July 4, 2001 - Personal Web Site: PCV Matt Muspratt in the Ivory Coast
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July 4, 2001 - Personal Web Site: PCV Matt Muspratt in the Ivory Coast
PCV Matt Muspratt in the Ivory Coast
PCV Matt Muspratt in the Ivory Coast
Matt in Côte d'Ivoire
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Mail (new as of May 26, 2002):
Ferkessedougou, Côte d'Ivoire
Here's information on visiting Côte d'Ivoire.
Cote d'Ivoire flag
On January 22, 2002, I left Boston to begin my two-year Peace Corps service in the West African nation of Côte d'Ivoire. I've been assigned to work on water sanitation projects.
Abidjan's skyscrapers symbolize some of Côte d'Ivoire's economic successes since independence in 1960. But many Ivoirians suffer from water related diseases, especially in rural regions, where one-third of the population lacks water pumps and wells.
13 May 2002
Let's get this out of the way: there is indeed a Diembala I. It's a couple kilometers down the road, and I believe the founders of Diembala II come from there. It's surprisingly hard to get a straight story: one man told me there's no connection between the villages, another said everyone has relatives there. What's certain is that "Diembala" is on Michelin's map of Cote d'Ivoire (map number 957). You'll find it 35 km east of Ferkessedougou, which in turn is 55 km east of the main northern city of Korhogo.
I didn't come up to Diembala II immediately after the April 11 swearing-in ceremony. Instead, nearly all 40 new volunteers spent a week at the beach and in Abidjan. I'm sure future journal entries will tell of the sand, fishing boats, and hard waves of Ivoirian beaches. And I should probably tell you about Abidjan at some point, it's trash-filled streets and noise, as well as the shops and homes straight out of Europe and the U.S. But for the purpose of introducing Diembala II, just know that my village does not have beaches, lifeguards, skyscrapers, AC, stores, telephones, transport, running water, electricity, or -- most significantly -- 40 American friends.
No, I'm alone for the first time in Cote d'Ivoire. Feels like graduation from Carleton College and my first day at The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer all at once. There's excitement; there's fear. Everyone speaks Pallaka, a handful French. How will I get water: the pump is broken and the well (actually another broken pump) is almost 1 km away. Meals, laundry? Karime, the 29-year-old assigned to be my village "counterpart," says these are jobs for the women. How can I get to Ferke if there's no transport? I've got to go in and mail off PC paperwork and set up a bank account. I have no furniture, just a cot, mosquito net, clothes, books, and gas stove, all on the floor of my 3-room concrete house. How can I find my PCV neighbors? Am I going to be tagging along with Karime forever, a permanent guest? Will I ever get to know these people? Will I ever feel at ease, at home? Will I ever do projects here? What's a project? What am I doing here?
The sudden solitude and inability to gain control basic routines (water, food, communication) shook me in my first days in Diembala II. The task of joining a community -- not an American one -- could seem overwhelming. But three weeks on, the ups have been more frequent and the downs less violent. As they say here, "ca va un peu": it's going all right, bit by bit.
For one, I'm fairly well settled into my home. The concrete wall and tin roof bake me at times, but carpenters in Ferke and nearby Togoniere built me two tables, two chairs, and a stool (all for under $40) and I've got ample kerosene for my lantern. My door opens to the east and a 30m by 30m packed dirt courtyard of eight round mud huts and two other concrete houses like mine. The village chief ("chef") and his brother live in the concrete, their wives(s) [sic] in the mud huts. Daughters, wives, kids, and I haven't figured out who else pound igname and maize with jumbo mortar and pistle beneath several mango trees.
In a major victory, I convinced Karime that I could prepare breakfast and lunch myself, even if it were women's work -- he ok'd it with the chef and "notables." The one woman in the courtyard who speaks French (she went to school through 7th grade) does my laundry for a bar of soap. I'm working on dinner and water. For now, a woman brings me two buckets of water a day, and I go to Karime's house for dinner.
