Some years ago:
“On the northwest edge of town near the beginning of the road to Dabou is the Parc du Banco. Several hundred meters beyond the dirt road entrance to the park you’ll see … Africa’s largest outdoor laundrette – some 750 fanicos (washermen), mostly Burkinabé and none Ivorian, jammed together … in the middle of a small stream frantically rubbing clothes on huge stones held in place by old car tyres.”
Some days are more freighted than others, and today ranks low on the portent scale, for today our only mission is to photograph a laundrette.
Abidjan lies steaming at dawn. The business district they call Plateau is not a geographic plateau like Harare, not an elevated place of extended sight lines and bracing air. Abidjan squats at sea level, sticky and claustral, flat and dense with eyes on the Atlantic Ocean along the west African Cote d’Ivoire.
A lead-footed swelter grinds down; the scent of ill will drifts close. When the sun takes hold and the work day begins, languor and sloth set the pace: commerce with little vigor, exertion with reluctance, the humdrum jostle of a poor city.
Yet long before the sun, before the city stirred, a stealth army of rail-thin, ragged-dressed foreign boys fanned out across Abidjan. Their mission: to collect dirty laundry. They brought ten thousand sweaty shirts and dirty socks to the River Banco and set about sudsing, well before the sun would crest the hill.
Unlikely as it seems, determined young foreigners yearn and scramble for this work, here, where the future shines down bright as the equatorial sun. Here, take-home pay is more than double back up the road in Burkina Faso. In the Ivorian laundry trade there is a trade union and there are union dues. You can be fired.
If young Burkinabé are determined to work, if they come and collect the sweat-caked shirts and socks, suds and pound them all on rocks, deliver them back and do it right, they’ll pocket a hundred bucks a week.
You can’t take pictures if you don’t go early. Too late and all you’ll see is clothes drying in the grass. This haste forces a rookie mistake.
New in town, brash, we bound straight out of bed traipsing, with not even a look in the mirror. Brush our teeth, put back on yesterday’s clothes, get a cab, no questions asked or answered, out and gone. With no counsel or good sense.
Cabs all fiery orange here, might be any kind of car. Open up and climb in. This one even has a meter. Just kind of sitting out there idling on the curb. He’s not exactly fired with passion for the new day, is he? Could we be his last fare of last night?
First, to find a common language: Shona speakers in Zimbabwe, Setswana speakers in Botswana, the Swahili-speaking Maasai, pretty much everybody will try – except French colonial officialdom, we noted at immigration, and, as we find out now, Ivorian cabbies. This will be done in either French, or French.
So we’ve got this guy right off the jump, off and rolling between buildings the sun hasn’t yet cleared. Angling to hustle out to Banco Park before shirt hits stone we explain, “Parc du Banco sur l’autoroute à Dabou.” The Banco Park out on the Dabou Road. We point at a map but he’s already driving. He nods and says he’ll need trente mille Francs (30,000 CFA).
It takes important minutes to find out, but as it happens, this most uncheerful gentleman seized on the word Dabou, which is a town 37 kilometers west of Abidjan along the coast. Heard nothing before or after, and he is heading out of town fast as if he were leaving work for the day and Dabou was his home.
We work this out at the point when we can look forward and back and see nothing resembling a park to either cooking smoke-filled horizon, and hardly another car, besides.
We shake our heads, pose as forceful. He poses back wounded, as if he’s never heard of any Parc du Banco and relents to something we’re not asking, okay okay then, only 20,000, then, as we hurtle along the coast.
Non non non, NON Dabou-ville!
This pains him in a theatrical way, but we match his drama with scowls and when we get back to Abidjan, to the hotel where we started, we pay him for his trouble.
And so we do what we should have done in the first place – inquire at the man-cave of a front desk. There we find one gentleman getting a jump on his daily torpor in the dark toward the back. Pinched and full of regret, he will have to speak some English now, because it’s his job.
He sets us up with a guy named Simeon, a graying older chap, who drives for the hotel. He knows all about Parc du Banco, of course. It will take about an hour and he quotes 3500. Progress.
Simeon heads back north out of town. At the junction where we went wrong the first time, there’s a big sign off to the right, “Tampon Express.” Maybe that means something else here?
