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Abeja Dispatch

Comprende?

Old seven-seater Peugeot 504s are everywhere, crammed with people and luggage, zipping along the coast road between Accra, Ghana and Abidjan, Ivory Coast. The prevalence of French cars was the first sign that we were getting closer to French West Africa. Kavitha and I crammed into one of these "bush taxis" with five local travelers and our entire luggage. Soon we, too, were speeding from Cape Coast, Ghana, towards the border of the Ivory Coast, or, as it's called by its French-speaking inhabitants, Côte d'Ivoire.

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The whole concept of national borders in Africa is a bit strange. Côte d'Ivoire, for example, has more than 60 different ethnic groups, some of which are shared with bordering countries like Ghana and Mali. So who drew the lines? The colonial powers, of course. In this case, it was the French and the British. But what at the time may have been an arbitrary line on some map now marks at least one real difference: the official language!

The heat of the African sun made us all drowsy, and soon everyone in the car was dozing off -- except the driver, of course. We arrived at the border and sleepily saddled our huge packs on our backs (we're still carrying warm jackets, sleeping bags, and long underwear from our time in Peru and Zimbabwe -- it's absurd!). Then we passed through the Ghanaian border post. After a few friendly words and yet another stamp in our passport, we entered "no-man's land" between the two countries. It was a long walk down this odd strip of road, lined with vendors, money changers, con-artists and taxi drivers. When we emerged at the border post on the other side, there was one glaringly obvious difference -- no one spoke English anymore.

The officer looked at me and said something that sounded like pure gibberish. I turned helplessly to Kavitha. All through Latin America, I had been the able to show off with my Spanish skills. Even in Portuguese-speaking Mozambique I was able to communicate. But here, all of a sudden, I am the one who looks on, clueless, when people try to talk to me.

I flashed back to high school Spanish class. I hated it -- All that memorization of seemingly endless rules and the equally endless exceptions to the rules. Do I need to go through all that again?! No way! "Kavitha! Help! I wanna go back to Ghana!"

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My initial view of Abdijan came from the back seat of a taxi.
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"He wants to see your passport." Kavitha told me calmly. OK, that's easy enough. I smiled hesitantly and handed him my now super-fat passport (we had more pages added at the embassy in Harare, because we were running out of room). Soon, Kavitha managed to find us another Peugeot headed towards Aboisso, Côte d'Ivoire, where we would be able to get yet another bush taxi to the capital city of Abidjan.

Once safely crammed into the car, I frantically began reading my handy French travelers' phrasebook. I practiced a few phrases on the man next to me. "Bonjour!" "Comment allez-vous?" This isn't so hard! French is a Latin language, similar to Spanish. With a little help, I had some basic phrases under my belt, and was ready to tackle some random, unsuspecting Côte d'Ivoirian.

The car stopped at a crossroads to let someone out, and there was a woman by the side of the road selling bananas. I approached carefully, phrasebook in hand. "Bonjour! C'est combien?" I asked the woman how much the bananas cost, in perfect French, of course. She smiled and laughed, and said something I completely couldn't understand. Oh, wait! I have to learn the numbers, too! "Kavitha! Help!"

My heroine came to my rescue. "Combien?" Kavitha asked. The woman responded again, laughing. Kavitha looked as confused as I felt. "Combien?" That's when I realized that it wasn't just my French, it was the banana vendor's French, too. Even though it is the official language of this country, French is a second language, if spoken at all, for Côte d'Ivoire's 13.8 million people. Should I be learning French, or one of the dozens of local languages of West Africa?

With a few hand signals and lots of laughter, we managed to buy some bananas with the CFAs (Communaute Financiérè Africaine), the money used by most of the former French colonies: Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Togo. We piled back into the Peugeot, happily munching bananas, and continued down the road to Abidjan.

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A colorful parade took over the streets in Abidjan.
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The capital city loomed ahead of us. Downtown, the skyscrapers and crammed busses reminded us that this is one of the most modern cities in all of West Africa. Yet the people we met were kind and helpful, even though I could barely communicate. I can't wait until I can actually speak French well, and can truly get to know West Africans!

Abeja
 

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