The Royal Experience in Côte D’Ivoire

My first taste of the royal lifestyle was in Côte d’Ivoire, where we sped through the terrible traffic thanks to a police escort on our way to visit the old capital, Grand Bassam. I can now appreciate that any royal journey is made with the sound of sirens permanently in the background, which isn’t a very tranquil experience.

Côte d’Ivoire is a former French colony, and the old capital was once filled with elegant colonial houses, but they had to abandon the city after a terrible yellow fever epidemic in 1888 which killed 70% of the population. The houses are now just creeper-covered ruins, but we went to Grand Bassam to visit the very interesting National Museum.

The N’Zima Kôtôkô people live in the region of Grand Bassam, and their king is called Nanan Awoula Amon Tanoué. There is a lifesize figure of the king in the museum, along with a very significant white footstool. Our guide explained that the stool is an integral part of the king’s regalia and without it, he can’t rule … one stool to rule them all. I looked for a photo of the king online, just to see how good a likeness the museum model is. Unfortunately my photo has a bit of reflection, so I can’t see the face too well, but I’m not convinced I’d have recognised the king in person after seeing his museum alter ego.

And when we drove past the king’s palace later, I was pleased to see that he has a stool prominently displayed above the gate so that everyone knows exactly who lives there – and with the added bonus that he will never be caught short without a stool if he needs one.

Drums form an important part of the culture in Côte d’Ivoire. The message drum is very long and the sound it makes can travel 8 kilometres. It’s used to send messages to organise things like fishing parties, and the message is sent in code so that other tribes won’t find out where the best fish are and get there first.

There is also a special drum to be used when a woman dies in childbirth. Women must beat the drum and men are not allowed to watch the ritual. Once the ritual has been carried out, it means that other babies will be born healthy. And the forest drum is used to make the forest free from spirits before children enter.

Masks feature prominently in all West African cultures, but I was particularly taken with the mask that is used by the N’Zima Kôtôkô people. Someone is chosen for the special initiation ceremony, and after they’ve completed the ritual, whenever they wear the mask, and its accompanying suit, they acquire certain powers. They can walk on fire; disappear if they’re in danger; kill a lion; they become impervious to bullets; they can’t be bewitched – and if a witch attempts it, she loses her power … very useful skills indeed. They didn’t explain how the lucky candidate for the initiation is chosen, but I imagine there’s a long list of hopefuls.

And then, right at the end of the museum, I came across a photo which is my absolute favourite of all the photos I’ve seen of colonial life in West Africa. Major Noguès is seen here crushing the rebellion of the Abbeys tribe, who rose up against their French colonial masters in 1910 … and very relaxed he looks too. Perhaps he’s hiding the super powers mask under his pith helmet, so he knows he can just disappear if it all gets a bit hairy.

Major Noguès in full suppression mode!