The Amazing Adventures of a Woman 'Past Her Prime'
Luckily for me, more than 30 years ago, impulsiveness lured me on to the path that I'm currently navigating. With my two-going-on-three-year-old toddler, I boarded a plane to take us from Oakland, California to Abidjan, la Cote d’Ivoire, in West Africa to join my husband who’d gone three months previously to pave the way back to his native land. I was leaving behind my first three children who were making their own decisions about the direction of their post-teen lives. I was also leaving behind friends and allies who had made invaluable contributions to the political, cultural, and civic successes I had experienced and achieved as News Director of KDIA Radio.
Uneventful flight; our arrival, however, was in sharp contrast—an absolute madhouse of riotous colors, noise, a Tower of Babel, in the densely-packed humid terminal. Holding on to Bibi’s stroller, trying to keep up with the porter pushing the trolley with our seven pieces of luggage; already beginning to wonder if my husband got the correct date and time of our arrival.
“Furaha”! that familiar, heavily-accented voice brought sweet relief to block the panic rising in my head.
“Papa!” as she’s swept up into his arms.
“Hiya doin’, cherie?”
With the help of a couple of cousins and friends, we take the luggage to make our exit. Out into a crowd packed three-deep at the doors; policemen using their batons to push aside beggars, possible thieves; legitimate passengers elbowing their way inside to catch their flights. It is close to midnight, yet the streets are alive with strolling pedestrians, caught in the yellow headlights of passing cars. Exhausted, hungry, we head to a friend’s house in Marcory that is being renovated. We install ourselves into one of the bedrooms where the floor is in an unequal battle to resist warping from the humidity and intrusive dust.
The five months we spent there is a blur of flashing images: sitting outside after sundown, clothed from head-to-toe to protect myself from the ubiquitous mosquitos. Daytime memory of one of the giant cockroaches being devoured by lizards. These blue and red descendants of the dinosaurs are everywhere; I learn to live with them
since they eat mosquitos.
News arrives that our shipment is at the port. Thank God, we can now move from the dreariness of Marcory to our own apartment in the less-densely crowded quarter of Bietry. The container with our car and household goods is deposited in front of the apartment building. The household goods cannot be offloaded until the car is moved from the container since it was loaded last. There is no broad ramp; the car has to be backed down two separate, parallel metal strips; i am given the task.
Once settled into our 2nd floor apartment, accessible from an outdoor balcony, a teen brother-in-law comes to lend a hand with cleaning and baby-sitting chores in exchange for our financial help to other family members. There is an unspoken expectation that we have the means to fulfill all desires and meet all needs. Here is my first lesson in culture clash: birth family is paramount; acquired family (wife/children) are secondary. This proves to be a major crack in the foundation of our marriage that will inevitably lead to choosing separate paths.
Our decision to have our own business, a small commercial bakery, was based on two factors—the reality of my husband being too old to find employment with the government as a computer technician, and the proven profitability of bakeries. Regardless of their ethnic makeup—African, French, or Lebanese, everyone begins the day with a baguette, cup of coffee, or hot chocolate. Had we known, however, the process involved in obtaining a license, we might have chosen a less competitive enterprise. The cliche, “hindsight is always 20/20”—like all cliches, contains a nugget of truth at its core.
Because of my political, civic and social contacts in the Oakland/San Francisco Bay area, (i began my broadcast journalism career at KDIA Radio at a time of tremendous change involving the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, US, anti-war and feminist movements evolving from the civil rights movement), I was given a letter of introduction by U.S. Representative Ron Dellums, 9th District, that opened doors for us in Abidjan. That letter, along with support from Naomi Grey, a mover and shaker in San Francisco, were of tremendous help.
Our routine: up every morning to keep appointments with the various ministries in charge of licensing. There is, however, never a time where we are seen at the appointed hour; usually a 2-3 hour wait, and sometimes the minister fails to appear at all. It’s been more than 20 years, but i still see beautifully coifed, well-dressed secretaries, sitting in air-conditioned splendor, filing their nails and dismissively uttering the disheartening words: “Il n’est pas la” (He’s not in).
On the days i do not accompany my husband, i remain in the apartment with surplus time eating away at my soul. i have read all of my books, including the dictionary. My copies of Essence magazine are a lifesaver. No telephone, pre-internet, no transport except by taxi ( the public buses are out of the question), and my command of French is not sufficient to allow me to be on my own. Bibi is in a pre-k class, and if my brother-in-law is not available to collect her, I walk the few miles to her school to bring her home.
