The Expat Life is Not Always an Easy One…
Hello everyone. Let me introduce myself: my name is Marine and I am 26 years old. Here is the story of my expatriation in Ivory Coast.
The first time I set foot in Ivory Coast was in August 2001. I had met my partner earlier that year in France and after two months of perfect romance, he announced that he had to go to work in Ivory Coast. I was surprised and also sad because, despite the short time we had spent together, we really loved each other.
He left in June and I joined him in August for a three week holiday. I had never been to continental Africa before and the culture shock was huge. I liked it though, despite the security conditions which were even then already difficult.
I went back to Paris, quit my job and told my landlord that I was going to leave my apartment. Everyone tried to dissuade me from going: just imagine, abandoning your own country for a man that you have known for only a few months to go and live in Africa! This was crazy!! I was 22 at the time, so no one was able to talk me out of my decision. On the contrary: I had always dreamt of a man who would take me to the ends of the world.
Two months later – I had to work out my notice period – I left Paris again, but this time to go and live in Ivory Coast.
My partner manages a small company belonging to his cousin which manufactures screws, nuts, and bolts. In Paris, I had been responsable for a shop selling women’s underwear. His cousin had quickly suggested I should look after the commercial side of the Ivorian company. So after selling women’s underwear, I suddenly found myself in Abidjian taking to the road with a driver to go and sell bolts and hammers to the major local companies! Through my work I quickly discovered the customs of Ivorians. I did this work for two years, but due to the crisis of 2002, business was very slow and I was laid off.
My partner and I then decided to set up our own small company. We had some plaited bags produced which were sold in France. I was really longing to help the local artisans and in the long-term the business was to become an equitable trading project. I had spent two months in the south of France finding shops interested in ordering more bags for the next season. People loved our bags because they were nice, original and not expensive! We were ready to send a container to France when the producer of our plaits (our main material) let us down by sending all the good machines abroad. I was very disappointed because I had been fighting for this project for over a year. My artisans suddenly found themselves without a job and me without a possible project.
After this episode I was unemployed for some months, until October 2004, when I finally found work at Samsung under very good conditions. But the events of November 2004 again destroyed my future projects…
On November 6th, we were home listening to the news when RFI (Radio France International) announced the bombing of a military French camp and the death of 9 men. Some hours later we were told of the destruction of the Gbagbo planes by the French army. At that point we looked at each other and said “This is going to get nasty!”.
Later that evening a representative of UFE (Unione Français à l’Etranger – Union of the French Abroad) called us sounding very stressed to say not to leave our place. We had already decided not to do so, as demonstrations against France had turned more and more violent in the past two years. So we locked ourselves up at our place with RFI as our only source of information, telephoning with other expats constantly. Two days of anguish followed, living in an atmosphere of fear and doubts, with the constant sound of furious demonstrators’ songs, shooting and the bombs of the French army. We did not use the air conditioning in order to better hear what was going on outside, and at night we used candles instead of electric light for fear of being spotted. It was over 28°C. We put our mattresses close to the windows but we could not sleep because RFI had announced that patriots were attacking homes and burning shops. After that came the warning about rapes! And finally RFI announced that hordes of youths were coming to town to help the patriots. We were in real anguish!!
I slept with my clothes on for a whole week, for fear of seeing one or two hundred men arriving at my place and raping me. We set up a ladder and were ready to climb onto our roof in case they arrived.
After 3 days of complete isolation we decided to be evacuated to the UN offices. A car came to collect us one night to drive us there. I hid my head with a scarf for fear that our neighbours would see that we were leaving the house. At that point I saw Abidjian by night, destroyed, ablaze, and I realized the levels of violence the city had seen in the last two days. So much had been destroyed!!
At the UN offices it was total anarchy because no one had expected any of this to happen. People were completely lost and full of sad stories. One woman asked me “Are you only just arriving?” . There were not enough beds nor food and we saw old people and children sleeping on the lawn or on the cold tiles. We spent two nights on the floor but at least we had the feeling of being a bit more secure. Thefts were numerous even at the UN because there are always unscrupulous people around.
Our residential area was finally secured by the French army, so we decided to go back to our place. However, every day more people we knew were being repatriated so we found ourselves alone again very quickly.
When on the 14th November it was announced that the next day would be the last repatriation flight, we decided to get on it. Talking with Ivorians had made us realize that due to the manipulation of the local government TV families back in France were awfully worried about us! An Ivorian friend took us the next day to the HQ of the 43th Bima Guards. We spent a long day there, wondering whether we had to leave or not. When at 6:00 pm we heard our names being called to get on the bus that would take us to the airport, my heart sank. We had been so lucky because neither our house nor our company had been attacked. This was thanks to the young people of our district and also to our security company.
We finally arrive at Roissy (Paris) airport where it was only 5°C. Some of the French with us were still wearing shorts. Air France allowed us to take their blankets, and the Red Cross was waiting for us at the top of the stairs with heated blankets. We got out before the other passengers and I was surprised by the welcome organized for our arrival. I was moved, too, because I suddenly realized that we were refugees!!!
We only had CFA money and did not know where to sleep because I had been unable to call my best friend before boarding the plane. It was 2:00 am. But to my big surprise, there she was. She had called the emergency number and had been given the time of our arrival. Actually, my friend had been due to visit me in Ivory Coast on November 20th. Instead I threw myself in her arms and cried for the first time, I guess to relieve the stress of the last few!!
Go back, ok, but what happens after that?
We stayed with various family members and friends, but then Yann decided he had to go back otherwise he would have lost his job after 15 days of unexcused absence.
So here is where the story ends. I have now been back in Ivory Coast for three weeks. I cannot live in France, as I feel different from other poeple living there and I cannot live far from my sweetheart. I have no children, so if I take some risks that’s my problem alone. Certainly life is not the same. I find myself again without a job and all my friends, even the Ivorian ones, have left.
As we say here, we no longer know who is who. Due to the growing poverty, assaults have increased and armed militias control most areas of Abidjian. I always fear that the terrible violence against the French will start again, but it has now been four months and things appear calm for the moment.
I would love my partner to find a nice job in another French-speaking African country. He is the one with the diploma, and I can always take care of myself. For the moment, however, we have no viable alternative so we are staying here and waiting to see how things will develop.
I hope that 2005 will bring a return to peace.
Translated from French by Kirstenexpat