Estelle Hisler travelled to Ivory Coast on our pioneering new tour.
Bienvenue en Côte d’Ivoire ! exclaims a delightful receptionist as soon as I step into the lobby in time for my first Ivorian breakfast, a veritable feast of French viennoiseries, a choice of freshly baked bread, a profusion of cheeses and minute-made omelettes.
As the sun stretches out across the patio and with a soothing African rhythm in the background, I wonder what better way to kick off the journey after just a few hours of sleep.
After meeting with the rest of the group and our main tour guide, Francis, and assistant interpreter guides Daniel and Yaya, we depart immediately for the domestic airport, where we take a flight propelling us 350km north of Abidjan over a wide flat African landscape, carpeted in scattered green trees, ochre rivers and a dominant terracotta soil.
Snuggled in between verdant forest and the drier savannah, we land in Bouaké, which has the feel of both a big city and a provincial town, but is in fact tacitly known as the historic capital of the proud, long-established and influential Baoulé ethnic group.
The hotel Mon Afrik is a very charming property merging African-French art and cuisine. In this enchanting Eden, sipping a freshly-made bissap juice (a local drink made from hibiscus), we meet the other permanent guests – a bright red harnessed bushbuck and a black duiker gambolling freely by the pool, squawking colourful parrots in a giant aviary, and a turtle hiding below banana leaves in the garden.
After a generously served final shot of home-made fermented rum, on the house, I find refuge for the night in one of the traditional cosy round huts.
The second morning starts with a pleasant stroll along the main street where an exceedingly lively and colourful market stretches out before me. Impossibly scarlet ripe tomatoes arranged in organised tiers contrast against lily-white onions while fiery chillies, dried peppercorns and flat redolent fish are displayed at the next stand. The market atmosphere is convivial and it is a pleasure to observe vendors plying their trade.
We then arrive at a small local Baoule village, and intrigued kids approach shyly at first but soon become excited by our presence. Villagers then start to hit their sturdy atoungblan drums and the performance begins. Dancers wearing Goli masks adorned with horns and clad in grass-like straw outfits, somehow resembling Claude Monet Haystacks in full motion.
Feet shake and stomp wildly to the frenzied rhythm building to a hop busting twisting crescendo.
Ivory Coast boasts more than 60 ethno-linguistic groups, which undeniably results in a tremendous hybridism when it comes to language, custom, art, dance, music and social, philosophical and religious ideas. All the tribes have shaped their beliefs, traditions and initiation rites over the centuries and the wooden-crafted masks are used to symbolise their ancestors and show them respect.
Heading north-west, the asphalt road fades as we hit the dirt track composed of red soil and innumerable potholes. As we head deeper into the dry savannah, we pass through a peaceful rural zone with the glossy leaves of cashew and teak trees prominent. A herdsman appears breaking the illusion of driving through a still life painting. His attempts to maintain a herd of zebus lined up like toy soldiers is seemingly futile.
We veer onto an unmarked path and drive alongside rice paddies and rubber tree plantations to finally make a short stop in a tiny rural hamlet. Goats and skinny chickens scuttle freely between the huts as a toddler splashes joyfully in a large steel bucket of water. As swathes of pinky-purple marble the sky, we enter Kong, a dormant town that was once an important crossing point along the trade route from Mali to the Gulf of Guinea.
Few clues from the glories of the past remain, except for two fascinating mosques built with mud and logs in the typical Sudanese architectural style.
After a good night’s sleep, we set off to the secular Missiriba, or Grand Mosque of Kong. From the outside, it looks solid and compact like a sandcastle made of clay. The master of the house unlocks the small central wood-carved door and I enter to cool air and an absolute religious silence. Fine sand and faded rugs cover the floor whilst a colony of tiny bats upholsters the wooden cross beams which support the whole structure.
I stand open mouthed, admiring the intricate ostrich eggshell decorations in particular. A short distance away stands the identical, but smaller, Barrola mosque, where on the forecourt, a group of men armed with their handmade daggers are busy sacrificing a plump cow, showing impressive dexterity. Leaving Kong behind, we return to the battered track and continue our journey further west, whipping up soil in massive plumes behind us until we stop in the village of Fouaké to stretch our legs and treat ourselves with some delicious chargrilled plantains.
As we journey deeper into the Senoufo territory, also known as the land of the sacred forests, the approach to the city of Khorogo is blessed with baobab and acacia-lined trees. Despite being the country’s largest city in the north, the slow and calm pace of life is striking. In contrast to its dilapidated appearances, many old-world artisans have settled in the town and neighbouring villages, contributing to Korhogo’s reputation as one of the country’s major cultural hubs.
The following day, we set off to the village of Koni, known for traditional iron forging.
The master blacksmith Soro Chukama and his apprentice son share with us their art, eschewing modern technology and automation for the most ancient of methods. Our Ivory Coast tour then continues to a series of workshops, first observing men transforming clay into intricate jewellery, meticulously decorated with tree-based paint. We then meet skilled carvers and watch them sculpting wood into sumptuous statuettes and various traditional masks and finish with a commune of talented painters.
