Monday, February 22, 2010

Abidjan in the former Pearl of West Africa

Greetings from Abidjan, the capital of Cote d'Ivoire, the last stop of my West African trip.  And what a disappointment Abidjan has been. I was here several times in the early 1980s when it was one of most desirable places to live in Africa with a beautiful ocean setting, rain forest, fantastic beaches nearby and extensive French infrastructure and culture. To paraphrase a term often used to refer to British India -- it  was the jewel in France's colonial crown.  From independence in 1960 to the mid-1980s the country flourished under the leadership of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, a benign and beloved dictator, who endeared himself to the former colonial power by worshiping everything French and trying to emulate it.  During his early tenure, the key to the Ivorian economy was the country's ability to produce some of the world's best cocoa and coffee which was in great demand throughout the developed world.  Houphouët-Boigny popularity was due to his being open to all elements of Ivorian society and maintaining good relations with neighboring countries, even welcoming many of their citizens as workers who could then send money back home.  However towards the end of his reign in 1993 he became very strange, perhaps even senile and much of what he did probably contributed to the country's demise.  He wanted his legacy to be his home town of Yamoussoukro and had it designated as the country's official capital even though the embassies and much of the government's work is still in Abidjan.  He arranged for the world's largest Catholic church
( to be built there, incurring in the process a large national debt.  As completion neared, he commissioned a stained glass window of his image to be placed beside images of Jesus and the apostles. His image depicts him as one of the three Magi, kneeling as he offers a gift to Jesus.  To emphasize his loyalty to France and the French language, Houphouët-Boigny also announced a policy that the country should henceforth be called Cote d'Ivoire in all languages and that the English name Ivory Coast was no longer to be used.  Of course the British Press and others refused to honor his wishes and still call it Ivory Coast.

The gradual demise of Cote d'Ivoire as an African power started with a sharp downturn in world cocoa prices and was no doubt exacerbated because Houphouët-Boigny remained in power long after he lost his ability to lead.  The leaders that came after him were much more nationalistic and even tribal which led to two civil wars during the past 10 years. There is frequent talk of elections but they keep getting postponed. The current government also has a strong anti-foreigner sentiment, even against families who have been in Cote d'Ivoire for several generations (ôte_d'Ivoire#Politics). The civil wars caused the French to depart the country in droves, selling many of their businesses for cents on the dollar to Lebanese businessmen who have long been prominent in the commerce of surrounding countries. And the unrest continues even this week with demonstrations in cities all around the country (

A large new US Embassy that was opened just a couple of years ago now sits half empty because regional personnel from USAID and other agencies have moved to the safer capitals of Accra, Ghana and Dakar, Senegal.  Current staff draw hazardous duty pay and are not allowed to bring their families with them out of security concerns.  Most shops in the downtown area which was formerly a paradise for connoisseurs of African art and handicrafts are now boarded up.         
The demise of Cote d'Ivoire during the past couple of decades is not unlike what has happened across the continent in Kenya the former Pearl of British East Africa.   Gertrud and I spent three years in Nairobi in the mid-1980s when it was still a very pleasant place to live. Corruption and unrestrained population growth are among the factors that are ruining Kenya.  And reminders of the bombing of the US Embassy are still very much alive and undermine Western confidence in Kenya. The names of seven embassy employees who worked directly for me are among those on the wall honoring those who were killed. It was erected in a memorial park where the former embassy stood (

So the obvious question: what is the future of Africa and what can be done to stem the continent's continuing tragedies and chaos?  Are African countries doomed to continue in this pattern indefinitely?  Recent successes in democratic Ghana and a few other countries offer some hope.

Update 21 Dec 2010: 
 It is possible that the Ivory Coast will soon be wrapped up in another civil war.  The President of the Ivory Coast was defeated in a recent election and refuses to concede, demanding that all UN personnel leave.  The Ivory Coast may fall even further from its former status as one of the most desirable African counties to live.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

What do you do in Waga Doo Goo?

Not much!   But the Burkinas are very friendly and French culture from the colonial past is still here to lend a civilized touch.

