As an African American going to Africa for the first time, this trip was very meaningful to me. I really didn’t know what to expect, so I was very nervous and excited. The butterflies in my stomach must have been too. I kissed the ground when I got off the plane, as did some of my friends (actually the tarmac). We had heard that when it is your first time visiting the motherland, you kiss the ground.
The airport in Abidjan is third world at best. There were passengers lying on the floor, babies crying, and seemingly disorganized airport personnel inside and out. Not to mention the humidity, it is oh so humid (my sheets at the hotel were always wet, even with the air conditioning constantly running). But anyway welcome to Africa, home of my African ancestors.
Don’t let trying to retrieve your luggage be frightening, there will be men of all ages trying to help you for a tip. The Ivory Coast is not like the states where the airport skycaps wear uniforms and are clean and well fed. It is a hustle for these men and sometimes they crowd you and push each other, trying to outdo one another. I was taken aback when I gave my luggage to a man and immediately an airline official hit the man with a flashlight in the head, hard! It was a European airline rep for U.T.A. (a French airline) and it hurt me to my heart to see this in Africa. I wondered what was going on and why. Is colonialism really over? He jerked my luggage from the man as he saw the bewildered look on my face. He then explained that sometimes someone grabs your luggage and runs off with it.
The poor, hurt man did not hit him back. He just rubbed his head with tears in his eyes. The other “skycaps”, for lack of a better word, just stood there hoping that they would not be next. All I could think of is that at home in the U.S. you are innocent until proven guilty and this would have been assault. I have never been able to get this incident out of my head. It reminded me of the south in the 1960’s.
With this event still fresh in our bones, we trudged on to the hotel through the city, which surprisingly was not as bad as I thought it would be! In my humble opinion, the streets in India are much worse and more crowded. People were hanging out in some fields or at bus stops, but they just looked like locals or pop and gum vendors. Once we got to the hotel, I knew I was in for a rude awakening. After constantly seeing starvation and poverty on the television when it comes to Africa, this was one of the most beautiful hotels I had ever seen! It was an Intercontinental Hotel, with all the amenities. The hotel staff members were conservatively uniformed, well mannered and all spoke English. Later that evening, the hotel manager came up to my room with a few of my friends to have a beer. He was happy to see an African American group in his hotel. We were happy to be there. We all went to the window and he showed us a fantastic lighted pool that wrapped around the hotel. The grounds were immaculate and inviting.
The next morning we went down to a beautiful lobby restaurant and had anything we could have desired for breakfast. Including eggs to order made right in front of us. A flight crew from an African Airline was at the restaurant eating, preparing to leave. I had never seen a crew of all African flight attendants and this made me feel so proud.
It seems that once you leave a foreign destination, you never forget the smell. While I am writing this article, it is slowly coming back to me. It kind of smelled like wood, must and flowers, if you can imagine. We decided to take a tour of this fabulous hotel to see what it had to offer. We first came across the bowling alley, which was old but we knew we would bring it to life one night. They served beer and horse burgers, along with French fries that were cooked in coconut oil. The bowling balls were warped and wobbled, but we didn’t care. We were bowling in Africa.
Then we went to a lower floor where there were pictures of Abidjan lining the wall of the elegant hallway. We came upon an Italian restaurant that was only open at night. We knew we’d be back. When we did return, it was some of the best Italian food I have eaten anywhere. I am not a fan of spaghetti Bolognese, but I ate theirs. Room service was good, as was the Chinese restaurant one of the locals took me to. There are local men quietly walking around the hotel wanting to do tours of the city, but hotel officials do not sanction them so they do it very discreetly. I took a chance and I am glad I did. He took me to a beautifully torch lit beach at night, where there were grass cabanas and tables. On the way there, he pointed to a bridge that at one time, black people could not cross in their own country!
My guide’s name was Madgien and we became quick friends. I understood his situation and that this was a job. I always paid his price, never asking for favors. One night he took me to his flat. It was very humble, just a mattress in the bedroom and a couple of chairs in the living room. He was proud of his place and I was proud for him. He informed me that this apartment is very expensive in Abidjan. I was honored that he would take me there and show me a part of African life that I would otherwise not see. Of course he took me to the local market where the shopping was more than awesome. There, you can get illegal ivory bracelets (how you get them home is on you), malachite jewelry or anything else you can think of made in malachite. There were all kinds of handmade jewelry, masks and cloths. One note, the smell of the fish is quite nauseating and it’s very crowded when navigating the narrow steps.
The people are gracious and friendly and the best part of my trip; playing African games with some of the locals at a shop in the market building. I can’t wait to go back despite the haunting reminder of colonialism in the Motherland.