Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire 2022
We arrived at Abidjan, the economic hub and largest city in Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), on the morning of December 5. While this area was probably inhabited more than 10,000 years ago the current indigenous people apparently arrived from the north sometime before the 16th century. The name of the country derives from prolific trade in ivory with Europeans during the 17th century, but by the end of the century the consequent reduction in the elephant population had pretty much killed it. The French established a protectorate in the area in 1843 and in 1893 it officially became a French colony. Independence was achieved in 1960 and for some time this was considered a model of stability among newly independent African nations. But that ended after a coup in 1999 and two civil wars between 2004 until 2011. The current administration has been in office since 2010, winning its third election in 2022. Today Cote d’Ivoire is the world’s largest producer of cocoa beans, its largest industry, although this is quite controversial because of serious allegations about widespread use of forced child labor.
Abidjan is a large modern looking city with a population of some 4.7 million people. Originally a small fishing village, it was elevated to the status of “town” in 1903 and was the capital from 1934 to 1983, before and after independence. After independence development was rapid with the population growing from 180,000 in 1960 to more than 1.25 million by 1978. In 1983 the official capital was moved to Yamoussoukro, the president’s home village, but many government agencies and foreign embassies remain in Abidjan. We had an expansive view of the city from the port located on the other side of the Ebrie Lagoon.
The city was accessible from the port via a long bridge but we did not go there. Because the cruise industry was shut down during the pandemic our cruise had been postponed several times and we had been preparing for it since 2019. We had been booked for a couple of years on a private tour here that would have taken us to Grand Bassam, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the first French colonial capital of the Cote d’Ivoire colony from 1893 to 1896. Unfortunately that tour company closed down during the pandemic (as did many others) so when we saw that HAL was offering what sounded like a similar excursion we signed up. That might have been a mistake because it turned out that HAL’s excursion company was not ready for prime time.
We set out in the morning in two buses for the fairly lengthy drive to Grand Bassam. We had seen quite a bit of poverty the day before in Ghana but it seemed to be much worse here. We passed mile after mile of one story wooden structures looking like they might fall down in a strong wind. There was a lot of trash and rocks strewn around the ground in many areas. But many of the people were busy and dressed in very colorful clothing which kept the area from being quite as sad looking as it otherwise might have been. We passed the Akwaba monument, a large white modern sculpture of two people hugging that was erected in 1989. Akwaba means “welcome” in several of the indigenous languages and this is a monument to hospitality situated near the airport. Many women were carrying loads on their heads. These are street photos taken from a moving bus, so not as high in quality as one hopes. It should also be remembered that this is only a small part of the area, where our bus happened to be driving, so other parts of Ivory Coast may be quite different.
Grand Bassam is a town of about 85,000 located on the coast east of Abidjan. Originally occupied by the Nzema people more than 500 years ago it became the primary French port in the region in the mid 19th century. It was made the capital of the French Cote d’Ivoire colony in 1893. The capital was moved in 1899 because of a yellow fever outbreak but it remained a key port until the development of Abidjan in the 1930’s. By the 1960’s the town was all but abandoned but it began to revive a decade or two later. In 2016 19 tourists were killed in a mass shooting by radical Islamists but apparently there has been no such trouble since.
There are two sections of the town. The old French colonial settlement is near the coast and across a lagoon is the commercial area, built on what was originally the location of African servants’ quarters. We drove into town through the newer commercial area and crossed a bridge to reach the colonial part of town. As we approached the town we drove through the Place de la Paix where there was a large monument to the 500 (or more) women from Abidjan who staged a protest march in 1949 seeking the release of their husbands and brothers who were imprisoned in Grand Bassam for belonging to an anti-colonial party. They were stopped and beaten by French soldiers. Nobody was released from the prison.
