Excursion to Man

Trip Start Sep 15, 2011
Trip End Oct 21, 2011

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Where I stayed
Hotel CAA

Flag of Cote D  , Dix-Huit Montagnes,
Friday, September 30, 2011

Yesterday, after returning to the hotel from the day in La Mé, I had an a-mail waiting from the security officer at the US embassy, in response to a query I sent about security in the west of the country. The officer said the overall situation has improved but there are still flair-ups because weapons are still circulating. There have been recent attacks by uniformed groups in Tai (western part) and Tiebissou (centre). The area around Man is still hot at night, the agent strongly recommended not going out after dark.

His report went on: "The city of Duékoué has gone through a dramatic mass killing during the war. The city is apparently quiet, but sporadic attacks perpetrated on farmers by uniformed groups in the neighborhood are reported from time to time." I knew there had been a mass killing there, with some people, reportedly still alive, being thrown down a well on top of each other.

We have to drive through Duékoué to get to Man, so I was curious what it would be like, and hoped for calm.

When Paul arrived this morning at 7:30 with Felix's wife, I was ready to roll. We took care of paperwork for the car rental: the owner wanted the whole price up front, I said I’d pay half now, half when we got back. He protested that 100% up front was good; the car was fine, there would be no problems. I replied that the trip was long, the car was good, but not in no danger of something happening, so half and half was good. He didn’t want to pass up a paying client, so he finally acquiesced.

We loaded luggage and started out north toward Yamoussoukro. We picked up Felix at a security checkpoint, filled the car with diesel, bought bottled water and some emergency cookies in case food became an issue and then continued north. We passed quite a few UN convoys on the road. The UN presence is very noticeable everywhere I've been in the country.

The first hundred km or so were divided highway, at least part of the way. They are putting in a pipeline of some sort, between the two lanes on each side and had one side or the other detoured and traffic transferred to one lane each on one side then the other. It slowed us down considerably. About half way the divided highway ended and we just had two lanes of traffic on into the city.

The last section of road to Yamoussoukro is really bad, the potholes are quite serious. But the drivers here seemed to have worked out a modus vivendi. I tried to figure out the rules which appear to be mainly: whoever can’t possibly stop before hitting another vehicle or pedestrian has the right of way. This obviously is an incentive to drive quickly so that one retained the right of way, and a number of trucks and buses availed themselves of that option. Hammed (I wrongly named him Ahmed yesterday – his name is Hammed, like Karzai in Afghanistan), was used to driving safety conscious westerners and kept our speed to the level of only slightly insane…. We went careening and slaloming around potholes the rest of the way to the capital, which took about 3 ½ hours to reach.

We could see the anomalous dome of Our Lady Of Hope Cathedral from quite a distance prior to reaching Yamoussoukro. This dome was originally planned to be higher than Saint Peter’s in Rome, the better to show the late president Ouphouet Boigny’s piety, but the Pope objected to Rome being upstaged so, they scaled the Ivorian version down to just under Rome’s.  We stopped briefly in the city to meet a few people who have attended services in Abidjan a few times. They’re apparently quite excited about what we believe and practice so we stopped to meet them. They told me of a group about 30 km from Yamoussoukro that are also studying and very interested. Objectively these kinds of contact rarely work out, but on the occasion they do, so I follow up if the situation seems to warrant it. 

We arranged to try to leave Man early on Monday, so we’d have enough time to make a quick visit to the village in question which is supposed to be on a good, paved road. We’ll see. 30 km can be a quick trip, or an eternity.

We stopped in town also to buy a snack. We wouldn’t stop for lunch, since we had to be in Man before nightfall for security reasons, and wanted to leave ourselves a large safety margin. I bought  bags of banana chips for everyone. They’re prepared like potato chips, thinly sliced and fried in oil with salt, or there is a sweet version without salt, maybe they add sugar too I don’t know. I prefer the salty version. As I handed out the bags, Felix and his wife offered me a small white bread roll; what they had planned for lunch (that’s all). I thanked them and said that the chips would be enough for me.  On we sped, more or less, toward Man, turning west from the capital and heading toward the Liberian border, not the happiest of places.

We ticked off the kilometers, village after village, and town after town. We stopped in Duékoué to refill the tank. It’s the last place on our outward itinerary we could get quality diesel until our return east and south, and I didn’t want to run out. There were some signs of the recent trouble. A few burned houses, but nothing much to indicate the level of genocidal violence that occurred here a few months back.

The last section of the trip was the part where there have been robberies lately. I took note of a group of motorcyclists, six or seven, young men driving young male passengers who were making a show of carrying shotguns. I’d never seen that before anywhere in Africa. The occasional hunter with his shotgun walking on the side of the road, yes, but a group of them traveling together on bikes I had not seen. In addition they insisted on riding down the center of the road. Usually when a horn honks, cyclists for their own safety will move to the right to let the larger vehicles pass. These fellows didn’t budge, we had to move our way carefully around them; they were throwing their weight around and intimidating people. May be it’s nothing more than that, but it was certainly out of place, and could easily mean more is happening behind the scenes.

