Expedition into a recent war zone

Trip Start Jan 15, 2009
Trip End Feb 15, 2009

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Today was a very full day. I had hoped to leave at 07:00 and had given that time to Paul, so I got up at 06:00 even though I doubted if everything would happen on time. So I showered and had a 6:30 breakfast and was ready to roll at 07:00, but Paul couldn't make it until 08:00. He came with a driver named Diaby in a Toyota diesel sedan. The price would be 35,000 Francs per day, which comes out to about 75 dollars per day, plus fuel. For a good car and driver on African roads that's not too bad. The owner of the car had come to the hotel to make sure there really was a foreigner who wanted to rent his car and driver, and to make sure he got paid before we left town....
The car owner followed us in his own sedan (with two "assistants," just in case, I suppose), as we drove to the Treicheville quarter of Abidjan where we went to the quarter called Carrefour, full of rubbly streets, poorly repaired buildings, and Arab dress. I always think of the film Blackhawk Down when I come here. You can imagine Carrefour if you've seen the movie which was supposed to be Somalia but which, I think, was actually filmed in Morocco.
It's a predominantly Muslim quarter where the money changers are as thick as the flies. Our car hadn't even stopped moving before the nimblest (or most motivated) of them was at my window. I rolled the window down halfway. He asked what I had to change and how much. I told him I had dollars and asked what the rate was. He said 450 CFA Francs to the dollar. That's up close to 50 centimes since last time. The dollar has risen noticeably against the Euro to which the CFA Franc is linked. I told him how much I had but said I needed 455 CFA Francs (more for the principle that for anything else, it wouldn't really make too much difference). He handed me piles of bills and I counted them on my knees while he and about a dozen other changers watched all around the car. I told him he was short the extra 5 CFA per dollar. He said he really couldn't go any higher than 450 for all sorts of impressive economic and accounting reasons. But when I started handing him the piles of CFA back, he quickly found the extra amount and handed me crumpled bills. I handed over my clean new Franklin notes and watched while he counted. When everyone was happy and smiling, he slipped me his card: Sangara Adama was his name. Maybe I'll see him again next time.
We pulled forward a short distance and stopped to pay the owner of the taxi. He insisted we pay the full rental in advance; I must not have looked very trustworthy. He runs a well established business, so if there's a problem with the car or driver, we should be able to find him.
We drove back across the Houphuet Boigny Bridge over the lagoon and toward the highway. Felix Tia was supposed to have met us and accompanied us on the whole trip, but two hours past the agreed-upon time, he still hadn't arrived and Paul couldn't reach him on his cell phone, so we said tant pis and started out without him. We filled up the tank with diesel: 30 000 francs: about 67 dollars for 12 gallons.  It was close to 09:00 by the time we left Abidjan proper. About half an hour later Félix called. And we said we were sorry but too far along to turn around and go back. He can come next time if there is one.
There was actually a section of divided highway for perhaps 50 km before we had to turn off and we were on two-lane roads from then on. The roads were sometimes pretty good and sometimes severely potholed. I'm not sure what accounted for the variation.  
We drove through Tiaxxalé, Divo, Lakota (did the Sioux make it this far?), Gagnoa, Issia, Douékoué, and Bangolo. There was no place that looked very appetizing along the way (to me at least), so we skipped lunch. I shared some slim jims I had packed for such situations, and we kept driving. After Douékoué we started seeing UN soldiers in fortified camps, UN marked armed Humvees patrolling, UN supply convoys, and military checkpoints manned by Ivoirian soldiers. He had crossed what had been the front line from government controlled territory, into rebel territory. Of course the former rebel leader is now the Prime Minister and apparently gets along pretty well with the President whom he fought for 6 years give or take. Still, not all the rebels came in. Some went home to Liberia, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Sierra Leone, other went back to their homes in the north of Côte d'Ivoire, but the local boys that got caught up in the fight on the rebel side haven't had such an easy time going home. Some of them are not wanted anywhere, so they're don't have much choice other that staying in the bush to wait for something to happen, thus the camps, checkpoints and patrols. At least that's what they tell me around the local area.
At the military checkpoints we started getting hit for money. "I need something to drink" was the usually opening line. I tried humor: "drink water, it's better for your health and very inexpensive" was my usual reply. Mostly they'd laugh, but some were also very persistent. They don't seem to be used to taking "no" for an answer. Still we avoided paying.
Just before Man we hit a very serious checkpoint: the army was there, the police were there, customs agents were there, and I believe local authorities too, each with separate checkpoint. We got through two of them without problem but at the third I was told that, as a foreigner I had to register my presence, so the authorities would know who was entering this zone. In a little booth by the road side I gave the information they requested, who was I, nationality, DOB, and why in the world was I coming to Man? Answer to this last: to visit friends. All this was entered in an official register.