We drove through the sometimes crowded streets and parked by an alley. We were instructed to walk down the alley where we came to the Cathedral du Sacre Coeur, the seat of the local Catholic diocese and the oldest cathedral in Cote d’Ivoire. It is modest compared to most cathedrals we have seen. A small wooden church was built on this spot in 1896 but it was deliberately burned down a few years later while combatting yellow fever. The current building opened in 1910. We milled around outside for about 20 minutes while our guides tried to negotiate our admittance but to no avail (One passenger insisted loudly that we had been barred for racial reasons, which we don’t think was true). Finally we were instructed to walk back to the bus, so we never saw the inside. Our friend Robert, however, stepped inside the front door and took some pictures before we were informed we were not welcome. While we waited in the bus for our guides to return, we saw some school children dressed in uniforms probably off to lunch.
Next we drove to the Maison des Artistes, billed in the excursion description as “a cooperative of craftsmen selling . . . paintings, masks, batik and woodwork.” Maybe we missed something here, but we didn’t see any craftsmen working or selling and the only art we saw was paintings. The gallery was not very big, the rooms were small and dim and we had to stay in line as we went through the building. On the way there we passed the municipal library, always a highlight for us.
Across the street is the National Costume Museum. This building was constructed between 1893 and 1902 and served until 1934 as the residence of the colonial governor, even after Grand Bassam was no longer the capital. In 1981 it was reopened as a museum, considered one of the notable attractions in town. We walked through the first floor, which housed about a dozen large glass cases containing mannikins wearing the dress of different indigenous peoples of the country. The excursion description said we were supposed to have a guided tour in English but that didn’t happen, and it really mattered because there were no signs in English to inform you what you were looking at. We have read since that there is more to see upstairs but there was no indication of that when we visited (at least in English) so we left after walking through the first floor, quite disappointed. Attached to one side of the building was a very well stocked craft and souvenir store.
We boarded the bus yet again for the short drive to our lunch spot. We had a very good buffet lunch, with local beer included, outside under tents near the sea shore by a hotel. We didn’t know its name, but a friend who took this excursion on a later cruise identified it as the Hotel Etoile du Sud (thanks Pete). Vendors were selling various souvenirs under a shaded structure by the beach and there was a fellow in a canoe just beyond the very active surf.
After lunch we were told to reboard the bus. After a while all the passengers and our guide moseyed aboard and we were driven . . . about one block to park again outside the costume museum. We sat there for more than half an hour while the folks from the other bus visited the museum. We have no idea why they didn’t visit it before lunch like we did or what they were doing instead, but this was really no fun at all. Why couldn’t we have visited one of the other landmarks promised in the tour description that we never did see? Or since this was the end of the tour of Grand Bassam they could have just driven us back to the dock at that point, but they said they had to wait and travel along with the other bus. Very puzzling and irritating.
We finally did drive back to Abidjan once the folks from the other bus were finished. At one point near the end of the drive a group of soldiers armed with automatic weapons directed all of the traffic off of the main road onto narrow service roads on each side. We sat there for about 15 minutes with the main road entirely empty and nothing happening. Then a single ambulance drove down the main road heading away from the city. A few minutes later we were permitted to drive on. We thought that ambulance must have been for someone pretty important! It gave us a taste of what local drivers must feel like when police accompanying one of our tour buses makes them clear the road for us. So here are some scenes we saw from the bus window, first in Grand Bassam and then during the remainder of the trip back to the dock.
In sum, Grand Bassam seems to be a worthwhile place to visit, after all it’s a UNESCO world heritage site. I imagine the private excursion here we had booked earlier would have been pretty interesting, with a small group and a knowledgeable guide well versed in English. But the folks running our excursion were unable to handle the logistics and we had very little in the way of explanation of what we were seeing. HAL’s Shore Excursion department agreed and refunded half of what we had paid for it. But they couldn’t give us back our only day to visit Cote D’Ivoire! Too bad.
We left the port before sunset, sailing a pretty good distance before we reached the open ocean. Leaving Abidjan in the distance we passed a pretty island full of palms on the way out.