Akwaba! The Akan word for “welcome”, the expression of a principle of hospitality every Ivorian I crossed paths with seems to be living by. As we were about to land, I could no longer sit still, and it had nothing to do with the 8 hours being seated on the flight. A majestic, spectacular city of Abidjan was opening in front of my eyes, with its luxuriant lagoon stretching under soothing yellow sunbeams, at sunset. I was overjoyed. I was in Africa.
Abidjan was colourful and vivid, bustling with life and possibility, yet peaceful and orderly. One of the first Ivorian spiritual mottos I learned were the words “Dieu dirige”, scribbled in white paint on the back of an orange cab. “God steers”, which is far from reassuring in traffic, yet essential when the faith of being directed onto a right path in life is one’s guiding star and source of hope. Which makes one very aware that he must cease every opportunity and make the best of every experience.
Mama Africa, a metaphor often used to describe the abundance and resourcefulness of the cradle of humanity, is the only right way to describe the rich, nurturing energy you are absorbed into, as soon as you set foot on the continent. A soft bosom of maternal love, translating into breathtaking sunrises, enchanting bird songs, tall and proud palm trees, bountiful rain, noble soil, the texture of brick-coloured ash, that fosters the most exquisite fruit one can ever hope tasting and the kindest, most welcoming people one can ever hope meeting.
Like any good mother, Africa encourages people to let go of fears and inhibitions and embrace their full potential. Whether street vendors, wood carvers, jewellers, painters, furniture makers, street chefs, filmmakers, interpreters, journalists, waiters, restaurant managers, receptionists, hairdressers, cab drivers, hostesses, conference organisers, teachers, academics, development workers, entrepreneurs, IT experts, musicians, dancers or fashionistas, Ivorians are extremely resourceful people, who, beyond their numerous talents and qualifications, also master the essential skill of getting ahead, ambitiously and proudly, despite hardships or setbacks.
This trip of course, didn’t come without the much expected life lessons and revelations. The first one was conveyed in the artisanal market, through the symbol of Ivory Coast, carved in ebony and displayed inside a shop whose vendor taught me the art of negotiation. A family of 5 elephants, aligned from big to small, representing the father, mother and their 3 calves, in order of age. I asked for the meaning behind this, and I was told that in a family, the man stands ahead, because he needs to provide for and protect his family, and has the responsibility of keeping everyone safe. “You don’t put your baby in front of you”, concluded the artist.
When your best friend does Family Constellations, you become familiar with the idea that, in a family, energies and resources are passed from parents to children, from ancestors to the newer generations, and not the other way around. In fact, any attempt to defy this natural flow is a transgression that causes much suffering and turmoil within the offender, regardless of his best intentions. Yet seeing that principle carved in wood resonated so effectively that I finally understood that each family member must take his rightful place, for that is the natural course of life.
Which leads us to lesson number two. Since the male has the natural, biological duty of providing for his family, the mating process of nearly every species consists of the male courting the female, through impressive displays of his might, whether that refers to his genetic inheritance or his capacity of building a nest or defending her, and their offspring, from intruders. Therefore, what I realised is that, in my attempt to be a strong, independent woman, I have constantly undermined most acts of service and displays of power from the men in my life, leading them to believe there was no want nor need of a man in my life.
Finally, since all good things come in threes, my understanding of my femininity required a shift of perspective. I never allowed or appreciated any flattering remarks about my physical appearance. I refused to accept that men found me beautiful or that they were aroused by my curves, because those were the things I failed to appreciate about myself. Instead, I chose to believe that they were attracted by my intelligence, my explosive positivity or my sassiness, which, in fact, have proven to scare quite a few of them off.
Nevertheless, Mama Africa was determined to put an end to that. For a long time, I was intimidated by African women, for they exude an immense confidence and a force not to be reckoned with. They don’t accept to be fooled around and disrespected, and they are not shying away from defending themselves, loud and clear. Being in Ivory Coast offered me the opportunity and the privilege of embracing my female energy. Several compliments, lunch invitations, admiring glances and marriage proposals later, I have come to accept that I can be, at once, strong and beautiful, sexy and sassy.
The greatest gift that Mama Africa showered upon me was an amazing bunch of remarkable people, whom I can now call friends, who have been nothing but loving and kind. After only a couple of days spent together, they showered me with the warmest, tightest, most comforting hugs I had the joy of experiencing, shared a homemade lunch with me, handfed me from their own food, offered me most unexpected and wonderful gifts and souvenirs that I cherish deeply, and honoured me with a local Ivorian name, Aya. All of this humbling display of care, just to show me that, wherever in the world we may be, once we open our hearts to the unexpected and embrace our true selves, we are safe and surrounded by unconditional love.