You No Eat This?

By Michael H. Kew

All photos: Kew.

MONDAY AT THE MALIBU OF AFRICA. Walid, a white Ivorian, is a black dot on his shortboard thruster a thousand yards from land, floating in the brown Atlantic off the tip of a luxuriant point. Sent here to die, long-period groundswells afford overhead tubes and lengthy walls that croak as closeouts near the mouth of a lagoon. This is where the elephants play. Twenty-two of them, big and small, young and old, spraying themselves with their trunks of water, trumpeting, flaunting tusks, wallowing in mud laced white with seafoam. Sociable elephants on a desolate beach backed by a deep-green rainforest unaffected by poaching or illicit logging. Here at the Malibu of Africa, Walid shuns the chaos of Abidjan, his home city, the decaying Paris of Africa, a hive of crime and cocaine. The elephants don’t notice the goofyfooted figure flirting with the wave, zipping along the glassy wall, smacking its lip, thrice burrowing into the barrel. He does this for them. The elephants. They squirt more lagoon water from their trunks as Walid is blasted with compressed tube spit, then bottom-turns and boosts a spectacular flyaway kickout over the closeout end section. Daily, the elephants see this wave. Right now, the Malibu of Africa is far better than California’s Malibu, where it is near midnight yesterday. In Côte d’Ivoire—the Ivory Coast—today has just begun.

THAT NEVER HAPPENED. No elephants on the beach. They are extinct.

Wartime dust seems unsettled as we leave a shaded alleyway home in the dense Abidjan commune of Marcory. Walid’s English is bad, his French accent thick. He chainsmokes his hand-rolled marijuana cigarettes. He is 35 years old.

In his olive-green Renault station wagon, we weave through Abidjan, pass a big cocoa-processing factory—the air smells of chocolate—and blast out onto the A100, Voie Express de Bassam, under a hazy bluey-brown sky. The road is paved but crowded and lawless, noisy and dirty and stinky and loaded with litter. Walid says that, during the civil war two years back, nobody could drive their cars in or around Abidjan. “Here was many war, many sniper. People getting shot everywhere.” He waves his left arm out the window. “Dead guys right here!”

We pass a gloomy French military camp, the 43rd BIMA (43rd Marine Infantry Battalion), ringed with razor wire. “They saved Ivory Coast,” Walid says. “If no intervention from this army, Côte d’Ivoire was finished.”

Flanking the A100 are several billboards in French and dozens of impromptu-looking stalls offering thousands of things for sale, almost everything imaginable for anyone with West African CFA francs. As in the rest of the Africa, the stuff is all the same—furniture, fruits and vegetables, lumber, clothes, tires, electronics, cell phones—things locals need, not tourists, because Côte d’Ivoire tourism is dead. During my trip, except for a few business travelers, I saw no foreigners.

At one of the road’s many checkpoints, a soldier stops us. Says he’s hot, implores Walid for cash for bottle of cold soda. Walid informs the soldier that I’m an American tourist, and it would look bad if he palmed money to the unsmiling man in fatigues holding a loaded AK-47.

“If the military and police see me, a white Ivorian guy, not from France, they like this,” Walid says as he resumes driving. “I born in Cocody (an Abidjan suburb) in 1977, my father Ivorian, my mother French. Côte d’Ivoire is many mixed. I have double nationality, Ivorian and French, but I don’t want just Ivorian. Ivorian passport I want for go Ghana, go Liberia, for go Dakar. Is good. No visa. My big passport is France. Is better for travel. Is nice.”

Two minutes later, we veer off into the dirt and stop in front of a yelping group of small, rag-clothed boys. Their arms and hands reach frantically into the car, pushing small cellophane-wrapped bundles of sugar cane at our faces, haggling with Walid. He buys two bundles and hands me one. “Good for chew, eh?” he says with a smile. “Delicious sweet.”

“Yeah, sugar highs are great. I think those boys agree.”

Aside from acres of coconut plantations, the road from Abidjan is essentially one long marketplace, stalls hawking all sorts of things. We stop aside one of the many roadside stalls to peruse a colorful spread of fresh, locally grown produce. In fertile Côte d’Ivoire, full of farms, such bounty prevails—nearly 70 percent of Ivorians work in some type of agriculture.

But no one really farms in Abidjan, and we’re happy to leave. Exiting one of Earth’s most dangerous cities is a retreat from pain, mental and physical. Muggings, robbery, burglary, and carjacking are common. The world’s third-largest French-speaking metro (after Kinshasa and Paris), Abidjan’s weary black heart throbs among the inlets and headlands that pierce Ébrié Lagoon. It is West Africa’s largest, covering a surface of 120,000 hectares, one of three long, thin lagoons that parallel the Ivorian coast. Once the pristine “pearl” of the country’s lagoons, the Ébrié is now a woeful cesspit of urban and industrial waste here in Côte d’Ivoire’s economic hub.

