It was not an easy decision to leave. The decision amounted to several hours of denial and sobbing. Never have I felt so heartbroken about having to take a decision and leave a place. Abidjan was our home, we were comfortable and we had prepared. We had stocks of food and water and supplies. We were okay with the plan to self-quarantine inside the house. The problem arose when the Ivorian Government announced that they would be suspending all flights between their country and countries with more than 100 cases. This would mean if the situation intensifies in Côte D’Ivoire, whether for sanitary reasons or rioting and violent reasons, then there would be no way to leave. Theoretically we could have relied on the french government to protect us if things get bad, but when things are already bad in your own country and all the other countries in which you have a significant expat presence, then how can we put all our trust in the french government to provide resources for all?
After many calls between Augustin and his family the decision was firm: We had to leave. The risk was too great and we did not have the proper resources. What if the landlord did not want to rent the house anymore? We would have nowhere to go. What if one of the employees got sick and brought it here? What if the guards got sick and did not come to the house? What if the house was unprotected and people started rioting against “the whites” since it was “the whites” who initially brought the virus into the country? All of these were realities we obviously did not want to face, but we also did not want to think about. Already many of our acquaintances had told us that the virus was nothing, it will not come, it will not hurt them, it is hot here…… The same exact attitude as those in all the other countries it spread amongst. Sure maybe, the climate will have some effect, but that is an aspect that is not confirmed and has yet to be truly tested. If we had had some more control over our own resources like housing, or if Augustin had been working for a huge corporation with the means to help and protect their employees, then sure, maybe we could have stayed. But that was not our reality.
Packing the suitcases was hard. We bought our tickets 4 hours before the flight took off. I opened each one, laid them on the ground, and starting piling stuff in each compartment with no sense of direction or organization. The suitcases filled. There was still much more stuff left. For whatever reason, the Corsair flight each included two checked suitcases each. I grabbed my small green backpack and started filling that up with remaining items. Augustin grabbed a grocery bag. Almost everything was packed.
We heard our last roommate rolling her suitcase out. Still covered in tears we went to say goodbye. We kept our distance. We all agreed it was for the best. We would hope to see each other again soon.
Augustin and I took a walk around the house, searching for any missing items or any other chocolate bars we could take along with us. We looked at all the plants around us, all the nooks, all the crannies, all the spaces we had grown so fond of so fast.
We returned to our room. Taking one last gaze around. It was time to go. Still sobbing we took our suitcases and started rolling them out to the front. The security guard saw our anguish and ran to call us a taxi. We got the rest of our bags. Together with the driver, he helped us load us everything. I had talked to him just hours before. About how we are considering leaving, but we don’t want to if we don’t have to. He knew we were in pain. Augustin made one last plea to him to stay safe and be prudent. The taxi driver made a fair price to go the airport, no negotiation necessary. Augustin made his case again with him too. How he needs to be careful, take real precautions, take it seriously.
Most of the communities in Abidjan would not be able to handle an outbreak of COVID-19. Their only strengths are the relatively low age of the population and the warm, humid climate. But their sanitary and health system would not be able to cope with such an unknown ailment. They already have enough problems having to deal with tropical diseases like Malaria or Dengue Fever. At least in these cases, we know what to do. Most people in Abidjan live in slums. Their houses are more like shelter, built of concrete walls, with maybe a wood door. This is where they sleep, but it is not where they live. They live between the houses, at the restaurants, at their job, on the streets. They spend their time in the neighborhood, talking amongst each other, doing their jobs. It’s refreshing to see actually. The community of everyone, how everyone knows each other and entertains and takes care of one another. But the flip side is a respiratory disease, that is spread through coughing and touching…. that could be potentially deadly.
Côte D’Ivoire continue to tighten their restriction on things and enforce more confinement like measures. There are 14 official cases now, 5 more since we left. I can only hope that the number doesn’t keep growing. While it wasn’t always easy living in Abidjan, as I adjusted and figured out how navigate places and culture, I grew to really like it. I’ll miss especially the people who were always so open and friendly. I’ll miss the taxi drivers who almost always wanted to engage in conversation, even if my french wasn’t perfect and between us it wasn’t always easy to understand the other. I’ll miss my friend, Catherine, who I met in a market one day and she declared me her “copine” as in her friend. I’ll miss her partner who made me two beautiful dresses from traditional African Wax (pagne) patterns. I’ll miss my friend Virginie, who I often bought delicious local food from. I’ll miss the fruit ladies and the lady at the makeshift bar. There are a lot of people I will miss. I’ll also miss going to the beach, seeing the coconut trees, eating as many mangos as I want until I can no longer stand them. I’ll miss the music everywhere and the reggae bars and the rasta men. At least I won’t miss having to always pay in cash, and never having enough small bills because no one has change. I also won’t miss the pollution coupled with the dusty roads. I also may never know the rainy season in Abidjan, when the monsoon rains arrive. We experienced one terrible rainstorm, which flooded our entire street. We were forced to walk through half a foot of water to get back home from the restaurant we were at.
As I sat in the plane, about to take, I could not stop thinking about how I felt a bit like a refugee. Forced to flee from my own home, to a place I did not want to go. It felt terrible. But I realized that being a true refugee hurts even more. Being taken from your lifelong home, to go to an uncertain and completely unfamiliar place, where you will have to scratch and fight for your life and know that things will never be the same. What I felt could only scratch the surface of what it feels like to be a refugee. I found peace and gratitude in knowing that we had a place to go, with people who care for us, and a government who will fight for and alongside us.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for yourself in times like this. I reminded myself that I am not alone. Most people on this plane are experiencing this terrible reality as well, and many probably have the same sentiments. I am lucky to have a job still. I am lucky to have the people around me still. I am lucky to have the means and ease to just get up and go and not be stuck in some sort of contract to stay.
We hope to return to Côte D’Ivoire soon. There are so many things we regret not to have done or not to have been able to bring back. We will miss the people, miss the ease of life, and miss many aspects of the culture. It’s hard not to write about the pain, but in this time where many our suffering, I believe we can find hope through the pain, but only if we hold each close together (spiritually, not literally!). What I think I loved most about Côte D’Ivoire was that it gave me some much needed space and breathing air. Abidjan is the anti-thesis to Paris. Besides being a big city with similar companies, I’m not sure how the two can align so closely. We loved our home, and we desperately hope to return back shortly. But for now, like the rest of the world, we must wait. #stayathome #restezchezvous