Eventually, through contacts at the American Embassy, I meet Pierre Niava, owner of a private language school in Plateau, who removes a frustrating bottleneck by hiring me to teach English to Francophone adults in the evenings. Typically, the students are Ivorian males who live in districts like Yopougon, or Adjamé, about an hour’s bus ride from Plateau. They typically leave home at 4 am to arrive at their work places by 7:30 am. The period from noon to 2:45 is for the mid-day meal to be taken at home. These workers, however, take their meals and their naps on the floors of the offices where they work. At 5:45pm, they head to Plateau for their evening English class that begins at 7, and ends at 10 pm; they return to their homes at around midnight.
Hustle, hustle, hustle! Drop Bibi off at Pepinière, then with husband to make the rounds of the ministries. Back at noon to collect Bibi, head home for midday meal and nap. Unless there is an afternoon appointment, I stay at home after Bibi leaves with her father to be dropped off at school, preparing my lessons for that evening’s class.
“Furaha, they lost our papers!”
“What? How could they lose our papers?”
“They’re just looking for some money to make another set, but i’m not going to pay them anything; I already have copies!”
“Are you sure? It’s been six months, already, plus that Colonel Palinfo said he’s not letting us put our bakery into that building he owns in Yopougon.”
“He cannot stop us from having our bakery there, and if he tries, I’ll go over his head.”
Within a week, the papers are reproduced and re-submitted. Ten months after we apply for a bakery license, it is granted. We learn that we have been very lucky since the average time is two years. One poor woman, finally gives up after her papers are “lost” four times. License secured, work begins on converting the ground floor of the building into a space to accommodate commercial baking equipment, but not without a bit of drama in the form of a chicken sacrificed, its blood sprinkled throughout the room. We push back with the help of Blaise’s stepfather, a recognized guerisseur, who cleanses the room with traditional medicines and rituals to protect it from further assaults.
Meanwhile, we move into “Les Perles,” a new development in Deux Plateaux, one of Plateau’s suburban areas, attracting young professionals and their families. My next door neighbors are Nigerian; the husband works for the African Development Bank, and the wife and I develop a friendship that is still viable.
All is going well despite the pressure of dealing with family demands and adapting to a patriarchal system, which I learn to use to my advantage. For example, at the marketplace, if I want to pay less for an item than the vendor is charging, I simply hold out my hands, palms up, and declare that this is all the money that my husband has given me. I am never challenged; I am seen as a dutiful wife who is careful to get full value for her husband’s hard-earned money.
Five years pass, and there is no doubt that we made the right decision to move permanently to Côte d’Ivoire. We are members of the Protestant Church of Plateau (husband rarely attends because of bakery responsibilities, and a Catholic upbringing). The ongoing civil unrest in next-door Liberia (1980 coup d’état) has resulted in an influx of refugees who are a welcome addition to the choir and preaching staff. My Nigerian neighbor and her family are also congregants. i am content. i have work that i enjoy. I have a full social life; on many evenings, i meet friends at the Hotel Ivoire lounge to enjoy the music and relaxed ambiance created by an international clientele. I feel alive and engaged. I have helped to form a group of women, SOS (Sisters Overseas) who come together to celebrate, with our families, American holidays, like thanksgiving.
“Bonnie, girl, you put your foot in this dressing!”
“Wasn’t nothing to it; my uncles showed me how to make it years ago.”
“Ladies, after that meal, don’t ya’ll want to take a walk down the road before all that food makes its way into our bellies and thighs? At least that’s where mine goes!”
I feel my roots sinking into this African soil; being nourished and spreading throughout my body, mind and soul.
Chinwe, my Nigerian neighbor gets the invitation at the same time that i get word that a possible teaching position is available at the International Community School of Abidjan (ICSA). Answered prayer! As much as I like working with the Francophone adults at Plateau Academy, the evening hours are an inconvenience. I don’t get to put Bibi to bed with stories, hugs, kisses. There is a nanny, but the experience of getting the right one has left holes in my willingness to be trusting. Gloria! Dear Gloria! What a lifesaver you were. Discerning shopper, thorough housekeeper, fantastic cook. never a question about Bibi’s wellbeing and safety with you to watch over her. Mama’s confidante, sharing gossip and insightful observations despite lack of a common language.
