Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire: My First Job

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Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire: My First Job

Getting your first full-time job is one thing – starting your career in war-torn Abidjan is quite another!

Singapore: May 22, 2006, 6.00 AM. A shade under 24, I arrived in the great city-state on my first overseas flight. It was the official start of my big adventure into the world of work. I had come dreamy-eyed as a management trainee with Olam International – an upcoming giant in agribusiness and a company that was to take me to some distant corners of the globe to work with farmers. Thus began a series of several ‘firsts’ in my life.

Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire: May 26, 2006, 2.00 PM. I arrived here with one large suitcase and a carry-on bag, along with four of my colleagues, and soon-to-be friends with whom I would share that ‘special connection’ – Africa! We had landed in the bustling French-speaking heartland of the continent holding hands, with butterflies in our bellies. Whatever notions I had of Cote d’Ivoire stemmed from a childhood interest in maps and some current affairs Googling. But the surreal realisation soon hit that this was no fantasy, and I had physically set foot on the African continent!

First Impressions

After passing through an admin-assisted immigration, we found ourselves whisked away in a white SUV to the company guest house. The ride was smooth thanks to good roads, and the look and feel of a breezy seaside port city put us in high spirits.

In true military style, we commenced with a briefing about the country – almost straight from the CIA World Factbook. We soon learnt that our native English language was next to irrelevant in these parts and were advised to touch base with the in-house French tutor, and to start talking as much as possible in Francaise. Also, we were updated on the political division of the country between a government-controlled South (where Abidjan was) and a rebel-held North (where a lot of the company operations were located).

A rather unsettling reality dawned on us that any one of us could find ourselves navigating the environs of a war-affected area, for work. My anxieties would soon be confirmed – leading to further adventures around the country! More of my exploits au Nord are penned in a second piece.

Living and Working in Abidjan

Work in Abidjan would begin at 8 AM. The daily office commute was relatively easy. Freeways (Autoroutes) with underpasses and overpasses were convenient for exiting and entering the city during my travel ‘upcountry’ for work. The red taxi was ubiquitous for my daily commute, interspersed with some green and yellow ones. Learning the EU system of driving (right-side driving with left-side steering) came easy.

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The Guesthouse – My first home in Africa. PIC: AS

The currency (CFA) remains stable even today, being pegged to the Euro. The cost of course is the loss of financial independence with the reserves of the country being guaranteed by France. I spent my work-life here working in the country’s famed cocoa sector – the mainstay and veritable oil of Cote d’Ivoire. As a rule of thumb, 40% of the cocoa in your chocolate bar originates here 🙂

We had landed in the bustling French-speaking heartland of the continent holding hands, with butterflies in our bellies. Whatever notions I had of Cote d'Ivoire stemmed from a childhood interest in maps and some current affairs Googling. But the surreal realisation soon hit that this was no fantasy, and I had physically set foot on the African continent!

AS

Abidjan would remain my home for intermittent periods over the next 3 years as I was shuffled among different parts of the company as part of a rite of passage. Remnants of a concluded civil war (in 2002) that split the country in two were visible on the streets throughout – Gendarmerie manned the key bridges that connected the port and trading hub of Abidjan to the mainland. I had to keep my ID, work permit and embassy papers with me at all times and respect late night travel advisories, restrictions that fell by the wayside with an increasing command over French.

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The daily office commute, to reach your desk by 8AM! PIC: AS

Petit Paris had become a misnomer for the city, as the people and place appeared as if halted while on their way to prosperity. Hotels, bars and restaurants dotted the cityscape, but received inadequate patronage. The liveliest parts of town were found in the maquis –  cheap nightclubs and food joints that played catchy Ivorienne music hugely popular amongst locals.

Weekend Getaways to Recharge the Soul

No mention of the joys of living in West Africa is complete without a mention of beach drives from the main port city. Around Abidjan, Grand Bassam and Assinie were the two main getaways I frequented with my friends, colleagues and overseas visitors. These expat havens were lined with upscale resorts where we would wine and dine in style and partake in both business and pleasure!

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The beach at Assinie, Cote d’Ivoire. PIC: AS

Stemming from their colonial history, important and sizeable assets of the country are French controlled. However, it is the Lebanese expat community that is pervasive in civic life. They dominate the wholesale distribution/retail of consumer goods and commodities. As the mainstay of Abidjanaise nightlife back then, I often found myself, at both official and private gatherings, in Lebanese hangouts like Le Privee, Chez Café, Le Mechoui, La Terrasse and developed a taste for Mediterranean food.

Living in Abidjan Today

I bid adieu to Abidjan in January 2009 to embark on further adventures in other parts of Africa. I briefly visited it again in 2011 after the country suffered through a round of political turmoil instigated by the nullification of the election results by the incumbent President. The French had intervened militarily to oust the guy and install the victorious candidate, Alassane Ouattara. The country has since been politically stable and its economy and civic life has turned optimistic. This is especially visible in the new infrastructure, hotels and business activity of Abidjan, which had, during its glorious past, earned itself the moniker – Paris of West Africa. Lets hope it stays that way.

Also check out, Working In Lagos.

Arpan Singhal

Arpan Singhal

I am a business consultant part-time and a health consultant full-time. Having lived in all corners of India and a few in Africa, I have some stories to tell about the nomadic life. A passionate traveler, I am currently based in my parental hometown of New Delhi, preparing for my next adventure.

2 Comments

  • Erika
    Erika

    You had a very unique start to your career. Thank you for sharing!

    May 31, 2017 at 10:44 pm
    • Arpan Singhal
      Arpan Singhal

      Thanks Erika! This is a wonderful blog. Some amazing stories of peeps from all over the world. Thanks for the opportunity to share my own personal journey, have many more to tell!

      June 2, 2017 at 2:25 am
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