To reach Karime's I have to walk clear across town. That's about 200m. I can weave through several courtyards of mud-brick houses, all with wood and "charbon"-fueled fires boiling water and cooking "tot de mais" and bush meat. More often I walk along the road that runs straight north/south behind my house, past the broken water pump and the cotton barn to the football field and Karime's concrete house. (There, in that sentence I named the village's only three public, non-residential facilities). At night the stars and moon are amazing, though I swear Orion and the Big Dipper are upside down. At day it's hot but drier than the nasty DC-like humidity near Abidjan. At dawn and dusk the sun casts long red rays that will make photography a piece of cake (when I dare show people my camera). You could touch the clouds with a fire truck ladder.
So what am I doing here? Quickly put, Peace Corps has placed me in Diembala II to help the community with water-sanitation (and other) projects. Unlike some NGOs, PC doesn't hand out money and stuff and then leave. Rather, it donates a volunteer and the community uses its own resources. I'm the first volunteer in Diembala II (PC sends three PCVs on successive two-year stints to a village), there's no health center, nurse, or school here, just villagers who pound maize and work igname and cotton fields all day. I wake up in the morning, step outside, and go... do... it? What?
This is precisely the self-directed and self-motivated challenge I was looking for in Peace Corps. Can I just be given a house in a village, vague objectives, and go do it, make the most of it? How liberating and exciting! How scary!
Step number one -- as PC has made clear -- is to take time to get to know the village and villagers, customs and lifestyle: Talk with Delphine, the vice-president des femmes who speaks French and knows who's supposed to contact the pump repairman; Meet Adama, who drives Caterpillars for the government agricultural ministry near Abidjan when there's work; Bring chickens and bowls to the fiancee's family in a neighboring village; Check in with the Sous-Prefet in Koumbala; Plant ignames with Karime in the fields; Watch a mud-hut house get built.
For me, it's taken some courage to walk into a random courtyard and just talk, especially with people who only speak Pallaka. But I make myself do this at least a couple hours every day. The temptation to stay inside Fortress Matt to arrange furniture and write letters is great. Yes, it's slow going, but I really like what my boss, Julie Donahue (Assoc Peace Corps Director) said in training. "Peace Corps is the toughest job you'll ever love," she quoted the PC slogan, "Not the longest vacation you'll ever endure."
I should say here that PC does warn that letters home may contain (often inadvertently) "war stories," and mislead family and friends that their beloved volunteer is suffering miserable hardships, when in fact all is well. I don't think I've given you the wrong impression so far: All is indeed well with me. I'm healthy, very happy to be here, and confident in my decision to come. However, if you want war stories, I can offer a few. (Parents and loved-ones may skip the rest of this paragraph.) I've ridden a motorcycle at night along a narrow rocky path without a helmet. I've spent six hours straight on a latrine floor in the dark, crouching over the hole, facing the hole mouth open, and lying on the concrete. I've been hit by a car going 40 mph (suffering only a bruised right butt cheek). An infected mosquito bite ballooned my foot so that blobby flesh drooped through my Teva sandals. Lizards, cockroaches, mice, goats, and chickens are temporary or permanent guests in my latrine and house. I've killed two scorpions next to my bed.
But you know what? Ca va un peu. I'm playing football with the guys, greeting in Pallaka, getting comfortable hanging out with certain families, and even making friends. After three weeks of talking and observing I do have some project ideas. They're still mythically in the future, but the women could really use a gas-powered moulin to pound the maize; I have one of only two latrines in town -- they go "en brouse"; a nurse in a nearby town thinks presentations on hygiene and nutrition are essential; we need to fix the pump and get another to serve all 500 villagers. Karime and other want to pen up the pigs, goats, and chickens running all over the place. I've set up a meeting with the chef, notables, president des femmes, president des jeunes, and chef de dozos (traditional "police" who are magically bulletproof) to discuss village health and other needs.
