Blokosso was once an important Ebrié village, but now it is an attractive district of Côte d’Ivoire’s capital city, Abidjan. The village is widely regarded as sacred territory ruled over by the spirit of an eminent king whose power and ubiquity are such that, during the Ivoirian Civil War, neither the rebels nor the government forces dared go near Blokosso. Tom Sykes reports.
The Ebrié people of Côte d’Ivoire, a sub-group of the Akans found on both sides of the Ghana-Côte d’Ivoire border, traditionally believe that the land is protected by the spirits of their ancestors and a large pantheon of deities. Historically, ritual offerings were made to such figures as Nyangka, the god of the earth. Although these days traditional beliefs have broadly been supplanted by Islam and Christianity, the Ebrié still retain a healthy respect for the spirit world and its influence on the material world.
Blokosso was once an important Ebrié village, but is now an attractive district of Côte d’Ivoire’s capital city Abidjan. Blokosso (sometimes called Blockhauss) is widely regarded as sacred territory ruled over by the spirit of an eminent king.
The power and ubiquity of this belief is such that, during the Ivoirian Civil War, neither the rebels nor the government forces would go anywhere near Blokosso or do damage to its buildings. It was a surreal sight: while the rest of Abidjan was bombed and burned, Blokosso’s hovels, churches and maquis restaurants remained intact.
Death might come from a bullet, so soldiers on both sides reasoned, but a far worse fate would befall anyone who damaged the property of the sovereign in the sky.
This is not to say that Blokosso has never had its troubles. After the economic failure of the late 1980s, during which the number of citizens living below the poverty line trebled, Ivoîrian politicians began to exploit ethnic and religious divisions in society.
Although in the 1960s and 1970s people from Burkina Faso and other nearby countries had been invited to work on Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa plantations, in the 1990s laws were passed to rescind the basic rights (such as suffrage) of these migrants and their offspring. Indeed, the man who is currently the president of the nation, Alassane Ouattara, was originally barred from standing for office due to his Burkinabé extraction.
Such tensions visited Blokosso in 2001. According to a Human Rights Watch report, at least six people were killed when armed apparatchiks of the RDR party attacked the district for its apparent support of FPI leader Laurent Gbagbo, who had just won a contested presidential election.
Eyewitnesses saw men with machetes cutting the throat of a Guinean café owner and locals lying on the ground, their heads smashed with boulders. It seems that for one frenzied day only, Ivoirians stopped caring about the consequences of damaging this holy domain.
Ebrie women at the Fete de Generation
These days violence is a rare occurrence in Blokosso. Arriving there myself on an overcast July day, I find it to be a gritty yet friendly working class community, the kind of place that wealthy visitors to Abidjan never see, confined as they are to a shiny micro-world of shopping malls and deluxe hotels.
Such malls and hotels are staffed by poor people – some from Blokosso – who themselves are invisible to the wealthy because they travel to and from work on buses rather than in private cars and serve behind the counter rather than buying products on the other side of it.
Other Blokossans run businesses in the district itself. Fans and refrigerators are arranged outside a shack with a corrugated iron roof, prices written in felt tip on a piece of card nailed to one of the beams.
Sheltering under big black parasols, teenagers vend mobile phone top-up cards to passers-by. Taller concrete buildings painted yellow and indigo house pharmacies and photo booths.
On the roadside, women in flowing dresses carry all kinds of objects on their scarved heads: small pieces of furniture, buckets of shrimps, sacks of fruit. They take it slow and easy, never breaking a sweat.
Lucky to earn enough for food each day, life is hard for these local entrepreneurs. But rather than nurse grievances, they show solidarity with their neighbours and warmth towards outsiders. I realise that I must look like the ultimate outsider to them: a chubby, sun-burned Westerner taking notes and photos of every corner of the neighbourhood.
When I go into the fine-smelling Boulangerie Sibopa de Blokosso, the owner smiles, takes a little bow and says, “Bonjour monsieur. Enchanté.” As my mouth waters over hot, fresh croissants, brioche and pains au chocolat, other customers treat me with the same degree of respect.
In fact, everyone else I meet in Blokosso – from kids playing football on the street to elderly passengers in a shared taxi – exhibits the kind of placid decorum that disappeared from most Western cities a long time ago.
The mood changes as soon as the sun goes down. Taking a seat in the open-air, speakeasy-style Sex Boss Bar (the name sounds more salacious than what actually goes on inside it), I hear the babble and the laughter grow as the men sink Flag beers and the women Smirnoff Ices.
As soon as it is dark, the stereo starts playing a polyrhythmic Afrobeat song by Magic System, one of Côte d’Ivoire’s biggest bands. The lyrics, so someone tells me, are about Ivoirian men who marry European women and are shocked when they are expected to do household chores they were brought up to believe were the responsibility of females.
It is not long before girls in the Sex Boss Bar are bending over and shaking their behinds in a dance style called the Mapouka, which the Ivoirian government tried to ban in 1998 in case it corrupted the youth. The Mapouka has since mutated into what the non-African world now calls “twerking”. One of the dancers grabs my sleeve and points to the floor.
“I can’t dance,” I protest. “I don’t know how.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “Just do what you feel.”
Knowing that I would need a lot more beer to find the courage to join her, I stay in my seat while two women in skin-tight clothing howl with joy and dance the Mapouka around me. I begin to feel like even more of an outsider, more of a square than ever before in my life. But I am happy enough to listen to the music and watch the others do as they feel.
