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Riding a Bus Between Two Worlds

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

(Page 2 of 2)

For 40 passengers, 40 numbered seats - including ones with low, uncomfortable backs that fold down over the aisle. Once we are under way, Yoro gives up his seat for one in the aisle, swapping with a breast-feeding mother whose child is soon asleep with his head on Yoro's knees.

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From our final bus stop (an empty lot with a shack), an old taxi plunges us off the main road into the African interior, a world of dirt roads and footpaths, huts of thatch and homes of cement block.

Yoro's village of Zohoa has both. But some cement-block homes - a sign of progress - are only partially completed. Construction stopped when farm incomes fell a few years ago.

Today, many farm families lack even the money for a midwife, so some babies are being born with no skilled help, a father in the village explains. And there are fewer lamps put outside homes as people talk after dark because they can't afford the kerosene fuel.

``Here's the problem,'' says Gnahore Benjamin, a farmer. ``I don't have any money. I planted cocoa, and I haven't five francs.''

Experts blame poor government management and low world prices.

But for the moment, these harsh realities are softened by the joy of homecoming, Yoro's first in more than a year. He greets Casimir Fery, a close childhood friend. They are delighted to see each other.

His mother, one of his father's four wives, is weeding dryland rice using a short-handled hoe. She and Yoro greet each other, holding each other's out-stretched arms. The next morning, Sunday, a day of rest (for the men), she cooks the morning meal over an open fire, then pauses to talk about the unemployment facing most of her children in the city. Only one of her children still lives in this village.

``Many of my children don't have work. And that worries me a lot, for the future - mine and my children's,'' she says.

But Yoro - like most of his relatives and the farmers here - is pinning his hopes for better economic times on new political times. After months of demonstrations this year by university students (including Yoro), professionals, and others, 29-year Ivory Coast President F'elix Houphou"et-Boigny agreed to switch from a single, government-sponsored party to multiparty elections later this year for president and the legislature.

Yoro says multiparty democracy will be ``a very good thing, because it will allow everyone to be able to participate in an effective way in the life of his country.

``I want a change,'' Yoro explains calmly, but with the kind of determination that is forcing a mostly-autocratic Africa to finally listen to its people. ``A radical change. I want new leaders. The old ones have to go - not by force, but by democratic means, elections. That's what I want.''

On his way back from the village, Yoro will spend a day with his wife and child. They live with her parents in yet another city because he can't afford a place of their own in the capital.

And so, Yoro, like many Africans, moves (when he can afford the bus fare) between his urban and village worlds. Life in both worlds is rough.

But there is hope here - and across much of Africa - that a move to democracy will bring fresh leaders with fresh ideas to make life a little better in both those worlds.