The most marked feature of my fieldwork, I think, will be my language skills. Unlike in Senegal, French (or an adapted form of it, called Nouchi) is the language that unifies a great number of ethnic groups in Cote d'Ivoire and is widely spoken across the country, especially in Abidjan. This is generally good for me, as I'm not having to guess whether I'm not understanding someone's French or whether they're not speaking French at all. But it also means that I'm quickly identified as a non-native French speaker, since the average level of the language is much higher than in Dakar.
But at times, it's such a shock when, after a brief conversation, people still misidentify me as French. The first time this happened was when I was buying a bed. After 5 minutes of discussions on the quality, the price, and whether they would deliver, the seller asked if I was French or Moroccan. Aside from the blue eyes that generally mark me as not-Moroccan, I was so surprised that he didn't register my lack of language facility and thought he was teasing me. Then he guessed Italian. Okay.
The second time was this week, when we had a plumber come back for a repeat visit. My French roommate had told him of the problem over the phone and arranged the visit, so I was just there to let him in. I spoke a few words with the plumber, and he communicated that he would have to return another day to do the whole job. When he returned, he asked for a few items and tried to explain what he was doing, but I couldn't understand him – I didn't learn home repair vocabulary in French class. Later, when he asked me another question and I asked him to speak "doucement" – slowly, gently – his assistant realized I wasn't French. Once they learned I was American, the plumber was much warmer toward me, and it dawned on me that he thought I was being rude to him with my miming, when I really didn't have the vocab for "drain."
It's troublesome that language and our use of it in in law and policy is central to my project but that I'm so tense about it in everyday life. Aside from the daily shopping and greetings, I read documents in French, I try to text my bilingual friends in French, I eavesdrop a bit on others' conversations, I have a French tutor, and I can talk about my project in French. But I am still so hesitant to not be able to explain myself fully, something I take such care about in English, selecting just the right word.
Apologizing up front for my French skills, explaining that I'm American, and being friendly seems to go a long way. I guess it's time that I just get over myself.
Always ask the locals. My roommate and I were uncertain about where to go buy a basic kitchen table and chairs and a shelf. We talked about Treichville, which is a bit far from where we live, so we decided to ask our security guard, who was chatting with the phone cabin guys in the shade across the street. A young guy there recommended a place near Pharmacie Azur in the neighborhood of Plateau Dokui and said that any decent taxi driver should know it. So off we went!
And it was perfect! We got a great price with only a bit of bargaining and will probably be back for a couple other small tables.
One of my favorite things here is how you can get recommendations for almost anything you want from anyone you ask. I'm so used to resorting to google when I'm looking for a particular item, but because of google's lack of relevance here, as well as no street names if you do find the shop, it's much easier to use your loose social ties to find something. Basically, anyone who you might know for at least a week – security guards (who are always polite to me and generally willing to cut me some slack with my language skills), women selling fruits and vegetables, phone cabin guys, even store clerks – will offer up assistance if you ask politely.
While I miss the ability to find anything I want on the internet (have great access here, just less relevant), using the people around me is unarguably better for my language skills and for forming social ties.
Saturday I moved into my (hopefully) permanent apartment in Abidjan after moving around a bit. On Sunday, I went shopping at Adjamé market for a number of kitchen and household items. To buy lots of stuff, the trip was worth it. Supermarkets are quite expensive, but if you're willing to spend the time and brave the crowds, markets like Adjamé are wonderful.
My previous experience with African markets was in Dakar, where so many expats also go. There, you can't take a quick look at something without being harassed (and if you don't speak French, don't worry, many of the merchants speak enough English or German to tell you to look at their wares). But in Abidjan, my market day was completely different.
The most notable thing was that I was the only white person that I saw in the market, which is vast (both the market itself and the surrounding "black market"). One of the stores on the edge of the market, apparently some kind of restaurant supply store, was owned by a Lebanese couple, fairly common here, but I was surprised that it was frequented only by Africans.
I mentioned this later to a friend who has been here a couple of years, and she said that there were more expats before the crisis, so it was to be expected that there were few to none at this market especially, which is not in an expat neighborhood.
The other issue was that I was not overly harassed when walking by or when stopping to look at something. Certainly, I was asked quickly if I needed help or encouraged to buy another type of vegetable, but there was no pushiness behind it. If I responded no thanks, then that was taken as a given. I'm assuming this stems from a lack of recent tourism and that many of the markets in the city are geared toward actual local trade rather than tourist spots.
I don't write this to toot my horn about how "real" I am by shopping at a local market, just that my expectations from one country in the region didn't transfer directly to the reality in another country. And this is the core of my research, that a policy that might work in one place is sometimes inappropriate to the context of the place you are in because of history, politics, social relations, economics, and any other little thing you can think of. (Also relevant in humanitarianism and development aid.)
I love markets and am going back – if only for vegetables and to take photos of the giant land snails in buckets and tied-up chickens on the floor.
Reconfiguring my master to-do list today. I'm feeling behind and not fully in grasp of the mountain of things I have to do in the next nine months. But I certainly don't want to look back in July and freak, so ...
Musical accompaniment by Doc Martin and Mark Farina, courtesy of Live@Focus, and by a friend of a friend, LephonQ.
Travel and research notes
Fieldwork and travel in Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Mali, as well as Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tanzania, South Africa, and wherever else I end up. Plus occasional research-related thoughts. And now ... Teaching!