Serried ranks of sellers are forming along the verge, rattling around staking out patches of gravel, setting up shop for another day of peddling folding fans and drinks and vegetables coated brown by traffic dust. We didn’t have much to do today, yet we fear we have already failed before 8:00 a.m., but Simeon makes a turn onto at a dirt track, motors over a hill and here we are.
The laundry has come back to life. Color returns with the sun. The birds have been here all along. A pretty wildflower. Butterflies. Gnats en pirouette in a random shaft of sunbeam. Close to the water like this, it’s an agreeable time of the morning, heat not stifling, sweat yet to incite insects.
You can smell the mud from heavily trod paths along the riverbank. At this remove, the rush of current makes a jumble of the many dozen voices.
The river brims with industry and purpose, spread out ahead and below. The frenetic, clothes-beating fanicos, the laundrymen, have spawned subordinate industries of sorters and pickers and haulers and folders and food suppliers and cooks, and the odd lone fellow out in midstream lathering up for a bath because there’s no need to waste a perfectly good bar of soap.
Shirtless men hoist bundled clothing onto their heads, bundles that reach higher than they can stretch their arms. Women scrub shirts just beyond the shore, careful to move just far enough out so there is no silt. Boom boxes blast soukous pop. Freshly washed garments hang across half submerged truck tires. Other tires, anchored to boulders farther into the current, hold laundry to be washed, and blocks of soap to wash them.
I cannot see around a crook in the river but I wonder if there is a sort of goalie down there, on duty to stop the runaway pair of socks or bar of soap.
Every last soul is soaking wet, splashing and singing, and two more boys take the opportunity to lather themselves up. An impromptu market has spontaneously lit up alongside. Baguettes and nuts are on offer for now, and more women approach crowned with fruit.
A blond girl and a white guy, the only non-Africans in the park. About as likely as a knife fight at the poetry fair. We draw a crowd fast as Mother Teresa became a saint.
(Back then, which was in the days of guidebooks, they wrote things like “anybody who looks wealthy is at greatest risk,” meaning if you are not African and you are carrying something, you probably won’t have it by the end of the day.)
We climb out and walk to the crest of the hill. Simeon, God bless him, puts on a hangdog look and trails us. The first wave of challengers is just curious kids. The second we stymie by saying in English, really fast, things like, “We don’t speak French and if we did we wouldn’t speak to you and Ouagadougou, Rangoon and Vietnam.”
They are bewildered but they won’t be put off for long. We understand Simeon explaining in French that we don’t know any. They counter with a menacing Anglophone, brawny and imposing.
He proposes that we have no right to take pictures without paying him money. I explain that when he shows me his badge that says tourist police we can talk, while I snap more photos.
For a moment he is befuddled and scowls, “You want to see my badge?”
Simeon comes up close to stand with us, his expression like he has just found a sore inside his mouth. We hold the high ground there on the hill for a few more minutes, under siege, then retreat before pushing too hard on our luck. And all these years later we’ve lost all the photos except this one.
Got time to buy me a cup of coffee?
Here's a ruse we hadn't seen: The local boys use signs with people's names to get access inside the pass control gates, then they make like officials who are going to open up another pass control lane for you, grab your passports and expedite you through the lines, with the acquiescence of the real pass control clerks, for tips.
They're on you like a glove until you tip them, at which point they're joined by the baggage cart cadres just outside the pass control desk. These guys artfully monopolize all the available baggage carts and attach themselves to each arrival.
The pass control expediter got a dollar though he demanded ten. At least his scam was novel. Plus, we kind of needed our passports.
But we'd been through the baggage cart game quite enough on this trip to Africa, thank you, and we simply told the little round fellow who appointed us his (thank goodness we knew enough French), "We don't want your help, we will not pay you, go away," and he smiled and laughed and thought it was all a big joke and didn't begin to move until I rested my hand on his shoulder and repeated the same words slowly and more gravely. Finally he shook his head at the terrible wrong to which he'd fallen miserable victim and slowly walked away, but he was back at the curb for one last try.
Welcome to Abidjan.
– Tuesday, 21 March, 1995, from the collected dairies.
Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire