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Riding a Bus Between Two Worlds

Like many Africans, Yoro Mathias has roots in city and village

By Robert M. PressStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 23, 1990



ABIDJAN, IVORY COAST

LIKE most Africans, Yoro Mathias lives in two worlds: the loud, fast-moving, expensive world of the city, and the quieter, slower, cheaper one of the village. Recently, Yoro invited this writer and his photographer wife to visit both those worlds.

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With good humor, patience, and hospitality, Yoro opened first the door to African urban life - behind which millions across the continent live. They struggle and hope to somehow acquire enough education or money, or both, to chisel a foothold for themselves in the city.

A long city bus ride got us from our downtown hotel to Yoro's neighborhood. I was surprised to see the streets so clean. ``There are daily garbage pickups,'' one of his sisters told us proudly. And many homes are made of cement and sprout a TV antenna, signs of the years when Ivory Coast was more affluent, when the price of its key exports - cocoa and coffee - were higher.

Yoro lives in relative comfort - relative, because he lives in a solidly-built, fourth-floor, TV-equipped walk-up apartment with 11 relatives: sisters, brothers, and cousins, most of them from his village. In this two-bedroom dwelling, sleeping space - even on the floor - is at a premium.

Only one of the 12 residents has a steady job: Remy Kobly, Yoro's brother, is a policeman. This responsibility is one he has in common with many Africans. When someone gets a job, he or she immediately becomes the support, often, for many members of his ``extended family'' who don't have jobs.

The system may help the penniless survive, but it can also put a huge burden on family breadwinners.

``If I was, let's say, with just my wife and my child, there would be no problem with my salary,'' Remy says. ``I could save as I wish, and I could live decently. I would, in a word, be well off. But as you see, we are many, and that causes me many problems.''

A number of his other brothers and sisters have tried to find work. They have tried again for months at a time, then sunk back, waiting for ``someone'' to help them make it onto their feet. It's a difficult and awkward status, this waiting: lots of TV-watching, lots of walking the neighborhood streets, lots of boredom.

Two other family members bring in some income: Honor'e sells yogurt, and Liddie sells wheat cakes on the street for a few pennies each.

``I looked for [better-paying] work for a few months'' last year, Liddie says on the evening of our overnight visit with the family. ``I wanted to go to France, to study French. But I had no sponsor. You need someone. I want ... I want ... I'm so tired,'' she says, unable to complete her thought. It was late, and she still had dough to knead on the back balcony.

The next morning she was out the door by 6 o'clock, starting her sales on the street. She would return at 2 p.m. and do the same thing the next day. Yoro is likely to assume a share of the family support after finishing his university schooling. (He is studying nuclear engineering - not his choice, but the government's.)

Yoro's other world is the village of Zohoa (pronounced ``ZOH-ah''), about a four hours' bus ride northwest of the capital city of Abidjan.