I was 10 years old when my parents told my sisters and I that we were going to change houses and move to a country very far away.
I was living a very peaceful life in Brussels. I only had one year left to finally become the oldest – most respected / coolest – at my school, which was probably my main goal in life at that stage (I was 10). My grades were really good and I had the two best girlfriends one could dream for. I was passionate about piano and gymnastic, and I even had a serious boyfriend! Not sure you can call that a boyfriend at that age but nevertheless, my life felt on track and I was very happy about it.
It was in the middle of the school year that I found out I was moving to Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, West Africa.
My parents made it sound very nice and exciting but when I shared it with my school friends, they made me feel really, really, really scared. “You’re going to live in a shed” said my boyfriend. “There are no cars and you will go to school on an elephant’s back” said one of my besties. “The Savannah can go up to 1000 degrees” said someone else. And even if going to school on an elephant’s back did sound cool, I also was very nervous about leaving the comfort I knew and especially leaving my friends.
This feeling of leaving somewhere I loved and having to be strong enough to overtake it seemed somehow familiar. I indeed knew that under the age of 5 I had already lived in 3 other countries. I felt it was pretty much what I was created for and this sadness of being forced to leave was the counterpart that came with it.
So the day we had to leave our Belgian flat to take off to Abidjan finally arrived. It was in the middle of the freezing month of January.
The Beginning of a Life’s Journey
My first surprise boarding the plane was that I saw lots of other children my age travelling with their parents. I also realised that the crowd was very multicultural.
I remember finding the whole journey very exciting and especially laughing with my sisters when flying over Ouagadougou! What a funny name for a town! I didn’t expect that later on in life I would be calling it “Ouaga” and would find it completely normal.
My second very vivid memory is coming off the plane and feeling the heat wave: I was instantly burning! It was 7 pm and the night was pitch black. We entered a very noisy airport where everyone was speaking very loud at the customs. It was overwhelming. “Why are they all angry?” asked my younger sister. “They are not angry my darling” answered my father “they are simply talking to each other and enjoy disagreeing: it’s called “a palaver”. It’s the norm here.” (From French: Un Palabre)
Someone came to welcome my father and walked all of us through customs leaving all the noise behind. The same man then told my sisters and I – with a very funny accent – not to speak to the people who will come to offer help. I had no idea what that meant and got pretty scared (again). A few seconds later 2 doors opened to the baggage reclaim and indeed, A LOT of men approached us to help out with our suitcases. My dad looked at me strongly and said: “Hold your sisters’ hands and don’t let go off them until we are in the car.” I felt relieved: So there WERE cars here!
A few minutes later we were outside and not one but 2 cars were waiting for us in the parking, where very friendly men greeted us. I remember jumping in a dark blue Peugeot 406 with white leather interior where the temperature was not unlike Brussels’: freezing!
We then hit the road and I couldn’t see much in the dark night.
After 15 minutes of straight road, the chauffeur pointed towards lights in the distance and said proudly: “This is Abidjan across the bridge. We call it the ‘Paris of Africa’.”
I remember driving on a bridge over water, and seeing high skyscrapers with illuminated billboards. All these vivid colours, the tropical trees, the huge bridge with very large roads, the traffic lights, the red and yellow taxis… this is how I imagined … Hong Kong! I felt so much excitation and I remember telling my 10 year-old-self: Why does everyone think that Africa is only about elephants and giraffes? Someone must tell them the truth!
Stepping into the Unknown
We arrived in the house where I would spend the next 6 years of my life. I had never seen anything like this before: marble on all floors, we each had a room and a bathroom, a big playroom and there was even a swimming pool. I got allocated to mine, the furthest away from my parents as I was the eldest, right next to my middle sister’s, while the youngest of all three was in a corridor closer to my parents.
I woke up to the crow of a rooster and to the most peaceful of neighbourhoods. I stepped out on my balcony overlooking the back entrance of the house and starred at this calm street with kids playing and laughing at an old man. He was shouting back at them but in a very affectionate way. ‘Palaver’ I whispered, with a smile on my face.
I would learn very soon that the old man was called “Le Vieux” and I that I would see him everyday for the next 6 years. A new chapter of my life had already started.
I ran down the stairs to meet my family for breakfast. The tropical garden was like a drawing of heaven and our dog, a black labrador named Umlaut, seemed the happiest of us all in all this space.
What a happy memory to see my parents feeling so blessed on that first morning of what would be the last episode of our life together, living under the same roof.
We were then driven to our new school in our new uniforms. Peacocks were wondering freely in the courtyard and the school was so big I thought I would never be able to know my way around it. Basketball, football, volleyball field, Olympic swimming pool, outdoor gym, dance studio, chemistry classes and computer classes… what a change from my previous school! I couldn’t wait to write to my friends to tell them that Africa was nothing like they all described.
Then the director walked me to my classroom. I was very nervous of what I would find there! And there again, after a big breath in, I passed the door only to discover a completely normal classroom, where desks were not aligned but disposed in 5 squares. The teacher introduced me. It reminded me of my arrival in Brussels at age 5, when the teacher said to the classroom that people had to be nice to me because I just flew in from the Congo in Africa and that I didn’t know anyone. Except this time it was the other way round: ‘Please welcome your new classmate Ann-Sophie! She just arrived from Belgium, Europe and she doesn’t know anyone, so please take good care of her.’
I knew straight away that it was going to be fine.
Ann-Sophie was born in France, to a French father and an English mother. She lived with them in multiple destinations: Vanuatu, the Congo, France, Brussels and the Ivory Coast. She then studied in France and the UK and lives now in London with her husband and family.