In these communities, everyone has a well defined role and techniques are exclusively passed on from father to son. The Senoufo people are also known for their complex initiation rites: during a 21 year process, the boys learn social and religious taboos, and have to earn their spurs by performing in masked dances including the dance of the Panther which we are honoured to attend.
To the rhythms of fetish percussion instruments, men dressed up as black panthers and leopards perform one after the other in a breath-taking series of acrobatics.
Our next stop is Niofoin, another Senoufo village which features a splendid round hut with a very high straw roof in where lives a féticheur (a kind of sorcerer). Similar to a powerful divinity, villagers go to the féticheur when they need to make requests, such as a good harvest or the arrival of the rains.
In brief, an initiated person sacrifices an animal so the féticheur can go into a trance to speak with the spirits. Once he comes back to his senses, he climbs to the top of a very tall pole, much in the same way as a corsair on a pirate ship, and transmits the message from the spirits to the villagers. There is a pang of emotion as we leave the Senoufo people hoping that the spirits have granted their requests. As we approach Boundiali and its pale blue mosque, we stop in another village to meet the Fulani nomads and their beautiful tattooed women.
Wandering at our own pace in and out the huts, I observe older women stirring a slow-cooked mutton stew, bony goats and flapping-skin sheep bask in the blazing sun.
Looming in the distance, a conical mountain bristled with deciduous trees obscures the horizon. The light is soft and alluring when we reach N’dara in the late afternoon. In this village, we witness the initiation dance of the Virgins (or Ngoro dance), which is part of the Senoufo Poro women’s ritual.
A full orchestra gathering drums, pumpkin skin xylophones and wooden flutes open the show with an overpowering riff. Shortly after this, a dancing procession makes an entrance – joyful men wearing straw hats and young girls in single file holding behind them feathers clasped as if they were tails, followed by a tall man chiselled like Spartacus and brandishing a whip.
Like a lion-tamer in the centre of the arena, the féticheur yells incomprehensible verses and snaps the leather straps in the air while a wood fire is being lit at his feet. The wild topless dancers do a series of laps under the seasoned gaze of a veteran dressed to the nines and seated on a tiny red and yellow striped wooden horse. For 20 minutes, the performers treat us to a staggering performance, leaving me speechless when the initiated sorcerer, now seemingly in a state of trance, ends the show extinguishing the fire as effectively as a blanket, dragging his sweaty body across the flames.
The next day we enter the gorgeous valley of the Massif du Dienguélé to the sound of coupé décalé, zouk and raggae Ivorian music which punctuates our journey. Cashews, yam and shea grow in lavish abundance amid the verdant dwarf-mountains Here we enter the territory of the Malinké, descendants of the formerly puissant Mali Empire.
At Odienné we meet the Dozo, a caste of warriors and hunters. As we alight from the vehicle, a chorus of voices and drums commence. Dressed in traditional uniform made of bologan fabric, stitched with tiny ornate amulets, it is hard not to be immediately taken with these charismatic men. Accompanied by the mystic Dozo we depart towards a rocky hill nearby. We admire the 360-degree panorama over the sacred forests while the jolly hunters sing, dance and shoot from time to time the heavens with their old-fashioned gunpowder.
The dance takes a turn into magic tricks when we return down to a grove. Around a crackling campfire, some draw butterflies using grinded leaves and some bite unhesitatingly into the incandescent embers. As the sun retreats to the horizon, the enchantment of the moment could not have been starker.
Batteries recharged, we hit the road again the following morning. Taking a short detour, we stop in an austere secluded village where a swarm of kids assail us, roaring with laughter. They guide us to beautifully painted round huts and a path leading to a stream in which sacred catfish bounce as birds circle above them. Just a short distance away, we arrive in another village where the tribal dance of the Yakuba people awaits.
A choir of women sing from the heart, clapping their hands, while men wriggle rhythmically in a row. After a succession of engaging dances to call the spirit that lives in the forest, the pinnacle of the show arrives: a man on high stilts, his head entirely swathed in a dark fishnet stocking on which hangs a sumptuous ebony-wood Gueblin mask. Deprived of his eyesight and balance, he soars like a spinning ballerina to be finally caught as he falls and akin to a spinning-top, he repeats his own Yakuba version of the Sufi, whirling continuously.
After days of seeing only scattered villages and a parched landscape, suddenly a kind of Eden emerges: palm, banana and cocoa trees now dominate, and round-topped mountains formed of timeless old rocks bring dramatic contrast to the scene. We finally arrive in Man, said to be the prettiest city in Ivory Coast. We are in one of those places that I have a natural fondness for: far reaching mountain backdrops where the evening light falls more gently than anywhere else, bathing the richly forested ridges and distant waterfalls with a soft glow.
