Unlike like other trips during this stay in West Africa, we set the bar a good deal lower and made a day trip out of visiting Yamoussoukro, which is technically the capital of Côte d’Ivoire. You wouldn’t really know it given that the “six lane highway” everyone talks about is really a boulevard with two very large lanes given where the divider paint wore off a long time ago. The roads are just as potholed, if not more than other towns, and overall, it’s a pretty dinky little wide spot in the road, which is understandable given that it’s a village that originally had 500 inhabitants and was then dragged in to the “city” of 200,000 or so that it is today.
Former home village being turned in to large city? Check
Presidential Palace? Check
“International” airport that can accommodate the Concorde jet? Check
There are a few differences to take in to account such as the fact that Yamoussoukro sits on the main road to the north of the country, whereas Gbadolite is way, way out of the way in the far north of Congo on the border with CAR. Also, Gbadolite is defunct as far as a town goes, long stripped of anything valuable. Yamoussoukro is not only a functioning city, but is also the capital, although that’s almost a cruel joke given that Abidjan is, for just about any Ivorian you talk to, the actual capital with its 2.5 million+ population and thriving scenes on just about any front. Oh yeah, there are also crocodiles in what is essentially a moat in front of the presidential palace (feeding time with live chickens at 17:00 daily) in Yamoussoukro and there is the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro.
It’s really this last item that most people come to visit in Yamoussoukro because as soon as you’re within 5km of the town, you see the dome looming above anything else in town. That seems pretty impressive at first, but then when you get closer, it just seems freakin’ weird and out of place. As many critics have noted, this massive structure (158m tall) sticks up out of what is essentially the West African bush where the homes that border the basilica are without running water. There is nothing organic about its placement. It looks like a plunked down piece of a movie set that got left behind once the filming was over.
As to the details in the structure, it’s lacking. It tries too hard to copy structures in Europe without really having any kind of a life of its own (windows, marble, and just about all the raw materials are from Europe.) This shouldn’t be too much of a shock given that it was designed by a Lebanese architect named, Pierre Fakhoury and was constructed by a Korean company. And that’s really the thing that’s the most offensive about it in that all of its opulence, it just serves as one of the first signs of what was to come in Africa with Asian companies building everything with no African hands touching the project. From the third bridge being built across the Niger by the Chinese, to the roads being constructed by Chinese and Koreans in Ghana, to just about everything in DR Congo, to the fiber optics for internet being installed by the Chinese in Uganda, and most importantly the Statue to African Renaissance which is sad in its ironic glory of being built by a North Korean firm. The list is endless and I’m curious how many others think this when looking at such salutes to “econolizaton”* like this basilica or it is just a shrug along with TIA/C’est comme ça ici?
* Econolizaton – Colonization solely through economic/debt means. Different from neocolonialism in that it isn’t being carried out by former colonialists and works in a development first/tax later model.