Ouagadougou, or simply Ouaga (or Waga) as the locals call it -- is the dust-swept capital of Burkina Faso, formerly Upper Volta. It's well-known in US diplomatic circles because it is always held out as the post you will be sent to if you screw up.  Burkina Faso is much like its neighboring Sahelian countries in that they are all extremely poor, Burkina is currently ranked sixth from the bottom of the UNDP Human Development Index (  One doesn't feel the poverty so much in Ouaga but I'm told that the further one travels away from the capital, the more arid the land becomes and the poorer the people are. I got a bit of a feel for it when I looked down from my plane during its descent into Ouaga.  There was almost nothing out there but mud huts with barren trails connecting them.

The foreign population of Ouagadougou is probably less than 2 percent of the total with most of them being diplomats, UN personnel or employees of NGOs and other aid organizations. There are a large number of organizations providing humanitarian and technical assistance to the Burkina population in education, agriculture, health and micro-business.  For expatriots in Ouagadougou, life can actually be quite comfortable.  Most expats live in walled housing enclaves with interior gardens and with 24-hour generators to keep their electricity and air-conditioning running. Their kids go to private international schools, they have household staffs and they swim or play tennis regularly at their club. While Burkina is technically no longer a French colony, it still has a heavy French presence just as all former French colonies do. And wherever the French are you can be sure their lifestyle is also there. One can get freshly baked baguettes and croissants at bakeries throughout Ouaga and there are several good French restaurants in town. My first real eye opener as to how well the French live in Africa was in the early 1980s in Bangui, Central African Republic, an extremely isolated and landlocked country: I went with a colleague to lunch in a small French cafe and had fresh oysters on the half-shell that had arrived that very morning via air France. 

If you have seen today's news you will have heard about the coup attempt in neighboring Niger. I haven't followed up to hear whether it succeeded but coups are extremely common all over Africa and especially in the Sahel. We experienced a coup attempt when we lived in Cameroon.  It was ultimately put down by the government, but we spent several anxious days at home listening to and watching some of the fighting from a distance. I can sense that the entire Sahel is on edge about the situation in Niger because it disrupts flight schedules and other aspects of life in the region.

After two weeks in Francophone Africa my limited French is starting to return. In the 1980s I had a Foreign Service Institute rating of 2 on a scale of 0+ to 5. However having rarely used my French since then and having learned a little (very little) Spanish in the meantime, I had a hard time remembering key French words when I first arrived, with Spanish  always popping into my head before I could think of a French equivalent. And of course now that I'm starting to remember more French it's almost time for me to return home where I can forget it again.

My next and last stop on this trip is Abidjan, Ivory Coast.  I'll be back in the US next week and am looking forward to it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Mali in "The Real Africa"

I've often heard old Africa hands say that the "real Africa" is on the deserts, plains and plateaus of the African heartland, away from the coasts.  Things do seem more authentic in the middle where the impact of colonization is less apparent. Life is more basic with less pretension, less technology and more time huddled with friends and family under a shade tree with a cup of tea while animals graze nearby.  On my trip into Bamako from the airport I was very surprised to learn that the city has 2 Million inhabitants. It feels more like a small town although it would take hours to cross it due to the crowds and uncontrolled traffic, much of it motor bikes.  One can get the best feel for the city after dark when it is cooler and people are out and about. Last evening a colleague drove me around on a city-by-night tour and it was absolutely teeming with activity.  With night lighting one can see into the open restaurants, bars, homes and businesses much better. Bamako doesn't have many touristic highlights but observing daily life and culture is very interesting.