Moreover, comfort is arriving in the knowledge that I'm really not alone in Diembala II. I'm getting closer to the villagers, but I'm also not stranded. Tressa, like me a new first generation volunteer, is in Togoniere, 10 km away. I biked out there in a down moment during the first week and returned uplifted at the discovery that a friend was nearby, and reassured that my ups and downs were not unique. Ann-Marie, one of my good friends from training, is an hour's bike ride away by a shortcut "piste" through the igname and cotton fields. I see these two and two other PCVs in the area at Ferke's Thursday market (which I get to, again, by bike, 100 minutes). I can escape to Korhogo and stay at the PC hostel there to post messages like these to you all. Each week I feel less isolated: new village friends, visits with Americans, and trips to my Ferke mailbox (please write!). Even within Fortress Matt I can tune my shortwave to the BBC and hear those great words: "700 GMT, this is London."
So now I've got it out of the way: An overview of my village, my initial feelings. That was the hard part in my first letters home. I hope I've brought you somewhat up to speed on my PCCI experience and can be more specific about life in Diembala II with future web postings: My excellent, motivated, and educated counterpart, Karime; my scenic bike rides to neighboring villages; the all-night wedding and funeral parties.
Until then, we pie djiamon, toute a l'heure, see you later.
13 May 2002
Obviously e-mail and web access has been very limited, as this posting comes four months after my arrival in Cote d'Ivoire. If I'd put together a journal entry during training, I'd probably have started by thanking the American taxpayers among you for a wonderful vacation. Or maybe it was summer camp. From introductory icebreakers in Philadelphia to orientation in Bangerville, to 11 weeks of "stage" in Nianda, I enjoyed a full schedule language, technical, cultural, and medical classes and outings. I did so with 19 other water-sanitation (wat/san) and 20 rural health volunteers. The breakdown: two married couples, one 72-year-old, 25 women, 15 men; I top off the majority 22-26 year-old crowd.
We wat/san volunteers lived with host families in the tiny village of Nianda, sharing one water pump, two dirt roads, and two churches with 400 villageois. A typical day? Up at 6 a.m. for a jog with good friends Dave from Alabama and Meredith from New Jersey, followed by a bucket bath in my concrete/metal roof latrine and douche (shower). Therese, my "mom", would serve me breakfast: Nestle hot chocolate, French bread, bananas, and eggs scrambled in plenty of palm oil. In the morning I'd have French class with one to three others and a "formateur." The 20 of us would then have lunch as a group, and after an hour's repose we'd have afternoon sessions, which might have involved discussing the oral-fecal cycle and diarrhea, or mixing sand and cement for a latrine platform.
In the evening I might play soccer with the kids who were back from school or work in the cocoa fields. (I would wager that the 12-year-olds of Nianda could run circles around many American high school teams.) Therese, who had spent the day pounding foutou, washing clothes, fetching water, and cooking, would serve me a dinner of rice with a sauce ( arrachide, grain, poisson, encore avec beacoup de l'huile de palme). I'd usually eat with my "brother," Geslain, Therese's 16-year-old grandson, who's in quatrieme at the "college" in Alepe, a 4 km walk away (the French educational system is fully installed in CI). After dinner Geslain and I might go over to the next courtyard to watch a French-dubbed Brazilian soap opera on one of the only TVs in the village. Later I might grab Bock beer or Fanta at the only refrigerator and establishment in town, a bar, or "maquis."
Beyond language and tech classes we'd have cultural classes -- don't eat with your left hand, polygamy is common, shake hands with all 15 people in the room you just entered -- and medical classes -- filter and bleach your drinking water, don't become an alcoholic when you're alone at site, 12% of Ivoirians have AIDS/HIV. For these sessions we'd cram into an 18-seat gbaka and drive to Alepe (maybe on your map, 50 km or so to the northeast of Abidjan). There we'd see the rural health volunteers who were training in another village, Akoure. Though our two groups drifted apart after the first week of orientation, I did get to know several of the "healthers" well, including two I'd spoken with by phone before leaving the U.S.: Ann-Marie, with whom I share a mutual friend from D.C.; and Mark, who's sister is doing PC Cameroon with my college friend, Eli.