For its first 33 years of independence, under its first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny (“Very nice guy,” Walid says), Côte d’Ivoire was famous for its cultural harmony and robust economy, the latter due to Côte d’Ivoire’s status as the world’s leading cocoa producer and Africa’s main exporter of pineapples and palm oil. But when Houphouët-Boigny died from prostate cancer in 1993, a new president was needed, and the nation found itself struggling with its first democratic process and a new national identity, impeded by the divisive influence of the three Rs: region, religion, and resources.

Henri Konan Bédié, then-National Assembly President, succeeded Houphouët-Boigny, ruling until 1999, when he was overthrown by Ivorian military leader Robert Guéï in the nation’s first successful coup d’état. At issue was Bédié’s law, hastily drafted and approved before the 1995 election, that required both parents of a presidential candidate to have been born in Côte d’Ivoire.

Before the 2000 presidential election, Guéï sparked ethnic hate and xenophobia against his main political rival, Alassane Ouattara, who represented northern Côte d’Ivoire’s immigrants, particularly Muslim plantation workers from Mali and Burkina Faso. Due to the parenthood clause, Ouattara was disqualified from the election by his mother’s Burkina Faso heritage.

Guéï’s rule lasted just 10 months, but it marked the beginning of conflict in once-peaceful Côte d’Ivoire. Defeated by Laurent Gbagbo in the 2000 election, Guéï refused to concede, and it took a citizen uprising to topple Guéï and lift Gbagbo to power. Still, the discontent over discrimination and voting rights exploded in September 2002, when Ivorian military troops, many from the north, mutinied and launched attacks in several cities, including Abidjan. Guéï was killed the first night, and thousands more died in the conflict. Ending in 2007, the war led to the death and displacement of thousands of Ivorians.

Still, Côte d’Ivoire stayed split. French and UN peacekeepers routinely patrolled the buffer zone that separated the rebel-controlled north and the government-controlled south. Finally, in October 2010, after repeated delays, elections aimed at ending the conflict were held. But the vote sparked chaos when incumbent Gbagbo refused to concede victory to Alassane Ouattara, who won with 54.1 percent of the vote. It escalated into a full-scale military conflict between those loyal to Gbagbo and Ouattara’s people, and the ensuing stand-off stopped only when Ouattaran and French forces seized the Ivorian south, capturing and deposing Gbagbo. Since Ouattara’s inauguration in 2011, Côte d’Ivoire has remained somewhat stable.

Political tensions persist, however, namely via Gbagbo supporters, who launched violent attacks near the Liberian border in 2012 and 2013. Then, four months before my visit, municipal and regional elections held were generally quiet aside from incidents of localized violence when results were announced.

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CHILDREN SCREAM and wave as we rattle through another rural village, kicking up dust. “Michael, this is good,” Walid says, smiling, tapping the ash from his spliff. “The young good, happy. They look the white man—hello!” He waves his left hand at me. “Happy. After years of war, it’s very nice, you know? Future of Ivory Coast is good.”

The swell has jumped. Sheltered right points entice. En route: plantation workers stroll along the track, holding machetes for coconuts. Many trails into the wilderness, in all directions, no signs—easy to get lost. Tall weeds and fields of maize. Walid has not ventured this way for a long time; he stops the car to chat with a hobbling old man and ask for directions to the beach. Walid hands him a cigarette; the man clasps his hands in thanks.

“Cigarette no easy for the villagers to buy,” Walid says. “Everybody want the cigarette. I keep the ganja. Ha!”

He drives for a while. We listen to reggae. I eat peanuts and drink orange Fanta. Eventually we find the heavily rutted, overgrown track that winds to the edge of the forest, the glassy Atlantic offering large, severe shorepound.

“The jungle is quick to reclaim the road,” I say. “This place was almost impossible to find.”

“No problem, eh?” Walid replies with a wink. He parks in a small clearing between palms. “The spot is over there,” he says, pointing left as he exits the Renault. It’s a sharp bend in the coastline—a hidden right point—pounded with thundering whitewater, a place my guidebook describes thusly: “With its curling breakers, it’s enough to inspire poetic musings.”

We walk for a few minutes. The heavily eroded beach is littered with driftwood sticks and garbage, mostly plastic bottle caps. The sand is course and pink, the air thick with salt mist, the sky a low, ominous gray. Big, powerful groundswells explode along the uneven rock shelf. The lineup is a roiling mess of currents and closeouts, an odd corner off the edge of the channel. But the set-up looks nice for a smaller swell—the shelf piercing the straight backbeach, which falls away into a gradual beach curve before restraightening down to what appears to be another right point in the distance.

