Cote d’Ivoire: Korhogo and vicinity

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I had never heard of Korhogo, the fourth biggest city in Cote d’Ivoire, prior to a few months before my work trip. It is a city full of artisans, in a region full of artisans, and I’m excited to show you some of the beautiful handicrafts I saw while there.

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Unlike Abidjan, Korhogo and the surrounding area is dry. It’s close to Burkina Faso and it looks and feels very similar (minus, thankfully, the blinding dust — maybe because it was November instead of December). It’s probably just as hot as southern Cote d’Ivoire, where Abidjan is, but the lack of humidity makes all the difference between feeling manageably hot and frustratingly overheated, at least in my experience.

Above and below are some views from my hotel, one of the taller buildings in town.

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I was based in Korhogo for 12 days. Almost every morning, we left early for a village or town within an hour or two of the city, and we returned in the late afternoon or evening. On the days when we finished early enough, we made pit-stops in interesting places that were en route (or en route-ish) to the hotel.

One day, we went in search of the tiny village of Fakaha, known for its special technique of painting on cotton cloth with earth-based pigments. It’s rumored but not 100% certain that Picasso once visited for inspiration.

We got lost on the way to the village, which is not very well-marked. A man in a field ran away from us when we slowed the car and rolled down our window to ask him for directions. My colleague thought it was because despite the passage of more that a decade since the end of the “crisis” (he and others seemed to prefer calling it that to a civil war), the root causes of the conflict still simmered and fear of strangers remained in the heavily-impacted North. That was my only experience of sensing apprehension from anyone I met, but it was a moment of (re)realizing how much of a country’s depths lie below the surface, invisible and/or inaccessible to tourists.

In any case, we eventually found the village and its three or four artisan huts filled with beautiful toiles.

Fahaka vegetable based paintings

I bought a few from the talented artist pictured below, Soro Bakary.

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Before we left, a woman showed me how she was spinning cotton thread from a big ball of cotton fluff. (Cotton is a big crop in this part of Cote d’Ivoire.) It seemed like magic — I have no idea how she did it even though I watched for several minutes.

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On another day, we visited probably the biggest tourist attraction in the region — the village of Waraniéné, known for its cooperative of artisanal weavers and their unique style of narrow woven bands that are sewn together.

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I went on a Sunday so not as many weavers were at work, but I did get to watch a few. They are lightning-fast and extremely gifted.

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I combed through their wares, which consisted of clothing, bags, and home goods like tablecloths and blankets.

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I ended up buying this sheet/blanket, which one of the weavers kindly agreed to hold up for a picture.

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On yet another day, I walked to the artisans center in Korhogo to check it out. It was dusty and not really functioning, and the one person there told me that due to something that had damaged the building (maybe it was a fire but I can’t remember), everyone had moved elsewhere.

There was one table with some sculpted crafts for sale, though, and to my delight I saw a handful of small wooden birds. I had been spotting enormous calao birds all over the hotel and in some other places, and I had asked about their meaning.

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The calao is a real bird (a hornbill) that has sacred significance to the Senufo people. It plays an integral part in the creation myth, and it is believed to have great intelligence and the power to protect people. That’s why wooden calao figurines can be found at the entrances of villages and buildings — to guard the people inside from danger.

Many of these birds are crafted in a neighborhood of Korhogo called Koko, which is known for woodworking. I didn’t get to visit during my trip, but I did buy a small calao at the artisanat. It gave me a feeling of security when I perched it on the desk in my hotel room. 

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Now I have it on a shelf right next to my front door, alongside my keys. I love it, and I love the symbolism of it, but I am not sure whether I should own an object that is sacred to another group, but not to me. Before I bought it I asked my Ivorian colleagues what they thought, and they said they thought it was fine.

But one thing I’ve been reflecting upon a lot lately is whether “getting permission” makes appropriation anything other than appropriation. I have a wood sun mask from Burkina Faso that I harbor similar doubts about. It is traditionally used in ceremonies to bring a good harvest. And though I want nothing more than good harvests worldwide forever and always, I have no real skin in that game, nor am I remotely from the ethnic group that believes in the religious powers of the mask. I love it for aesthetic reasons. Does that make it inappropriate for me to buy? If I felt very clearly that it did, I wouldn’t own it.

But I am on the fence about it. I bought both items directly from the people who made them at official artisan centers that were created specifically to cater to tourists. Neither of these items are vintage and thus neither were ever used in ceremony or for traditional purposes. They have no historical value and they have been produced en masse, albeit by hand. (I have a very clear and firm policy against buying unique/important artifacts from places that I do not come from culturally.) If the makers of these things are from a long line of makers in the same community, and if they think it’s okay to sell to me, and if buying from them supports the community, and if I love the artistry of the pieces and respect the religious traditions behind them, can I own and display them? What do you think? I am really wrestling with this question.

That was a tangent… Back to my travels.

One day we stopped in the town of Niofoin to visit the oldest part of the village, where traditional huts that are many decades old still stand. The one below, with special conical thatching (the others are more typically rounded), is where the sacred fetishes are kept. Only certain people are allowed in at certain times.

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They add a new layer of straw to the hut’s roof every year, so by counting the layers you can determine how old the structure is, much like counting a tree’s rings of bark.

The stucco of the hut was embossed with figures of people, snakes, and other things I couldn’t quite identify.

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Unfortunately, my colleagues did not speak the local language and the locals who were around at the time didn’t speak French, so we couldn’t really learn more about what the hut and its contents mean to the people of Niofoin. I’ve read that there are two fetishes inside, and that they protect the village by enveloping it in thick smoke at the arrival of enemies, but I don’t know if that’s reliable information.

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One more stop to tell you about in Korhogo: the gallery of Souleymane Arachi, operated out of his home. Five or six rooms are filled to the brim with artifacts collected from around West Africa and the Sahel region by his father — who emigrated from Niger in the 50s or 60s — and later by him. It is stunning and awe-inspiring.

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I could go on and on with these pictures.

If you’re in Korhogo, you MUST visit this place. Souleymane is very knowledgable about all the pieces and can tell you their provenance and history. If you don’t buy anything, you can thank him for his time with a generous tip — whatever you might pay at a museum would be appropriate, since he has a museum-worthy collection.

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That’s all for Korhogo (although I do have food and restaurant recommendations for the city — should you ever need them, you know where to find me). Here’s a parting sunset shot to close this chapter, and I will pick back up again with Grand-Bassam next time.

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