Africa’s Ivory Coast is in shambles; rebels control half of the country. We Americans started to pull our people out months ago; now tens of thousands of Africans have been leaving under the auspices of their native governments: 10,000 from Mali, 7,000 from Burkina Faso, 2,000 already rescued by Nigeria, the BBC reported on Saturday.
I lived in West Africa for three months this summer, traveling back and forth between Senegal and The Gambia. In July, I was helping to lead a computer-training workshop in Farafenni, The Gambia, a hot, grimy place that had, at that time, been without power for over a month. It was in Farafenni, (a be-sure-not-to-miss, bustling market town, according to Lonely Planet, but really a village that sometimes made me feel like I’d been plopped in the middle of a Sally Struthers “Save the Children” commercial), where I met an Ivoirian refugee. He had left when his mother ordered him to: The fighting in the Ivory Coast (which, despite the increased intensity and viciousness, is certainly nothing new) had finally reached the capital, Abidjan, and Mom would have no two ways about it. Out of love, she sent him packing.
His story was one of the many that I heard that summer that chipped away at my reality and has left me still trying to fit those pieces, reshaped and sometimes unrecognizable, back together. Before last May, I’d never been close to war, but in West Africa I learned that peace is nothing to take for granted. In Senegal, there’s an active (and deadly) separatist movement that occasionally flares in Casamance, the area south of The Gambia; Guinea-Bissau is still far from being the most peaceful or politically stable nation, and the Ivory Coast, well, it’s of the lucky one-in-five African conflicts that sometimes makes the news-ticker on CNN.
I’ve been following the war in the Ivory Coast out of a kind of emotionally indulgent voyeurism. In trying to reconcile how I feel about what I saw this summer, I can sometimes recapture the sensations through the deliberate imagery or the careful adjectives of a news article – the distance between what these words conjure for someone who has experienced West Africa and someone who has not could only be described as a world.
It’s according to that Saturday BBC piece that the refugees, sometimes refugees twice-over (first from their native country and now from the Ivory Coast) have been leaving the country in “bus-loads.” This compound alone is enough for pause: to me, it’s not a two dimensional black and white phrase, it’s a feeling, a Proustian rush. I know what a West African bus-load looks like; I know what it sounds like and what it smells like: dangerous, loud, bad. When I couldn’t get a flight, I traveled between Banjul, The Gambia, and Dakar, Senegal as a member of one of those bus-loads. I made myself part of the problem when I bribed a driver 50 dalasi (about $2.50) to let me on that crowded bus one time, and I became flushed with my own shame, wanting to disappear into nothing, when we pulled away and left a crowd of very disappointed people, surrounded by luggage, in the bus’ dusty tracks.
When I read that the rebels in the Ivory Coast have been shooting at the buses, it’s torturous how easily I can imagine the roadside ambush, how I can see the scene of terror washing through a rickety and sweltering vehicle. The last time I made the journey from Banjul to Dakar, when my heart was doing ecstatic backflips at the thought of leaving The Gambia for good, the trip was so dangerous that had I to repeat, over and over again to myself all day that there was only one assignment on my plate: Johanna, don’t die. Just don’t let yourself die.
And the roads that those bus-loads must be traveling on – the roads that I knew painfully well last summer, I also know have been rendered nearly useless by their gaping potholes, potholes so thorough that sometimes there’s more hole than road and the pavement looks like it was tossed and laid in accidental chunks. For half of that last trip I made, until I reached the border between Senegal and The Gambia – a place where the officialness of the colonial languages is nominal and the hands grabbing at my belongings and my person were the roughest – I rode with 10 other people in a windowless taxi built for 11, squashed in the back seat between the sharp protrusions of the door and a mother with two shrieking babies unseatbelted on her lap.
It’s impossible to read those articles and project what the little things look like here, in just this case the buses and roads, onto the warfare and bloodshed a continent away. The game has changed so the rules are different: the actors may express the universal language of human emotion, but the props on the stage could never tell the same story -the privilege of peace and seatbelts.
Johanna Hanink can be reached at email@example.com.