A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
Guest Blogger: Titus Sauerwein studies the MA African Studies at Leiden University. He has just finished his internship in the Ivory Coast.
When thinking of Ivory Coast, the average Dutch person would probably not come up with more than ‘ehm, isn’t that the country of chocolate’. Perhaps a few among them are familiar with the music of Alpha Blondy or former president Gbagbo, who is spending his spare time in a prison on the beach of Scheveningen. I have to admit that I had to count myself among them. Consequently, it is not an exaggeration to say that my departure to Ivory Coast was the start of a big adventure.
Wondrous new world
The purpose of my 2,5 month visit to Ivory Coast was twofold: firstly, to do an internship at an Ivorian NGO working in the field of transparency in the extractive sector and secondly, to do research on artisanal small scale gold mining. My first two weeks in Abidjan were as I expected them to be: chaotic, sweaty, in search of a house, trippy dreaming from the malaria pills, struggling with my French and mainly looking for a way to understand how this wondrous new world functioned.
Every morning the alarm wakes me up at 7 am. Together with my French host family I have breakfast with a croissant and a grapefruit juice on the porch of the house, after which I grab a taxi in the direction of Yopougon a.k.a Yop City, the popular district of Abidjan inhabiting over a million people. The taxi ride is a joy. Not only is the morning breeze a refreshing welcome, but we also pass busses with goats on the roof, Banco, the jungle forest located in the city, the street vendors trying to sell Gbagbo propaganda and a whole variety of furniture makers who manufacture their sofas along the highway.
Artisinal gold mining
My internship is an extremely valuable experience. Not only am I the only non-Ivorian employee of the organisation, but it is also impossible to even try to imagine what it is like to work for an African NGO dealing with power cuts, declining development budgets and an enormously arduous government.
Before I left, I knew I had chosen a challenging research topic. Artisanal gold mining is illegal in Ivory Coast and is according to UN reports linked to the activities of former rebels making profit to fund their own private armies. Therefore, making sure that my safety was guaranteed during my research was essential and some reticence regarding my expectations advisable.
The moment that I – after 5 months of planning, several letters to the Ivorian authorities, a bottle of gin for the local village chief and a motorbike ride of 40 minutes through the bush – for the first time visited an illegal gold mine, was so incredibly unique and special that it is difficult to describe the experience in this blog, but therefore even more underlines how valuable it is to give students the opportunity to do fieldwork abroad. Not only the subject of my research was challenging, but also doing research in itself was a new experience. Arranging an internship, preparing interviews, conducting interviews in French, structuring data, planning fieldwork; these were all challenges I had never faced before my departure.
As I type this blog now in the library of Leiden University I am already thinking nostalgically back to my time in the Ivory Coast, but I am also looking forward to what might come next. I am invited to present my research in May at a conference in the UK and in June at the African Studies Centre in Leiden. I cannot predict the future, but maybe it turns out later that this experience was the first stone that laid the foundation for my future career.
All photos are the copyright of Titus Sauerwein and are not for public use