At we approached Man; Paul called Seussié, and asked where he would meet us. We agreed on the right side of the prefecture at the beginning of the true center of town. He was there as we pulled up. We got out to shake hands all around and to let Felix and his wife remove their things from the trunk. We shook hands and they went off to visit their family members. Seussié showed us to the CAA hotel. The Prime Minister is coming to visit Man in the next few days, Seussié told us, so the more popular hotels, the ones where I have stayed on previous trips here are all full. The CAA has an air conditioned room free and two rooms with ceiling fans, so those are what were reserved.

The hotel has obviously seen better days. This region was hit hard by the civil war, places like this were looted, and they only now having the chance to get back to normal. My room is not unusual considering what one often finds in hotels out in “the bush,” en brousse as they say in French.

There is one florescent light on one wall, and the paint is peeling off the walls from humidity. There is very thin carpet that’s not glued down to the floor, so it flaps up around the doors when they are opened. The hard foam mattress lies on a hard wood support platform, but they are often pretty comfortable. The air conditioner works, but the wood at the bottom of one of the windows has rotted out completely leaving a two-inch gap between the glass and the wall. They have pushed the curtain into the gap all along the base of the window to try to keep the mosquitoes out.

The bathroom is tiled and there are hardly any broken ones; that’s good. There is no soap, that’s not good. There is a western toilet without a drop-down seat, one just sits on the porcelain, that’s normal. I see there is a bucket full of water in the shower; that probably means the running water isn’t running. I check and find that it is not. Perhaps by morning, it will be back on again.  The window in bathroom won’t close, so I’ll have to make sure I keep the bathroom door closed during the night to help keep the mosquitoes out.

I usually stay in better rooms than this, but I can think of quite a number that were worse too. I remember one night in northern Cameroon a few years back when I arrived in the middle of the night due to a delayed flight, and there were no rooms to be found and the reputable hotels. I finally found one in a less that desirable hotel. The room smelled strongly of sewage, and I couldn’t get into it until after midnight, the manager said, until the man and women currently occupying it were finished “resting together”…. Viva la Motel 6!

Paul, Hamed and I got our luggage into our rooms and agreed to meet at 17:30 to drive over to our usual maquis; bush restaurant, for dinner. It was not yet dark when we arrived, which allowed me to see why people don’t come to eat until after sundown. In sunlight one can see all the dirt, the fading paint, the refuse of previous meals on the floors; but after dark, bathed in the soft light of multi-colored bulbs and with music throbbing in the background, these places look quite inviting!

Since it wasn’t yet dark, we were early to eat. We found a maquis that was willing to at least start the cooking process for us. We walked to the kitchen. The cook pulled several whole carp out of a cooler and told us the price per fish, according to size. Then she showed us the chickens – from another cooler, also quoting a price per size of the bird. We all chose to have half a chicken. Carp have so many bones, and these didn’t look all that fresh. Half a chicken may sound like a lot, but there is less meat on half a chicken here that there would be on a quarter of a small chicken in the west where our chickens eat better than some people do here.

Paul, Seussié and I had a beer while we waited, Hamed, who is Muslim, respected his religion by not drinking alcohol, or perhaps that was company policy for drivers; in any event he had a soft drink instead. I asked if he would mind finding us a few bars of soap, as none was provided at the hotel. He was happy to agree, since he’d get one of them!

As it got dark, we talked about many things, the situation in Ivory Coast – politics, security, the economy and more. We discussed changes observed in and around Man. We talked about world events; Libya for example, as well as the Middle East which we had to discuss carefully because Hamed is Muslim.

We talked about whether Hamed had made the Haj, the trip to Mecca that all Muslims are supposed to make once in their lives if they can. He said you have to be rich to do that and usually they chip in to send older people. He’ll see about his chance later. I asked him if he considered himself a very devout Muslim or somewhat serious. He said “somewhat devout.”

Finally, about an hour and a quarter after we ordered, the chicken arrived, served with manioc (cassava) couscous and a very spicy tomato, onion and chili pepper sauce. It was quite tasty, but there was very little meat on the bones and what there was of it was overcooked, not the best we’ve had. Of course we were very hungry by this time. Hunger is the best sauce, as the French say. These had been very healthy chickens, no doubt careful about diet and exercise, they were definitely not overweight. Still there was enough, though, to be satisfied at the end of the meal.

Back at the hotel I checked to see if we had running water, hoping to shower while I was still hot and sweaty and while the water would be a little warm from the sun on the pipes.  No running water. I’ll try it again in the morning and hope for the best before resorting to a bucket bath.
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Barry Kenavan on

Oh dear me Joel - I've been to some rough outback bush camping places here in Australia and travelled in the Philippines but what you so adequately describe is a lot 'worse' than this especially when you throw the 'lack of safety' equation. I take my hat off to you - just as well we have God behind us and probably in your case skirting well ahead.

Ted Franek on

Greetings Mr Meeker,
Wow, Your "true grit" is sure showing through with all that you have to deal with on a daily basis. Thank you so much for going that extra mile for the brethren there. Our prayers are with you all.

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