Life in the Ivory Coast

Photo by samer daboul

After living in Gagnoa, for about four months, I realized that my life there was pretty good. 

People were extremely friendly and polite.  Everywhere I went they offered me something to drink since I often traveled in the tropical sun for long distances.  At noon, they offered me a meal.  While I passed people on the road, when I waved to them, they waved back.  Especially the children—but even adults.

            All around me, the materials I saw and bought were familiar to me, including cars, electricity, household appliances, soap, toothpaste, and liquor, plus animals like chickens, dogs and cats.  There were Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles, and even Buicks, plus Colgate toothpaste, Hollywood chewing gum, Cokes, Gillette razors, Kool-Aid, and Johnnie Walker whiskey.

            Food was no problem for me either.  Perhaps I even ate better there than I did at home.  For dinner, my diet included beef, potatoes or rice, carrots, string beans, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and frequently, pineapple and bananas.  For breakfast, I habitually ate two eggs, hot chocolate, and bread with jam.  When I toured the schools on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I often ate at the home of the director or responsible teacher at the school that I visited at noon.  Usually, they served foutou, the Ivorian national dish. They liked three kinds of foutou, which were plantain banana, igname (yam), and manioc.  I liked the plantain banana most because it had a good flavor while the igname and manioc had less flavor, more like a potato.  They would pound the foutou in a large wooden mortar with a pestle and add a little water to make a dough. In the next step, they also made a sauce into which they added any meat and vegetables they had.  And they always added hot chili pepper, which they loved.  So, when I joined them at lunchtime, the host served the foutou, over which they served a sauce with meat or fish, vegetables, and, of course, chili pepper.  After eating it, my lips felt hot enough to ignite a match.  It would cause me to perspire profusely, and my nose would run.  But I tolerated it.  God knows how, but I felt I was the guest and needed to respect them.

            One time, I visited the Route Soubré and visited the schools along the way.  Since I noticed it was about 11:30 a.m., I decided to skip the next schools along the route (and return to them after lunch) and to drive directly to Soubré to visit their public school as I had done on previous occasions.  This time, they really were not expecting me, but the director invited me to join him for lunch as usual.  He served foutou with a blistering hot sauce.  If that was not bad enough for me, he also graciously served a red wine.  Unfortunately, although the wine was very good, it had the effect of accentuating the hot chili sauce.  As a result, the sweat POURED down my chest and down my back.  The director apparently noticed my discomfort and asked me in French, “Are you all right?”  I smiled and responded, “Oh, I’m fine, thank you” as I was thinking “I know what hell is!”  And, “This is hell!”  Of course, that experience was seared into my memory like a hot branding iron would sear my skin.  I was determined not to let this get the best of me.  I wanted to make my visit as pleasant as possible.

            Since I lived on the agricultural station that was about four kilometers (two and a half miles) from Gagnoa on the road to Oumé, my house was a modern-style long wooden house with a living-dining room, two bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen, and a large porch.  The windows were wood shutter-like windows with narrow (about an inch) slits across them.  To open the window, I simply pushed out the window on hinges placed at the top of the window from the building and put a three- or four-foot pole out to hold it open.  To close the window, I merely removed the pole, let it fall back in place, and fastened the latch.  The rooms had those windows in the front, on the sides, and in the back.  The Agricultural Station turned on the electricity generally about 6:30 p.m. until about 10:00 p.m.  I had running water, in essence.  Actually, the house had two large drums or reservoirs mounted on an overhead stand by the kitchen.  The water drained by gravity when I turned on the water facet in the kitchen or bathroom, and when I took a shower. The drums would store the water until a worker drove a tractor pulling a water tank to reload them with a long hose every two days.  There was no heater to heat the house.  The only heater was nature.  Fortunately, it never felt too cold.

            Towards the end of April of my first year of service, it occurred to me that some people experience a phenomenon called cultural shock.  This is frequently related to a person being uprooted from usual and familiar customs to face a quick change to a different culture, language, and life.  The Peace Corps provided Volunteers with information about this because it had observed PCVs pass through that phase.  Usually, it affected PCVs after about three months in the host country.  At that point, the individual would begin to wonder about his or her usefulness and have thoughts about returning to the U.S.  Most, apparently, bounced back from this depression but never reclaimed their original enthusiasm.  There could be subsequent cycles of alternating optimism and pessimism.  If an individual completed the first year, it usually meant there would be clear sailing for the rest of the service.  Despite this so-called phenomenon, I did not experience those feelings.  I had a pretty nice experience even when I had disappointments and successes like any normal person.  When I was about ten years old, I did have that type of shock when I went to YMCA camp towards the end of the camp week.  I guess I cried and put up a fuss—I don’t remember now.  When my parents drove up to the camp, it cleared my mind and gave me total reassurance.  I even stayed a second week with no worry.  So I figured that was my cultural shock experience in life.  That was a kind of inoculation, I think.