Côte d’Ivoire: The rhythm of mystery

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Côte d’Ivoire: The rhythm of mystery

Hidden Africa New African is proud to present this new section, Hidden Africa, which will explore the wonders and beauty of our countries and culture. In the past, the picturesque aspects of Africa were left to foreign tourists to discover while we turned a blind eye to them. A new trend is now developing as more Africans travel across their own continent and discover just how fascinating the Africa which was “hidden” really is. To start off the series, Tom Sykes, author of the Bradt Travel Guide to Côte d’Ivoire, takes us on a tour of that incredible West African country.

While the West African republic of Côte d’Ivoire isn’t as highly publicised a travel destination as Kenya, Morocco or South Africa, it easily matches the depth and diversity of their charms. In just three or four days you can see and do so much, from visiting the trendy galleries and music spots of cosmopolitan Abidjan to watching traditional craftspeople at work in the rural north, spying on wild hippos frolicking in a fragrant river in the verdant south or admiring the stupendous views from the mountains of the cooler west.

Abidjan, the culture core

Few cities in Africa – if not the world – take their art and music more seriously than Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire’s biggest metropolis. There is a vast assortment of eyecatching galleries, workshops and markets devoted to both age-old native styles and cutting-edge contemporary art.

The Rotonde des Artes in the Plateau district permanently exhibits modern Ivorian classics such as Le Souvire, Djiré Mahé’s affecting collage of blurred photos, magazine cuttings, lumps of ceramics and scraps of metal.

Yacouba TourО’s Sans Titre is a poignant sculpture of a prisoner bent forward, wrists tied and awaiting a terrible fate. Soldat by Assie Romaric mobilises bright, almost jolly colours to satirically portray a distinguished-looking army officer whose epaulette is, on closer inspection, a 10,000 CFA note. The medals on his breast include a crucifix, an Islamic star and crescent and a Star of David, implying that he has sold out all belief systems for money and personal advancement.

Since opening in 2012, Galerie  Cécile Fakhoury on Boulevard Latrille has been showcasing the very best in modern Ivorian visual art. The vivacious pop art of Paul Sika, the frenetic war paintings of Aboudi and FranНois-Xavier GbrО’s photographs of urban degradation have all been exhibited here.

Village M’Bock is an intriguingly multifaceted cultural centre founded in 1982 by famed artist, novelist and dancer Werewere Liking, who won the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa and has performed at the Kennedy Centre in New York. Sited on Rue d’Attogban, the indoor gallery contains Surrealist and abstract-inflected plastic figurines of animals, Liberian-influenced tribal statues and Picasso-esque African scenes. The Romanesque mini-amphitheatre, decorated with tribal zigzag, circle and polka dot patterns, hosts pan-African musical and theatrical performances.

Temple of music

It’s often said that Abidjan has the best nightlife in West Africa and you can sample the very best of Ivorian music in the city’s surfeit of bars, nightclubs, concert halls and jazz cafés.

In hangouts such as The Temple of Zouglou and the Rastafarian-themed Parker Place you can get a feel for home-grown genres like zouglou and zoglazo, which have reached a global audience by blending antique tribal practices such as polyphonic singing with contemporary music technology. Influential acts such as Magic System and Alpha Blondy have a distinctly Ivorian take on hip-hop, jazz, Afrobeat and reggae.

Ivorians also invented the raunchy and controversial mapuka dance, which has since mutated into the international phenomenon of twerking. Do also try to catch a drummologie recital involving unique vase-shaped percussion instruments which mimic the tones and rhythms of the human voice. These “talking drums” have been built and played by tribespeople for perhaps 2,500 years.

Mysterious man

Situated in the mountainous midwest of Côte d’Ivoire, the city of Man wows visitors with its breathtaking alpine backdrop, richly forested fringes, wild waterfall, and inner-city plantations and rose gardens.

Its streets rocky and undulating, Man is nestled in the Dix-Huit Montagnes (literally “Eighteen Mountains”) region between two of the country’s highest peaks, mistcapped Mount Tonkoui (1,223m) and Mount Toura (1,278m).

The capital of the Dan (also known as Yacouba) ethnic group, which is known for its striking masks and sacramental dances, Man is buzzing with folk activities that the sophisticated middle classes in the south nowadays tend to dismiss: fetishist and animist rituals, pre-modern arts and crafts, and partying on palm wine until the sun comes up.

Man is also blessed with a wealth of natural resources, from rare kinds of trees you can’t find elsewhere in Côte d’Ivoire to gold, silver, plantains, kola nuts, maize and cocoa. The wider Man region  is the country’s biggest supplier of coffee and home to UNICAFE, the state coffee production company. 

Creative Korhogo

Sited at the foot of the gradually rising mountain sharing its name, Korhogo lies at the heart of Côte d’Ivoire’s 40,000km2 dry brush and grass savannah. The southern approach to the city is blessed with baobab and acacia-lined valleys and thick, road-creeping plant life. Inside Korhogo, though, the trees are more scant and the scrub below them barely spreads over the hard red and orange earth, like a carpet wearing thin. In the summer this terrain can get exceedingly dusty, making you feel as if you have ended up much further north in Africa.

All over the city and in the local Senoufo villages, you’ll find highly skilled weavers, painters, metalworkers and wood carvers, all of whom use intriguingly premodern tools and techniques.

Hand-spun and woven Korhogo cloth is renowned across West Africa for the artistic techniques used to decorate it. Liquid is extracted from trees and plants and left to ferment  until it has attained a bright, black, sticky property. The paint is then applied to the cloth using a stencil.

There’s something of the Iron Age settlement about the way the smoke billows from the tops of the baked-mud workshops of the Koni Metalworkers’ Commune just 15km north of Korhogo. Master blacksmith Soro Chukama climbs up the thatched roof of the main furnace, drops pellets of manure into a hole in the roof and then scurries down into the hut to start a fire. When the flames are high enough, he begins smelting all kinds of tools and trinkets by hand.

Spot the Hippo

Sassandra is an alluring fishing town on the estuary of the 650km-long Sassandra River and surrounded by vines, mangroves, climbing palm forests and coffee and cocoa farms. But anyone who invests some time and effort here will find a veritable trove of idyllic beaches, invigorating walks and exciting wildlife-spying opportunities.

From the nearby village of Lébléko you can board a kayak piloted by men with rough-hewn paddles. As you float along under the drooping willows, you’ll see mini-waterfalls and ornate weaver bird nests. After 15 or 20 minutes, the kayak will cross into the centre of the river and pause. Paddles are raised and voices sink to a whisper. Soon enough, from a safe distance of 100m, a hippo’s head or bottom will rise above the surface and emit a low giggling noise followed by a high-pitched “ee-yore”.

For almost a century now, expert Ghanaian fishermen have been coming to Sassandra’s catfish, snapper, lobster and barracuda-rich waters. John Bondzie, captain of one of the iconic curved fishing boats, will take you out for a two hour trip along the gorgeous coast for a few dollars, culminating in a vitalising swim a few kilometres out to sea.

While Côte d’Ivoire might lack the tourist infrastructure of some of its neighbours, it will delight those who crave a different – and in many ways more authentic – African travel experience.

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