After a few days in Accra, Ghana, we headed back to Kotoka Airport. We were on our way to Abidjan, the largest city in Ivory Coast—better known as Cote d’ Ivoire. Jay’s father hails from the former French colony, and many of his family members still reside there. I was particularly excited to meet two of my sisters-in-law for the first time. We communicate on WhatsApp, a communication app popular with those who have family living abroad; I use Google Translate to convert my messages to French and translate their responses into English. Oh, the beauty of modern technology!
We booked an Airbnb, so our host picked us up from the airport. She spent the drive telling us about Abidjan, as she herself had been a newcomer once upon a time. She and her husband met while they were both studying in Beijing—she Ethiopian, he Ivorian. And that was that. Now, they own an apartment building in Abidjan and use some of the units as short-term rentals.
As she talked, I looked out at the highway flanked by lush trees. Once we arrived at our apartment, I was happy to see that both the living room and the master bedroom had large balconies. I spent a lot of time out there, enjoying the cool air and watching daily life. Workers crafting cement bricks. Soldiers practicing their marching skills. Women carrying sleeping infants on their backs. I love people watching, and those balconies allowed me to do so discreetly.
Soon, the family arrived, groceries in tow. The stove was quite different than what I am used to in the United States. It was connected to a physical gas tank that must be refilled periodically. Despite this, day after day, my sisters-in-law made magic happen on that stove. On that first night, we enjoyed French fries and fried chicken served with a delicious condiment: onions, scotch bonnet peppers, green beans, and carrots sautéed in oil and spices.
We laughed and smiled, even though I speak neither French nor the family’s ethnic language of Wangara—and they speak no English. Throughout my time here in West Africa, I have been continually surprised at how much can be communicated without spoken language. Love and happiness can be felt.
The next morning, I began my day with fresh baguettes from the local Boulangerie Francaise along with milk tea. Due to my time in Cote d’ Ivoire, I have developed a habit of dipping bread in my tea. It’s so good!
After breakfast, we headed for the bustling neighborhood of Adjame, which is home to the family compound. As I have learned, in both Ghana and Cote d’ Ivoire, many people live in large, open-air homes with their extended families. You enter a courtyard filled with clothes drying on clotheslines and soups bubbling in coal pots. Rooms surround the courtyard, each belonging to a different nuclear family.
I met more family, and we ate a hearty lunch of chicken yassa and rice there. Put simply, chicken yassa is chicken smothered in a sauce comprised of caramelized onions, lime juice, and mustard. I first had it in Chicago at a Senegalese restaurant, and it continues to be one of my favorite dishes.
The next day, I enjoyed another familiar meal: attieke, a steamed grain reminiscent of couscous, fried chicken and tilapia, as well as sauteed peppers and onions. To drink, we had sobolo, which is a sweet red juice made from boiled hibiscus leaves. Armed with a full belly, I was ready to do some sightseeing.
We headed to Parc du Banco, a large national park in Abidjan. Once we arrived, a guide joined us in our car. He was very familiar with the area, given that he was born and raised in the village located within the park. We fed bread to whiskered catfish (I did NOT know they looked like that!), played beats on a drum tree, and smelled fragrant lavender oil located in the moist, dark soil. The tall trees were heavy with plantains and cacao. It was quite an experience, seeing how many products are sourced from the natural wonders of the park.
After exploring Abidjan, it was time to take a trip to the village of Mankono. We were to visit family as well as the grave of my husband’s grandmother, who had recently passed away. We piled seventeen people into a fifteen-seater van with no seatbelts and we were off. That was only the start of a very interesting road trip. Here, instead of stopping for fast food and gas station snacks, we visited markets that lined the street. Women grilled bananas on open flames, and vendors sold roasted peanuts as well as baguettes stuffed with sardines.
It was a long trip. After about eight hours, we arrived in the village. It was a stark contrast from the busy city of Abidjan. People ambled along, with only the sounds of roaring motorbikes breaking the tranquil silence. I was grateful to have the opportunity to visit an area outside of the city; I am a traveler that usually hits the hot spots of a particular state or country, but you learn so much about a culture from the places to which tourists rarely venture.
On our way back to Abidjan, we stopped in the capital of Yamoussoukro. It is home to an elaborate presidential palace as well as the largest cathedral in the world—Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro. It was quite bittersweet to see such architectural marvels surrounded by ramshackle buildings. The contrast is one that definitely tells a story; from my limited American perspective, it appears to be one of displaced priorities. However, I am not familiar with Ivorian history, so I tried my best to withhold judgment.
After a last supper of baguettes served with fried chicken and crudites, as well as many tearful goodbyes, it was time to get back to Accra.
Next Stop: Cape Coast, Ghana