Country Focus: Cote d’Ivoire
By Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie
Translated by Helge Dascher; Preface by Alisia Grace Chase, PhD
Originally published in France as Aya de Yopuogon by Gallimard Jeunesse, 2005.
My edition: Drawn & Quarterly, 2007.
Acclaim: winner of the 2006 award for Best First Album at the Angoulême International Comics Festival
Genre: Fiction/Graphic Novel
Time period: 1978
To make a long story short: Aya plans to be doctor and chooses to study rather than party with her best friends Bintou and Adjoua. Bintou and Adjoua are both attracted to Moussa, the son of Aya’s father’s boss, but there’s an even better looking guy, Mamadou, who keeps coming around. After being caught grinding with Adjoua’s father, Bintou is placed under the (not-so) watchful eye of her distant relative Hervé, who is more interested in staring at Aya. Aya reluctantly goes out on a date with him so that Bintou can sneak away to see Moussa. Meanwhile, Adjoua has been meeting a mystery man late at night at the “Thousand-Star Hotel” and becomes pregnant. Everyone assumes Moussa is the father, but the baby doesn’t look like him…
Back home, we have a saying that goes: “You can always tell a woman by her pagne.”
A pagne (pa-nye) is a piece of brightly colored, wax-printed cloth. Every pattern has a meaning, so you need to watch what you wear. For example, now that I’m a respectable married woman, I would choose “capable husband” or “sorry, taken.”
-Bintou, who is single and looking for love, might choose “free as a bird” or “you don’t know what you’re missing.”
-Aya, who is single and prefers to keep men at a distance, would choose “watch my bite” or “go play somewhere else.”
A jealous or possessive woman would wear a pagne that says, “my enemy is watching” or “your foot, my foot, it you go out, I’ll go out too” – a clear message that she intends to keep a close eye on her husband.
A pagne can be sewn into a skirt, a dress or a pair of pants. You can also take a smaller piece of pagne and wrap it around your head. Very classy!
The armchair travel experience: A preface by Alisia Grace Chase, PhD gives a helpful introduction to Cote d’Ivoire’s political and economic situation in the 1970s. I learned that Félix Houphouët-Boigny was the first president (1960-1993) of Cote d’Ivoire. His development of the country’s cocoa and coffee industries boosted Cote d’Ivoire’s economy to unprecedented levels and was called the “Ivorian miracle.” Aya’s family and friends are reaping the benefits of this newfound prosperity.
The dialog in Aya is peppered with Ivorian slang and expressions for which Abouet includes a handy glossary. In Aya, domestic abuse and casual sex are treated nonchalantly. Men are very persistent.
An “Ivorian Bonus” section in the back of the book contains an interesting description of the pagne (see above) and recipes for Gnaman Koudji (ginger juice) and a peanut sauce known as “back and forth” because once you try it you’ll be back for seconds (and thirds).
The author’s relationship to Cote d’Ivoire: Marguerite Abouet got to experience the country’s glory days, when the capital city of Abijan was nicknamed the “The Paris of the West.” Abouet was born in Abijan in 1971 and lived there until she was twelve. She recalls this exhuberant and promising period of Cote d’Ivorian history in her series of graphic novels: Aya; Aya of Yop City; Aya: The Secrets Come Out; and Aya: Life in Yop City.
My opinion: Oubrerie’s vibrant drawings gave me a feel for the working class neighborhood where Aya lives, the maquis (open air restaurants/dance clubs) where Ivorians go to party, and Moussa’s upscale home.
I think that the most interesting part of Aya is the “Ivorian Bonus” information in the back. I was disappointed by Aya‘s fractured storyline, which flits mainly from Bintou to Adjoua to Moussa. Aya barely makes an appearance. Abouet wanted to present Ivorian teens as flirty and capricious and living lives similar to their French counterparts. In that aim, she succeeds. Would I be at all interested in spending more time with this shallow and promiscuous bunch…no thanks.
In my book (or what Cote d’Ivoire has meant to me and maybe you, too)
Nothing! My Cote d’Ivoire cup was empty until I read Aya.