After concluding all that, I was seriously informed that there was a 3000 franc fee for registering. I told him I would be happy to pay the fee if he could give me a receipt. They were all out of receipts, he explained, but everyone around knew this was a legitimate fee, I could ask any of the soldiers. He prepared to call a few colleagues over.  While I do my best to not participate in the corruption here, this didn't look like the usual small time racket, this looked like a pretty organized and airtight system they had going. There were many more uniforms that usual around. This had very recently been a lawless war-zone, and some habits die hard. This time discretion seemed the better part of 3000 francs and my personal efforts to stymie African corruption. After the money changed hands and I regained the vehicle, we arrived at the last checkpoint gate. The soldier saluted and said he needed something to drink. Diaby said that we already paid the other soldier. "Yes, that is him, but I am me" said the earnest soldier. He insisted. I told him I was a pastor and would mention him in my prayers later that evening. "Open the gate" he ordered.

I did mention him in my prayers. If my prayer is answered the soldier will soon be learning to follow the instructions that Jesus gave Roman soldiers in Luke 3:14: "So he said to them, "Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages."
We arrived in Man after driving 550 km in six hours. In the outskirts of Man we met Seussié Bleu, one of the congregational leaders I had met in La Mé in August. He got in and directed us to the Guety Hotel not far from the main road at the entrance to town. It was pretty good by local standards but a far cry from its pre-war condition, I was informed. There is a working air conditioner in some rooms, and running (cold) water. The satellite dish doesn't work any more; the bar and the restaurant are no longer functioning. That is because everything of value in the hotel was looted by the rebels when they moved in: kitchen equipment, bar furnishings, even the beds were carted off. It's slowly trying to rebuild. As I looked at it, there were clean sheets on the bed, a high wall around the compound, a heavy metal gate and a good reputation, so we took the rooms.  
We decided to drive out to the village of Blolé where the local elder Mamadou Tokpah and his family live. They had been told that we would meet tomorrow in Man, but we decided it would be easier if we came to them instead. So we started out of town on a dirt road. Just outside of town there was another military checkpoint. Three soldiers hustled over at the site of a westerner. The commander informed me without preamble "I need something to wash my face." With a smile I offered, him my half empty bottle of water. He grimaced, blurted non mais ! and stepped to the back window where Mr. Blue, whom he knew handed him a 1000 franc note explaining "we'll be back and forth several times:" a sort of one-time payoff. We were saluted and the pole was lifted to allow us to pass.  After about 10 km on a dry, dusty, red dirt road, we arrived in Blolé. Mamadou was expecting us but was still stunned to see us arrive. He rushed to the car and wrapped his arms around each of us in turn, not a usual Africa greeting, but obviously heartfelt. He invited us into the shrub-surrounded compound of his house. We met his wife and children, caught up on news, and planned what we would do the next day.
We agreed to have everyone meet at 09:00 and that we'd spend as much of the day together as we needed.
Then we all piled back into the car to have a drive through Man. It's a fairly typical rural African town with one long, dusty main street, but the recent destruction was still evident. All the banks had been sacked and destroyed. They were boarded up and blocked off by tin sheeting or other barriers. Official buildings had also been looted. Some showed very obvious bullet impacts in their compounds walls. Some holes were larger that others indicating heavier weapons and some traced lines with evenly spaced holes: automatic weapon fire. It was at the same time fascinating and sobering.
Finally we drove back to the Guety. Just before arriving at the hotel we stopped at a shop where I could buy a can of insecticide to reduce the risks of insects. Once at the hotel, we said goodbye to our hosts. Paul, Diaby and I settled in briefly until about 6:30 when we drove onto the main town to find a place for dinner. We stopped at a likely looking maquis called la difference. A maquis is a local-style open-sided restaurant offering low light, pounding African music - perpetually on the verge of blowing the speakers, more or less cold beer, and grilled or fried meat. We settled in and ordered: half a chicken for me, a fish each for my companions. We watched hundreds of people file by in the streets: men, women, and children. Some were carrying loads on their heads, some were in brightly colored clothing, some were in clothes so old and dirty they had turned to grimy-gray and their original color was impossible to discern. Where were they all going?
The waitress came and motioned for me to come to the grill. "Do you want a 2500 a 3500 or a 4500 chicken" I was asked. I replied that I only wanted half a grilled chicken. Well, did I want half a 2500, 3500 or 4500 one? I paused briefly, trying to figure out exactly what she meant? Was this size, quality, health or some other aspect of the chicken we were discussing? While I was thinking, she slapped three fresh, raw, plucked chickens on the counter: the smallest she explained was 2500 CFA, a larger one 3500 and the largest 4500. Since I had skipped lunch I ordered half the largest one. Off it went.
The food came nearly an hour later. The chicken was served with onions, some tomato and spicy sauce, and accompanied by manioc (also called cassava or tapioca) meal - something like rice but more chewy. It was tasty, but a bit of a challenge to eat since they didn't cut the chicken up like we're used to in the west. Apparently they just took a clever to it on the block, so the pieces were strangely cut and there were lots of bone fragments, some quite sharp. In the dim light, it was, by force, a leisurely meal.
Finishing our meal about two hours after we arrived, we drove back to the hotel. I sprayed my room and walked outside for a few minutes while the insecticide worked. I came back to several dead cockroaches that had crawled out into the middle of the floor to die and numerous smaller insects. I hope it worked on any mosquitoes as well.
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