I'll give you the cliche answer for what stuck out the most for me during training: the Ivoirian people. Here are a couple sketches/ideas. I bet their "themes" come up again in the next two years:
Kone, my first French teacher, has nearly completed a master's degree from an Ivoirian university and last summer traveled to Switzerland for a youth environmental summit. He was also my Jula teacher and speaks English. His favorite sport is basketball and he played soccer (football from here on) and handball in school. In class we discussed Attie weddings and funerals, Ivoirian and American judicial systems, and Bush v Gore. After class we sometimes listened to Boyz-to-Men CDs, and all the women thought he was hot. What kind of an economy limits this great man to a camp counselor job?
Therese, my mom, has one working eye and walks with a limp, or maybe it's back pain from 60 years of bending over wash bowls, sweeping the courtyard with a hand broom, and strapping children to her back with a pagne (patterned sheet also used for clothing). I only saw her wearing a torn Nestle t-shirt. If she's not cooking and washing and being the kindest hostess, she's out collecting "grains" in the fields for a sauce. Her daughter's husband worked for British Airways and traveled to London frequently. Can lifestyles differ more?
There are many people I could write about to give you an idea of what goes on here. The polio-stricken tailor who has just set up shop in Alepe after 10 years in Abidjan. He's got just enough use of one leg to peddle his Singer sowing machine and he spoke with me for hours. The best football goaltender I've ever seen, who will soon leave the high school dormitory run by Italian Catholics to join a pro team. The gbaka and taxi fleet boss who hit on PC women and loaned us a DVD player.
Then there's Mariam Fofana, the Ivoirienne PC training directrice who put together such a smooth, thorough, and welcoming stage, staffed by some of the most energetic, committed, patient, and caring teachers I've ever had. She's divorced, raising kids, and being successful and productive in a region not known for efficiency and organization, or female leadership.
There's so much more to my 11 week stage, and I'm sorry I can't tell it all right here. In my first personal journal entries and letters home I felt frustrated by an inability to "capture it all." Here's hoping two years of sporadic web postings from my site, Diembala II, will do the trick, giving me time and space to reflect on Nianda, my first impressions, and all that's to come. I feel incredibly lucky: after Sept. 11 canceled my Mauritania assignment, I've landed in CI with a top-notch training, an enthusiastic admin staff, fellow volunteers who are already close friends, and a village straight out of National Geographic. As I draft this entry under my mango tree in Diembala II, a cabrille has just crapped next to a marmite of water, and bare-chested women are still pounding maize next to a mud-brick hut. Here we go.
Dear Family and Friends...
13 May 2002
Dear Family and Friends, I've stamped these first web postings from Cote d'Ivoire with a dateline, May 13. But I must tell you they were written over several days: my first days alone in my village, Diembala II, after 11 weeks of training with other Americans near Abidjan. I can therefore assure that the following was inspired by a wide range of emotions: The joy of cruising the African savanna on the back of a moto at sunset; The fear of walking out my door to greet those bare-chested, maize-pounding women who don't speak French; The eagerness of discussing health and water projects with a village nurse; The irritation of having my Pallaka speaking laughed at; The confidence of bargaining down bush taxi transport some 1000 CFA; The solitude of being stared at; The lift of heading in the go-ahead goal; The emptiness of not knowing what to do; The thrill of dancing solo in front of 200 villagers... at 3 a.m.... to the beat of balafon xylophones... tree branch in hand... at a funeral.
So, bonjour and yerigba from Diembala II, a tiny Pallaka village in Cote d'Ivoire's northern Korhogo region.
No Computers, no privacy
25 August 2002
Dear family and friends,
I really am still here in Cote d'Ivoire - I've just been lazy about journal entries for my web site. Sorry! But today I'm at a computer keyboard and hope I can pound out a quick summary of what's been going on in my village, Diembala II, and with my work.
Actually, let's make it a quick summary of two things I've learned about myself since arriving in West Africa. Peace Corps Volunteers all over and Peace Corps propaganda itself claim that two years alone in a rural third-world village will teach you about who you are, what you like and dislike, etc.: You'll discover lots about yourself. Not surprising, though I'd amend the claim by saying you'll confirm a lot of things you thought about yourself. Here are two for me:
-- I like computers.