Prior to my arrival I had had high hopes of visiting Mali's two best known tourist attractions - Timbuktu and the area where the Dogon people live. These hope were quickly dashed when I was advised to avoid Timbuktu due to Al Queda activity and when it became apparent that the Dogon area was too far to drive in the short time I have.  I have also been told that flights to and from the area can't be depended on, with tourists often getting stuck there for days.  Unfortunately I'm a slave to my work schedule and have to leave again on Sunday.  Everybody has heard of Timbuktu although many think it is a mythical place. Both Timbuktu ( and the Dogon area ( are UNESCO world heritage sites. Timbuktu in an ancient center of Islamic learning and a trading outpost on the Niger River.  The primary attractions of the Dogons are tribal customs and village architecture. Glance at some of the following pictures and you will see why:(  Those of you who live in Salt Lake City will be familiar with the downtown Bambara Restaurant in the Monaco Hotel: I'll bet none of you knew that Bambara is the name of the largest tribe in Mali as well as the country's most-widely spoken native language.  I didn't know it either until I came here.  And I'll also bet that the Bambara Restaurant doesn't serve any Bambara food!

My first trip to Africa was in 1979 and things don't seem to change much for the natives other than population growth and urbanization.  But things have improved a lot for the traveler. In the 1980s when I did a lot of traveling in Africa, the airports were sweltering horrible places where one could get stuck for hours due to undependable flights. There were also very few good hotels and Western travelers often carried their own pillows, sheets, light bulbs and bug spray to get a little comfort at night.  To attract business and tourism most African countries now have reasonably comfortable airports and hotels with air conditioning. Kenyan, Ethiopian and a few other African airlines are now well-regarded and provide dependable service between the major capitals.  The African experience isn't as authentic as in the "old days" but at my age, it is certainly nice to have the comforts.

The State Department has been carrying out a major world-wide construction program over the past few years to replace a hodgepodge of old inefficient embassies.  Most of the new ones in Africa and other developing area are of a standard design that can be built very quickly and are efficient and secure. But there are downsides: the old embassies were in city centers to be close to government offices, businesses and people. The new ones are typically on the city outskirts where large tracts of relatively inexpensive land can be purchased in order to provide a wide security zone all around the chancery.  Most of the new embassies are similar in appearance and size with internal configurations being the primary differences. These new secure compounds are not especially popular with local populations because they have to take long bus rides to get to them. An unfortunately fact of modern day diplomacy is that security concerns have made embassies into foreboding fortresses.  Previously they were welcoming places where the local population could go to check out books and attend lectures and films on American history or culture.  The embassies still issues visas but often only with an appointment or after many hours of standing in long lines.

I hope the winter weather at home isn't getting you down. The temperature here in Bamako is pleasant but there is lots of dust in the air. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dakar in Country No. 150

When I arrived in Dakar, Senegal on Sunday it hit me that I had just reached a significant milestone: it's the 150th country I have visited during my lifetime.  Travel to this many countries was not something I set out to do but I just seemed to end up in one international traveling job after another as Gertrud can well attest. It is understandable that she didn't like my traveling during our early married life because she practically had to raise the kids by herself.  But she doesn't seem to mind now because she can often travel with me. I don't know how many more first-time countries I'll get to before I re-retire but I'd say that it would be realistic for me to reach 170.

According to the State Department ( there are currently 195 independent countries, although the Department admits this count depends very much on how one defines  "country." The Travelers Century Club claims there are 319 but defines "country" much more broadly to include small semi-dependent territories and islands which have their international interests represented by larger countries (, but I digress: 

I have long wanted to visit Dakar and had always heard that it is a very pleasant and colorful city. Although I've only been here a couple of  days I already consider it one of my two or three favorite African cities. Dakar stretches for many kilometers along the Senegalese Coast, much of it on high cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. Local teens and twens are very fitness oriented, jogging, stretching and lifting  en mass along the water front mornings and evenings. Perhaps they are motivated by the current weather which is almost perfect. The women of Senegal and throughout much of French West Africa are very fashion conscious and prefer very stylish colorful Afro-gowns and big hats. Traditional Senegalese men wear gowns and caps but the business community and hip young people seem to prefer Western dress.  With a population that is 95 percent Muslim, I've been quite surprised at how friendly the locals are towards Americans. Senegal and the US have had excellent relations for many yeas and Senegal is one of very few African countries that does not require Americans to have visas.  It's my perception that the Sufi Muslims from this area tend to be more tolerant and less militant that some other Islamic strains. The Senegalese economy seems to be doing better than in most African countries with construction booming.  New housing is going up everywhere and a major highway is being built between the airport and the city center.