Mama’s name—Olie Delphine, is the first of Bibi’s three names; Cora, her second, after her maternal grandmother, and her own name, Bibi, which means “dust,” or “little earth,” in Bété. Mama never beat any of her six children because to beat a child, in her mind, makes the child stupid.
One of the pressures in dealing with family demands was to limit long-term visits. Mama, and Papa Gilbert, are the only family members who are allowed to come for as long as they wish to stay. Mama, in particular, is a delight, and we communicate with signs and laughter, and dance steps to the music of Sery Simplice. She prepares the African food—foutou banane—that her son loves, and she gets a break from the arduous life in her village.
It is not easy to stand firm in my decision not to allow an adult cousin’s 12-year-old daughter to come to live with us when her father, a policeman, is assigned to a post that does not accommodate families. I am adamant. I know that I cannot cope with an adolescent girl on the brink of physical, mental, and emotional changes without even a common language, or culture in which to communicate. We cannot afford a private school for her, and the inequity of our daughter’s educational advantage is not comfortable for me. The tension is hardly bearable, but I refuse to give in. The child eventually goes to another relative, and her mother goes back to her village. A small win in the ongoing family/cultural wars in a society where I am perceived as a “femme blanche” (white woman). I’ve learned that “femme blanche” is the only term available to distinguish between Ivorian women and strangers; they recognize that Black women are not white, but that’s the only term they have to make the distinction.
I have my supporters. My young sister-in-law, Solange, as well as my husband’s cousin, Augustin, with whom he lived when he left his father’s village in Gagnoa. The suspicion that a jealous uncle tried to poison Blaise when he was eight-years old, is still vivid; we are not allowed to eat or drink anything in his father’s village unless it is prepared by a trusted sister. It is only on the occasion of her grandfather’s funeral that Bibi spends time in her father’s home village.
A word about Bété beliefs concerning death and burial. In their minds, there is no such thing as natural death. If someone dies, it is because an enemy has brought about the death. One element of the rituals regarding death, is that anyone related to the deceased must have his/her hair shaved off to mark the relationship; in Bibi’s case, only a snippet of hair was taken. The women mourners dress in black underwear and publicly demonstrate their grief by rolling in the dirt, shrieking in loud voices, tearing their clothes, and generally behaving, hysterically. Much of the display is genuine; some, though, is to prove innocence in the deceased’s death. The night before the burial, everyone stays up to sing mournful songs at the wake. It is also a tradition to place favorite items of the deceased into the casket; in my case, I placed a beautiful piece of kente cloth for Papa to wear on his last journey. As we dance in a circle around the casket, I imagine that I hear Papa’s approval, “ Ca c’est bien, ca!”
With my friend, Elaine, who has accompanied me to the village, we return to Abidjan following the burial. Blaise must stay behind to attend to the details to build a tombstone. Because of such expenses—in addition to the food and drink, and sometimes accommodations for out-of-town guests—the families of the deceased require at least a month to prepare for a worthy funeral; food, musicians, water for cooking and bathing, pa system, tent, all carry a price.
Once back in Abidjan, I resume my efforts to be employed at ICSA. I have a meeting with Barbara Ainsworth, the acting director, and the interview goes very well; I am given a letter of intent to teach part-time when the school year begins within three weeks. As fate would have it, the newly appointed director, takes office two weeks after my interview, and rescinds the letter of intent, and declares that is has no “enforceability.” He further moves to have the section on letters of intent removed from the school procedures handbook. Dismay.
In what I see as a power play and to punish Ainsworth, he calls me in for a joint interview with my neighbor/friend, Naomi, despite the fact that the position she’s being considered for is in the science department; whereas, I am a Language Arts teacher. My experience and competency are apparently not the Director’s concern; it is whether or not I have adequate care for my child should I be called to work outside of regular hours! That is all that i remember from that interview; except the approximately two-mile walk down to catch a gbaka to take us home.
Anger and humiliation absorb me so completely that I forget I’m wearing high heel shoes, and dragging my poor friend along, cussing and fussing with every step. I do remember, however, being thrown a scrap of hope—I’m told that I can show up for the teacher orientation the following week, but there were no promises. Well, I show up (not even a name tag greets me), but on this path that I’ve chosen to travel, Spirit’s help is only a breath away. The teacher for the Speech and Drama classes is delayed in the States, compelling the Director to appoint yours truly to cover the classes. And so, my foot is in the door. (to be continued)