Ever since I stepped off the cool, sterile air of the Air France flight into the hot, dusty embrace of Burkina Faso back in 2006, I have heard about the magical land to the south known as Cote d’Ivoire.
“In Cote d’Ivoire, there’s not one, but two rainy seasons!” they say.
“In Cote d’Ivoire, they have electricity everywhere, even in the smallest villages,” they would inform me.
“In Cote d’Ivoire, they have public chocolate fountains just waiting for you to dip your strawberries in!” they exclaimed.
Okay, the last one is a little bit of a stretch, but you get the point.
Translated into “Ivory Coast” in English, Cote d’Ivoire was named because of the once prosperous ivory trade due to its high population of elephants. However, as ivory tends to not lend itself to being a sustainable resource, there’s not so much “ivory” left as there is “coast”. And a bunch of toothless elephants.
Supporting a mild, tropical climate; a thriving economy; and a culture of fun-loving, welcoming people, it served as a popular destination for Francophone tourists. The appropriate amounts of rain and sunshine mixed with the red soil to also create a perfect breeding ground for cacao beans, allowing it to provide the majority of the world’s chocolate. Ladies, what’s not to love about that?
Living in Burkina Faso, rarely did I meet a Burkinabe who didn’t have at least one relative living down “south”. These stories from the land of milk and honey worked their way north along the old rutted roads to the dry cotton belt of Burkina. Unfortunately, despite living relatively close to the border, I had never had the opportunity to go visit Cote d’Ivoire. Several Burkinabe friends of mine have left to move down and try their hand at farming chocolate, coffee, and rubber, and I’ve long wanted to go visit them.
One of my best friends from my time in the Peace Corps moved down there in 2010. His name is Lassina, but he goes by Nana, even though he is not, in fact, a grandmother, at least not yet. (You may remember Nana from my story, “A Dirty Cotton-Pickin’ Redneck”.) Both of our travels the last couple years have kept us from being able to visit each other. But regardless of what country I was in, I could always rely on Nana for an out-of-the-blue text message or phone call to remind me that wherever I may be working, there was life outside of my proverbial ‘box’.
Last spring, I got one of those unexpected phone calls from Nana while on a visit to Burkina Faso.
Unfortunately, this phone call was not a pleasant one.
“Hey Cory, it’s Nana.”
“Hey Nana!! How’s it going?”
“It’s not.” The sad tone in his usual upbeat voice betrayed his attempt to be positive.
He was calling to let me know his 4-year old, and middle son, Mohammed, had died the previous afternoon. Late in the morning, Mohammed laid down for a nap and sadly never woke up, apparently succumbing to a form of SIDS. He had been trying to reach me since the day before, but cell phone reception is sketchy at my home in Burkina.
Due to visa and financial restrictions, my condolences and those of his family had to be given via phone call, but since that day I had wanted to go and pay my respects in person, albeit belated.
So last November, I got the visa and the ability to go, and I hopped on a Turkish Airlines flight in Chicago and made my way to Nana’s village. Being there to grieve with my friend was hard but good, and I decided to stay and spend the holidays there. My visit went so well that I decided to hop over for another visit this year while I had a couple months off from work.
So, here I am again, riding on the crowded bus along the black pavement that cuts through the vine-covered jungle like a knife, and I am quickly transformed back into the life of this happy place. I’d left the colorful changing leaves of home behind for the vibrant colors of West African clothing.
You know, every time I come back here, I worry that it will take me a while to get back into the swing of things. Speaking the languages. Adapting to the humidity. How I’m going to get by when I can’t find a good glass of wine to save my life. But getting back into the swing of things has once again proven second nature.
The rhythmic flow of the languages here mix with the latest songs by Celine Dion, Rihanna , and Akon pumping out of homes, cars, and cell phones, quickly drawing me in, and I find that I haven’t forgotten as much French or Jula as I thought. Admittedly, translating the occasional cave tour over the summer and fall definitely helped keep French fresh in my mind. The weather has been accommodating to me, too, and has even been a little chilly at times. Of course, that is by no means a complaint, as I am hearing of recent snow back home.
As the bus passes through numerous towns, smells of grilling meat, charring plantains, and cocoa slow-roasting in the sun rush in the windows, chasing away the sticky heat that swarms us every time we stop.
I have a couple exciting months ahead of me. I’ll spend Thanksgiving with Nana and his friends and family here in the Ivory Coast, and then I’ll make that long journey north up to Burkina Faso to spend some time with my godsons. And when I get there, I will undoubtedly have more fish tales of how great things are in the Ivory Coast.