the different faces of religion in Cote d'Ivoire

Besides watching traditional mask dances, my tour group in Cote d'Ivoire also visited a few religious sites.  My favourite was this 17th century mud mosque in Kong, not even mentioned on the tour itinerary so a real treat.  Apparently it is no longer used, but is maintained due to its historical significance; the larger nearby mosque in the same style is still in use.

Much more well known is the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in the administrative capital, Yamoussoukro.  Constructed at great expense, as a near copy of St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, it can hold up to 18,000 people but our guide told me that only around 700 people attend the service there most weeks.  At least the former president who commissioned it (Félix Houphouët-Boigny) had the good sense to 'donate' it to the Catholic Church (to John Paul II who was pope at that time), so the annual $1.5m upkeep is borne by the Catholic Church and not by the people of Cote d'Ivoire.  A bit of a white elephant in my view, some of my group were very impressed by it.  I don't think it is even worth putting a photo here on the blog!

I was more impressed by the snakes and fertility symbols on the fetish hut in the village of Niofon...

In terms of mainstream religious buildings though, I was impressed by the much more modern St Paul's Cathedral in Abidjan.  It has some amazing stained glass windows in a modern, African style such as this one to the right.  The largest window appears to me to depict the African paradise (garden of Eden?), with lush vegetation, elephants, monkeys and colourful birds, and a few Africans bearing bowls of fruit as gifts for some dour-looking white men getting out of a boat onto the beach - white men who in my interpretation are about to upset the existing social structures, impose borders in the wrong places and generally exploit the continent ... thankfully I hadn't expressed this view out loud as our guide explained that they were missionaries who had brought the words of our Lord Jesus Christ to the continent.  Hmmm...

mask dancers and traditional hunters in Cote d'Ivoire

Whilst I once spent a day in Abidjan following a cancelled flight, I knew there was plenty more than the National Museum that I got to see that day.  In particular, the country is well known for a variety of mask dances.  These dances, most commonly associated with funerals, are hard to find on your own - it's just a matter of luck if you arrive in a village when a funeral is happening - so, a little reluctantly, I signed up to a tour.  That way I would see dances organised for the benefit of the tour group - still the same dancers, the same music, and the same costumes, just for a different purpose.

We were a small group of very well-travelled people, so even the long hours in the tour bus involved some interesting conversations, as we travelled the length and breadth of the country.  We saw, I think, six different ethnic groups performing their dances for us, accompanied by musicians playing traditional instruments.  Of course a still photo cannot capture some of the amazing moves, but I can at least show some of the costumes.

As well as watching the mask dances, we also met a group of Dozo, the traditional hunters who also work, when needed, as militias, or 'defence forces' for their communities.  Whilst they are apparently sometimes now employed as security guards and they played a significant role in the recent civil war, their hunting is highly tied up with magic, so their hunting attire is covered with amulets to variously protect them and to strengthen their vision and hearing.  Music is also an important part of their tradition, and after an opportunity to ask a few questions of a group of Dozo, their griot (the singer, who is kind of the group history-keeper through his songs) and a couple of musicians accompanied us in our tour bus into a patch of sacred forest.  It was a bizarre experience driving along in the bus with these guys around us inging and playing music:

The griot had a tremendous voice and a twinkle in his eye, and I have to admit that we three women in the group all kind of fell for him!

the largest mosque in West Africa

I'm posting a lot less now, I know.  That's for two reasons - firstly, I still haven't found any social circle here, so don't go out much (compounded by a very heavy workload this year), and secondly, when I travel in the region now I don't get to go out much either, due to the poor security situation in so many of the places where we work.  Earlier this month I was in Burkina Faso - but all I did was work, eat and sleep, visiting only the office and the hotel - so, again, nothing I want to write about.

But today I pushed myself to go out in Dakar, to visit the new Massalikoul Djinâne mosque which opened three months ago.  I am a fan of Islamic architecture generally, and I thought this mosque was beautiful.  There is always a real tranquility inside mosques, but unlike churches and cathedrals, they tend to be designed to let in a lot of light, so it is quite an uplifting kind of tranquility.

This mosque cost some $32m, and took seven years to build.  It is the largest mosque in West Africa, designed to accommodate 30,000 people.  Fiendishly difficult to photograph, unless you have a camera that corrects converging lines back to parallel ones (and even then, the contrast between the bright light coming in through the windows and the shadows elsewhere makes it difficult), I ended up cropping most of my photos to capture just corners, like these two.

My 'guide' told me that the name means 'paths to paradise', which is also the name of a book written by Sheikh Amadou Bamba, the founder of the Senegal Mourides.  Around 40% of the population are members of the Mourides, but they dominate the country.  Devout and hard-working (Bamba told them that salvation comes through hard work), they show great loyalty to their marabouts (spiritual guides) - and will generally vote as they are advised to by the heads of the different brotherhoods.  Indeed the former president Abdoulaye Wade was a member of the Mourides, which I'm sure explains why my 'guide', when we were chatting afterwards, blamed the deterioration in the economic situation of most Senegalese on the current president, who is not in the Mourides, whilst praising his predecessor!