-- I like to be alone.
Lock me back up in the old DC basement apartment with my G4 Macintosh, right!?
I am very happy to be popping away at a keyboard for this journal entry. My entries in May were handwritten in a notebook over several weeks: Sometimes in the morning as those bare-chested women pounded maize, sometimes in the afternoon as those bare-chested women brought back water from the pump, and sometimes in the evening when those bare-chested women covered up in third-hand Property of Danville High School sweatshirts to ward off the chilly dip to 85 degrees as they pounded more maize. It took forever; I thought faster than I could scribble; I flipped back and forth between notebooks; I crossed out, drew arrows, and dodged smudged ink.
Luckily, today I am in Korhogo at my local (90 km away) Peace Corps house. Korhogo is one of Cote d'Ivoire's larger cities and at the PC house Korhogo-area volunteers can indulge in electricity, running water (cold only), a Xerox machine, and this computer. My trip out here has actually been weeks in planning. It's the culmination of a long-prepared to-do list filled with tasks that could have been knocked down in no time if Diembala II were wired.
Here's what I mean. My number one goal this weekend (24-25 August) is to write the first drafts of two documents that make up the "constitution" for the women's cooperative in Diembala II. They're called the Statuts and the Reglement Interieur (Statutes and Internal Rules, I guess), and I am submitting them to the sous-prefecture (county-level-like government office) in order to officially register the group. I'm doing that because most NGOs and embassies only hand out grants for projects to officially registered groups. And the bare-chested women of Diembala II want a gas-powered mill to grind their maize and save them the endless pounding.
So I need to use the computer and printer in Korhogo to convert my notes from two meetings with the women's bureau executif into rough drafts of the Statuts and Reglement Interieur. Right there is a couple-hour typing task turned into a six-mile walk from Diembala II to Togoniere (where I left my broken-down bike at fellow volunteer Tressa's house); plus a 15-mile bike ride from Togoniere to Ferke (with stops every 10 minutes to realign my spoke-lacking, frame-racking rear wheel); plus a two-hour badjan (battered mini-van) ride to Korhogo (though the final 20 minutes were on a bus - passage paid for by the badjan driver who decided the smoke from his heap's over-heating engine was just too much to continue on); plus. so, I'm in Korhogo to type up the Statuts.
I've got other things to do in Korhogo too. I've borrowed an image-based health book from Ann-Marie, another nearby volunteer, to help Diembala II's illiterate health committee understand some personal hygiene concepts I'm giving presentations on. I'm tracing images from the book onto large poster paper, and after we discuss the importance of hand washing, latrines, and clean drinking water, we'll go around the village and preach these good practices in each courtyard. So, it's a great book and I'd like to get a copy, but there's a big "This book is not for sale" slapped on the back cover - seems it was a limited print run gift from Rotary International. Sounds like a job for Amazon.com and eBay. Yay wired world.
Alas, there's actually no Internet in Korhogo, just a communal PC e-mail account. But there is a post office, and this computer, on which I can write friends and the publisher to get this book hunt underway. How long would it take to find "Afrique: La Sante en Images" if Diembala II had Internet access? 20 minutes, not a 10-mile walk to Togoniere, 15 miles to Ferke..
Time for an editor's note: The above should be read noting the author's underlying pure enjoyment of all this, not the apparent whining. This is fun, not frustrating. I have not forgotten something I mentioned in an earlier journal entry: American taxpayers are paying me to go on long bike rides and eat deep-friend poids de terre galettes. though sometimes portions of those bike rides are spent soaking wet under a tree 20 km from Diembala II with night falling at the height of the summer rainy season.
