Sunday, February 16, 2014

Abidjan Observations: Life at the Office

Like all offices, my office has (eventually) become a comfortable and familiar place over the past few months.  Upon arriving at the office, everyone goes into each other’s offices for handshakes or bisous.  My coworkers are nice people and friendly with me, and I’ve begun to get to know them on a more personal level.  For their part, they’ve gotten used to having me there.  They’re no longer that intrigued by me, although they still enjoy telling me about how things work here and they get a kick out of me eating local food. 

The office is not always a well-oiled machine however.  Some recent logistical problems: 
  • The door handle to my office is broken and has been for three months now.  It’s not totally broken; you can jam it back onto the protruding piece of metal, and it will open and close, but you’re always one forgetful moment away from yanking it off the door and having to re-jig it onto the door. 
  • A few days ago there were three baby mice or rats running around my office for most of the afternoon.  Not pleasant. 
  • Our internet doesn’t work.  A neighboring office in our building does have internet and their internet usually works, so we often use theirs.  But this puts us in the position of relying entirely on them for internet, so if they show up late or leave early, we are out of luck.  Our internet was working the first few weeks when I arrived, but it soon went out and it hasn’t been back.   
On the positive side, I’ve been eating lunch with a colleague or two most days now.  We usually eat braised bananas and roast peanuts, which we buy for dirt cheap from a lady near our office.  It comes out to about 30 cents per person, and I quite like it as a light lunchtime meal. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

A Day at the Beach in Cote d'Ivoire

Observations from a recent trip to Grand-Bassam:

Renting a car -- Sheila and I decided to go to the beach a couple of weekends ago.  We’d been once before, but had gotten a ride from an embassy staffer with a car on that occasion.  My bus ride to Yamoussoukro aside, we’d yet to leave Abidjan on our own.  I’d heard that renting a car was the way to go, so I asked a couple of co-workers, and one told me that he had a friend who did car rentals and he could get me a good deal.  I asked whether the car came with a driver and he said that it was customary for it to come with a driver.  I called him the day before to confirm, and he told me that he would bring the car over himself at whatever time we wished.  At 8am the next morning, my coworker did indeed show up with the car, and only then did I realize that he would be serving as our rental car driver for the day.  It’s probably worth noting that this colleague is a mid-level official in our office.  More worryingly, he was also the driver for the return trip from Yamoussoukro, who you may remember from this previous post.  He was surprisingly professional though.  He drove us to Bassam, went off and did his own thing for several hours while Sheila, Will and I lazed about the beach, and then drove us back to Abidjan.  Cote d’Ivoire… a beautiful and strange land where government health official moonlight as rental car drivers. 

La Maison de la Lagune -- The beach itself was quite nice.  We went to La Maison de la Lagune, a few kilometers outside of Grand-Bassam.  La Maison de la Lagune is owned and managed a by sweet, older Frenchwoman named Catherine.  It was beautiful, with views of the lagoon on one side and the Atlantic Ocean/Gulf of Guinea on the other.  Sitting on beach chairs for the day is free so long as you get lunch; and lunch (merou (grouper) brochettes, ratatouille, and Fanta Cocktail) was excellent.  We've been fed a steady diet of stories about ex-pats getting pulled away by the undertow and drowning, so I'm terrified of going in too deep, but we waded out to waist height and even body surfed a bit.  All in all, it was one of the nicer days we've had so far in Abidjan.  

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Observations from Abidjan: A Time Machine to the Pre-Google Era

Digital Desert -- My relationship with technology has changed since I've been here.  This, despite having very decent internet connectivity.  Our house has wifi that extends to every room and works flawlessly 96% of the time.  I can maintain email relationships with friends, follow American basketball and European soccer, read my favorite websites, and write blog posts here.

But it's like being able to access this stuff from the Moon.  The internet provides very little added convenience to my daily life here in Abidjan.  Google Maps has a map for Abidjan, of course, but there is very little detail.  Unlike, say, Polson, Montana (population 4,488), where I can look up the exact location of the nearest UPS Store or the lone Mexican restaurant in town, and go down to street level and glance around, there is shockingly little information about Abidjan (population 1,929,000).  There are popular restaurants and bars here that simply don't exist on the internet.  Back in the U.S., Sheila and I like to laugh about the pre-internet days when you had to know exact directions beforehand in order to get somewhere, but Abidjan is a time machine back to that era.  If you make plans to meet a friend at a restaurant you've never been to, you need to ask him for directions as well.

What is more, most streets don't have names here, so there are no addresses.  Directions are given via to landmarks.  To take a taxi home, I tell the cabbie that I live "in Vallon (neighborhood) near the Ghanaian embassy (landmark)."  To go to work, I ask to go to "Plateau next to the Pullman Hotel."  Yesterday, Sheila wanted to go to an African dance class, so she had to call a friend who told her to tell the cab driver that it was near the pre-school in Cocody, and if he didn't know where the pre-school was, to say that it was not too far from radio station RTI.

