If you could build your own city, what would you build? How about a peace foundation, a five star hotel and the biggest church in the world...
15.12.2016 - 18.12.2016 32 °C
If you could build your own city, what would you build? How about a peace foundation, a five-star hotel and the biggest church in the world...
What would you do if you could build your own city? Not too many of us get a chance to act on such a question. This being Africa, however, a few authoritarian presidents have had enough control over their state’s coffins to give this a go. (To be fair, this happens outside Africa too, Astana in Kazakhstan being a case in point.) Côte d’Ivoire’s first president, Felix Houphouët-Boigny, followed up his engineering dreams with a serious effort when building the country’s new capital. Before this, Yamoussoukro was just in a small village in the central region of the country. Houphouët-Boigny just happened to grow up there. The construction began back in the 1960’s, shortly after independence, and didn’t finish until the big man’s death in 1993. To cut him some slag, did he name it in honour of his aunt, Yamoussou, and not himself.
Yamoussoukro is a city build for the future. With broad boulevards to accommodate Africa's growing traffic, light poles line these streets, ready for a bright future. Instead, Houphouët-Boigny ended up building a city too expensive for contemporary Côte d’Ivoire to run. The boulevards lie empty, with grass growing through the concrete, while the light poles stand abandoned, unlit and left behind. The president’s legacy has somewhat died with him. Then again, here are some distinct touches, prestige projects if you will, found nowhere else in the world – let alone elsewhere in West Africa.
First stop on this tour of legacy is the Foundation Houphouët-Boigny de la Paix (Houphouët-Boigny Peace Foundation. Because what’s more natural than naming a foundation of peace after yourself when your authoritarian rule lasts for 33 years and “your” country decent into more than a decade of civil wars less than five years after your death. Build primarily in Italian marble this monster of a building was completed in 1987. More conference centre than foundation, it has hosted an impressive array of peace talks, peace conferences and the like during Houphouët-Boigny’s lifetime. Since then it’s mostly been used to host performance art, classical concerts and exhibitions. And it does, of course, include a small museum of Houphouët-Boigny’s political achievements – which mostly seems to have been photo opportunities with people like JFK and Nelson Mandela.
Next up is the five-star Hôtel Président (note how Houphouët-Boigny was humble enough to only used his title for this one). This tower should be pure extravaganza. It even has what I suspect to be West Africa's only handball court, as well as a panorama restaurant where I chose not to spent half of my daily budget on a brunch. The hotel is such an attraction that it’s possible to book tours of the place. Though, I decided that getting a tour of a hotel was a bit weird and simply chose to stroll past it.
Last, but certainly not least, Houphouët-Boigny decided to build the World’s largest church (according to the Guinness World of Records) here in the middle of nowhere. The Basilique de Notre-Dame de la Paix (Basilica of our Lady of Peace). At 158 m it’s 22 metres higher than the Pope’s favourite church, that of Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. This monster of a monument was completed just a few years before Houphouët-Boigny’s death, but he did manage to greet celebrates like the Pope, Nelson Mandel (again) and Michael Jackson here. The basilica was built during an economic crisis in Côte d’Ivoire in the late 1980’s, and that might explain why the final cost was never revealed. Guesses range from US$200 mil to US$600 mil with most suggestions being around US$300 mil. One thing is sure, though: The construction doubled the country’s foreign debt.
Eventually, Houphouët-Boigny gave the church to the Vatican as a gift. Reasons differ. Some say it was to apologise for out-doing the Basilica of Saint Peter, other because the annual upkeep of 1,500,000 US$ was too much for the government to fund. But no matter, today it’s the Vatican’s flag, not Côte d’Ivoire’s, that is blowing in the wind in front of the church. And the costs? Those millions of dollars are being paid by a kind Portuguese “charity”.
Despite the fact that people are living in poverty right next to this colossal waste of money, it is, hand’s down, both the most impressive and exciting sight in all of West Africa! Also, note how the first letters of the Foundation, the Hotel and the Basilica nice line up with FHB. Felix Houphouët-Boigny's own initials. Coincidence? I think not!
As if all this wasn’t enough, Houphouët-Boigny also hand-picked a dozen crocodile based on their vicious temper and aggressiveness, for the lake in front of the Presidential Palace. To take photos, I had to buy a chicken, which the guards would then feed to a lucky crocodile (or rather, the most vicious on the day). These beasts have coursed at least three human deaths since they were introduced to the lake. First, a successful suicide attempt by a dedicated follower of the president upon his death in 1993. Secondly, a veteran-feeder was eaten during a photo-op for UN troops. And lastly, a tourist who climbed the fence to take a selfie got what his intellect demanded. No deaths (but the chicken’s) occurred during my visit.
Yamoussoukro is a weird and fascinating place. Probably unique. Though I do prefer strange places that have come at a lesser cost (as you might have been able to figure out by my rather sarcastic tone in this blog post…).
PS. Happy holidays – it not really something celebrated down here.
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