Through African Dreams

By Michael H. Kew

Entering downtown Abidjan; flags raised for Independence Day. All photos: Kew.

TWO MONTHS BEFORE I landed in Abidjan, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs website issued a warning:

The Department of State urges U.S. citizens to carefully consider the risks of traveling to Côte d’Ivoire. U.S. citizens who reside in or travel to Côte d’Ivoire should monitor conditions carefully, maintain situational awareness, and pay very close attention to their personal security. Although the security situation significantly improved in 2013, security conditions can change quickly and without warning.

And near the bottom of the page:

Swimming in coastal waters is dangerous and strongly discouraged, even for excellent swimmers. The ocean currents along the coast are powerful and treacherous, and several people drown each year.

Though great for surfers, the latter is permanent on all travel warnings for Côte d’Ivoire. Fifty-five kilometers from Abidjan, near the Ghana border, are turbulent beachbreaks and leisure homes along a palmy sandspit between a canal and the muddy mouth of a lagoon, which Walid says it can be a fun place for longboarding. “Maybe we go there, but maybe not. Longboard, this I don’t really want to.”

“Same.”

“Shark and crocodile there. Lagoon, you know?”

According to my guidebook, the area “tugs at the heartstrings of overlanders, washed-up surfers, and rich weekenders from Abidjan, who run their quad bikes up and down its peroxide-blonde beach.”

Today is Tuesday—“washed-up” or not, Walid promises we’ll have the onshore, head-high closeouts to ourselves.

“If you come here in January, February, wind offshore all the spots,” he says, lighting another spliff. “Now is onshore but bigger swells coming. Summer good for waves big, good no for wind normally. But is okay. We surf.”

Soon the road deteriorates into a bumpy, palm-lined, red-dirt lane, its potholes filled with smashed coconut husks. Once in the village, we pass several colorfully painted, cement-walled bungalows, most with thatched roofs, but there are no people present aside from a woman walking and a small, dazed boy standing atop a large pile of husks. Walid pulls aside one of the bungalows and stops the car behind a small pickup with two shortboard thrusters in its bed.

“My friend staying here for today. Come. We surf.”

The surf facing us is junky, the salt air soft and breezy. In an open veranda Walid’s tattooed, non-English-speaking friend sits with a bikinied girl, both looking half-asleep, cross-legged on wicker chairs, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. “Salut,” I say when they nod at me. “Comment ça va?”

The water is steps away; the soft white sand squeaks underfoot. The sunlight is wan and low, the air thick with the haze typical of coasts in the Gulf of Guinea. Needing to shed my travel grime, dumpy low-tide beachbreak or not. Mostly closeouts, strong currents, many duckdives. The biggest waves are slightly overhead, the water reddish-brown and murky, not as warm as I’d expected. Just past the surf line is a near-constant stream of local fishing canoes heading west, their outboard-motors humming through the windchop.

Toweling off post-session, Walid says the surf will be smaller but cleaner down the beach, where his parents’ house is. To get there, he parks the Renault in a rocky, dusty lot on the north bank of the canal; we load our gear into an elderly smiling man’s (Walid: “He my second father.”) long blue wood canoe that will slide us a half-kilometer across to the canal’s south bank, which initially appears to be a long wall of coconut palms, obscuring the pleasant oceanfront homes beyond. This is where upmarket Ivorians, including President Ouattara, often spend their days off. “On the weekends,” Walid says, “many people here. Weekends is crazy—many jet skis, boats, wakes….” His eyes widen as he twists an imaginary jet ski throttle with his right hand. “Vroom-vroom!

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The water near this dock is vacant except for two other canoes, one with two squatting fishermen, the other with a small boy and his father slowly moving with a stick, pushing off the shallow sand bottom. The late-day sun coats the glassy water in liquid gold, silhouetting the land, and within minutes we step onto the rotting south-bank dock, walking with backpacks and surfboards along a mossy covered pathway directly to Walid’s parents’ tile-floored house, built in the 1970s, replete with beachfront swimming pool and exceptional peace and privacy. As Walid predicted, the surf here is smaller but much cleaner. We opt out of surfing and instead, while daylight fades, relax by the pool with sweating bottles of Flag beer.

Inside the main house, Walid’s housekeeper is cooking dinner—barbecued chicken, attiéké (fermented and grated cassava, a Côte d’Ivoire staple), French fries, chilis, onion/tomato salad. Later, while heavy rain pelts the roof, we slouch on a too-soft sofa, our feet on the glass coffee table. On my laptop screen appear the six videos on Walid’s YouTube channel, including a 39-second clip filmed from the inside of his Abidjan house—gunshots shatter the air outside; Walid gets his handgun; Walid shuts the sliding metal barrier fence around his front room; Walid is panicked. When the shooting stops, three men lay dead on Walid’s driveway.

“Scared? Oui. Yes. Very.” He drinks some beer. Long pause. “This thing happened all the time during the crisis.”

“Did you ever grow numb to it? The public killings and chaos? Blood on the streets?”

“No. I never do this. Impossible. My country torn apart. Nobody want this.”

“So how did you deal with the fact that your immediate domestic surroundings became a battlefield?”

In reflective resignation, his right eyebrow lifts.

“I can do nothing.”

He swallows another Flag swig. Shrugs. Blinks six times. Frowns. Coughs. Leans back and gestures at my computer screen.

“What we do? Not in military. Not politician. Can only wait. And hide in our homes. Not go outside any night for long time.”

This night: windless, with near-constant rain. Can go outside, but we don’t.

Next morning: dreariness, a gray haze. Muffled, like I’m wearing earplugs. Faint hum of fishing boats heading west. I peer through the fogged window. Surf: clean, a bit up from yesterday. Thirty minutes later, the end game of stove-boiled water is bad imported instant coffee, odd since Côte d’Ivoire is a big coffee exporter, once the world’s third largest, behind Colombia and Brazil. While coffee remains its second biggest export (behind cocoa), the industry has been struggling for years, particularly after the turbulent 2010 election. Ex-president Gbagbo, who initially investigated corruption amongst so-called “coffee barons,” tried to nationalize the coffee industry in 2011, suffocating production and export.

In Abidjan I’d bought a 500-gram bag of Café Malaga robusta beans (“Coffees from the Ivory Coast are strongly aromatic with a light body and acidity,” says the National Coffee Association of USA website. “They are ideally suited for a darker roast and are therefore often used in espresso blends.”), planning to sample some here, but Walid’s house holds no coffee grinder nor strainer nor anything of the sort. Could use a sock a la Pat Curren on O’ahu in 1955. But no socks, either.

Still, the hot cups of instant move us to surf. For an hour, the sun shines. In Atlantic murk, I admire the soft terrestrial backdrop of white sand and tall palms and nice homes. An exclusive, empty place when distanced from weekends.

We race closeouts till the wind comes. Walid and his helper take two hours to prepare an outdoor lunch (taquitos de parra, salad, mango for dessert) whence twice a butterfly landed next to me on the table. “Here, that is sign of good luck,” Walid says. “Oui, maybe we get some good waves tomorrow, eh?”

Jet-lagged, I doze the afternoon away. Outside: cloudy and bleak, surf junky and smaller. Only sounds are occasional soft birdsong and the whoosh of waves, surreal and serene.

Floating through African dreams.