If These Walls Could Talk: A Story of Abidjan’s Allergy to Paint

Paint is a change agent. It can delineate space, evoke emotion or bring peaceful blankness. Interior designers study color theory so intently they can write full blown dissertations on the differences between colors aubergine and plum.

For a society that prides itself on its vibrant fashion sense, Ivorian residents do not widely consider non-white paint as an option in residential interior spaces. Paint is almost exclusively exercised on exterior walls, exposing drivers to a blur of rusty reds, vibrant blues and saturated yellows as they navigate through Abidjan’s residential streets. However, the relative absence of paint from various high-rise residences in Abidjan presents an ongoing challenge. And a personal pain point for me.

Once, after a night out, a friend offered me a ride home. The friend of my friend (whom I had met for the first time that night) uttered abruptly as we slid narrowly through the open gate of my complex: “Ugh, I hate this cite, why won’t they just paint!!” she exclaimed. I slowly lowered my head in shame fully agreeing with her point of view.

A cité in Abidjan refers to the housing complexes built by institutional investors like Société Ivoirienne de Construction et de Gestion Immobilère (SICOGI). They were originally built under President Houphouet Boigny’s regime across town to give basic amenities to civil servants. These condos were the entry point for home ownership for young Ivorian families from the 1980-1990s and the goal post of middle class families like mine at the time. Fast forward a decade or two later and these pillars of the Ivorian skyline are in shambles reflecting the general poor maintenance culture of infrastructure on this continent.

When I moved to Abidjan in April 2016, my parents agreed I could usurp the current tenant of our condo and occupy the apartment in exchange for renovating it. While I will write about the renovation process itself in future posts (*still picking at the resultant scar tissue*), today I want to highlight the challenges in painting Abidjan’s cités.

My housing community is arguably one of the best in Cocody, the municipality that governs where I live. It is quiet, despite comprising seven 3-story buildings on the grounds.  It is at the crossroads of two of the most prominent streets in Deux Plateau and is close to nearly everything that is of importance: banks, supermarkets, movie theatres, shops.

The façade of the building which was once iconic for its beautiful two-toned peach and beige colors, now just mirrors the greying complexion of other Ivorian real estate. The several dozen cités across the city are dressed in layers of pollution and dirt. A brief glimmer of hope came two months into the commencement of my renovations. Two meetings were organized by the otherwise defunct owner’s association during the summer of 2016. Apparently the municipality had threatened to paint our entire cité by force and deduct the cost from our electrical and water bills over the course of the year. The painting estimate they provided was CFA 35 million (the equivalent of USD 57,000 or about USD 700 per condo).

I thought this was an ingenious idea but the community residents was terrified and immediately up in arms, clamouring that the estimate was too expensive. This suddenly motivated people to come together to reconstitute the syndic (home owner’s association), get it legally registered to provide it with the sufficient teeth to insist that owners honor their communal responsibilities which included painting the buildings. But soon the motivation dissipated and everyone settled back to disinterest. Nonetheless, in recent months I have seen random patches of newly painted cités about town, giving new life to the areas in which they stand.

Besides the painting of the actual buildings, one of the major works to be done on a communal level had to do with the exterior wall as well – it was never finished. It was put up by residents during the Ivorian political crisis to offer some protection against potential vandalism but now only provides an invitation to men whose bladders have reached their breaking point to relieve themselves. How did we get here you ask? It is the usual sob story – someone ran off with the CFA 100,000 every apartment had paid at the time to build the wall – now almost ten years ago – and the ensuing squabbling led to the syndic’s collapse. Without a properly functioning judicial system, everything thereafter just defaulted to inertia. Strangely, our sister complex just one block up the road, does not have this problem. They not only completed their wall but had the ingenious idea of making it a mural similar to the one pictured here.

When I first arrived in Abidjan I had gotten it into my head that I would have the time to develop a similar proposal for Yasmina Ouegnin, the newly elected head of the Cocody municipality, work with the Institut national Supérieur des arts et de l’Action culturelle (INSAAC) and other talented artists and hold a community development day for kids where we painted a mural.

If this wall could talk, it would remind me of this goal because the photos in this post were taken in Plateau. Reason being that the mural at the cité next door to me had not successfully thwarted the peeing public, so it was not the most desirable site for a photo shoot.

Hopefully, one day I will get around to writing the proposal to turn the dreary grey porous cement wall surrounding my complex into a collage of the city’s collective artistic flair. If this wall could talk it would plead with all of us to take a fresh and honest look at the city, what it offers as well as what it needs to work on to bring back the sheen it once had. The works seems to have already begun with communities here and there being washed afresh with paint. Nonetheless, if this particular wall could talk it would tell us to fight and not lose hope in restoring Abidjan to its former glory. Murals could be the saving grace of our city – as it was for Kingston in Jamaica, Djerba in Tunisia or Kibera in Kenya. Murals, as we have already seen locally in villages in Assinie are not only good for city beautification but they also provide a reflection point, a conversation starter, a release for youthful angst, an inspiration to pedestrians and commuters. Personally, they give me that little burst of creative energy I need to not go mad in a city that sometimes feels saturated with eye sores. In that spirit, this is the first of a 4-part series featuring my favorite walls of Abidjan where I will share some of my musings on the city. I hope this first post can be a reminder to me and others that paint and art can uplift and restore cohesiveness even at the level of urban planning.

Yasmina, you have your marching orders.


Kimono: Elie Kuame

Styling: Ayebobo Niang

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