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  • Families of Abidjan

    Families' Ties Can Get Knotty

    By Stephen Buckley
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast

    Georgette Kouassi and niece/Photo by Carol Guzy - TWP Twelve people are crammed into Claude Kouassi's two-bedroom house, including daughter Georgette, 13, and her niece, Deborah, 6 months.
    (By Carol Guzy/The Washingon Post)
    Fifteen people are crammed into Clement Ouattara's matchbox of a home: he, his wife, their five children, and eight nephews and cousins.

    The cousins and nephews have lived with the family for years. Ouattara, a gas station manager, has helped two of them through college and found work for two others. The cousins and nephews live for free at the house. Ouattara pays all the monthly bills.

    A few blocks away, Claude Kouassi, a police officer, also has sheltered relatives, lent them money, funded their schooling. He has five relatives and friends in addition to his six children at his dim, two-bedroom apartment now.

    His help is given grudgingly. Over the years, he has come to feel overburdened and underappreciated. As a result, family tensions have rattled his home.

    Both men say that family ties have bound them to a working-class status they should have surpassed long ago. But as men with good jobs in a big city, they are obliged to care for sisters, brothers, nephews, cousins, parents, grandparents any relative in need.

    Africans have long embraced their duty to care for extended family. In the past, however, the relative with the big-city job could keep family members at bay, visiting the village with money and food a few times a year. He provided help on his terms.

    Today, as migration from rural to urban areas roars along, these professionals no longer can evade relatives: Nephews and cousins now simply come to the city, where kin such as Ouattara and Kouassi cannot turn them away.

    The tightening pressure has strengthened Ouattara's family. "It's my sacred duty," the tall, slim 38-year-old said in French.

    In the family of Kouassi, 40, it has bred resentment and mistrust. "I'm tired," he said.

    Kouassi clan watches television Claude Kouassi, in the back at the right, watches television with family and friends. Africans have long embraced their duty to care for extended family.
    (By Carol Guzy/The Washington Post)
    "The people in the city wouldn't go to the villages, so the village has come to the city," said George B.N. Ayittey, a native of Ghana and an economics professor at the American University in Washington. "And when they come, you say, 'Well, since you've come down, you might as well stay here for a few days.'"

    That often "turns into months, and months turn into years," he said. One reason is that population growth has far outpaced job creation in most major African cities, leaving even university graduates underemployed or jobless, thus perpetually dependent on their family patron. Unemployment in many African cities tops 25 percent.

    Ayittey said that today some families take the once-rare step of hiding financial gains, fearful that familial obligations will erase their economic success. Some even move out of their native countries to escape relatives.

    On the other hand, he said, many Africans gladly bear their relatives' burdens, in part because to do otherwise is to risk isolation and scorn within the family.

    "You would have a bad name in the family," Ayittey said. "You would be called selfish. You may be cut out of family decisions, or you may be cut out of your inheritance."

    Ouattara has a good name in his family, but he has paid a steep price for it. He said that if not for his role as family pillar, he would have shed the status of lower middle class long ago.

    He is not complaining. His family eats three meals a day and he has a steady job, a car, decent albeit cramped housing, money for his children's schooling. He has even saved enough for a few luxuries, like a compact disc player and a videocassette recorder.

    Yet he wishes he could buy a bigger car. His two-door gold Honda is too small to comfortably hold him, his wife and the children.

    He wishes he could buy a house, not simply rent a tiny place in a compound. He wishes he could buy some cattle.

    His $375 base salary and a commission probably bring his monthly take-home pay to between $500 and $600. Every month he spends $100 on rice (the family eats 440 pounds of it per month), another $100 on meat and chicken, $50 on electricity, $30 on water, $40 on medical care and $150 on the Honda. He sends $20 a month to his 70-year-old father, who lives 250 miles north of Abidjan. That brings his typical monthly outlay to nearly $500.

    Boys Playing Sesar Kouassi (right), 4, watches as his brother Eric, 6, is given a bath.
    (By Carol Guzy/The Washington Post)

    Three other family members work, but they pay nothing. In return, he has become their surrogate father: If you are late for dinner, you usually get no food. When Ouattara tells everyone to go to bed, everyone, including young adults, must go to bed. (At bedtime, Ouattara said, three people sprawl out in the living room, and others share bed and floor space in one bedroom. A couple of the children sleep with his wife and their month-old daughter in the second bedroom.)

    The eight nephews and cousins in the house came for a variety of reasons, and nearly all have been there several years. Two came because they needed a place to stay during their university years; others needed shelter while they sought work; a teenage nephew sought refuge from a man in his village who threatened to kill him.

    Some of Ouattara's relatives said they would have moved out years ago but for Abidjan's limp job market. Henri Ouattara, 23, said he has sought work for the past 15 months without success.

    He says he job-hunts daily. "If I go to look for a job, they tell me to come back tomorrow," the stocky young man with fiery brown eyes said in stumbling English. "You go back and they say, tomorrow. Always tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow. Then, finally, they will say, 'It is difficult. I can't give you a job.'"

    Clement Ouattara housed and fed Henri through his university years and paid his transportation and medical costs. Today, he gives Henri $50 to $100 every month. Henri's continued dependency on his cousin shames him.

