Ivorian resilience in the face of multiple crises: a kaleidoscope of cultural and geographic diversity

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.

French Version


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.

CfP: Decolonization and the Politics of Wildlife in Africa

The establishment of European colonial rule on the African continent not only involved the colonization of nature, but essentially meant colonization through nature. Imperial politics of resource extraction, hunting, and conservation forged the upsetting and renegotiation of existing human ecologies and were often accompanied by the strict separation of the spheres of »nature«/»wilderness« on the one hand, and »culture« on the other. But in how far did decolonization across Africa south of the Sahara equally affect the sphere of ecology and relationships between humans and wildlife? What continuities and what changes can we observe in the transcontinental governance of wildlife and its concepts, practices, and actors? What role did animals play in all this and in how far did decolonization affect wildlife and individual species? Have Africa’s wild animals ever been decolonized?

International Conference  –  September 26-30, 2017

Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Study, South Africa  


Bernhard Gißibl (Leibniz Institute of European History, Mainz)

Felix Schürmann (LOEWE research cluster »Animals – Humans – Society«, University of Kassel)

Funding: German Research Foundation, Program »Point Sud«

This conference seeks to address these questions in a trans- and multidisciplinary perspective. It aims to bring together senior and junior specialists in African and global environmental history, human-animal studies, human geography, political ecology, and the various conservation and wildlife sciences. Scholars based at African academic institutions are particularly encouraged to apply. We are interested in receiving proposals focusing on the transitional decades of late colonial rule and early independence. Ideally, but not exclusively they should address one or several of the following themes and topics:

Comparative and Entangled Perspectives on Decolonization and State Politics of Wildlife

Wildlife conservation and safari tourism were of varying importance to late colonial economies across Africa. We invite papers that trace the differing impact of decolonization upon the sectors of wildlife conservation and tourism and look at relevant policies and concepts, both in a comparative perspective and with a view to transfers and exchanges between African states. In which states did wildlife conservation become the nucleus of green, environmental state-building, and why? To what extent was wildlife used for strategic nation-branding as a green, conservationist state at the international level? And in what ways were wildlife policies in African states south of the Sahara interrelated? What role did, for example, the massive extension of protected areas in Tanzania during the 1960s, or the hunting ban introduced in Kenya in 1977 play for the wildlife policies in neighboring countries? Did these events attract emulation, or, rather, did they force other policies south of the Sahara to develop alternative strategies of utilizing wildlife as a resource? And what differences can be observed between states formerly under colonial rule, and those few countries that had escaped direct governance through European powers?

Transcontinental Governance and the “Africanization” of Wildlife Sectors

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the conservation of wildlife in countries south of the Sahara was subject to structures of transcontinental governance in which conservationist advocacy groups located in Europe and North America and centralized state administrations largely determined the politics and geographies of hunting and wildlife. Therefore, the »Africanization« of wildlife policies became an imperative issue of nature politics in many African states after independence. We are interested in actual shifts in participation and responsibility not only in management, but in conservation more broadly. Did postcolonial policies of »Africanization« also entail greater inclusion and if so, in how far did these efforts draw upon policies that predated decolonization, e.g. the establishment of Controlled Areas for wildlife management aimed at greater community involvement in Kenya since the 1950s? What did »Africanization« mean in concrete terms, in what ways was it implemented in practical politics, in how far was it used as a rhetorical strategy to make international conservation agencies act comply with government agendas? Did African governments use wildlife to strategically attract outside expertise and funding to strengthen their wildlife sectors, and how did international organizations adapt their strategies, practices and framings of wildlife to changing political circumstances after decolonization? Who were the local counterparts and supporters of these organizations, and in how far did policies and framings of wildlife change with the increasing presence not only of conservationist organizations, but those specifically dedicated to animal welfare?

Wildlife Sciences and the Management of Protected Areas

Decolonization was accompanied by substantial and externally funded institution building to strengthen wildlife conservation. The 1960s witnessed, for example, the establishment of the Serengeti Research Institute as well as the colleges of wildlife management in Mweka (Tanzania) and Garoua (Cameroon). We are interested in the management and agendas of such institutions and their impact upon park and wildlife management across Africa, as well as in the role of science in the understanding of wildlife and the management of protected areas more broadly. What sciences came to develop an interest in Africa’s fauna and what role did the differing perspectives of e.g. ethology and wildlife ecology play in the evolution of conservation biology? Did veterinarians, a major voice in colonial controversies over tsetse and the possible coexistence of livestock and wildlife, retain their say in wildlife-related debates after decolonization? And in how far did science drive the management of protected areas or were it, vice versa, management requirements that dictated the agenda of science in parks? And did the evolution of conservation biology take different paths, for example, in internationally isolated South Africa under Apartheid compared to e.g. wildlife sectors with a greater openness to international science, such as in Eastern Africa?

Tourism, Hunting, Agriculture: Material Encounters between Humans and Wild Animals

Decolonization ran parallel to international developments that had considerable ramifications for the interaction between humans and wildlife. Among these were planning, the rise of the »scientific expert«, and a boom in long-distance tourism. The latter rendered the merely visual consumption of wildlife an attractive economic alternative to the consumptive utilization of wildlife by trophy hunting or the trade in tusks and horns. We are interested in papers that analyze the changing understandings of wildlife and individual animal species in the differing regimes of consumptive and non-consumptive tourism, and papers that focus on the corporeal encounter between humans and animals as mediated through hunting, safari, science, but also everyday coexistence in separated but shared local ecologies. How did both touristification and scientization of wildlife impact upon the possibilities of encountering them, and how did touristic and scientific frames of understanding wildlife shape these encounters? We are also interested in papers addressing the relationship, the conflicts and the arrangements between tourist requirements of seemingly authentic »wilderness«, the necessities of management intervention and the ecologies of non-disturbance required for continuous scientific monitoring.

Wildlife in Film and Popular Science

Bernhard Grzimek’s Serengeti Shall Not Die, James Hill’s film about Joy and George Adamson‘s intimate story with orphaned lioness Elsa (Born Free), and the wildlife documentaries by Armand and Michaela Denis are just the most famous examples of film and book productions dealing with Africa’s wildlife in the 1950s and 1960s. They were accompanied by a flurry of popular science books by expatriate wildlife researchers such as Jane Goodall, Ian Douglas-Hamilton, or George B. Schaller, who understood their science as applied conservation, blurred the boundaries between scientific analysis and popularizing description, and capitalized on a previously unknown intimacy with and individualization of the species under their study. In what ways was this development related to decolonization? Did these films and books have any reception in African countries and if so, what were they? What role did developments in scientific disciplines play, and in how far can these cultural productions be read as a means how Western scientists and audiences re-negotiated their relationship to Africa’s wildlife, and to Africa via wildlife? And what does the heretofore unknown degree of individualization and naming of animal personalities mean for human-wildlife relationships more broadly?

African Perspectives on Wildlife in Local and Global Perspectives

Finally, we invite papers that address decidedly African perspectives on wildlife and wildlife policies in their local and global contexts. How were such perspectives expressed e.g. in literature or oral histories? And how distinctive were these perspectives when compared to wildlife policies during and after decolonization e.g. in Asia? Is it possible to conceive of Africa south of the Sahara as a variety of a green, African modernity in which the larger fauna was not colonized away, as in most other continents, but, quite the opposite, became a contested and conflicting motor and driving force for tourism- and nature-based ecological modernization policies essentially built upon wildlife?