I arrived this morning in Dubai after three weeks of holiday in Cote d’Ivoire. The trip was a reminder of the dream narrative of returning – and why this blog is about tracking my life since leaving as I plot my next move. It’s hard to describe what I enjoy about the country – the lagoon and the greenery are beautiful, but the urban landscape outside the Plateau and old Cocody area is hardly pleasing to the eye. The humidity is regularly excessive, getting anything done can be a long process, and the place is full of people putting sticks in the spokes of apparently noble initiatives.
Nevertheless, I find it incredibly fun. Safe and fun. Safe yes – as someone who’s been travelling around the Middle East in the past year and a half, it’s nice to be in a place where the very worst that can happen on the potential risk radar is getting robbed.
And, as many a foreigner has found before on the continent, there’s the potential of what could be. I think that’s at the core of things – the feeling that this is a place where I can make the biggest contribution I can.
(Having made that last remark, I’m reminded by Paul Theroux in Dark Star Safari (a book I finished last night) that Africa is full of outsider good-will projects that last very little longer than the departure/death of their initiator.)
Returning immediately would probably be a mistake. Instead, I feel the next few years are about being somewhere else in preparation for a return. Concretely I need to come back stronger in a number of ways I’ve tried to outline below (not in order of priority). These are useful points to bear in mind because in the coming year, I need to leave Dubai, and so it’s good to have some guidelines to help me make my next move.
1. For one, my French needs to get better. I hear and read French very comfortably and usually have no problem communicating. But my communication is far from perfect. I need to be able to better distinguish correct French from Ivorian French, in order to be able to play a greater role in more intellectual circles. It’s one of those frustrating things that when you’re outside your mother tongue, your educational and intellectual capacities seem much diminished. I’d like to be able to give a decent speech, teach and write articles in French in a way that intellectuals wouldn’t find off-putting.
2. I’d like to earn enough money in the coming few years to be able to invest in things like property to give me both a place to stay in Abidjan and some level of guaranteed income. When I move back, it’s unlikely the post will be well paid, and most-probably it will be a mix of voluntary and low-paid positions. Included in this point is having prepared some sort of pension for retirement. I have two step-daughters in the final years of education, and I’d like to see them educated and established in life, while future children may need substantial funds for a lifetime of paid-education.
3. I need to develop some extra skills. I am lucky to count some amazing friends among my community in Abidjan, from published writers, artists and directors to business people and innovators. A small number have been helped in some way by my journalism, but for most, they are simply good-hearted folk who are friendly. Sometimes I even wonder what they see in me. When I return though, I think I need more skills to bring – international journalism is useful for opening internal doors in the country, but the impact is outside the country not within it. English skills are often similarly externally focused. Multimedia work will hopefully be part of the future, but I think I need more – whether that’s a particular business skill, greater excellence in multimedia, something IT related, or agricultural, I’m not sure.
4. Writing in a non-journalistic way needs to be a part of my Ivorian future. There’s the opportunity that the lack of English-language books on Cote d’Ivoire provides for someone who wants to write about the country. But also there’s simply the 10,000-hour logic, that writing is the professional activity I’ve done most in my life, and so it should be built upon. For this, I need to practice and study creative writing. Being a ‘writer’ would open up space internally and give me something so say about myself.
5. Perhaps related, I’d like to continue carving out this small niche called ‘English language expertise on Cote d’Ivoire’. That means maintaining and improving social media networks so that in the future when I want to do something (like return or publish a book), I have something established.
6. Perhaps most importantly, I need to get back to an environment where Africa (ideally West Africa) is a prominent part of the context. Ideally this would be working and living on the continent. Whatever job I do next, the place where you live provides the environment for your continual education. I feel that I am still very ignorant about much in West Africa, and I need to be close to elites and conversations about development and politics, in a way that I’m not here. While there are certain touching points (youth unemployment, over-large public sectors, and sometimes, rising radical Islam), in general the Middle East region has its own very separate set of issues.