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Real Life SimCity

If you could build your own city, what would you build? How about a peace foundation, a five star hotel and the biggest church in the world...

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If you could build your own city, what would you build? How about a peace foundation, a five-star hotel and the biggest church in the world...

Yamoussoukro Street

Yamoussoukro Street

What would you do if you could build your own city? Not too many of us get a chance to act on such a question. This being Africa, however, a few authoritarian presidents have had enough control over their state’s coffins to give this a go. (To be fair, this happens outside Africa too, Astana in Kazakhstan being a case in point.) Côte d’Ivoire’s first president, Felix Houphouët-Boigny, followed up his engineering dreams with a serious effort when building the country’s new capital. Before this, Yamoussoukro was just in a small village in the central region of the country. Houphouët-Boigny just happened to grow up there. The construction began back in the 1960’s, shortly after independence, and didn’t finish until the big man’s death in 1993. To cut him some slag, did he name it in honour of his aunt, Yamoussou, and not himself.

Abandoned Boulevard

Abandoned Boulevard

Yamoussoukro is a city build for the future. With broad boulevards to accommodate Africa's growing traffic, light poles line these streets, ready for a bright future. Instead, Houphouët-Boigny ended up building a city too expensive for contemporary Côte d’Ivoire to run. The boulevards lie empty, with grass growing through the concrete, while the light poles stand abandoned, unlit and left behind. The president’s legacy has somewhat died with him. Then again, here are some distinct touches, prestige projects if you will, found nowhere else in the world – let alone elsewhere in West Africa.

H-B Peace Foundation

H-B Peace Foundation

First stop on this tour of legacy is the Foundation Houphouët-Boigny de la Paix (Houphouët-Boigny Peace Foundation. Because what’s more natural than naming a foundation of peace after yourself when your authoritarian rule lasts for 33 years and “your” country decent into more than a decade of civil wars less than five years after your death. Build primarily in Italian marble this monster of a building was completed in 1987. More conference centre than foundation, it has hosted an impressive array of peace talks, peace conferences and the like during Houphouët-Boigny’s lifetime. Since then it’s mostly been used to host performance art, classical concerts and exhibitions. And it does, of course, include a small museum of Houphouët-Boigny’s political achievements – which mostly seems to have been photo opportunities with people like JFK and Nelson Mandela.

Hôtel Président

Hôtel Président

Next up is the five-star Hôtel Président (note how Houphouët-Boigny was humble enough to only used his title for this one). This tower should be pure extravaganza. It even has what I suspect to be West Africa's only handball court, as well as a panorama restaurant where I chose not to spent half of my daily budget on a brunch. The hotel is such an attraction that it’s possible to book tours of the place. Though, I decided that getting a tour of a hotel was a bit weird and simply chose to stroll past it.

Basilique Notre-Dame de la Paix

Basilique Notre-Dame de la Paix

Last, but certainly not least, Houphouët-Boigny decided to build the World’s largest church (according to the Guinness World of Records) here in the middle of nowhere. The Basilique de Notre-Dame de la Paix (Basilica of our Lady of Peace). At 158 m it’s 22 metres higher than the Pope’s favourite church, that of Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. This monster of a monument was completed just a few years before Houphouët-Boigny’s death, but he did manage to greet celebrates like the Pope, Nelson Mandel (again) and Michael Jackson here. The basilica was built during an economic crisis in Côte d’Ivoire in the late 1980’s, and that might explain why the final cost was never revealed. Guesses range from US$200 mil to US$600 mil with most suggestions being around US$300 mil. One thing is sure, though: The construction doubled the country’s foreign debt.

Inside

Inside

Eventually, Houphouët-Boigny gave the church to the Vatican as a gift. Reasons differ. Some say it was to apologise for out-doing the Basilica of Saint Peter, other because the annual upkeep of 1,500,000 US$ was too much for the government to fund. But no matter, today it’s the Vatican’s flag, not Côte d’Ivoire’s, that is blowing in the wind in front of the church. And the costs? Those millions of dollars are being paid by a kind Portuguese “charity”.

Despite the fact that people are living in poverty right next to this colossal waste of money, it is, hand’s down, both the most impressive and exciting sight in all of West Africa! Also, note how the first letters of the Foundation, the Hotel and the Basilica nice line up with FHB. Felix Houphouët-Boigny's own initials. Coincidence? I think not!

Feeding time!

Feeding time!

As if all this wasn’t enough, Houphouët-Boigny also hand-picked a dozen crocodile based on their vicious temper and aggressiveness, for the lake in front of the Presidential Palace. To take photos, I had to buy a chicken, which the guards would then feed to a lucky crocodile (or rather, the most vicious on the day). These beasts have coursed at least three human deaths since they were introduced to the lake. First, a successful suicide attempt by a dedicated follower of the president upon his death in 1993. Secondly, a veteran-feeder was eaten during a photo-op for UN troops. And lastly, a tourist who climbed the fence to take a selfie got what his intellect demanded. No deaths (but the chicken’s) occurred during my visit.

Inside the Basilica's Dome

Inside the Basilica's Dome

Yamoussoukro is a weird and fascinating place. Probably unique. Though I do prefer strange places that have come at a lesser cost (as you might have been able to figure out by my rather sarcastic tone in this blog post…).

PS. Happy holidays – it not really something celebrated down here.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 12:05 Archived in Cote d'Ivoire Tagged travel church basilica travelling crocodiles ivory west_africa ivory_coast côte_d'ivoire yamoussoukro world's_biggest houphouët-boigny Comments (0)

Mishaps on the Gambian River

As a local warned me before I took off, “the River doesn’t like foreigners.” That turned out to be very, very true.

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The Gambian River

The Gambian River

Ever since I began contemplating travelling in Africa, I’ve been dreaming of taking on the continent’s major rivers. Drifting downriver, passing crocodiles and hippos, like a late nineteenth-century explorer. The ultimate price would be the Congo River, but being far from the Congo and having just arrived in The Gambia, the Gambian River would certainly do.

Finding myself in the eastern-most part of The Gambia, what in my mind seemed an easy, leisurely five-day float between the towns of Basse Santa Su and Janjanbureh quickly turned out to cause me plenty of troubles.

River crossing

River crossing

I knew there weren’t any public transportation on the river itself. Except a handful of ferry crossings, which really isn’t much of river exploration. Instead, I hoped that there would be some commercial movements on the river. There were, but the only ships trawling the waters from Basse were the ships transporting groundnuts (peanuts) to the coast. Symptomatically for my luck on the Gambia the ships had just departed. The day before I arrived in town.

The boats I wanted

The boats I wanted

So I began looking for alternatives. The bulky metal cans that were ferrying people across the river alongside the ferries would not do. They were too heavy. There were, however, a few smaller wooden boats tied down alongside the riverbank. So, as the hopeless optimist, I am, I started to inquire the boatmen on the riverside about those. Between the few friendly guys on the shore, one quickly mentioned that his “fat uncle had a canoe that he is too fat to sail.” That sounded promising, simply because the uncle apparently was so big that he wouldn’t be using the boat anytime soon. Before he had lost a couple of kilos, that is. I just had to come back the next day.

Glass-bottled Guinness

Glass-bottled Guinness

While I waited for the day to pass, I spend the day constructively drinking Guinness at a riverside bar. Glass-bottled Guinness, in what is the coolest colonial left-over ever. Here, the locals were very interested in my plan, though not very optimistic on my behalf. They warned me that there would be both hippos and crocodiles in the river. One old guy even told me – in a drunken whisper as legendary as the words themselves – “the River doesn’t like foreigners.” Not as a treat, through his rusty voice made it sound like that, but as a concerned warning. I was, however, much determined to take on the river, while the promise of both hippos and crocs did give me butterflies.

When I returned to the riverside the following morning, I didn’t find exactly what I’d expected. Instead of one of the small boats, the boatman had gotten me a narrow, tradition canoe. I quickly found out just how difficult these things are to balance. The very first thing I did, getting into the canoe, was to capsize it, soaking myself from the waist down. These things sit just five centimetres above the water’s edge, and I barely had to shift my body weight at all to make it wobbles dangerously.

My canoe on the river

My canoe on the river

I should probably have given up there and then. Instead, I stubbornly decided to spend an hour paddling around in circles on the river to get familiar with the canoe. To great amusement to the local spectators. Managing this without getting myself wet again, I could happily proceed back into town to buy food for the five days. Water, bread, cheese, canned tuna and sardines, crackers, bananas and mango juice. Not very exciting, but it would get me through.

With the canoe loaded with the provision and my baggage, I happily sat out, down the Gambian River.

I managed about four hours on that first half day. The river was calm and conditions were more or less perfect. My shoulders were sore from the paddling and my bump numb from sitting on the hard would. But that wasn’t too bad. However, the amount of energy I had to use to keep the canoe steady in the water was incredible. My entire body, and especially my legs ached from tightening throughout the journey. There would simply be no way I could complete this trip in five days. I’ve just been going half a day, and I was completely used out because of this balancing issue. So I decided to paddle back to Basse the next morning.

Croc in the river

Croc in the river

It wasn’t without a certain notion of failure that I put up my tent. But bedding down on the shore of the Gambian river, with monkey hauls, lizards’ sprinting through the grass and a hundred birds being the only noises around me made it hard to stay blue. Everything was less bliss the following morning. The weather had decided to take a turn for the worse. Rain clouds threatened above and winds created waves on the river.

These waves gave me more troubles that anything else. Keeping my balance in the canoe was just impossible. I managed less than 50 metres back up the river before I had to give up and come ashore again. I was simply not going to loose all my belongs to the river due to another capsizing. To make matters worse a quick shower, lasting just ten minutes, soaked me to the bone. I tied up the canoe, got my backpack and prepared myself for spending the rest of the morning walking back to Basse. Adding insult to injury, my camera slipped out of my pocket as I tied the canoe down. Disappearing into the muddy water, I simply had to abandon it.

Beyond saving

Beyond saving

A good four hours later, back in Basse, I found the boatman and set out to retrieve the lost canoe in hit boat. It still took three hours to reach the canoe (and three hours to get it back to Basse). The only positive thing was that the low tide had arrived and relieved the location of my camera. I spend most of the next day trying to fix it. In vain. I’ll just have to get a new one once I reach the capital of Banjul...

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Posted by askgudmundsen 16:25 Archived in Gambia Tagged traditional travel river sailing africa travelling crocodiles canoe west_africa hippos gambia gambia_river Comments (0)

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