Rising early the next day with my head torch as guide, I begin to climb the rocky hill on which the hotel is perched, with the firm intention to have a ringside seat to the first glow of the day. The slope is steep, the ground is loose but I am finally rewarded with a panoramic view over the city and a wondrous vista of the arboreal landscape in which other peaks above 1,000m push through.
The sun’s rays reflect off La Dent du Man (literally ‘The Tooth of Man’), one of the polished mountain peaks with a distinctive face-like profile.
After breakfast and a two hour bumpy drive, the Jongleurs tribe offer a warm welcome. Several little girls with their faces and bodies prettily painted with kaolin, a white mineral clay, entertain us with a series of acrobatic gymnastic moves executed to perfection. Taking it in turns, they perform to the music by partnering with a tall broad-shouldered man their captivating tumbling revealing their poise, strength and flexibility. Moves including one arm flags, somersaults and twists keep us all on tenterhooks and the act ends to rapturous applause.
Retracing our steps along innocent pale-yellow flowerbeds and termite mounds, we stop in another village where we will witness the last dance of this trip, performed by the charming Guéré people. Villagers seem less shy here than the ones we met in the previous days, perhaps because living near a frenetic city, they are more accustomed to contact with other souls than those of the remote villages. In a little square, musicians begin to beat the ground in unison with long black and white striped wooden sticks.
The sound is a symbolic call on the sacred mask living in the forest, and … it works!
Coming out of the blue from the forest, a spirit in sumptuous ebony carved mask appears accompanied by two sorcerers. When they reach the square, the guests are invited to perk up with a sip a palm wine and then follow a frantic and captivating dance representing the magic of the mask against ill-intentioned spirits and enemies.
Following on a series of meaningful actions, the mask calms down, makes a few turns and finally retreats to the forest once order has been re-established. Musicians now invite us to dance together and the chief of the village blesses each of us for our visit with a trace of mud on the forehead. Their friendliness and hospitality leaves us flabbergasted.
The adventure continues early the following morning, setting off on a lengthy stretch of road alongside evergreen cacao and coffee tree plantations. When we come to cross the wide Sassandra River, I am delighted by the many fishermen, peacefully seated in their barques, waiting for skipjacks and herrings to bite. We finally arrive at Yamoussoukro, the country’s political and administrative capital since the early 80’s and birthplace of the first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny.
The large boulevards criss-crossing empty green spaces and fields of rice, plantains and pineapples are all with no exception surprisingly quiet. From almost every part of the city it is possible to glimpse the outstanding Vaticanate dome of the Basilique de Notre Dame de la Paix (literally ‘Basilica of Our Lady of Peace’) Somehow, I have the feeling I am entering a land of giants, given the extravagantly oversized columns, arches and nave, not to mention the superb stained-glass windows inside.
However, what amazes me most, besides this utter absurd excessiveness, is the fact that we are alone in this building which can hold up to 20,000 worshippers at any one time. For all its eccentricity and extravagance, poverty in Yamoussoukro remains obvious.
To our great surprise, the road that connects Yamoussoukro to the economic capital, Abidjan, is in excellent condition but has very little traffic, until we come close to our destination. We drive alongside vast banana and palm oil trees plantations, revealing a change in climate, until we reach the outskirts of the Banco National Park, mainly populated with snakes, chimpanzees and cattle egrets. As we enter Le Plateau, Abidjan’s business and administrative hub, horns blast reverberating amongst the concrete skyscrapers.
After the absolute tranquillity in the rural and austere villages, it seems impossible to get used again to the chaos of the modern metropolis. We reconnect slowly with this contemporary reality as we take a tour around the main sights, including the St Paul’s Cathedral with its interesting cable-supported abstract crucifix, the charming Akwabé art and market and the city’s Treichville market which we reach after a fast boat crossing of the Ebrié lagoon. We then drive along the gulf of Guinea to reach our very last destination, Grand Bassam, which was in the late 1890’s the French colonial headquarters.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we take a pleasant stroll, admiring romantic old French buildings where colourful bougainvillea now creeps on the paper-white stucco walls and sweeping balconies. Amid the atmospheric crumbling architecture are quill-shaped banana leaves and the giant carapaces of papaya and kapok trees. The atmosphere is restful and somehow special as we enjoy our last lunch together as a group looking out over the waves from the terrace of a waterfront restaurant.
To make a long story short, the modern and frantic Abidjan with its state-of-the-art architecture marvellously completes the whole array of cultural wonders that the country has to offer.
Nevertheless, the riches of the country are accessible at the cost of long drives on unpaved and sometimes very bumpy roads. This is a pioneering destination, and adventurous travellers who do not mind basic comfort and are ready to temporarily embrace a slow pace of living will particularly feel at ease.
Therein lies the magic of this journey – revealing again the authenticity of a life spent far from screens to witness in real time some of the most well-preserved dances and traditional work in the whole of West Africa.