A Visit with the President of the Ivory Coast

At the beginning of May 1966, Peace Corps summoned fourteen Volunteers, including Nadine and me, to a meeting in Daloa, the capital of the Prefecture of which my town Gagnoa was a part.

They began the meeting by making four announcements.  First, they informed us that Peace Corps would drop our subsistence allowance (in other words, our pay) by $15.00 a month.  We didn’t like that news.  Although we didn’t come to the Ivory Coast to make money, it was disappointing to have that happen in the middle of our service instead of before or after it.  Since we had no choice, we just needed to adjust to it.

The second announcement was that the famous Woody Herman and his band would come to the Ivory Coast to give a couple of concerts.  Third, all the Peace Corps hostels around the world would be closed in July.  Volunteers used those hostels as an inexpensive way to travel to other countries since we did not receive a full salary but only a meager substance allowance.  The new Peace Corps Director Jack Vaughn (who replaced Sargent Shriver) had issued the order.  His reasons included the charge that the hostels were too expensive and too colonial.  Our in-country Director Henry Wheatley denied that was true of the hostel in the Ivory Coast but admitted it might be true in other countries.   The fourth and final announcement was we needed to report before the end of the coming week to a hotel in Yamoussoukro, get ready, dress in a coat and tie or other appropriate attire, and meet the President of the Ivory Coast, Felix Houphouet-Boigny (frequently called Houphouet).  This was a unique opportunity for us, and Peace Corps asked all PCVs in the Ivory Coast to be there.

The rest of the meeting was spent evaluating the Ivorians’ needs, their priorities, and the programs in which Peace Corps could take part and the priority of the programs for the Peace Corps.  We discussed those needs and felt their greatest needs were in the areas of agriculture, education, and light industry.  The most important programs for Peace Corps, we felt, were agricultural extension and model farming methods, vocational education, rural public works, managerial training and business establishment, fishing project, and school gardens, in order of priority.

On Thursday, May 5, 1966, Nadine and I left Gagnoa by bush taxi at 10:30 a.m. when it filled up with eight passengers and arrived in Yamoussoukro about 1:00 p.m.  That’s when I found out that Shar Feldheim, one of the guys in our health education group, definitely planned to return to the United States, which really disappointed me.  The next morning, we waited for the buses to take us to see Monsieur le Président.  George Bibler appeared unenthusiastic about his school garden program because he had a “personality conflict” with his United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) supervisor.  All four of us in the school gardens program had an FAO supervisor to monitor our daily activity and to support us in various ways in our respective school gardens efforts.

I also learned about some assignment alterations related to the health educators in our [original] group.  Apparently, Ken Musto delivered an ultimatum to his Ivorian chief to improve his situation.  They finally worked things out, so that Ken did health education with the school children in the Bouaké schools.  Ken told me he almost quit.  Marc Renzema wanted to live in a village located northeast of Bouaké called Priko.  He knew that the sous-prefecture lacked electricity, a post office, and a police station but didn’t mind that situation.  Tony Rodriguez did health educating in the villages around Bouaké and returned every evening to his house.

From the Korhogo group, I learned about their dissatisfaction.  While they did health educating, they remained disenchanted, but they declined to say why.  It occurred to me that the change in their assignments would be later instead of sooner.  They expected to be transferred to Daloa next January, a pretty long way into the future.  They were unhappy that they had to cover the same ground, that is, the same topics over and over again.  In the meantime, repeating their talks so much bored them.

The Agboville group of health educators appeared to be the happiest group with the smoothest program. They were really doing health education and slept for a week at a time in the bush, like we were trained.  For the weekends, they would return to their house.  They spent the last week of every month in Agboville where their house was.  Howard Schneider expressed some reservation but seemed fairly content.  Bob Handloff was becoming bored with the school gardens project in Bondoukou because he repeatedly did the same routine and repeatedly heard the same excuses.