Google is considerably less useful to daily life here.  At work, I was looking through our office's official Strategic Plan for the year, and one goal was to revise the SNFSCUS.  In the U.S., your first response is to google unknown acronyms, so I tried that.  Nothing.  So I googled "SNFSCUS Cote d'Ivoire."  Still nothing.  "SNFSCUS Cote d'Ivoire Ministere de la Santé."  Nope.  I ended up having to ask my colleague, Dom Dje, but then he couldn't remember either, so we spent 90 seconds trying to puzzle it out.  (Final answer: Stratégie National de Financement sur la Couverture Universelle de Santé.)

Last week, Sheila's iPhone started getting a message saying that her telephone service had been restricted.  In the U.S., the first step would be to google the problem and then to call customer service.  Here, a google search does not turn up any forums or other discussion of the problem, and when you call the customer service line, it says that all lines are busy and tells you to call back at some other time and then hangs up on you.  Our service provider's offices are closed from noon Saturday until Monday morning, so we had to wait until Monday to head over to the Orange office, wait in line and then ask in person how to fix the problem.

If there is one bright side to living in a technological backwater, it's that I've completely kicked my Twitter addiction since arriving here.

Weather in Abidjan -- The weather here is so boringly consistent that people don't even make small talk about the weather.  

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Parenting and New Years in the Cote d'Ivoire

Sheila and I feted the New Year at the house of a Colombian-French couple with a bunch of ex-pats.  It was a fun party.  A bit of an older crowd, but that didn't stop most of them from splashing into the swimming pool at midnight for champagne toasts and general merriness.  Salsa dancing was promised, but never materialized, although we left at 1:30am, so perhaps we just didn't stick around for long enough.

Most striking was the laissez-faire attitude of the ex-pat parents.  We came with Diego and Sophie and their one-and-a-half year old daughter Emilie, who was pulled from her bed, bundled off to the party, and then deposited in the back yard in a portable crib covered with a malaria bed net.  Next to the bed net-covered crib of another sleeping baby.  And these were just the sleeping kids.  Any child above three was allowed to stay awake and frolic around playing soccer or video games into the wee hours of the night.  Sheila and I couldn't help but admire this attitude.  We first thought it was a French thing, but a visiting Frenchwoman assured us that it was an ex-pat thing, that it would be unusual in France as well.  I suppose it makes sense.  The type of parents who are casual/selfish enough to drag their kids along to Africa so that they can continue their adventurous pre-child lifestyle are the type of parents who would drag their kids to parties so that they can maintain their pre-child social life.

I don't yet have strong impressions about Ivorian parenting, but the dynamics around age are interesting.  There is a much clearer hierarchy among the ages here, and society just seems to operate on the basic assumption that youths will obey their elders.  When our car broke down on the side of the road on the way home from the village festival, it broke down next to a roadside concrete shop where a handful of teens were working.  My friend Hilaire ordered them to push the car back and forth a few times while we tried to get it started.  At ultimate frisbee, there are often a couple of kids hanging around hoping to play.  If we're short of players, we might invite them to join us, but they are ordered off the field immediately upon the arrival of more senior players.  

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Village Festivals, Social Capital and Soft Power

La Fête de la Sagesse et la Richesse -- This past Saturday, a friend took us to a festival in a village near Dabou, about 90 minutes outside of Abidjan.  There was music, dancing, food, colorful outfits, relentless sun, and an endless ceremony with long-winded speeches.  It was a lot of fun.  In particular, there was lots of music and dancing, both traditional African dance and more modern stuff, in which I participated.

Being in the village, rather than Abidjan, was much closer to the Western conception of "Africa."  We weren't even the only white people at the festival, but white people are clearly a rarity in those parts, and I was an object of fascination.  Barefoot children followed me around.  Someone asked me if my hair was a wig.  They all wanted to touch my arm hair, as they'd apparently never seen anything like it.  I told them that I had the blood of the wolf.

Christmas in Abidjan -- There are some spectacular displays of Christmas lights here.  The bridge to Plateau is lit with Christmas lights shaped into beautiful, colorful flowers.  I assume that the government pays for this, and you can argue with the decision to prioritize funds for this purpose, but I do think there is something to be said for creating an attractive and happy environment for citizens.  Many private establishments also have impressive displays of Christmas decorations.

Queueing and Social Capital -- At the village festival, there was a lunch buffet for a group of us.  Even among our relatively wealthy group, the social capital was absolutely atrocious, with people shamelessly cutting each other to get ahead in the buffet line.  My initial impression has been that social capital is actually worse among the wealthy here, perhaps related to an increased sense of entitlement.

