Sleepless in Abidjan

Nightclubbing in the Ivory Coast capital is a rich experience if you can get from your front door to the entrance without meeting a local militia gang.

From afar, Abidjan - with its skyscrapers overlooking surrounding lagoons - could resemble any European city.
But the “Paris of west Africa” has little to do with the comparative luxury of Europe close-up.

Stepping into the downtown neighbourhood of Yopougon, you find yourself in a social, cultural and economical chaos.

A mosque on the left, a church on the right.

A gleaming Mercedes behind, a woro woro (rickety cab) ahead. A fruit vendor here, a cellphone vendor there. Men wearing black and grey suits, women with colourful traditional dresses. Everywhere new and old Africa clashes here.

The Ivory Coast's commercial capital, Abidjan, is composed of two parallel worlds; the one expatriates have created for themselves and the one locals preserve through their vibrant music despite the country’s bloody conflicts.

For everyone here though, the nights reserve similar surprises. As one of Africa’s most dangerous cities, Abidjan is a prime location for “murder muggings” on clubbers.

On Friday nights, I would descend from my 10-story block and wait on the empty sidewalk to get picked up. A street vendor yelled at me once: “Go back inside! You’re going to get killed!”

Less than a week before this happened, a French tourist out on the town was murdered by muggers for his watch.

On this occasion my friend pulled over and I watched as we passed the familiar crippled beggars and police checkpoints that stand between visitors and a decent night out. We headed to “Zone 4,” where French expats and wealthy Lebanese businessmen live, to dance in posh clubs replicating those in New York or London in size and extravagance.

Even Eminem’s lyrics, it seemed, do not change across the oceans and inside, only one sight reminded me I was on the African continent: elderly European men accompanied by voluptuous young black girls at every turn of the head.

After rebel uprisings last September, during a curfew that meant the city prematurely went to sleep at 2200 for several months, embassies and UN workers would rush to the bars after work, hoping to get a few drinks and a dance before the death squads would begin roaming the streets.

Now the curfew has been lifted, a fervent Michael Jackson imitator impresses the crowds at the “Chicago” club, just like old days.

At the isolated intersections of Zone 4, which is enveloped by deep forest, a small army of prostitutes and transvestites watch and wait, jigging to a pirate radio station playing club music.

In Abidjan’s wealthier areas, many find the energy to forget these sordid realities of Africa by dancing the night away and getting wrecked.

In Yopougon, Abidjan’s largest ‘hood, the story is rather different. Rue Princesse - one of poorest yet most lively areas - offered a glimpse into real Ivorian nightlife.

Rows of maquis (a typical open-air Ivorian bar/restaurant) are crammed next to one another, each blasting out different flavours of Ivorian pop music- mixing traditional African beats with NSYNC and the infamous reggae flavours of Alpha Blondy, creating more often than not, a complete cacophony.

Men and women sit on plastic chairs drinking local “Flag” beer and eat poulet braisé (barbecued chicken) until dawn, occasionally getting up to dance or shout at someone across the street.

Graciously, criminals seem to stay away from the area but during the recent curfew things got bad enough here for the whole area to be sealed off to visitors, and so the call of the richer areas won back their once-loyal club clientele once more.

Today, it’s buzzing again and we sit around drinking and singing the lyrics of Soum Bill, one of Ivory Coast’s favourite singers, who reminds us of the wholesale danger we have been surrounded by during our unlikely residence here in recent years: “Many people died, but who killed them?”

We don’t know, but we have more than likely danced with them in either section of the capital after a few Flags.