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Published: December 28th 2016
Côte d’Ivoire, as they have requested we should now all be calling it (“Ivory Coast” is so last year), was not a place I ever thought I’d get to. On my previous and only West Africa trip in 2007, I skirted around the edge of it from Burkina Faso to Ghana as there was a nasty civil war going on. This has since been resolved (by Didier Drogba in his own opinion) and Côte d’Ivoire is getting back to how it was pre-civil war when it used to be the shining example of Francophone post-colonial success in a patch of generally corrupt and troubled countries.
So I have the conference organisers of the RWSN (Rural Water Supply Network) to thank for deciding to host their 7th
Forum here. The network is bilingual and had previously only hosted in Anglophone countries so were looking at West Africa for venues. Last year saw the terrorist attacks at big international hotels (like where a big conference would be held) in Bamako, Mali, then in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, which narrowed down the options. An approach to the Senegalese government was quite uninterestedly received as apparently that’s where everyone wants to host events in West
Africa. The same wasn’t true for the Ivorian government who got very excited at the prospect of hosting the event as there had been few approaches since the civil war. So Abidjan it was.
Planning and preparation were going well and then in March 2016 there was the terrorist attack at Grand Bassam beach just up the road from Abidjan. If this passed you by; three armed men attacked a beach hotel killing 21 people and wounding a lot more. It is a resort and hotel frequented by foreign tourists though the majority killed were Ivorian. The attackers claimed allegiance to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The venue wasn’t changed but security was beefed up, which added to the registration cost. However, if you get involved with the organisation of the event, specifically; with an all day workshop on the final day aiming to teach NGOs and government ministries about the mysteries of groundwater, then if you write a blog for their website about the whole event, the conference organisers might be able to find the money to pay for your ticket. Thanks a million for that RWSN.
The conference was held in the Radisson Blu Hotel
at Abidjan Airport. At £200 a night this was more than slightly beyond a PhD budget. The “cheap” hotel over the road was a bit less than half that but the idea of staying out at the airport didn’t sit well with me. It may have been very convenient to be able to just walk over the road and back for the conference but I would have seen a grand total of about 1 square kilometre of Côte d’Ivoire. The conference was Tuesday to Friday but wouldn’t it be a shame to only spend 4 days in the country? Surely it would be rude not to make at least a week out of the trip. Abidjan had cheaper hotels but traffic is supposed to be a nightmare, maybe I’d have to get up very early to make it in time for the first session, and I’m generally not a fan of really big African cities. Abidjan has about 4 million inhabitants making it the second biggest city in West Africa (and sixth biggest on the continent). Wouldn’t it be nicer to stay on the beach? In fact, the beach was about all I knew of to do in Côte d’Ivoire;
based on the wonderful exhibition that toured many of the world’s cities 10-15 years ago by Yann Arthus-Bertrand titled “Earth From The Air”. The coast of the Ivory Coast seemed very well represented amongst the inspiring aerial photography.
So I found a cheap(ish) hotel on the beach and had the pleasure of having to walk out into the road each morning in smart trousers and shirt to flag down a shared taxi and try to explain in broken French what the hell I was doing there and where I wanted to go. Pulling up at the conference venue always invoked quite a reaction as most of the other delegates arrived in posh hotel shuttle minibuses and I chugged up alongside them in a battered taxi belching black smoke with so many cracks in the windscreen it was easier to drive with your head out of the side window. Haggling was no problem though as the taxis had fixed routes with fixed prices and nobody ever tried to rip me off.
The “Frenchness” of Côte d’Ivoire quite surprised me. I have found in other Francophone countries that the first language will be that of the local ethnic group, the
second language will be that of the largest ethnic group in the country, the third language is often Arabic if the country is dominantly Islamic, and in fourth place may be French, although often people have preferred to communicate in English due to some animosity towards the colonial past. This is not the case in Côte d’Ivoire. The language of the coast, at least the bit I visited, was exclusively French. I did get an “A” at GCSE French but that is some time ago and I have had little opportunity to practice since. Speaking English or Spanish with an exaggerated French accent usually saw me through.
The days either side of the conference were generally spent “working from home”. “Home” in this case being a small plastic table under a thatched roof right on the sand. Without the office distractions of meetings, seminars, meetings about meetings, and telling travel stories to all the other poor PhD students in my office, most in fact, who don’t get to go anywhere and will spend four years looking at a computer screen, I actually got a lot of work done. Especially seeing as the hotel wi-fi was poor to non-existent meaning
there were no social media and internet distractions; just big crashing waves and old women selling coconuts.
