First shared in February 2006, while on a 12-month assignment in Niamey, Niger, working in response to the 2005-6 famine in that country.
Part III of the Nigerien Nostalgia series.
Until we tried to take off, I was feeling okay about Air Ivoire. I’m not a big fan of the little Fokker F-28s that seem to ply every route in West Africa, but this one had a proper first-class section at the front, people sat where their tickets told them to, and they even had an in-flight magazine. We were an hour late taking off, so there was the usual tension among the passengers and flight crew. The safety briefing was a little rushed, and the engines started up half-way through, after which only occasional snippets of sentences could be heard over the speakers while the flight attendant played charades with a demonstration life-vest: “…under your seat… …outside the aircraft… …towards your face and breath…”
It was 9pm in Abidjan. The door was closed and the cabin lights dimmed. In humid places, after the air-con is turned on, you can see the cold air rushing out of the vents like white mist, water condensing as it mixes with the warm. We taxied to the end of the runway. I noticed that the pilots had the door to the cabin open- something I see on some of the smaller internal flights I take, but not usually on the international flights any more in the post-9/11 security-hyped world. The lights of the runway lined up ahead of us. I peered forward, ever interested, embracing as always the feeling that if I know what’s going on, maybe I’ll be able to do something if something goes wrong. Hah. I noticed that the flight attendant was up and about, arranging things right behind the cockpit. The pilot turned around and exchanged words with her. Her movements became a little more rushed.
Then the engines roared up into full throttle, the plane lurched, and we were accelerating down the runway. I frowned. The poor attendant was still on her feet, unsteady now with the bouncing of the aircraft along the tarmac. She was desperately trying to tidy some things away. I saw her stumble, steady herself on the rocking bulkhead, then open a cupboard door at the very front of the cabin to store some things away. Then a third of the way down the runway the plane rocked, and
A large metal boiler dropped sideways out of the cupboard and slammed to the floor. Boiling water sprayed in every direction, followed seconds later by broiling white steam that rose into the air. The attendant dissapeared from view, and I saw the pilot turn around with a start, take in what had happened with wide eyes, then hit the brakes. The engines cut, the tyres squealed, and we lurched forward as the plane decellerated rapidly, then pulled sharply off the landing strip and back onto the apron, accompanied closely by a fire-truck.
We tried again ten minutes later. The flight attendant had been splashed by some water but apparantly wasn’t seriously hurt. We had to wait for clearance, then got permission and lined ourselves up. Boiling water had washed over the gangway and flooded into the cockpit, and as I peered through the open door I could see the soggy wads of paper towels the crew had used to try and mop it all up, pushed up in a grey heap against the instrument panel. As we lurched unsteadily into the sky, I prayed that all that water wouldn’t short out a small circuit somewhere that was paramount to our staying aloft.
Travelling in West Africa is so much fun.
I wasn’t actually going to Côte d’Ivoire, but to Ghana for a week for a workshop, a nice change of pace that also involved 2 days at a resort hotel where the conference was held, where powerful breakers rolled in off a sultry sea and pounded a short sandy beach; where tall palm-trees in crowded groves leaned forward as if listening to the endless crash of waves; where the air was hot and muggy and utterly different to the bone-dry atmosphere of Niamey. Sadly for me, the conference I was at took all of my time, so that save for a solitary walk along the beach and two dips in the pool, I saw almost nothing of the coast except what I could glimpse from the windows of the bus back to Accra.
Accra itself is a great city, large and busy, day and night. Spread out over the hills and filled with rich green foliage, it is colourful and grimy, and reminds me a lot of Niarobi without the crime. I was struck repeatedly by how modern it seemed. The volume of traffic filling the streets was its worst aspect, but a world apart from Niamey, where donkey-carts and overladen camels are normal traffic hazards. There were modern shops with familiar brands that brought tears to the eyes and a rumble to the stomach- Heinz, Old El Paso, Cadbury, Pataks- I would go on but I would bore you and torture myself. I smiled to myself when I found myself walking around wide-eyed at amenities and structures which, compared to the west, are decripit and impoverished, but compared to Niger seemed so advanced. It was strange to think that two places so totally foreign could be still so close to one another- not two hours by plane if there was a direct flight from Accra to Niamey (though via Abidjan adds anywhere from two to ten hours). And stranger still to think that from outside the continent, most people would just lump the two places together as ‘Africa’ and leave it at that.
But it was Abidjan that remained more strongly in my mind, though I never left the airport. The airport itself is by far the nicest I have been inside in Africa, a modern terminal with real duty-free shops, a restaurant and a clean feel. I had been a little skeptical. The week before, pro-government extremists had targetted UN and foreign interests in Côte d’Ivoire as part of the ongoing civil conflict simmering here, and there were rumours that the day after our transit, the UN would be evacuating all non-essential staff. One of our American friends in Niamey had just flown back and been given 3 days to move all her things out of her old apartment if she ever wanted to see them again. I half-expected to hear the distant sound of artillery shells and the crackle of machine-gun fire, as I had heard in the hills across the Thai border in Burma several years earlier. But things were calm, and there was nothing to suggest that this beautiful nation, with its lagoons and rivers and thickly forested rolling hills, was threatening to trigger Africa’s next regional war.
I laughed to myself reading through Air Ivoire’s in-flight magazine before our first foiled take-off attempt. The introduction spoke of the country’s many great attractions, never once making mention of the fact that fully half the country was out of government control and therefore off-limits to any conventional visitors. They refer to it in humanitarian circles as Côte d’Ivoire +5- the impending crisis that, if triggered, could also drag in five neighbouring countries: Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Conakry, Mali and Burkina Faso. Ethnic tensions, triggered by a constructed hyper-nationalist sense of ‘Ivorian-ness’, bubble in the background of a political division between radical supporters of the corrupt and undemocratic Presidency of Laurent Gbagbo and the rebel “Forces Nouvelles” which spilled into all-out warfare a couple of years ago. Intervention by UN and French peacekeepers, now holding a thin line between the two parties, threatens to be over-run at any time.
But the world is watching Côte d’Ivoire’s neighbours. Liberia and Sierra Leone, themselves emerging from years of horrific civil war, are unstable, while Guinea-Conakry’s ailing President has ensured that, due to his autocratic reign, when he dies in the next couple of years ago, a power-vacuum will almost certainly trigger ethnic strife. Where the four countries come together, a largely lawless zone of hills and forests is home to untold thousands of roaming gunmen, heavily implicated in the atrocities of Liberia and Sierra Leone, and ready to fight wherever the next conflict arises. On the far side, persecution of Malian and Burkinabe minorities- responsible for much of Côte d’Ivoire’s economic success in previous years, threatens to drag those two countries into the fray if the conflict heightens. In all, Côte d’Ivoire +5 remains at the top of the UN’s watchlist for West Africa, and if triggered, it could well match the Great Lakes in its humanitarian toll.
Probably a good thing then that I didn’t stay around too long.