I say 'guide' because whilst I was trying to work out whether or not (and how) I could go into the mosque, this chap came over to assist me.  He wanted to show me the way in, show me where to leave my sandals, and then to start telling me all about the mosque.  Having made clear to him that I had come out without money, I was a little surprised that he still hung around to talk, but he told me that he felt that I was a good person, and that Allah had sent me there today for a reason...

We actually had quite an interesting conversation, covering colonialism, current day politics, the security situation in West Africa, Islam and Mouridism, amongst others.  He told me that his mother had been a teacher, and when she died, her house was sold and the proceeds split between him and his two older brothers.  One used the money to go to Japan, where he found a wife and got his papers in order, the other did the same in France, with a French wife - whereas my guide gave his money towards the construction of the mosque.  He was sad that he has never travelled outside Senegal, that neither of his brothers has sent the money for him to even go and visit them, but he didn't express any regrets about his decision.  It was hard to know what to say to that, but I trotted out my usual line about how life in the West is hard for many Africans as it is very individualistic, how no-one in London says hello to passing strangers, how people are too busy working to pay the high cost of living to have time to sit and chat about life, as we were this morning.  Perhaps a tad exaggerated, but how else do you respond to someone like him?  I certainly couldn't justify the fact that I have so far been to 123 countries whilst he has been to just one, as it's not just.  There is little justice in the world over such matters - but I suppose here his faith helps him, as it teaches that everything happens for a good reason (as Allah has designed it that way).

working in a conflict situation

I hadn't yet had time to forget anything I'd learnt on the latest HEAT course when I was sent off to probably the most dangerous of all the places where we work in this region - the Central African Republic.  Not at all like my previous visit there (on holiday) in 2012, which I managed six months before the coup and subsequent civil war that has battered this poor country ever since.

& for once, my employers didn't try to restrict my travelling during this trip, in fact they were quite keen for me to visit one of the offices in the interior, so as to get a real understanding of the difficulties of operating in a region with no official authorities, no banks, no petrol stations, no internet providers, almost no phone coverage and a constant very real danger of attack by members of armed groups.  Whilst there is currently a shaky peace agreement, they all still have their weapons and have to steal to survive.

The above photo (snapped quickly through the car window - photography was highly restricted in this zone) shows an example of what is left of the buildings in this place (Kaga Bandoro) following six years of on-and-off civil war, whilst the photo below shows where the inhabitants now live - a field of mud holding huts housing some 15,000 people.

We are working there because the need is so great, with the bulk of our work being the distribution of food aid to the displaced people, but other projects including working to get children back into (temporary or refurbished) schools, reunification of separated children with their families, and provision of "child-friendly spaces" for children and youth to be able to play, to (re-)learn social skills and to recover from their ordeals (many children were made to fight with armed groups, others were raped).

But the strain on our staff was evident.  They told me how they can't sleep at night when it rains, as the sound of the rain hammering down on corrugated iron roofs masks the sound of criminals - all now armed - breaking into their houses.  That same rain blocked out the sound of criminals breaking into our guest house area a few months ago, so they were able to grab the night watchman and hold a gun to his head so that others were forced to open the door to the safe.  The driver of my vehicle told me about the last time the vehicle was robbed - how he had to lie face down in the mud for two hours whilst the criminals ransacked the vehicle, all the time shouting and firing their machine guns around him - and that was just 5km from our office.

I did not stay in the guest house, but in a very mouldy shipping container within a safe area controlled by various UN agencies, and I was only allowed to visit projects located close to town and along routes recently checked by a MINUSCA patrol (the UN peacekeepers, who were a very obvious presence).  They told me that there was no history in that area of aid workers being killed, raped or kidnapped, that the motive for attacks was always just robbery and so if we were unlucky, I should not resist a robbery attempt but meekly hand over all my possessions.  Being on an overseas work visit, I would have been covered by work's insurance policy in any case, unlike our local staff.  & thankfully I did not have to put my Hostile Environment Awareness Training into practice.

Sadly they didn't allow me to go drinking or dancing at the bar 'La Cohesion Social', even though grenades, guns and knives were all supposedly banned there.

HEAT again

For the third time since I've been in this job, I had to undergo a course of Hostile Awareness Environment Training.  There was some being run locally in my region, but this was just a two-day course taken by recently trained colleagues, and with the countries I'm required to go to now including such hotspots as Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria (the north-east), Cameroon and the Central African Republic, I thought I would be better off taking a full one-week course.