A major controversy has been raging in Dakar over the past few months.  It involves a very large statue of a man, woman and child that was recently built by a North Korean company on a hill overlooking the city.  The issue seems to be that they are wearing far too little clothing for a statue that is supposed to represent the national values of a Muslim country.  The statue was commissioned by the country's 85 year old dictator at a very high cost and much of the populous is very angry with him.  (   

Senegal is the first country I have visited in the Western Sahel and I'll visit two other neighboring countries before this trip has been completed.  For those who may not know, the Sahel is a transitional bio geographic strip up to 100 kilometers wide that runs from the Atlantic all the way across Africa to the Red Sea. It separates the Sahara Desert on its North from savanna grasslands on its South. It is extremely arid and has been traditionally populated by semi-nomadic people who do some farming and herd cattle, sheep and goats.       

My first 3 countries on this trip were all in English-speaking Africa.  Senegal and the three others I will still visit are all Francophone and there is a very noticeable difference in attitude, culture and style. No doubt much of this stems from the predominance of Islam in French-speaking Africa which is much more pronounced than in the English-speaking countries.  And of course it also stems from the different colonial styles of the French and English. It actually feels quite familiar to be back in Francophone Africa after 26 years.  Our first Foreign Service posting from 1982-84 was in equatorial Cameroon which is largely French-speaking. 

I'm getting long-winded but as a final point: Senegal seems be the favorite African country for US presidents to visit.  The Embassy lobby is filled with pictures of virtually every president since Nixon during state visits to Senegal.  and I'm sure it won't be long until Barack Obama visits too.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Ghana: the African Gold Coast

as it was called in colonial days. When the British granted independence in 1957 the new country chose Ghana as it name.  I  haven't had much time for sightseeing here but did take a couple of hours to visit a few highlights including the memorial to the Pan African leader, Kwame Nkrumah, who became the first president of Ghana.  I also made a sobering visit to Elmina Castle where slaves were traded and put on ships for the United States. During his state visit to Ghana last July, Barak Obama and and his family visited Elmina Castle.   There are still many pictures of Obama throughout the city honoring that visit.  One of the more noticable buildings on the main thoroughfare going from the Accra airport towards the city center was a Mormon Temple with Angel Moroni on the top. It almost made me feel like I am back in Salt Lake. 

This will be a very short report as I won't be here long and won't have the opportunity to experience much.  Hope you are all surviving the snow and inversions while I'm surving the heat.  I think I prefer Salt Lake's winter except for last evening when I was able to spend a little time in the hotel pool. 

Here are a few wikis on Ghana and the Gold Coast.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Liberia: Remember Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor?

Greetings from my hotel at Mamba Point near the US Embassy and the US Government-owned Greystone Compound in Monrovia, Liberia.  This area has a very tragic history which I will go into later.

This is my second trip to Monrovia.  I spent a month here in 2004 while working on a contract for USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) following a cessation of civil war when a 15,000 man UN Peacekeeping Force was there to protect the population from more bloodshed.  At that time Liberia was a completely failed state without a functioning government, public electricity, water or other infrastructure.  The US Embassy, UN organizations and other humanitarian agencies were getting all of their power from gas-run generators and water was pumped into large rubber bladders from nearby rivers and delivered to their compounds by truck.  For those who could afford it, drinking water was obtained from distillers or or was brought in in bottles by boat or plane.  In 2004 my job was to help set up an office at Greystone and to come up with some housing for a long-term OFDA contingent that was being assigned to Monrovia.  (By way of background: OFDA is an international first-responder organization with a mission much like that of FEMA in the US.  For example, OFDA staff and its contractors were the US Government's first humanitarian presence in Haiti following the recent earthquake.  I also worked for OFDA in Kuwait in the early days of the Iraq War when we were prepositioning supplies to provide humanitarian assistance to displaced Iraqis.)

