The Basilique de Notre Dame de la Paix can be seen for miles around in Yamoussoukro © Alex Sebley
Ivorians often ask why all cities in their country can’t be more like Yamoussoukro.
Outside of playing computer games, few of us will ever get the opportunity to construct an entire city according to our own personal tastes and values, but this is more or less what Ivory Coast’s first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, was able to do with Yamoussoukro. From the mid-1960s, Houphouët began converting the humble village of his birth into one of the most distinctive capital cities of West Africa. Opinion is divided about the results. For some, Yamoussoukro (affectionately known as Yakro) is a fine advertisement for everything that matters to the people of Ivory Coast: education, peace, deference, tradition, religion, ritual. Others feel that the city is a lurid spectacle of snarling crocodiles, vanity architecture and the cult of personality, which only gives succour to certain Western prejudices about Africa. What everyone can agree on is that Yamoussoukro is clean, green and rationally planned, its broad, European-style boulevards criss-crossing vacant grassy spaces and fields of rice, plantains and pineapples. Ivorians often ask why all cities in their country can’t be more like this.
There’s also plenty to see in Yamoussoukro, most of it bearing the inimitable stamp of Houphouët, right down to the tiniest detail. The first initials of the three main attractions – the Fondation Houphouët-Boigny de la Paix (Houphouët- Boigny Peace Foundation), the Hôtel Président and the Basilique de Notre Dame de la Paix de Yamoussoukro (Basilica of Our Lady of Peace) – are F, H and B, the same as the initials of Houphouët’s full name. His last two names, Houphouët-Boigny, mean ‘white ram’ in the Baoulé language, and are thought to reflect his willpower and foresight. A ram’s head logo can to be found all over Yamoussoukro, from the doors of hotel rooms to the façades of public buildings. For all its curiosities, however, Yamoussoukro remains tainted by poverty. Children play in open drains and beggars throng outside the luxury hotels.