When we arrived in Abidjan this January, the Christmas lights were still up — prismatic tendrils swaying above the highway. But I distrusted the pageantry, choosing to see the city as secretive, still in the throes of conflict.
The truth was I was scared. Had we made the right choice to move here? There had only been five weeks between my partner’s job offer and our subsequent move. I had been in a more porous state when I was younger — could I still be that… audacious?
The answer to that question is that I have been both more and less audacious: There have been unexpected disappointments — the language barrier, my tendency to hibernate — and unforeseen blessings, like our first house and the arrival of our baby. Eleven months later, we’re still here.
Now the holidays are upon us. The roads ripple with vendors, gladiatorial in their capitalism. Fleet-footed vendors give chase to cars and taxis: One boy hoists two bedraggled chickens with one hand, cradling a gold-embossed painting of Jesus in the other. A few sport Santa hats — not exactly the most comfortable attire for 30-degree heat.
Malls are dripping with tinsel and angels with impossibly fluffy wings. Supermarkets are stuffed with faux snow and fir trees; their aisles brim with champagne and chocolates. Turn on French satellite television, Canal+, for a holiday blitz of snow, stockings and blaring carols. It all seems at odds with the swelter and swaying palm trees of Côte d’Ivoire.
When I look out my window, the only thing that reminds me of Christmas is the hibiscus, Côte d’Ivoire’s national flower — it’s the local equivalent of a poinsettia.
A longtime Abidjan resident told me the traditional Ivorian Christmas is about religion rather than revelry: Churches hold all-night prayer meetings over Christmas Eve and then the extended family gathers for dinner.
Last year’s extravagant Christmas lights have become a new Ivorian tradition. This year, one monument has an undercurrent of solemnity: On a pedestal sit seven illuminated, metal figures for the seven unarmed women killed in last year’s conflict — a reminder of how quickly things can get ugly. Across the road, a giant dove is ablaze with lights.
There are sanctions in place: Security authorities have forbidden the use of firecrackers, because they sound too much like gunfire; they believe “people with bad intentions” might profit. And I’ve noticed more soldiers on the highways and in public areas.
The scars of war are still here: empty pedestals where statues of dignitaries once sat and buildings scorched by bullets. And last April, l’Hôtel Golf became a prison for former President Gbagbo.
But there are reasons to be hopeful — and it’s not just myopic sentiment. The city hums with activity: Roads are being resurfaced and garbage collected. L’Hôtel Golf, with its immense pool, is once more a playground for children. Thirteen years later, the bridge between the neighbourhoods of Cocody Riviera and Marcory is back on track.
So you have to reconcile the city that was with the city that it wants to be. Or you can choose, like I do, to see the city as rebuilding rather than broken — a place of good intentions.
My gynecologist, Dr. Z, chided us for leaving Abidjan at Christmastime. He said: “The lights rival those of Paris!”
But we’ve chosen to have the baby in Paris, where we have family, and this is the last possible week I can fly out.
Again, there’s that feeling of being caught between worlds. That’s perhaps why my excitement about the holiday season is tempered with sadness: By the time I return, I won’t have seen the puppies for almost three months — I feel like crying every time I think about it. And I’ve grown very fond of the people here — François, Jeanette, my partner’s driver, Bamba.
There’s also unfinished business: The house remains in disrepair (it’s unlikely the workers will return like Christmas elves to finish what they started) and the nursery is barely begun. My fragile routine will once again fall into disarray — although for a very good reason.
Sometimes I have to remind myself that we chose this itinerant lifestyle as much as it chose us. Like our parents before us, we have made certain choices, including the one to introduce our baby to a life of jet lag, bruised suitcases and uncertainty.
But there’s more to it than that: Being itinerant — like being pregnant — puts what’s important into greater relief. And a baby is the perfect inclusion for a life predicated on the unpredictable.