You will recall from your history classes that Liberia is a very unique African country founded in the1820s by freed American slaves. I won't bore you by discussing this history in detail but will instead refer you to the following links on Liberia, Doe and Taylor.  Sargent Doe, who overthrew the old elitist regime of the Tubmans and Tolmans, is still viewed by many Liberians as a national hero: on my way into town from the airport I noticed that the national soccer stadium carries his name.

At the beginning of this discourse, I mentioned Mamba Point and the Greystone Compound.  My reason for doing so is that these locations were major killing fields during at least two episodes of the long Liberian Civil War (most of the building in the area testify to this fact because they are still ruins) In one instance, hundreds of Liberians took refuge at Greystone to protect themselves from the waring factions, thinking they would be safe on US Government property.  Soldiers then climbed the walls and fired machine guns into the crowds, killing many. I mentioned Greystone to the hotel maid this morning.  She told me that she and her family had sought refuge there when she was a child and that an uncle died.  The following websites contain interactive maps of the area as well as descriptions and pictures of the tragedy that took place there.

Here is a poorly written quote from the first link:

"The Greystone Compound is next to the Embassy compound. The Greystone compound is not part of the secured perimeter of the US Embassy. The Greystone Compound is an annex of the embassy, located about 100 to 150 yards (meters) away from the main US compound. Located about a four or five minutes' walk from the Embassy, the housing compound goes by the name of the Greystone Compound.

The fighting in early 1996 displaced at least 80,000 people in the Monrovia area, with over 20,000 now seeking shelter in the Greystone compound of the US Embassy since fighting began again on April 29. Intermittent fighting in the Mamba Point area disrupted the daily delivery of chlorinated drinking water to Greystone. In addition, the water supply for all of Monrovia was insufficient due to a mechanical breakdown at the White Plains water facility. On 17 May 1996, WFP delivered 63 metric tons (MT) of food to the Mamba Point area for distribution to the Greystone compound. By June 1996 a large majority of those made homeless by the fighting had returned to their homes, although many whose homes were destroyed remain in displaced persons centers, including about 4,500 persons in the Embassy's Greystone Compound.

In July 2003 as many as 25 people were killed when mortar shells fell on the nearby Greystone compound, a residential annex to the embassy, where thousands of displaced people had sought refuge. In another incident, two rocket-propelled grenades hit the Greystone compound across from the US Embassy, killing several Liberians." end of quote

Today Monrovia is fairly calm although there are still some UN Peacekeepers and serious ethnic divisions in the country.  Many diplomatic and UN missions also enforce a late night curfew for their personnel. Although Monrovia still isn't generating much power nor pumping public water, Liberia seems to be making progress under Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard Graduate and the first freely elected female president of an African country ( She intends to run for reelection next year.  The US Government seems to have confidence in Ms Sirleaf and in the future stability of the country as it is building a new embassy in the Graystone Compound (

Update: 29 Nov 2010:
 Attached is a recent newspaper article from a Liberian newspaper on the latest happenings at Greystone:

Grey Stone 11.29.10.pdfGrey Stone 11.29.10.pdf

Addendum: 26 Feb 2013:
I'm back in Monrovia for a few days where I've been working in the new American Embassy at the Greystone Compound.  On my ride into Monrovia from Roberts Field, I asked the driver what he thought of the new chancery.  He said without any hesitation that is by far the nicest building in all of Liberia. Constructing a new chancery in a country that as been as unstable as Liberia for the past couple of decades would seem to be a US endorsement of the path Prime Minister Eleanor Sirleaf Johnson is on. She has twice been chosen as Prime Minister in free elections and as I previously indicated, she is the only female prime minister in all of Africa.  
On the surface, life seems to be improving in Monrovia under her leadership. However from discussions with Liberians and expats, I surmise that expectations of the government aren't being met and that many fear that followers of former president Charles Taylor may try to retake power.  The recent discovery of oil off the coast of Liberia is also a two-edged sword: it offers hope for major growth in the Liberian economy but it could spawn even more corruption and provide an incentive for anti-goverment forces to attempt a coup d'etat.