A cultural and artistic anchorage that transcends the boundaries of nation and time
Côte d’Ivoire is a bona fide kaleidoscope. The country’s impressive human geography and cultural diversity, alongside its economic performance, testify to its richness as one of the central lungs of West Africa. As a country, it is famous not only for the football prowess of its national team, the Elephants, but for being the world’s largest cocoa producer. Since the turn of the millennium, Côte d’Ivoire has impressed the world with its economic performance and its artistic and cultural expressions. The country has come a long way since the heyday of the 1970s when Ernesto Djédjé’s successful hits such as Zibote launched Ivorian music onto the international scene. Equally, the rhythms of Mapouka, Zouglou, and Coupé Décalé have in turn exploded on the continental African scene, before flourishing worldwide.
“The country’s impressive human geography and cultural diversity, alongside its economic performance, testify to its richness as one of the central lungs of West Africa.”
For example, in August 2019, the magnitude of grief that poured in from the four corners of the world following the tragic death of DJ Arafat – a well-known Ivorian singer and music icon – speaks as much to the artist’s popularity as it does to the music genre’s place within contemporary cultural dynamics. As such, the roots of these internationally acclaimed artistic expressions are as much cultural as they are geographical. First and foremost, they are an expression of the riches found in the land of Houphouët Boigny, from East to West and North to South. They are also the depiction of a society which is steeped in diversity and committed to casting aside the victim status that it acquired over years of crises and existential disturbances.
Artistic creations as time stamps on multifaceted crises
Over the past two decades, Côte d’Ivoire has faced many crises of which the political crisis and ensuing deadly violence of 1999-2002 and 2010-2011 are widely known. Its first wave of violence came in 1999 when a failed coup d’état, which turned into an armed rebellion, divided the country in two. In the years that followed, sporadic fighting combined with poor economic outlook meant that life was very precarious for the civilian populations who bore the brunt of the crisis. Against this backdrop, the Ivorian music genre Zouglou made a breakthrough on the international scene, notably with the Espoir 2000 band whose musical lyricism and contemporaneity of issues captivated global attention.
Less than a decade later, Côte d’Ivoire would be in the throes of its second wave of violence following the post-electoral crisis of 2010. For almost one year, widespread atrocities were committed against civilian populations, the most notorious of which the infamous Duekoué massacre, in the western part of the country. Once again, the soundtrack to this civil war coincided with the rising popularity of the Coupé Décalé rhythm in the French-speaking world. The king of Coupé Décalé, Stéphane Doukouré aka Doug Saga, praised the genre’s controversial values. Indeed, beyond the musical rhythm, the Coupé Décalé, which literally means to ‘cheat and run away’, was celebrated for its hedonistic escapism at a turbulent time in the country’s past. It also spoke to resilience in the face of life’s injustices, and the necessity to stand tall by any means necessary – moral or immoral.
As such, these artistic expressions also act as time stamps which punctuate the country’s past. Their themes testify to the multifaceted crises and vulnerabilities experienced by Ivorians. To explore this further, we have identified five geographic areas that reveal multiple vulnerabilities: the Montagnes district, the Bas-Sassandra district, the Abidjan district, the Sepingo district and the Katiali district.
Geographic distribution of vulnerabilities and cultural areas
In the Western Mountain District, which once hosted refugees from the Liberian civil war, isolation and rugged terrain pose mobility challenges for people who are also often victims of flooding and drought. This region, famous for its Malinké masks, arts and music, is alive with a sense of vitality that is not only the product of cultural mixing and cross-border dynamics, but also a translation of collective resilience in the face of adversity. Despite struggling with plant disease (swollen shoot) which affects their main source of income, cocoa farmers enjoy the cultural life of the region in particular through the Dan (Tonkpi) arts and culture festivals.
In the southwest of the country, organized crime, road violence, isolation, famine (sometimes), flooding and its consequences are rampant in the Lower Sassandra District. But this multi-ethnic area stepped in Kroumen and Neo culture, is also well known for its bolo super, a traditional dance modernized by the Kané Sondé brothers.
The populations of Abidjan and its suburbs, like other great African capitals, live as much to the rhythm of an eclectic mix of artistic traditions and culture as to the daily challenges of urban life. Violence, the phenomenon of microbes and land conflict form part of the landscape of Abidjan and its suburbs as do flooding, landslides and other effects of climate change. That some parts of the population suffer disproportionately is known, but the economic capital of Côte d’Ivoire is not defined by this suffering. Abidjan also has all the proud features of a modern city with its tall buildings, roads, and bridges. However, if we need a reminder that Abidjan was once a village community, we only need to look at the cultural traditions of the lagoon peoples enriched by rites of passage such as the Fokwé or the Facthué; the war dance; the talking drum or the dipri feast celebrated by the Abidji people from Sikensi.
In the area around Katiali, pastoralists are particularly vulnerable to neglected zoonotic diseases and cross-border epidemics. Those who depend on agriculture are shocked by multiple environmental stresses that directly threaten their livelihoods and even their ancient cultures. The coexistence or conflicts between sedentary farmers and pastoral herders are, among other things, marked by the rhythm of poro initiation rites and Malinké music.
The fifth zone, Sepingo (Bondoukou), is marked by environmental stresses but also cross-border security risks, particularly with radical Islamic movements. The variety of artistic practices, most of which revolve around the festival of yams, the Kroubi; and the dances and costumes of the Zanzan (Bondoukou) and Festibo (Bouna) make it a very dynamic area.
This blog piece is the first in a series that will look at the geographical and cultural richness of Côte d’Ivoire. As part of a larger research study – Islands of Innovation in Protracted Crises: A New Approach to Building Equitable Resilience from Below – this series will explore the ways in which certain communities are able to approach multiple crises, whether it is in the face of violence, natural hazards or epidemics. Of interest is the role that socio-political and cultural innovations play in determining or undermining resilience. If you are interested in following the blog or would like to share your views on Ivorian resilience in the face of different crises, please register and comment on the blog series at Ivoiroland.org.
Professor Jeremy Allouche is a co-director of the Humanitarian Learning Centre and principle investigator of the GCRF-funded project Islands of Innovation in Protracted Crisis and the AHRC/DFID-funded project New Community-Informed Approached to Humanitarian Protection and Restraint.
Dieunedort Wandji is currently a Research Officer on the multi-sited project Islands of Innovation in Protracted Crises: Building Equitable Resilience from Below, which covers the Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He did his PhD in Politics and International Development at the University of Portsmouth, focusing on vernacular idioms of security and resilience within border communities in Africa. Dieunedort has done fieldwork in Nigeria, Cameroon and Gabon. The Islands of Innovation project covers several communities across the Ivory Coast and DRC, where fieldwork will be conducted, using interdisciplinary research strategies and participative data collection methods.