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Stuck in the middle in Côte d’Ivoire

Posted on Wednesday, 13 October 2010 14:18

Navigating between old and new cultures, the middle classes are figuring out where they stand

For more on how an increasingly affluent population is changing political preferences, consumer attitudes and education systems of Africa’s middle classes, read Moving on up.

In a four-bedroomed house, in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, Ma Mabeya and her husband, a retired schoolteacher, make ends meet using their state pensions. They own the house, so rent is no longer a worry. Ma Mabeya used to work in the market but gave it up when the cost of renting a stall became too high. The family also gave up on annual holidays to Daname, their village in western Côte d’Ivoire, after the 2002 civil war caused the cost of a roundtrip ticket to soar from 8,000 CFA francs ($15) per person to 22,000 CFA francs.

They still feel their country roots. “I feel too traditional, old-fashioned, because I lived in the village for four years. I’d have liked to be modern. I like the way young girls dress in Abidjan. They’re very modern, that’s how I’d like to be,” says 16-year-old Linda Mabeya. Linda, wearing a faded wrap skirt and T-shirt and with her hair braided in cornrows tight against her scalp, left school last year when she did not pass into 10th grade. “My dream was to become a French teacher,” she says, shrugging.

At that moment, Linda’s brother’s girlfriend, 19-year-old Rokia Touré, walks in. Her hair is in the latest style, all asymmetric angles and uneven lengths. Her eyebrows have been shaved and redrawn in dark, currant-red pencil – also the latest fashion.

The internet generation

Identities, fluid constructs at the best of times, have been revolutionised by new communication technologies. Internet access makes it so that the fashion in Cotonou can be picked up in Paris. There are televisions in most middle-class homes. The channels through which global events and trends are accessed have been thrown open and are no longer controlled only by state media and local radio stations.

On the continent, the effect is most pronounced in urban areas, where access to the internet is increasing rapidly. This further accentuates the divide between city and country. With middle-class children opening Facebook accounts and increasingly able to access other online media, identities that decades ago would be firmly imprinted by village and religious customs are now loosening.

Too much for some. Linda’s grandmother heads the household of 19 children and grandchildren. She disagrees roundly with Linda’s analysis. “All the children are modern – too modern! We try to teach them traditional ?behaviour so they are not totally lost. They need to know how to respect their elders, how to respect themselves so they don’t just dress anyhow. All this modernity. Modernity – it can be dangerous for your image and reputation if you don’t have some traditional behaviour to hold you back,” she says.

Neither Ma nor Pa Mabeya are university educated, but despite having degrees, all four of their children are still searching for jobs several years after graduation. Annual school fees for the grandchildren cost 400,000 CFA francs. “A good job is so hard to find these days. Sometimes I can’t sleep at night for worrying about how they will find jobs,” Ma Mabeya says. “It’s my biggest concern.”

The medium is the message

Data from Consumer Insight shows that access to phones, internet, television and other media are now increasingly available to households in the lower and upper middle-class bracket (see page 23). Africa’s fastest-growing economies are experiencing their own ‘digital divide’ as richer families gain more access to information and other cultures.

The idea of the development of the middle class is often associated with the ideas of culture and leisure: things that people can enjoy after meeting the needs of their families. A growing middle class means more money spent on satellite dishes and programmes like Top Model Ghana, MP3 players and P-Square concerts, nights out and chicken at Nando’s. Those with disposable income are able to vote with their pocketbooks to shape the tastes and aspirations of Africa’s younger generations.

A British middle-class family and an Egyptian one would likely differ in terms of income or religion, but what sets apart Addis Ababa’s working classes from Accra’s? Each class is defined by the ones around it, making all differences and markers of class and cultural ?identity relative. Libreville’s middle classes are made up of teachers who may have an old car, certainly not a shiny Hummer like the minister’s but not as rickety as the taxi down the street.

Another trend that might be driving a sense of difference is urbanisation. Like most in the bustling neighbourhood of Youpougon, the Mabeya family are Catholics who attend church most Sundays. Most of their friends are also Catholics, “although that’s just what people are here. We know Muslims but they don’t live here, so we don’t get much opportunity to socialise,” says Linda. There is an economic side to this, too, with middle-class families clustering in parts of the city away from the generally poorer populations that live in neighbourhoods like Treichville.It remains to be seen how the ‘self-insulating’ effect of middle-income families will play out in society.

This article was first published in the August-September 2001 edition of The Africa Report.

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