Here's what's frustrating. Take a look at my notebook (paper, not Dell). I've written in ink my in-progress projects: Village Cotisation (money collection); Health Presentations; Mill Grant Proposal; Pump Repairs, etc. Next to each I've written a little blurb in pencil: ask village chief to tell people to pay up; make oral-fecal cycle poster; type up women's group Statuts; go to Ferke and ask local NGO how much village owes for last year's pump repairs. These blurbs are in pencil because, for example, after I've typed up the women's Statuts, I'll erase and write in "Bike to Koumbala and submit Statuts at sous-prefecture; research mill vendors." I constantly erase and rewrite in my notebook, and I realize it's because I've been cutting and pasting for most of my life. That is, I'm treating my paper notebook like a computer screen and word processor. I like computers.
As I said before, I also like long bike rides. Togoniere (Tressa's village), Lafokpo (Ann-Marie's village), and Ferke are all accessible by a grande route - a dirt road. But there are shortcuts: webs of foot and cattle paths that cut across the fields between Diembala II and these destinations. I think I lost my bike spokes on a narrow bit just outside of Porougou, a 100-person village not even on the grande (dirt road) route. Sometimes the igname hills or raised cotton rows spill onto the path, making for a jarring ride. And the tall grasses always slice at my sandaled feet (but not my legs - no one wears shorts here) and get caught in my wheels. It's real mountain biking (PC gave me a Trek 820), and I only see the occasional farmer, whom I greet in Pallaka, Nyerofolo, or French. One guy, also sporting a Danville High t-shirt, gave me four maniocs, a potato-like staple that I later sliced and deep fried into French fries on my gas stove.
Ivoirians stare at my nifty orange Trek bike, so maybe riding is not entirely a solitary experience, but the attention isn't as intense as it can be in the village. I have in my possession an African game called awale. It's a rectangular slab of wood with 12 scooped holes arranged in two parallel lines of six. Two players move pebbles around the board trying to capture each other's pebbles. Nice explanation - no matter, the point is that kids like the game. Every night for several months a bunch have stopped by after their day of herding cattle or plowing cotton rows to play. They crowd onto my concrete porch and play while I bend over my kerosene lamp trying to read. If I'm inside when they come by, I'll hear a rapping on my metal door and "Pelagninigui!" my Pallaka name, "blay!" awale's Pallaka name.
Pre-blay events often include drinking tea with men just back from the fields. Ten or so of us lounge on bamboo chairs or crouch on taboret stools, chatting. Someone boils the water in a tiny teapot over charcoal and mixes in Chinese tealeaves and sugar at a one-to-one by volume ratio. While pouring the tea back and forth between cup and pot to capture all the sugar and tea, the villager invariably asks me if there is tea in Amerique. Yes. Do you sit around with everyone and prepare it like this?
Sometimes, I'd say. We also drink alone at Starbucks. But here's one thing I think we never do: Laugh hysterically and repeat what the foreigner just said in our language, and laugh hysterically some more. Well, maybe there's some of that in America, but not non-stop, every morning, every greeting, from our bare-chested maize pounding women. I really am still a novelty in Diembala II (let alone isolated Porougou, where tiny kids scattered screaming and barricaded themselves in mud huts the first time I biked through). The laughter really isn't malicious, and they even compliment me, saying I'm "fort, " strong, and already know their language. Really, I can only greet and say, "I go Ferke. I return night. I will eat night meal Karime's courtyard." That's perfectly correct, but it's hilarious to hear me say it, and perfectly appropriate for the five women pounding maize together to laugh when I say it, every single time.
It's also perfectly appropriate to make me dance to the balafon xylophones at all night funeral parties, when dozens of villages come together to forget the sadness of a loss. And to give me the plushiest wooden chair when I stop by to visit. Last week the truck driver at the Ferke market flat out refused to let me ride with the 30 women jammed in the back carriage for the trip back to Diembala II; I had to sit with him in the front cab, but got to hear about his drama group's tour of France. I need more info on that.
That driver isn't the only Ivoirian who likes to tell me his story. There's also the juice sachet vendor in Ferke who promises he'll visit me one day in Diembala II; the high schooler who really did bike the 35 km out there; the NGO director who wants to go to Wharton or London School of Economics; another high schooler who wants me to come on his English-speaking radio show. At some point in our conversations every one of them says, "Je reve d'Amerique." I dream of America.