    "Clement is a good person," Henri said, touching his heart with his right hand. "He doesn't refuse you if you want his help."

    Nonetheless, Henri says, "I want to have my freedom. This is not my house. I want to be in my own house, have a wife."

    Despite the overcrowding in Ouattara's household, there is little evidence of tension. Ouattara's wife, Marie, and children appear to accept his role as family pillar. Marie, quiet and self-effacing, does not complain. His children adore him, draping themselves over him when he comes home from work.

    One recent evening, with guests for dinner, Ouattara brought home a small treat: an inexpensive bottle of wine. His daughters carried stewed chicken, rice and fried fish, plantains and cassava into the living room that doubles as a dining room.

    Ouattara, after putting on the music of African reggae star Lucky Dube, announced that he would forgo dinner. He said he was not hungry; more likely, he simply wanted to ensure that everyone had enough to eat.

    Henri and his brother Nafoun, who also lives with Ouattara, and the guests piled their plates and drained beers and sodas. Outside, next to the kitchen that abuts the home, the five children and two other members of Ouattara's extended family ate with Marie.

    Ouattara loosened his striped Oxford shirt and slouched on the living room couch. Lucky Dube sang, "Africa, Africa, Africa." There was joking and quiet laughter.

    Then Nafoun had to go to his job as a security guard, and the family waited for other relatives to come home. Dinner was over but, at least this one night, there was enough left over for latecomers.

    Ouattara said he hopes that when his relatives finally move out, "they will do what I'm doing and help pick up the burden."

    The same tranquillity does not grace Claude Kouassi's home. His sister-in-law Sidonie was quietly fuming as she stooped over a pot in the small kitchen, making a fish stew dinner for the family.

    Dinka dancers Claude Kouassi, "Cobra," 40, takes time out to enjoy his afternoon beers.
    (By Carol Guzy/The Washington Post)
    Since Sidonie, 20, and her husband, Romain, moved into Kouassi's home a couple of weeks ago, she has become a surrogate parent to her brother-in-law's six children.

    One minute she beckoned Zintha, 14, to wash the dishes. The next, she nudged Erene, 8, to take out the garbage. And, of course, she must wash the family's clothes, prepare meals, buy groceries, clean the house.

    She is not ungrateful. Kouassi took them in after Romain lost his job; they had nowhere else to go. And Kouassi borrowed more than $1,000 to lend to Romain to start a new business selling plantains.

    But she did not know that Kouassi's wife recently had left him and that she would become his children's temporary full-time mother. "I was a lot happier when it was just me and my husband," Sidonie said in French. "The children are too noisy, and there's too much housework."

    She added: "I want to go back to school. If you don't get through school, you can't find a job anywhere."

    It does not help that she must contend with Kouassi himself. The police officer of 15 years, nicknamed "Cobra," is a complex man who will all but kill himself to provide for his family, yet spends little time with them. He will hug a child one moment, bark at him the next.

    A brown-red dullness crowds his eyes, and when he leaves the house on a day off, his family knows he is headed for the neighborhood bar even if it is only midmorning.

    He will not blame his alcohol problems on family pressures alone, but his enormous responsibilities clearly weigh on him. "From time to time, I get angry," he said in French. "It's too much. Sometimes there are too many problems."

    Those problems fall on him because he is the only one of his parents' 12 children with a good job. He makes $355 a month and gets free housing as a police officer.

    His siblings are either doing farm work in rural areas to the north or unemployed.

    He resents the constant presence of visiting relatives. When he leaves the house, he locks his bedroom door because "I keep my money in here. ... I want to avoid any surprises. ... Nobody comes in here without my permission."

    These days, five others share the house with Kouassi and his children: Sidonie and Romain, a close friend, and Kouassi's sister Constance, 21, and her 6-month-old daughter, Deborah.

    The house has only one other bedroom, where everybody else sleeps. The living room holds a shabby three-piece sofa set, crumbs clinging to the cushions. It is a room of bare-bulbed lights and long shadows.

    Over the years, Kouassi said, he has grown tougher toward his family. He threw out a sister whom he accused of squandering money he lent her to start a business. He kicked out a brother who, upon finding a job, refused to contribute to the household.

    Any relative who seeks help "should be able to work or go to school," Kouassi said, "should tell you what he's trying to do to get out of his situation."

    He is more reluctant to give or lend relatives money now. That distresses Constance, hoping for a little brotherly help on what she hopes will be a brief stay under Kouassi's roof. Normally, she lives for free with her mother in a town 200 miles north of Abidjan.

    She said she will not ask him directly because "he will start shouting." Kouassi used to pay for her schooling but has stopped helping her. Her baby's father gives her a little cash each month.

    If Kouassi lent her some money, she could sell fish in the market, she said. "A big brother should take care of a younger sister," she said, breast-feeding Deborah on the balcony, under a full clothesline.

    This morning, Kouassi seems to ignore family tensions. He awakens at 9 a.m., takes a shower and emerges in a crisply pressed white shirt and light-colored slacks. He yells something at the children who are jostling one another and bouncing around the apartment. "He never says good morning," Constance said.

    It is his day off. He walks out to the balcony, takes in the cool morning air. It is about 10:30. Then he lights a cigarette and walks out the door. No one has to ask where he is going.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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