The one trip I afforded myself was to Grand Bassam. This old French port town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in my experience anything with UNESCO status is worth visiting. Conclusion; it is worth visiting but it’s probably not worth going to visit. The crumbling dilapidated colonial buildings are not that plentiful and are in and amongst newer, though still crumbling and dilapidated, buildings. I did have a fantastic and very cheap fishy lunch but then it only took about half an hour to look around the whole place. It had taken me that long to walk there through the new town as the packed minibus dropped me off at the wrong pont (and I thought I had remembered the asking for directions module pretty well; ou est la gare, sil vous plait?).
The short time that it took to look around Grand Bassam led to the best/worst decision of my trip. Grand Bassam is on the beach, my hotel was also on the beach. Why not walk back? How far could it be? Pretty
Pigs digging for shellfish
They just put their snouts deep in the sand and walk forwards ploughing a furrow hoping to intercept a mollusc.
far is the answer. Pretty far along exclusively deep and soft sand making it difficult to get up any kind of pace. Sixteen kilometres to be precise, on half a bottle of water. It took four hours and I did the last few kilometres in the dark. Still, it was great. Unfortunately, the plastic trash strewn sands are not restricted to town – the rubbish continued the entire way. As did the bars at the back of the beach catering to weekend tourists from Abidjan. When I say bars I mean a few wooden tables and a thatched roof offering sun protection. I thought I’d be able to rehydrate at one of these places on the way back but it was Monday and they were all closed. The only company I had were occasional groups of fisherman fixing nets by their brightly painted boats, and hairy pigs ploughing furrows in the sand as they sniffed out shellfish.
Before I arrived in Côte d’Ivoire the terrorist attack was on my mind. If you would have suggested walking for four hours partly in the dark along the beach from precisely where the attack happened, I wouldn’t have been too keen. Moments
after setting foot back in “real” Africa (South Africa in September/October doesn’t count) I realised I would be comfortable going anywhere. Though if you have travelled in this part of the world, or even if you haven’t but have seen Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana or Senegal play football, you’ll have noticed that the blokes are generally massive. Taller than me (I’m 6 foot one) and looking like they spend four hours a day in the gym even though they have never set foot in one in their life. One such chap shouted me over somewhere precisely in the middle of nowhere on my beach hike. He stood tensed and scowling as I looked behind me and in front worryingly confirming that there was no one else in sight as he beckoned me over again. I could have disappeared in the other direction but being British means politeness trumps any fear of a gruesome death (“would you mind awfully not tearing off my arms good sir”). As I got up to him he never said a word but produced a beer bottle full of peanuts which he poured into my hand and then strolled off. Nice people the Ivorians.
The beach is lined with places like this. Packed at the weekend, empty through the week.
And what about the conference? Well, it is only every five years so I am fortunate that it fell during the third year of my PhD giving me not only the opportunity to attend, but also the chance to contribute some of my own research completed thus far. The delegates came from a mixture of backgrounds, from both local and global scale NGOs to government ministries, and from financiers like the World Bank to pump manufacturers. It was a great opportunity to share experiences and create connections with people outside of the world of academia and consultancies, which dominated many other conferences that I have attended.
The forum was a chance for water infrastructure installers and financiers to learn more about the water resources which they are hoping to exploit. The conference also allowed water resource researchers to find out what kind of information NGOs and ministries require in order to plan and manage interventions.
There were a number of oral and poster presentations and company stands at the RWSN Forum expounding solutions to WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) shortfalls and food insecurity, such as manual drilling technologies, solar and foot powered pumps, and smart technology to transmit
water point equipment performance. While all of these technologies undeniably have much to offer, without a reliable and renewable water resource their usefulness dwindles. This fact encouraged me to crack on with my research.
The presentation I gave concerned the computation of aquifer parameters from pumping tests of hand dug wells and the collection of hydrometeorological time series via a community‑based monitoring program. This is enabling modelling to evaluate the resilience of shallow groundwater resources to climate variability and increasing abstraction for field sites in Ethiopia and South Africa. The wider aim is increased food security and poverty alleviation by realising the potential for shallow groundwater resources to be used for irrigation by poor rural communities, lessening the reliance on increasingly inconsistent rains.
I enjoyed the week I spent in Cô
te d’Ivoire, a country that I may never have had the chance to visit without the RWSN Forum. I’m not sure if there’s much to do for a tourist but if you have the chance to come on a work trip then don’t pass it up. And try and drag it out as long as possible.
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