Wednesday, December 18, 2013

December Observations on Life in Abidjan

Language in Cote d’Ivoire – Language stuff is very interesting here.  I think it might be the best place in the world to learn French.  Unlike most places in Africa, French is a native language for almost everyone.  And unlike France, Belgium or Quebec, people speak very little English, so you don’t even have to battle over which language to use. 

In public life, Abidjan is almost exclusively French speaking.  Cote d’Ivoire has ethnic languages, but there are so many ethnicities with so many languages that Abidjan residents speak almost exclusively French with one another.  Even in remote regions, French is the language of school instruction, so everyone is a native speaker, or close enough.  The Burkinabe and Guinean immigrants don’t always speak as well, and their accents are thick, but they are from Francophone countries, so they still speak better than me. 

This hodgepodge of French dialects makes for a forgiving learning environment.  There are so many accents and dialects that people just assume that my poor French is an odd dialect.  I ask taxi drivers to guess where I’m from and they always guess France. 

And very few people speak English.  Not even my highly educated colleagues.  They clearly studied it in school and sometimes hear it in movies, but they are not accustomed to using it in daily life.  And the cab drivers and vendors don’t speak at all, so there’s not even the temptation to use it in daily interactions.

(Perhaps I’m not giving France enough credit as a place to learn French.  Paris is very cosmopolitan, and that’s the place where I’ve been, but surely there are rural regions in France that are more Francophone than Abidjan, yet just as non-Anglophone.) 

Abidjan Natives and Unicorns – Abidjan is a bit like Paris or Washington DC in that no one is actually from Abidjan.  Everyone is from a village in one of the regions, and they moved here for work.  Even if they were born here, their family is from the village and they go back for festivals. 

The Lecture Circuit – This past Saturday, I gave a presentation for a class of high school students on The Role of Girls in the Classroom in the U.S.  It was in English at CUSA (Connect USA), an English language institute run by an Ivorian friend here in Abidjan. 

I’m a nervous public speaker, but it turned out to be a lot of fun.  I asked the girls whether they wanted to have careers and why.  This being a classroom of upper class kids, all of them wanted careers, with the main reason being that they wanted to be “independent” of their husbands so that their husbands can’t tell them what to do.  I then asked the girls whether they would like to earn more money than their husbands, to which they replied that yes, that would be great. 

I then asked the boys whether they would be okay with their wives earning more than them.  Absolutely not, they all said.  “If the wife earns more than her husband, he cannot tell her what to do,” one of the boys informed me.  I then asked how many of the boys agreed with the following statement: “My wife should have to do what I say, but I should not have to do what my wife says.”  Nearly all agreed.  This set us up for the big reveal, of course, where I told them that my wife earns more money than me, which of course brought gasps of shock. 

The students were really fun.  They spoke surprisingly good English (for Cote d’Ivoire) and they seemed to enjoy the classroom debate – I haven’t been to a regular class here, but I assume that school is shaped by the French model of sitting like statues while a professor drones on about theory.  They were also very well behaved.  The discussion was spirited, and many were eager to speak, but nobody spoke without being called upon, although they did wave their hands a bit wildly and call “Sir! Sir! Sir!” in hopes of being called upon.