French, politics and chaos in the Ivory Coast

This summer I spent a memorable week in Abidjan in the Ivory Coast participating in the 6th ‘Parlement Francophonie des Jeunes’, a youth parliament for French-speaking countries, with participants from as far afield as Laos, Lebanon and Togo.

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Representing my home island of Jersey alongside another student and a local politician, it was simultaneously a week of chaos, tropical weather, maddening African bureaucracy, life-long friendships and fascinating political discussion.

Our conference kicked off with an opening ceremony at the Assemblée Nationale of the Côte d’Ivoire, presided over by Guillaume Soro, the President of the Assembly.

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Reaching the Assemblée by bus proved an eye-opening experience and revealed a town in the process of post civil-war reconstruction.

The sign ‘chantier’ frequently appeared amidst dilapidated, mucky buildings and there was a chaotic buzz of grimy orange Toyota taxis battling for the road against trucks laden with building materials.

We jumped straight into our committee work after the opening ceremony and I was working in the ‘Commission de la Cooperation et du Développement’, with a specific focus on the role of the youth as a force of development.

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I was nervous at first and found it difficult to keep up with the quick-fire French spoken in a plethora of accents but I soon got the hang of it and was able to make some significant contributions to our work.

Our aim as a committee was to devise a resolution that took a holistic view of what it means to ‘develop’ a country, looking beyond the merely material and including considerations of sustainability and investment in human skills.

The most interesting problem we discussed in light of these considerations was the ‘brain drain’ – where developing countries invest heavily in the education of their youth only to see those students depart for the developed world after their studies in pursuit of greater opportunities.

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At the end of the week we reviewed the resolutions of the other committees, which had considered issues such as the penalisation of the transmission of HIV and the role of parliaments today, and proposed amendments, before voting on their passage. These resolutions were then presented to the senior ‘Assocation Parlementaire de la Francophonie’ (APF) conference.

But whilst the politics of the week was a resounding success, our experiences around the conference were frankly chaotic.

Our troubles began at Abidjan airport when the immigration officials retained our passports without explanation and ushered us through to the baggage area.

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After a couple of hours of remonstrating with a variety of ear-piece wearing, gun-wielding men in numerous different military uniforms, we were informed that our passports were to be held at the police station pending the receipt of our visas.

Eventually we retrieved our passports from this police station later in the week but only after much haggling, stress and a decent quantity of West African francs.

And if getting into Abidjan hadn’t been easy, we were well prepared for the trials of getting out.

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First came the unforgettable journey from the Assemblée Nationale to the airport in a ‘government car’, essentially a flash Mercedes with its hazard lights on, which saw us negotiate the eccentricities of the Abidjan rush hour, including goats, men selling enormous paddling pools and cars mounting the central reservation of the motorway.

Second came the flight cancellation, consigning us to another night in Abidjan and the necessity of boarding one of those ill-fated orange Toyotas as we attempted to catch the next plane to Brussels.

After all this and many hours of travelling I was astounded to be safely reunited with my luggage at Heathrow Airport and never have I been happier to set foot on Jersey soil.

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Overall, including all of the drama, the PFJ was a great life experience where I improved my French, learnt an enormous amount about other cultures and made many friends for the future.

I came to appreciate the importance of the Francophonie and the power of the French language, and it was an honour to represent the youth of Jersey at such a conference.