Meanwhile, at Yamoussoukro at around 10:30 a.m., a helicopter landed near our waiting place and dropped off the chief protocol officer before departing.  He informed us that the President wanted us to take off our coats and ties, which we did, to be more casual in the hot weather.  Finally, we proceeded toward President Houphouet-Boigny’s house. Our entourage included Ambassador and Mrs. Allan Morgan, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Wheatley (In-country Peace Corps Director), several press cars, and two busloads with seventy-two PCVs.  We took the long way around and entered through the rear entrance.

The property had the green lawns divided into squares of perhaps 100 yards lined with palm trees every eight feet on average.  A high seven-foot wall surrounded the presidential house.   As we entered the house, we received the red-carpet treatment.  Lining both sides of the red carpet were soldiers wearing full dress uniforms and standing at attention with sabers drawn straight up in front of their faces.  At the door stood Felix Houphouet-Boigny, President of the Ivory Coast, who shook hands with every Volunteer as they entered.

After we had all entered, the President greeted us in a very moving, extemporaneous talk in French.  I have translated his words as follows:

I am happy to greet the servants of peace—this word which to me is so dear.  You dedicate yourselves in a concrete way to the progress of our country.  And in serving progress, you serve peace.  In effect, those who failed shout out, accusing others for preventing their peoples from crying in their misery.  If we want peace, we must follow the voice of progress.  This is why I pay tribute to your action and congratulate you.

After his remarks, Ambassador Morgan made a few comments followed by Henry Wheatley who read a telegram from Peace Corps Director Jack Vaughn.  I heard that Ambassador Morgan presented President Houphouet with a book about African culture.  Following these remarks, we toured the Presidential plantation and saw his yam fields, orange trees, and rice fields.  Our 15-car parade appeared impressive, but our buses were exceptionally hot under the blistering sun.  Many people, and especially children, waved to us as we passed.  Later, we returned to President Houphouet-Boigny’s home through the front gate.

Then on the grounds we enjoyed cocktails and drinks of all sorts such as whiskey, pineapple juice, orange soda, and champagne, plus nuts and olives.  PCVs full of questions surrounded the President.  We asked him a whole range of questions from his methods of planting, his quarrel with Sékou Touré, President of neighboring Guinea, to the possibility of the Festival of Black Arts happening in Abidjan (then the capital of the Ivory Coast).  He courteously and thoroughly responded to all our inquiries.

His beautiful wife, Thérèse, talked with the girls nearby.  She appeared very poised and extremely évolué (educated).  I heard her say that she spent eight years in France and that her family spoke only French, but no indigenous languages there.  I thought of her as the Jacqueline Kennedy of the Ivory Coast.

Eventually, they invited us to help ourselves to the buffet and to sit down at one of the many available tables set up for us.  The array of food included chicken, rice, fruits, other meats, and tarts that caught my attention.  There were many other treats as well.  To drink, we had a choice of red and white wines and champagne.

After dining and chatting, we returned to his house.  They based the style of their home on an eighteenth-century theme.  The chairs and sofas came from around the period of Louis XVI.  Large tapestries adorned the walls.  In showcases, they displayed ivory carvings, statuettes, family heirlooms, and medallions.   It was certainly a magnificent collection.  In one room, I saw gold plates and silverware.   Air conditioning filled the whole house.  Chandeliers sparkled from their ceiling.  Interestingly, two quite huge elephant tusks framed the entrance into another main room.  I noticed an autographed picture of John F. Kennedy adorning a coffee table.  Across the room rested an unsigned picture of French President Charles De Gaulle and President Houphouet.  It was definitely a magnificent house.  I knew my mother, an interior decorator, would have thoroughly enjoyed seeing it.

A few closing remarks concluded an all too short time with the Ivory Coast President, and we left.  It turned out that Nadine knew the chauffeur for the ambassador’s car, a 1965 or 1966 black Buick.   Since the Ambassador flew back to Abidjan with the President, Nadine talked the chauffeur into taking her and me with him back to Abidjan.  Another Volunteer joined us.  I took care of some personal business there before returning to my home in Gagnoa.

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