When I dream of America these days, I'm often alone and escaping. The last two books I've read are Stephen Ambrose's Meriweather Lewis biography and Thomas Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree, a commentary on globalization and America. I listen to my mix music tapes or the BBC (my solar-powered battery recharger is working). I'm on a 90-minute bike ride. I'm sitting silently on Karime's porch waiting for my kabitoh and peanut sauce dinner. I might be writing in my journal. I'm preparing for the next health presentation. I'm just sitting alone in front of my house during the afternoon repose when everyone naps in the shade. I'm in the back seat of the badjan, a 200-pound "tantie" and her baby squishing me against a plastic window stitched with copper wire.
I love these moments, these steps back from the attention, curious kids, and laughing women. I do love my village life too, walking around, discussing the mill or health topics, and greeting the 15 men who are drinking tchapolo on my porch at 7 a.m. But when people aren't talking to (or laughing at) the white man, am I bored? No. Peace Corps literature is right again: as an American in West Africa you're alone, but in another sense you're never alone. I stand out in Diembala II, my fancy awale board stands out, my accented Pallaka stands out, and my refuge - my house - stands in the village's largest courtyard, next to the chief's house and a major tchapolo watering hole. In America I've always had more privacy. Here, I enjoy the times I can step back. I just wonder when they step back.
Sept 25, 2002
Dear family and friends,
This is a quick journal entry to let you all know that I am safe and sound in Abidjan.
Last Thursday, September 19, Cote d'Ivoire busted out of its usual world news obscurity when rebel soldiers launched what the government is calling an attempted coup. At this point, Internet news sites can give you at least as much information: as I can about who the rebels appear to be (disgruntled soldiers loyal to the recently-offed 1999 coup leader); which cities they control (includes Korhogo and FerkÈ, near my Diembala II); which western countries have sent in troops to evacuate their nationals (France, UK, US); and, the body count in this, Cote d'Ivoire's bloodiest uprising (270 and counting). I can only add a little about what's been happening at the Peace Corps hostel in Abidjan, where I've been confined since the uprising.
At 4:30am that Thursday one rebel group assaulted the school for gendarmes (government police) in the Abidjan quartier of Deux Plateau. About a mile away up the Rue des Jardins I was sleeping under the PC hostel ping-pong table (because it's cooler in the outside garage) when voices crackling over our guard's radio and machine gun rattling woke me. Sorry, can't add much more battle detail than that. For the next several hours, as daylight arrived and the morning departure time for my intended bus ride to Korhogo passed, I and 15 other volunteers sat behind the hostel's concrete and glass-shard-topped walls listening to consistent -- but not overwhelming -- clapping of bullets and booming of mortar shells.
The fighting diminished as Thursday wore on, but overnight there was another rash of shooting, and Friday there was only the occaional popping of gunfire. I can summarize the rest of Thursday, Friday, and pretty much every day until this posting with a description of the activities available to 15-20 PCVs under "hostel arrest": Since Friday, Peace Corps and the US embassy have asked us not to venture far from the hostel.
Our sources of information: BBC provided us with thorough news bulletins during the first few days. Then President Gbagbo's government cut off the BBC's FM signal from Abidjan (but not the shortwave one from London) leaving only the government controlled radio stations to not tell us that BouakÈ and Korhogo were under rebel control. At the hostel we also have a embassy radio that allowed us to know if "Boatbuilder" or "Aristotle" were safe in their homes, had heard shooting nearby, or were headed out for food at SOCOCE, the supermarket. Each morning there's a roll call of embassy personel and the excitement was high when we figured out our Peace Corps boss' codenames. Though the embassy radio told us whether school was in or not at the international school ("coup day" not "snow day", I guess), it rarely had any more info than the BBC.
