By Siddhartha Mitter/Auguste 9, 2010
Source-Africa is a Country
By Paul Sika
“I’ve kept some distance from the 50th anniversary,” my friend says, “because I’m being doubted.” A few days ago he went online to check his voter eligibility status. My friend was born in Côte d’Ivoire and has always been Ivorian, nothing else. He travels back to Côte d’Ivoire for Christmas or, recently, to bury his parents, on his valid Ivorian passport. One would think this made him eligible to vote, but the voter rolls are the domain of a different agency. For more than a decade people from the north of the country, or whose last name suggests they might be from the north, have had trouble getting registered to vote. My friend is from the north. Several times in the past few years he has come to the consulate in New York armed with his passport, his old identity cards, various notarized statements, to make his case to the election officers who have deployed across the country and its diaspora. Now the file status gets posted online but the process behind it is as murky as ever. This time my friend found his name on the latest provisional voter list, subject to some unspecified further confirmation. This is better than last year, when his application was turned down. Being of a stubborn nature, my friend took the time to press his case. Many others didn’t bother.
Now Côte d’Ivoire is turning 50 — it became independent on August 7, 1960 — and my friend, whom any African would recognize as obviously Ivorian by accent, physiognomy, body language, tastes and sense of humor, doesn’t feel eager to celebrate. His friend Auguste has been pressing the gang to gather but it won’t be an independence party as much as a summer gathering of the old crew. Most of them have been in the United States for a decade or more, and with families and jobs and moves they don’t see each other as often as they’d like. Many are still in the northeast but others have moved to Atlanta, to big houses with dens and decks and finished basements in diverse suburbs with good schools. Some are Americans now, so the question of voting back home no longer applies. Among the crew, arguments about origins and national status briefly simmered ten years ago but never stuck. After the 2002 civil war left the country split in two, with a dysfunctional national unity government of southern loyalists and northern rebels, those with close ties back home positioned themselves as they saw fit, supporting one or another party or claiming indifference. Since the elections were due in 2005 but have been postponed over and over ever since, any differences of political opinion have long given way to the general lassitude. In Côte d’Ivoire the government loyalists and former rebels have gained so much material advantage from the status quo that both are happy to prolong the procedural farce that results in voter rolls that are never finalized and election logistics that are never quite ready. The two big opposition parties, which emerged from the old ruling party that oversaw Côte d’Ivoire’s prosperity in the 1970s, are on the outside looking in. My friend and his crew grew up in that old order, got good educations and started careers as engineers and accountants just as things were falling apart. They left before things got worse. Those who stay involved don’t let the politics get in their way, and certainly not alter their friendships.
Lately, many in the crew have been spending more time in Côte d’Ivoire, some to pursue opportunities in the fluid economic situation there, others because their US immigration status is resolved and they can travel back and forth without anxiety. While Abidjan celebrates independence, a bunch will get together in Bassam, the old colonial capital and beach town that is just an hour’s drive down a long seaside road through the coconut palms, lined with small resorts and outdoor bars with thatched cabanas. Bassam has become a gathering place for the crew ever since one of them, the one from New Jersey who cast his lot early on with the president’s party, landed a sinecure as head of a future free-trade zone in Bassam that no one seems actually interested in implementing. With an office and car and nice house and so little to do that he’s uncomfortable — he’s a finagler, but he’s not lazy — he has welcomed his friends for open-ended visits, a kind of decompression chamber between their American lives and the needs of their extended families in Abidjan and the village, the sick relatives and funerals and nephews and nieces who need school fees and uniforms and sponsorship for foreign universities, since the local one barely functions anymore. In Bassam they are taking care of each other as well. The one who lives in the South Bronx, in a grimy apartment in a building with fights outside and chicken bones strewn in the stairwell, has been camped out in Bassam for months. He’s Muslim and doesn’t drink, and he’s enlisted the others in long, daily power-walks on the beach, a group of men in their late forties getting fit American-style, startling the vendors and the prostitutes.
They’re in Bassam now, those ones and the one from Atlanta who hosted the big New Years’ bash, and the one who came all the way from Abidjan to that party and then nearly got killed in the Haiti earthquake when he went to visit friends in the Ivorian UN contingent there, and others too. They send my friend text messages. He’ll be with the northeastern crowd at Auguste and Christine’s — they’ve moved out of Mattapan and into one of the suburbs behind Quincy. They won’t ignore the 50th anniversary of independence, but they won’t really observe it, either. “The Dioula have this expression,” my friend says. “Ton dougou, c’est là où c’est bon pour toi. Wherever things are going well for you, that’s your village.”