It was held in a military camp just outside Nairobi, with mock villages, crashed cars, and plenty of places for rebels to ambush us (and for soldiers at checkpoints to force us out of our vehicles and make us respond to their demands for 'gifts').  A couple of days in the classroom, a day learning (revising) emergency first aid - and the fun bit, two days 'in the field' dealing with situations such as the one in the photograph above, where gunfire suddenly breaks out and you have to decide what to do.   In the above case I wanted to hide in the long grass just out of view of the picture, but decided I should go with the crowd and run - only to find we'd all failed to notice the signs of landmines and run straight through a minefield.

In fact several times I found my instinct was to do my own thing and not follow the crowd, something I didn't really get feedback on so I don't know if it would save my life or put me at more risk.  For example when we'd watched a film one evening only for 'rebels' to suddenly storm the classroom and leave with hostages, everyone stayed frozen on the floor waiting for them to return - but remembering that the windows were very large (and we were on the ground floor), I escaped through a window ...  Hoping that I never have to test out this tendency in real life, anyway.

Some of the course involved our captors using their power over us to make us run, jump, roll on the ground, sing, even get 'baptised' in pools of mud.  This is me, about to be forced to lie down in that muddy puddle.  They said afterwards that it was to get us to experience and understand what could happen to us; I have to say that I didn't find it difficult - if someone pointing a gun at me says to do a star jump, I do a star jump!  But it was interesting that some fellow course participants who had been through real life situations of such danger (particularly those working in Darfur and Somalia) found some parts of the course too traumatic to take part in as they were reminded too closely of what they'd been through.

I didn't like to trivialise things by asking them whether at the end of their real life ordeals, their shoes had ended up in the same state that mine did at the end of this course!  (& no, I couldn't claim a new pair on expenses)

a lesson in Armenian history

Armenia has an even longer history of Christianity than Georgia, having officially adopted the religion in the year 301.  & like Georgia, it has a number of very impressive old churches and monasteries to visit.  All have a strange mixture of devout locals praying and lighting candles, and tourists with their cameras, many of the latter trying to sneak a photo of that religious devotion without intruding on it.

The priests were particularly enticing, with their big beards and black hoods looking very sinister and therefore very photogenic.  But again, you don't want to intrude on their priestly work given that you are visiting their domain.  So I was very grateful when this guy in Tatev Monastery looked down and I could quickly raise my camera for a shot.

Sadly, what Armenia is probably most famous for is the genocide, although with most people actually knowing nothing about it other than that it was Turkey's fault.  So it was very interesting to visit the genocide museum, with its narrative of how the genocide unfolded as well as some moving photos of some of the victims.

So for those who don't know, it was a genocide of somewhere between 700,000 and 1.5 million Armenians, over a period from 1915 to 1923, by the Turks (Western Armenia at that time being a part of the Ottoman Empire) - although persecution and some killing of Armenians had started long before.  But what is now defined by many as a genocide started with the killing of Armenian males, partly through forced labour (the justification being that they were allied with the Russians), and was then followed by the deportation of women, children and old people into the Syrian desert, where they were forcibly marched through the desert without food and water.  Apparently (all this coming from the information in the museum) there was widespread rape of the women, and some sold into sex slavery in the markets of Syria.

It was an informative and well-ordered museum.  I'm not sure that you can describe a trip to a genocide museum as 'enjoyable', but certainly it was interesting and it filled a gap in my knowledge.  What I also found interesting was how the Armenian women looked in those days, with their facial tattoos - something that I didn't see even on the old women who live in Armenia today, and certainly I've never seen women looking like this in the formerly Armenian parts of present-day Turkey.  It's sad how all the distinctive markings and dress of different peoples are being lost.

Georgia, land of churches, wine and Stalin

Georgia is a land of old Orthodox Christian churches and monasteries (Georgia having been the second country in the world, after Armenia, to adopt Christianity as its official state religion - in the year 326), so our tour took us to several.  Even for places like the Ananuri Fortress in the above photo, it is the church that catches the eye.  Inside many of them are murals, some badly damaged in the past by those seeing them as idolatry, and with time taking its toll, but even those in relatively poor condition were impressive.

A different strand of the country's history is one that most no longer celebrate - the birth of Josef Stalin.  Apparently though the older residents of Gori, his birthplace, are still proud of his achievements and the city boasts various memorials including a Stalin statue and museum - and Tshirts such as this one on sale.  I suppose in some ways it would have been a cool souvenir, but not one I could see myself  actually wearing!

Rather more wearable, but sadly one I didn't have time to buy, bore the message, "KGB: still watching you", this from the KGB: Still Watching You bar in Tblisi.

Tblisi is a great city, with very impressive architecture (both old and new) and a plethora of cafes, bars, jazz clubs, etc.  Somewhere I would happily go for a chilled long weekend.  But of course I was on a tour so we rushed from sight to sight - not a problem as there was so much to see - but another few days there to just relax and enjoy the ambience would have been welcomed!  Not to forget also the Georgian wines, of which we got to try a few at a couple of wine-tastings.  This is the older part of Tblisi, and nearby
a small selection of the architecture in the newer part.