Anti-boredom activities: I'm locked in a fierce Mastermind boardgame clash with a friend. We've had at least 30 movie viewings on the VCR, but we seem to watch Spy Game, Zoolander, and Bring It On over and over again. We've got a patch of grass in the back and I used tent stakes as wickets for croquet (we had one mallet and two balls). I'm almost done reading Guns, Germs, and Steel, and have finished the three Travel Leisure magazines lying around. I'm gaining weight: beans, rice, bread, and no more 2-hour bike rides.
Actually, my little exercise is a daily walk to the supermarket or the Internet cafÈ. Peace Corps allowed us to go out as long as we didn't dally. The supermarket reflects the wealth that exists in parts of Abidjan: it's nicer than your nicest Safeway or Star Market, with bar code readers, credit card swipes, etc. Brands tend to be French. Despite a run on food as people prepared to durÈe at home, Super Hyatt was well stocked. Two days ago I went with Piga, our Burkinabe janitor, to buy 30,000 F CFA ($40) worth of food for us hostel refugees: fruit, veggies, tomato paste, bread, Nestle Nido powdered milk, Nestle Nescafe, Nestle Nesquik, rice. Similar to my Diembala II diet.
We have to be back in the hostel by 8pm because ever since Friday there's been a shoot-to-kill curfew. Someone usually fires up the two gas burners on our stove to cook dinner, while the rest of us watch our fourth movie of the day or start a dance party on the porch with an assortment of tapes and CDs left by generations of volunteers. One night there was a rumor the government was going to cut off the water - huh? So we filled the bath tub, several cuvettes, and a trash can with water.
That's about it, and to tell you the truth, I'm finishing this entry on Sept 28, and it's now out of date -- read on.
September 26, 2002
Dear family and friends,
Today we got official word that tomorrow morning a bus will pick us up at the Peace Corps hostel and take us to Accra, Ghana. Peace Corps isn't using the word "evacuation," and the US embassy hasn't yet told American citizens to get out. Rather, we are "consolidating in Ghana."
This consolidation follows several days of mini-consolidation. While I was with nearly 20 other PCVs at the Abidjan hostel, PCVs were making their way to various consolidation points around the country. My friends in the Korhogo and Ferke area gathered at a Baptist hospital -- word is that they'll be flown by military C130s to Accra.
Peace Corps says the PC Cote d'Ivoire program will remain "open," and they hope we can return to our sites in a few weeks. Of course, they don't know if things will really have cooled down by then, but for now the idea is to return to Cote d'Ivoire as soon as possible.
Word is that our non-evacuation consolidation is more about pressure from Washington than safety. Sounds like concerned parents called their senators. Abidjan is still considered safe even though the action up north is making the uprising seem more like a civil war than a coup. On the other hand, PCVs up north report that the rebels are very polite: they've taken over police checkpoints, but they've reassured volunteers on transport that they're safe, abandoning the power-trip attitude you expect from checkpoint police. Also, instead of looting stores and hospitals, rebels apparently are proudly paying for things.
Ok, I must wrap this up and literally go pack my bags. I hope these two rushed entries give you an idea of what's going on here. To sum, tomorrow morning I'm off to Ghana in a Peace Corps evacuation. Things are uncertain, and two weeks time could find me in Boston, Diembala II, Abidjan, or at an Accra Internet cafÈ updating you all again.
3 Oct 2002
Dear family and friends:
I will present this information with the bluntness it hit us former Peace Corps Cote d'Ivoire volunteers: my program in Cote d'Ivoire has been suspended because Peace Corps feels it cannot guarentee the safety of volunteers in light of the recent uprising. That means it's over.
A "transition conference" will begin in a few days to help us figure out our next steps. Decisions to be made include signing up for a new Peace Corps program or outright ending service (Closing of Service, COS). If I COS I can take a plane ticket home or cash in lieu.
The program suspension is a bit of a shock now that it's actually happened, but I had expected it. For the moment I'm planning on looking into travel and work options in West Africa -- maybe I can get back to Diembala II if the action cools down.
I'll try to keep you all updated.
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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Ivory Coast; PCVs in the Field - Ivory Coast; Safety and Security of Volunteers
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