Finally, we were airborne! “On our way to a new land, new culture, new customs, and a new way of thinking,” I wrote in the diary that I started to keep after my arrival. We flew from JFK in New York straight to Dakar, Senegal, where we landed to refuel and for the pilots and crew to take a break from the long flight.
Since I realized that we were going to a tropical climate, I wondered what the word humidity really meant. When I stepped off the airplane in Dakar. I got my answer. As soon as I exited the airplane, I felt like I got slugged in the face with a baseball bat. Then I understood the meaning of humidity!
After our stopover, we continued our flight to Abidjan, then the capital of the Ivory Coast. When we disembarked from the airplane, we were met by a group of eight or nine girls from the Foyers Feminins (a special Peace Corps adult education program for women) and representatives from radio, television, and newspapers. The girls came with amusing signs such as “Yankees, Go Home!” and “Welcome, Draft Dodgers!” A professional photographer took a picture of our group. After the greetings and pictures, we boarded our bus to enter the city.
The Abidjan airport was roughly nine miles or fifteen kilometers outside the city. As we entered the city, we saw a freeway and lots of cars driving to their destinations. Abidjan was a very large metropolitan city that extended to include the suburbs of the Plateau, Cocody, Treichville, Adjamé, Koumossi, and Marcory. When we arrived the population was 347,000, but Abidjan has grown to 5,355,000 in 2021. Quite an astonishing increase between 1966 and 2021!
Le Plateau was the central business district of Abidjan. The district included our Peace Corps office and the Peace Corps hostel where we stayed when we were in town for meetings or other business. Cocody was where most of the wealthy, business people, ambassadors, and other affluent people resided. Today, it has a museum of traditional Ivorian art, a national library, and several agricultural and scientific research institutes.
Treichville was one of the liveliest, large neighborhoods in Abidjan. I remember it for its large outdoor market where one could buy just about anything they wanted. One of the highlights in Abidjan that impressed me was the Hotel Ivoire, located in Cocody. It dominated the Edne Lagoon by rising majestically over the water and lush vegetation.
Another memory was the Pam-Pam outdoor café where many Peace Corps Volunteers including me frequently ate while in town. Across the street was a new shopping center that had the modern Le Drugstore pharmacy. Up the street was a market square where we found all kinds of souvenirs, including masks, statutes, thimbles, paintings by local artists, and other significant items. Artisans loved to bargain with would-be buyers. To get around town, Renault and other taxis were plentiful. We were careful to bargain the fare before we climbed into the taxi. We took taxis wherever we wanted to go because they were so inexpensive and easy to get.
As we entered Abidjan, our bus took us from the airport to the house of the Peace Corps Director in the Ivory Coast, Henry Wheatley. Henry was one of the nicest guys I had ever met—very personable. It was clear to me why he was the Peace Corps Director. At his house, he served us lunch since we had arrived around noon local time. Of course, I enjoyed his lunch, but it turned out my stomach was very queasy, and I felt somewhat sick. Interestingly, after a while, it cleared up, and I never had that feeling again for the entire time I served in the Ivory Coast. It appeared that I was just getting used to a different environment.
For two days we participated in a basic orientation. We met Dr. David Davidson, whom we called “Dr. Dave” and who was our resident Peace Corps doctor. At the end of the orientation, Dr. Dave gave us our respective assignments, either Health Education and a city assignment or the Jardins Scolaire, the school gardens program. While they selected four of us for the school gardens program, they chose the other ten for health education. Our assignments were George Bibler for Ferkéssedougou near Korhogo in the north, Bob Handloff in Bondoukou in the east, Garry Cutler in Bouaké in the center, and me in Gagnoa in the west.
Before continuing to recount our adventures, allow me to introduce the Ivory Coast. The official name of the Ivory Coast is its French translation, Côte d’Ivoire. If you go to any map or to the United Nations in New York, you will find the name is Côte d’Ivoire. This is because it was a long-time French colony that gained its independence in 1960 and because that is how the Ivorians choose their country to be known. Not surprisingly, the country’s official language is French. The main local languages include Yacouba, Sénoufo, Baoulé, Bété, Attié, Agni, and Dioula. The country is located in West Africa and borders Liberia, Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso (previously called Upper Volta), and Ghana. With a current population of about 23,700,000 people, the size of the Ivory Coast is 124,504 square miles (322,463 sq. km.) which is a little bigger than the size of New Mexico. The currency is the CFA franc. The current largest cities are Abidjan, Bouaké, Daloa, Korhogo, Yamoussoukro, and San Pédro.
Abidjan was the official capital while I served in the Ivory Coast. In 1983, the Ivorians moved the official capital to Yamoussoukro, but Abidjan remained an administrative center. Abidjan is located on the coast in the east and south. Bouaké is located in the center of the country, as is Yamoussoukro. Daloa is in the center to the west. Korhogo is in the north, and San Pédro is in the west, on the coast. Gagnoa is in the south-central part of the country, south of Daloa. The country has a dry tropical climate from December to April and heavy rains from May to July and from October to November. The forest occupies the southern part of the country, and the savanna predominates in the north.
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