“Is shit, eh?” Walid says, relighting his spliff. “We keep going.”

“Where?”

“Spots. Places need big swell like this.”

Back at the car, I study the map where I’d marked 38 possible right points between Abidjan and Liberia. Most look inaccessible by land, but there is one southeast-facing nook in our general vicinity that looks like it would “need big swell.” Finger on the map, I show Walid.

“Ah! This spot very good for fishing. Last time I there for surfing, one guy caught a snapper that was 45 kilos!”

“Does it need a big swell to be surfable?”

“The big swell, yes. Long time I went there.”

The day itself is long, as are the drives to find anything remotely surfable. Checking this spot: misfire #1. Much time wasted.

Retrace north into the crickets and tall grass, to the main road, lined with maize, swaying in the wind. We are westbound again, this time in a national park. The route is marked by tall, deep-green trees, reminiscent of driving through Northern Californian redwoods. Twenty minutes of non-talking, just reggae on the radio.

Beach turn-off approaches. But first, a roadside stop: flyblown roasted corn, handled by filthy fingers.

Pass.

The seller, a man, in a black leather jacket, mildly offended: “You no eat this? You no belong in Africa!”

WE ARE HUNGOVER in a vile city, a lilliputian sketch of Abidjan, on the opposite side of the country, 350 kilometers from the Paris of Africa.

Its surf is not what I’d grokked via Stormrider Guide detail: A black lava reef where waves break in crystalline waters surrounded by lush jungle. It also has a consistent low-tide shorebreak. Reality: consistent, closed-out, onshore beachbreak. Polluted, murky water. Rusty, industrial setting. No jungle.

A late start today. Breakfast on the beach in front of our decaying hotel, which is empty. They all are.

Low overcast sky, looming rain, haze. As Walid navigates the city, honking the car horn and shouting at bad drivers, I shoot stills and video from the passenger-side window. “Wrap camera strap around your arm,” he warns me. “People can take and run.”

At the city border, a soldier (large bread crumb stuck to one side of his mouth) demands money for the surfboards stuffed in our car. Then, the stink of citified Africa: traffic, beggars, sellers, sewage, open drains, garbage, thick crowds of people. Lawless, impromptu, impermanent. At one intersection, where we are nearly broad-sided by a truck, a man is holding a chicken in one hand, using his other hand to publicly piss into the roadside weeds.

“The future of the road is very good,” Walid says. “You look, you have many guys trucks, many guys work. The new government is very good. I see money, you know? I see money in the population working. Very nice for Ivory Coast.”

Pens of live chickens for sale. Vegetables and roasted corn. Peanuts. Slabs of raw meat. Overcrowded blue taxis, oppressive low clouds, cocoa factories, diesel exhaust, vinegary scent to the air (chocolatey on the outskirts). More dusty red roads, more potholes, more skinny men on bikes hauling bundles of sticks behind them. “For barbecue,” Walid says.

Hard rain. Liberia is near. Smell of burning leaves and Walid’s spliff. Swamps, fields of maize and cocoa, splattered red mud on roadside foliage. Cassava rows growing up low hillsides. Dense jungle—palms, ferns. Earthen scent to the air, like what it must smell like inside the many homes in villages scattered throughout the bush. Women washing clothes in the rain, idle men and lurking kids beneath awnings and umbrellas.

Jagged with snags and dead trees, the road becomes singletrack and nearly impassable. The jungle suffocates, crowding our sight and scratching the car. Then the Atlantic appears, draped around a palmy headland doubling as a right point.

The water looks cool and dark, with fish traps several meters off the white beach, on which two men repair their green fishing nets. Behind them, two men with large machetes group freshly harvested coconuts into a pile. Behind them is a decrepit hotel, recently abandoned, now consumed by termites and the wild jungle it was built amongst. African idyll, returned.

The four men stop tasks and walk to us. Handshakes, smiles exchanged. Walid hands them cigarettes and there are words in French. He translates: Where you come from? For why you come? Long time no guys come here. We want guys to come to our beach for surf and fishing, good for the people when we have money for barbecue.

“I tell them in one year, maybe two maximum, you have many guy return in west Ivory Coast for tourist, because the road is finished.”

I want to send message to white guy: you come. Ivory Coast problems finished.

Peace is precarious, perishable, like that ex-hotel over there. Like the reality of military truth.  Like the majority of rural Ivorian homes. How long, really, do those mud huts last?