but I’ve also had hotel porters, receptionists and shop assistants try to chat me up whilst in uniform. Oh and mothers have asked for my number too.
I am not exaggerating though when I say that I cannot walk anywhere for more than 5 minutes on my own without being stopped or having some comment thrown my way. The other day I was even in a taxi. We were driving to the bus station in a new part of town, and whilst advancing through the narrow busy roads which lead to the station entrance, men started tapping on the window, asking where I was heading, which bus I was catching. By the time we had made it to the station, three of these men had followed us all the way there and were now attempting to help me out of the taxi. I held my bag tight and walked straight toward the ticket office, ignoring them all. Terrifying.
A similar thing happened at the other end as I was disembarking from the long-distance bus in Bouake. I happily made my way off the bus, ready to meet my friend who was waiting for me somewhere in the station. However before I was able to spot him I had to push though a crowd of taxi drivers who were waiting to whisk me away at the exit of the bus “La Blanche, tu va ou? Ey La Blanche, viens ici”. They didn’t harass the man in front of me with these questions, or the lady behind me.
This is a massive cultural difference. People are very open and direct, which can at times be negative, but also has provided me with many positive experiences. Men will tell you up front if they are interested (no subtle flirting games in Abidjan!), non-share taxi drivers will honk excessively at me in the street (and it’s true, foreigners are far more likely to pay for their services), but all that aside, strangers here are very comfortable greeting each other and conversing, and they readily provide me with assistance if they observe I’m lost. This friendliness in the population is a big part of the appeal of Ivory Coast. Yes my pale-skinned ginger-haired self is easy to spot in the street, but those who aren’t trying to get my number, or to generate taxi business, will wish me a “Bonne Arrivé”, welcoming me into their country and culture.
Now the second main category of people who turn their heads are the children. I have had toddlers stare at me bemused, I’ve had boys ask me for hi fives and girls wave from across the street. On a recent trip to Man, a group of kids squealed and waved on seeing me pass in a car, and then proceeded to run after the car just as excitably. Unlike the male bachelors, I absolutely love the smiles these children give me, though I will never fully comprehend why it brings them so much joy to see me. In my building there are a couple of little girls I see every day, whether it’s in the corridor, or playing outside as I leave for work. Without fail, every time I walk past they give me a big smile, wave and say “Bonjour Tanti!” (Hello Auntie!). Their affection has prompted me to buy them sweets on a couple of occasions, much to their delight.
Yesterday I was invited to join my colleague, Clare*, and her family for lunch. On arrival we could see but not hear her young niece who was giggling behind a corner, playing hide and seek. She soon jumped out animatedly to greet Clare, but as soon as she spotted me she became mute. A white girl was in her house, an unusual occurrence. Clare explained to me that this was probably the first time she had seen someone with my skin tone, certainly the first time up close and with the added option of speaking to me.
Later that evening, a small group of us went out for a few drinks and a dance. No one has inhibitions here, so though I started dancing in a more casual manner… I was soon breaking it down to African tunes. This drew in a lot of attention, and soon everyone wanted a dance with me. I was also encouraged to participate in dance-off with another girl, which was promptly recorded by others on the dance floor (I don’t have the footage though – gutted!). I’m not sure if it was just my dance moves, or that combined with the fact that I was white, or maybe they thought my attempts at dancing to African music were hilarious. Either way I had a great night! Yes there were insistent bachelors present too, but last night Clare took care of them for me. By the end of the night she made the comment “all your men are exhausting!”. I’ve been telling her these stories for months, but she had now experienced it first hand.
The warm welcomes, the children, the dancing. If there is ever a time I’m half – grateful for the attention I get, it is in moments like these.
Ps. Anyone else have any similar anecdotes from travels or living abroad?