My home country Tunisia used to bear the name of an entire continent. It used to be named Ifriqiya and I occasionally wonder if this is the reason Africa appeals so much to me. I will probably never be able to come up with a distinct answer as to why, but what I do know is that the several trips that have taken me there have never stopped feeding me with wonder and a sense of belonging.
Thanks to my role as Country Program Officer at Dubai Cares which is a global philanthropic organization working to improve children's access to quality education in developing countries, I have had the opportunity to visit several countries over the past two years to supervise our programs aimed at providing quality education in developing countries. Among the countries I have had the opportunity to visit: Senegal, Djibouti, Angola, Nepal, India and Peru. But for now I would like to share with you a particular experience in Cote d’Ivoire.
In May 2015, I flew for the first time to Abidjan, the capital of Cote d’Ivoire, as part of my regular field visits. I did not know what to expect, or what kind of welcome would be in store for me but, with my notebook and pen in hand, I was ready to discover this region, which is also known as District des Montagnes (District of Mountains). From the window of the plane as we flew over the terrain, I admired the intensely green landscape, wide and infinite stretches of vegetation, streams and rivers and, from time to time, mud huts with a straw or grass roofs that appeared to be lost in the middle of nowhere.
Finally, our plane landed at Abidjan’s Port Bouet International Airport. Abidjan is a modern city, with its stylish houses situated in upper class neighborhoods known as ‘cocody’ and its business and financial centres contrast sharply with the poor areas of the country’s business capital. I didn’t stay in Abidjan; I had to go to see the children and communities that our program supports in areas close to Douekoue, Man, Guiglo and Blolequin.
The road was very long and it was hot and humid outside. On the way I continued admiring the greenery and the red soil as we drove through deep puddles and ‘Hole-in-the-Rock’ roads. As we made progress, our partner began telling me more about the bleak history of Cote d’ Ivoire and soon I found myself walking in the forest, in the direction of the Mothers’ Association Group with graphic images from TV news racing through my mind. These disturbing thoughts started to fade away as I walked deeper into the Ivorian forest, treading on the young plants of cacao, corn, pineapple and coffee. I could hear the chants of women resonating as I got closer and closer until suddenly, there they were, behind the bushes – happy and joyful, dancing and singing in a way that inspires happiness and life.
Temperatures had remained very high and my notebook was wet because of humidity, while my shoes continuously became stuck in the red mud. I spent time with the women’s group and talked to them about their activities before continuing my way to another village, where I was to meet the chief and inhabitants, including the students who benefit from one of Dubai Cares’ programs.
As we arrived at the temporary school funded by our program, my eyes opened wide at a remarkable sight. The school turned out to be a little wooden house in the woods, on a hillside surrounded by other enormous mountains. When we had been making our way to other communities, scenes from the movie Blood Diamond crossed my mind and here I found similar landscapes before me – the military checkpoints and the endless cornfields where Leonardo Dicaprio was caught in a high-speed pursuit.
Eventually I arrived at the village market and was astonished by the array of spice colors and variety of food. And when I saw for the first time black fried frogs, I was taken aback but had to act as if I had seen nothing. Because I like frogs, it was definitely a shocking experience for me but you quickly learn how to adapt to new environments and try to be open to other traditions and cultures. While walking around, the people of the village looked at me with curious, expressive eyes and took photographs of me.
My visit concluded beneath a temporary shelter made of wood, under which some chairs had been arranged, and there were only men in the vicinity, patiently sitting and waiting. When the chief of the village arrived, he greeted me and delivered a welcome speech. And it was at that point that my trip’s biggest, most intense surprise happened – a moment I will never forget: the chief presented a traditional garment and declared he was making me a citizen of Kahen village. I cannot describe how honored I felt by this gesture and tribute, touched by this deep privilege in a country where heated debates have been raging about Ivoirity and interethnic mix.
Yes, my country used to be called Africa and yes, I know my country very well. But Africa will always surprise me and fill me with wonder and it is with a great deal of enthusiasm and energy that I now prepare for my next trip, which will take me to Zambia in the next days. Who knows what is waiting for me there!