Riding a Bus Between Two Worlds

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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