I've been noticing the lack of social capital a bit more in recent days.  I went out to buy a couple of things on December 24, a busy shopping day, and there was a disgraceful amount of cutting and other uncharitable behavior.

That being said, these are minor points, and I've found most of my business dealings to be quite honest.  Prices aren't always fixed, so people might charge me a bit extra for being Western, but people don't try to cheat me outright.  I've never given someone money for a good that was broken or a service that went unperformed.  

Soft Power -- The U.S. has a great deal of cachet over here.  A cabbie recently told me that even having a brother or a cousin in the U.S. can gain one a great deal of status.

I had a run of five cab drivers in a row who told me that their dream is to move to the U.S.  One had saved up $4,000 for his application, only to have the money stolen through a fraudulent service (very common here).  Another is in the process of trying to save up $8,000.  These are shocking sums for people who probably make about $10-$20 a day.  The driver who is saving towards his $8,000 goal says he's been saving money for 10 years now, ever since he was 18.  Most of them hope to drive taxis over in the U.S.  Such a tragedy that we make it so difficult for them to get over to the U.S.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Expatriate Conversation

This was another world in Malabo, the world of the colonialist.  Or better, ex-colonialist.  An African servant was passing out the drinks, another tended Guillermo and Marisol's small son, and a third prepared the fire for cooking.  The hors d'oeuvres had been imported from Cameroon and Spain.  The style of the conversation was the kind one seems to find among expatriates in almost every developing country I know: a combination of gossip about leading figures, complaints about "the system" and "the people," and great cynicism. 
That's from Robert Klitgaard's Tropical Gangsters, written in Equatorial Guinea in 1990, but it could have been written in Abidjan in 2013.  Although in fairness the U.S. Foreign Service crowd is not like this.  I've found them to be culturally sensitive, and they are not integrated enough into Ivorian life to know any interesting gossip.  The UN crowd on the other hand...

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Families, Governance and Stability

More observations from December in Abidjan:

Culture of Family Making -- There are 21 million people in Cote d'Ivoire in 2013.  There are expected to be 30 million by 2030.  When I spend time around Ivorians, it's not hard to see why.  Making a family is just such a big part of the culture here.  I've yet to meet a cab driver who doesn't have a wife and kids.  I haven't discussed this issue in detail with people, but there doesn't seem to be any concept of deciding whether one wants a wife and family, as we do in the U.S.  Getting married and having babies is what one does here.  My colleagues made fun of me recently for saying that Sheila and I were considering having kids soon, mocking the idea that planning a family should require such organization and forethought.

Governance in West Africa -- In a team meeting at work, a colleague yelled at another colleague for recommending a policy that Ghana had implemented.  "If we were even one-third as well governed as Ghana, that might be possible!  Or Rwanda!  But you know that's not possible here!"  It leads one to believe that Ghana is handily winning the West African Wager.

Governance in the Ministry of Health -- That being said, I've been impressed with how knowledgeable and competent all of my co-workers are.  They are intelligent, well educated and they have a good understanding of the issues facing their country's health care system.  I suppose I had fantasies of coming here and teaching them how to improve their health care system.  Instead, I find that this has been almost completely a learning experience (remind me to use this paragraph for my next college essay!).

Anyway, it's a good lesson for me about the value of experience and institutional knowledge over education and theoretical knowledge.  I knew a lot of health care policy generally, but very little about Cote d'Ivoire's health care system, its institutions, its way of policymaking.  The latter issues are clearly much more important categories of knowledge for my work here.  Remind me of this next time I talk about wanting to get a PhD.

Progress -- I did make a few semi-helpful suggestions during a team strategy meeting at work this past week. My French is getting better and I'm feeling increasingly competent.

Post-Coup Stability -- I don't know what it was like during the coup, but things seem pretty stable now.  The "crise" was bad, and people are clearly scarred by it, but life seems to have gone mostly back to normal.  On the surface, the country is building as if unconcerned about the possibility of future turmoil in the 2015 election.  Roads, bridges and buildings are springing up.  My office at the ministry of health is embarking on a complicated reform of the health system that will take several years to fully implement.  For a new arrival like me, the only real evidence of the crisis comes from the occasional stories of taxi drivers or Ivorians who talk about the people and things they lost.  I very much hope that the elections go off smoothly.  For the majority of Ivorians with whom I've discussed, their main concern seems to be stability.  One cab driver told me that he doesn't care who the president is, that his president is his children and trying to give them a better life.

Cultural Differences -- In the bathroom at work (in the Ministry of Health!), there is a sign above the sink that says "Interdit de pisser dans le lavabo" ("Urinating in the sink is prohibited").