The Human Face of Anti-Immigrant Prejudice

Today’s slide show: Za

Amadou Ouedraogo
Amadou Ouedraogo

ZA, IVORY COAST—The old man no longer sleeps at night. He hasn’t since the war began. He’s too afraid that they will come for his farm in the darkness. He has been on this land for 50 years, since before independence. It’s a sizable spread, 75 acres planted with cocoa and coffee, but now he’s scared it will all be taken from him. So, he has sent his family to live in town, where he thinks they’ll be safer. And he stays alone here on the plantation, trying to bring in the harvest and praying that sleep comes again.

This is how Amadou Ouedraogo lives now. His story is typical of many of the Burkinabe (as people from Burkina Faso are known) planters in Ivory Coast. There were once millions of immigrants from Burkina Faso here. For decades, they were welcomed by the Ivory Coast’s long-serving president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, because they provided cheap labor for the country’s numerous coffee, cocoa, and rubber plantations. Over the years, many earned enough money to buy their own farms, which in turn employed thousands more immigrants as well as many Ivorians. But as Ivorian economic growth faltered, anti-immigrant sentiment grew. In the mid-1990s, Houphouet-Boigny’s successor, Henri Konan Bedié, instituted laws barring second-generation Burkinabe from inheriting land from their parents. And the recent civil war has unleashed a frenzy of hostility against the Burkinabe, because government loyalists believe that Burkina Faso provided support for the rebellion. Burkinabe immigrants were singled out for attack by Ivorian militias and many were driven from their land.

Ouedraogo is among the lucky ones. He hasn’t been forced off his farm, at least not yet. But his neighbors in the tiny village of Za have twice asked him to come to a special meeting to discuss his tax payments. Ouedraogo suspects they are trying to impose a financial burden so heavy that he will be forced to abandon his land, so he’s simply refused to show up for the meetings. Now he is afraid they will respond violently.

Za is located about nine miles south of Daloa, a major transshipment point for cocoa and coffee in west central Cote d’Ivoire. Daloa was briefly captured by the rebels during the war. After government forces retook the town, hundreds of Burkinabe and Malian immigrants were allegedly massacred. One of Ouedraogo children was shot while in his store in Daloa. And yet Ouedraogo feels his children are safer spending the nights there than here in Za. The war has split Za, which has only a few hundred inhabitants, right down the middle. Half of the population voted to kick their Burkinabe neighbors out and burned their houses down, while the other half of the town refused to go along with the plan and gave the Burkinabe shelter. The two sides no longer speak to one another.

In order to interview Ouedraogo, I pose a question to my translator in English. He translates it into French, and tells our driver, who in turn translates the French into a Burkinabe language and asks Ouedraogo. When he answers, the process reverses itself. It’s all a bit like a game of telephone, and I wonder how much linguistic entropy is taking place—how much meaning is being lost in each subsequent translation.

Even with the multiple translation filters, it is clear that Ouedraogo is angry. He says he never had a problem with his neighbors until Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo came to power in 2000. Now, he says, everything is different. His Ivorian neighbors tell him that they own his estate. He says he is sometimes so despondent that he thinks he should burn his own farm—just to deny them. He also says that the government collects taxes when he sells his harvest, taxes that they use to buy weapons that are then turned against the Burkinabe. Maybe if all the Burkinabe burned their farms, Ouedraogo says, the government would realize how much it needed them. Ouedraogo is not optimistic about the future. “This problem isn’t finished yet,” he says.

Before we leave, Ouedraogo presents us with a gift of three cocoa pods. My driver pounds one of them on the ground to break it open. Though I am a fan of chocolate, I have never seen cocoa before. The pods are oblong and yellow. Inside its thick rind there is a fleshy stem to which the cocoa beans (the part that is ground into powder for chocolate) cling. The beans are covered in a thick, gooey white substance. Following my driver’s lead, I take one of the seeds and put it in my mouth. The white goop covering the bean is sugary and sweet. It tastes like candy, but not like chocolate. I crunch into the bean itself. It is also doesn’t taste anything like chocolate—more like tree bark. (I later find out you aren’t supposed to eat the beans unless they’ve been dried.) I spit it out.

On the way out of Za, my translator points out a small cluster of ruined buildings in one corner of the village. They are just concrete walls. Their roofs are gone. These were the Burkinabe houses that the villagers burned. It is a sad image, these deserted gray homes disappearing into the indigo embrace of the night.