Ebrie women at the Fete de Generation
Early next morning, feeling a little worse for wear, I take the tugboat ferry to Blokosso across the Lagoon Ebrié. Spreading 300 km across the eastern part of Côte d’Ivoire and all the way up to the border with Ghana, the lagoon is protected from the rough swells of the ocean by a large coastal landform.
From the boat I watch the sun rise over Abidjan’s attractive skyline, its rays sparkling against the iconic Hotel Ivoire and the ornate metalwork of Félix Houphouët-Boigny Stadium. The beauty of the sight belies the environmental damage being done to the lagoon itself, which for time immemorial has provided Blokossans with abundant fish and seafood.
Twenty years ago, the lagoon was sanitary enough for people to practise watersports on it. Only the brave or foolish would dare do that now. However, in March of last year, the government decided to act. It began a collaboration with the Eco Africa NGO to clean up 125 acres of the lagoon over the next four years. So far the project appears to have been successful.
Once ashore at Blokosso, I breakfast in the Maquis la Pirogue des Grandes, a humble, unpainted brick restaurant serving real food to real Ivoirians. Its locally caught tilapia and capitain fish are charcoal-grilled to perfection, dressed in garlic butter and accompanied by tomato and onion salad, attiéké (a cous-cous-like dish made from grated, fermented cassava) and alloco (fried plantain chips).
Along with these traditional African delicacies, you can order French favourites that were introduced during the colonial era: rare steaks, fresh salads and juicy brochettes of snail, chicken and beef. Overall, the Maquis is doing a good job of contributing to Côte d’Ivoire’s reputation as one of Africa’s gastronomic centres.
All the dishes at the Maquis – and many other products sold in Blokosso – are surprisingly cheap compared to the more touristy areas of Abidjan. Those Ivoirian commentators who have been complaining about the rising cost of living (some goods and services are near enough Western prices now) ought to spend some time – and some money – in Blokosso.
Ebrie woman at the Fete de Generation
The colourful Fête de Generation (Generation Festival) takes place in Blokosso every August. It is a crucial rite of passage for young Ebrié men and women who must prove that their generation is qualified to lead the village into the future.
In the past, when the Ebrié were constantly at war with the 60 or so other ethnic groups in the region, aspiring warriors would lead the new generation through the streets of Blokosso, overcoming obstacles such as snakes with their fighting skills and avoiding hidden traps with the assistance of shamen.
Conceptions of age and lineage are particularly important to the Ebrié. In a somewhat scientific manner, each generation is sub-divided into four units: Gnando, Tchagba, Dougbo and Blessoué.
Children born within 15 years of one other belong to the same generation and are expected to treat each other as brothers and sisters whether they are blood-related or not. A generational cycle elapses after the passing of four generations (or 60 years).
The modern day fête is more symbolic than it was in the past. After weeks of painstaking rehearsal, young Blokossans dance from one end of the district to the other, metaphorically progressing from childhood to adulthood. Men are selected as warriors according to their bravery and intelligence, but they are expected to lead the dance rather than to fight. Women put on their finest clothes and jewellery and take presents to the homes of these titular warriors.
The preoccupation with war is perhaps appropriate for a people that, in the 18th century, were violently forced out to the West African coast by the Asante people of what is now central Ghana. In fact, it was this ignominious defeat that gave the Ebrié their name, as it means “filthy” or “humiliated” in the Abouré language. Before that they were known, more flatteringly, as Achan, meaning “chosen ones”.
More than a century before the French colonisers built Abidjan, the first wave of Ebrié immigrants settled along the shores of what was soon to be known as the Lagoon Ebrié and established villages like Blokosso. Aside from fishing in the lagoon, the Ebrié became subsistence farmers, growing the sorts of plants the French would later export as lucrative cash crops: cocoa, coffee, rubber and sweet potatoes.
If contemporary Ebriés are welcoming towards strangers such as me, their forebears were too. Over the years, Baoulés and Dioula people from other parts of Côte d’Ivoire as well as Mossis from Burkina Faso have moved in to Ebrié lands and integrated peacefully with the locals.
At present, the Ebrié are to be found living in and around Abidjan, the Lagoon Region and the sub-prefectures of Bingerville and Dabou. There are thought to be 57 Ebrié villages, 27 of them in the vicinity of the capital. Around 0.7% of the population of Côte d’Ivoire are Ebrié.
While the Generation Festival has always been a vital element of Ebrié identity, other facets of traditional life have changed significantly. In the early 1960s, the American sociologist William Kornblum was living in Blokosso when the community had its first-ever experience of burglary committed by outsiders.
“It was not the goods themselves that they missed, for these could be replaced,” Kornblum recalls. “It was a loss of a way of life, a social world, that they lamented.”
From that moment on, Blokosso could no longer regard itself as an isolated fishing village based on clan ties and communitarian principles. In a short time it had been swallowed up by a vast modern city driven by relentless commerce and technology.
The Ebrié were suddenly under pressure to buy consumer goods and sell their produce at Abidjan’s markets. Hitherto unknown concepts such as greed and profligacy infected the community. There were more incidents of robbery.
Monsieur Joseph, a community leader who was despairing over his wives’ jealousy of one another’s possessions, led prayers to ancestral spirits asking for help in confronting this scary new world.
Whether these prayers were answered or not, the attitude of the Ebrié ever since has been one of acceptance and adaptation. They now tend to work in the service sector rather than in fishing and agriculture, and have witnessed the palm forests and plantations around them morphing into business centres, apartment blocks and chic restaurants. They have stepped into modernity, but they have not lost sight of the past.