Women Singing Not to Forget in Post-war Ivory Coast

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KorhogoWomenSingersDefeated at the polls in November 2010, former president of Ivory Coast Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down and held onto power by force for over four months. About three thousand people died in the post-electoral violence. Gbagbo was arrested in April 2011. From April to the end of  November 2011 he was under house arrest in northern Côte d’Ivoire, in the town of Korhogo. Gbagbo is now in detention at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, charged with crimes against humanity. The ICC is supposed to announce its verdict by the end of April 2013. In his statement to the court on February 28, 2013, Gbagbo still insisted that he had won the election.  A group of Korhogo women, urban gardeners who grow vegetables to sell in Korhogo’s markets, commemorated Gbagbo’s capture and his detention in their town in a complex and beautiful song.

The market town of Korhogo in the center north of Côte d’Ivoire is surrounded by the wide skies of the savanna, and by fields of cotton, rice, and corn, and orchards of cashews and mangoes. The Senufo people, the largest ethnic group in northern Côte d’Ivoire, are proud of their identity as successful farmers and as Korhogo’s founders. They are also proud of their reputation for hospitality. When an outsider arrives, he is taken in by a local host. This relationship transforms the visitor from a stranger, an outsider, into an authorized guest.

From April until the end of November 2011, the stranger in their midst, who was both sheltered and imprisoned in Korhogo, was Laurent Gbagbo, the country’s former president. He was being held in preventive detention by the government he used to head for economic crimes, including aggravated robbery and embezzlement.

When they walked past the high walls of the presidential compound in Korhogo, passersby knew that Gbagbo was trapped inside, stripped of his power, while the candidate they supported, Alassane Ouattara, was in the presidential palace in Abidjan. They didn’t gloat. That would have been unseemly, for Gbagbo was a stranger under their protection, a guest in their territory.

But they couldn’t forget that Gbagbo’s appointees on the high court threw out their votes, nor that during the post-electoral violence, Gbagbo’s militias targeted their relatives, northerners living in Abidjan. Nor have they forgotten the fighter jets Gbagbo sent to bomb Korhogo when he tried to retake the north in November 2004.

At the time, Gbagbo boasted that he would destroy Korhogo and plant coffee and cocoa where the town had stood. Did Gbagbo actually say this? Probably not, but it is widely accepted in Korhogo that he did and, apocryphal or not, his threat has entered the oral history of the war. Once he was their guest and powerless, the women of Korhogo had a pointed question for the former president. Had he come to harvest that cocoa he wanted to plant? They posed the question in a song they sang among themselves.

Ask Gbagbo…

Is the cocoa ready to harvest?

Ask Gbagbo…

The day the warplane came, what did Gbagbo say?

He said he would kill us all, even the children

And plant coffee and cocoa.

Ask Gbagbo…

Is the cocoa ready to harvest?

Is the cocoa ready to harvest?

The words to this song were written by Mariam Silué and Téné Coulibaly. They sing it, with their friends, in call and response form, when they gather for weddings and other social events. Although the words are simple, the meaning is complex. Cocoa, as the women know, is at the bitter heart of the conflict. Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s largest producer and grows forty percent of the world’s supply of cocoa beans. It would be impossible to grow cocoa in the northern savanna where Korhogo is located, and both Gbagbo and the women know that. It can only be grown in the humid forest in the south and west. The question of who has the land rights to farm the lucrative cocoa-producing land is one of the fundamental issues dividing Ivorians. The women also know that it was the cocoa money that bought the fighter jets that bombed their town and the cocoa money that paid for the arms and the mercenaries that Gbagbo used to wage war on his compatriots, especially northerners living in Abidjan, during the post-electoral crisis.

Nawa, Nafini, TenebaThe women told me they are ready to forgive so their country can reconcile and move on, but not to forget. Their “guest” has been taken away to face trial, but they intend to keep on singing their side of the story.

To hear the women sing their song and to see their photo, go to the Afropop Worldwide Blog where this piece was originally published: http://blog.afropop.org/2012/01/womens-songs-in-post-crisis-cote.html or type Afropop Spindel into a search engine. This piece was re-published in Cultural Anthropology’s “Hot Spot: Côte d’Ivoire IS Cooling Down? Reflections One Year After the Battle for Abidjan.”


 carol portrait villageWriter Carol Spindel teaches nonfiction writing at the University of Illinois and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. See more about her work at carolspindel.com.




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