The Facebook status of a community organizer living in post-election Ivory Coast reads: “Bread that used to be 20 cents is now one dollar in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire.”
I spent two months living and working in Cote d’Ivoire this past summer. Thanks to an abundance of cyber cafés in the city of Abidjan, the economic capital and wireless Internet in non-governmental organization offices, I’m Facebook friends with many of the people I met there. Until recently ─ and for the most part, still ─ Cote d’Ivoire wasn’t making headlines, although post-electoral unrest has been simmering and flaring since November. Lately, I’ve been following events in Abidjan through my Facebook news feed.
It is a surreal feeling, reading about the tragic events of the past weeks through the narrow lens of a Facebook status. Some of my friends ask readers to pray for their country. Some make dark-humor references to the “African problem” of rulers who just will not quit power. Some post pictures of bodies in the street and video footage of the aftermath of violence. There are warnings about which neighborhoods to steer clear of and how to avoid becoming a target. There are requests for medical supplies, food for children and a doctor to help a pregnant woman having complications. Others post photo-essays of various types of activity: pro- and anti-Laurent Gbagbo militias working out, women marching for peace and thousands rallying through the streets of Abidjan.
Some statuses catch me by surprise. I met a few rappers and hip hoppers in Abidjan during my last days in the country. One of these artists spoke fluent English with a Jersey accent, and talked earnestly about the future of his country and the role art can play in bringing people together. Most of the time, his statuses are links to recording sessions promoting inter-ethnic, cross-political cohabitation — see the Cote d’Ivoire Hip Hop Initiative online.
Lately, though, his updates decry the Western media’s portrayal of November’s elections and their aftermath. The international community portrayed the elections as free, fair and unambiguous in their result. But here’s the thing: Perception is reality, and the view from the ground is not as clear.
Rightly or wrongly, Gbabgo has supporters on the ground. My news feed lights up with deep distrust of the international presence in Abidjan. This includes accusations that the United Nations is flying armed Alassane Ouattara supporters into Abidjan and video footage claiming to document the after-effect of U.N. bombings.
Although mere Facebook statuses of the people I came to know this summer are by no means indicative of an entire country, they give a window into some of the complexities on the ground. They are reminders that electoral violence is symptomatic of much deeper problems — xenophobia and lingering colonial scars. They encourage me to dig deeper as I try to understand what is happening and the repercussions this will have on the region.
Finally, they force a human face upon all the buzzwords and summaries. This is something I am grateful for when I think of all the people I met who do not have Facebook and are now spoken for by aid workers or “experts” decrying the grave situation facing thousands of displaced people.
This summer, the communities I encountered looked forward toward a peaceful future. If they spoke about the not so distant civil war, it was only to acknowledge how far they had come. It is heartbreaking to think of the fierce pride I encountered this summer only to see how it has all come crashing down.
But the current state of war is not sustainable. When the guns stop firing and the work of rebuilding and moving forward inevitably begins again, it is critical to recognize the range of perspectives and the individuals holding them.
Sarah Gardiner is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.
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