The web home of anglo-ivoirian multimedia journalist John James


Concerts in Abidjan

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A combination of photos from Fally Ipupa and Tiken Jah concerts in Abidjan in late 2007, early 2008. The Tiken concert was particularly memorable – I wrote the following piece which I haven’t published till now…

For the last five years international reggae star, Tiken Jah, has lived in self-imposed exile in Mali, to the north of his native Ivory Coast. With a habit of using his lyrics to criticise injustice and corruption, he fled at the start of the civil war when things got too dangerous. But with progress being made towards peace, Tiken Jah has returned to Ivory Coast for two peace concerts. Later today (15th December) he’ll play in the rebel stronghold of Bouake (PRON: Bwa-kay) and last weekend our correspondent John James managed to get a couple of tickets to the sold-out concert in the economic capital Abidjan.


Order and security are generally seen as part of the good life. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but there’s also something about the fluidity of moments saturated with experience and unpredictability that lend a certain richness to life. The word security did pop into my head when I entered the sports park, but it was less an emotion I was feeling, than the word I could see stretched in white letters across the huge frames of towering bouncers.

These giants were just a small part of an extraordinary cast of characters. The area squeezed behind the main stage was packed with an odd mix of bodyguards, Rastafarians, soldiers with machine guns, French journalists and assorted hangers-on. People were dancing and swaying unconsciously to the staccato off-beats. The air was a heady combination of sweat and tobacco – or at least some type of smoked substance. It may have been the backstage area, but policeman still felt the need to exercise their batons with violent sweeps against innocent ankles.

We’d arrived by taxi, speeding beneath the skyscrapers and neon lights of the city centre and over the lagoon to the edgy island suburb of Treichville. In colonial times this area was designated the ‘African’ quarter. The guide books warn me against going there after sundown. The reggae off-beats of the warm-up acts pound like a beating heart drawing us towards the densely packed core. As we arrive a woman by the first aid tent tells us there have been 74 injuries and 3 sexual assaults so far. Tiken takes to the stage while another injured person comes rushing by on a stretcher.

One man is eager to speak; ‘Tiken in Abidjan! It’s as if God come down to earth in Ivory Coast because it means peace has come. We were only now waiting for Tiken to make peace, because he stayed in exile for a long time. He’s an Ivorian. We’re proud, we’re happy to see him again.’

As the crowd chant Tiken’s name a tall man with a Jamaican accent and the beginnings of a beard tells me the concert is a kind of rebirth for the reggae music. ‘The rebirth of the music of message. Yeah man. You know what I’m talking about. We’re not from the same ethnic group. It’s a fight against Babylon and Babylon is not a fight against colour, it’s a fight against misery.’

It’s that message that landed Tiken Jah in hot water. In the polarised atmosphere of Abidjan five years ago, political death squads were all too common. Tiken began receiving death threats and several friends were killed, prompting him to flee to neighbouring Mali. In exile he became the top selling African reggae artist, feted at sell-out gigs in France but not played on the national radio station back home.

It was an assault course getting in front of the stage. I clambered through the forest of metal bars holding up the stage like a child weaving through a climbing frame. On the other side hands reached down and lifted me up to stage level to a narrow platform behind the stack of trembling speakers. From this precipitous vantage point I get my first glimpse of Tiken Jah – a towering presence in a long white robe; maps of Africa stencilled across his clothes and attached to the end of shoulder length dreadlocks which whip from side to side.

Despite his absence his has remained popular in Ivory Coast – the crowd sang at the top of their voices to the songs as if there were national anthems. With one voice they shouted down African corruption and western hypocrisy. This wasn’t mass karoke. It was a cry from the heart – lyrics that pull no punches from those at the sharp end of civil war and biting economic decline.

I jumped down into the sea of humanity which swept forward and back like waves on a beach. Security guards linked arm in arm forming the only barrier between the stage and the spectators. To the left and right the same warning is echoed; ‘Be careful – there are expert thieves around us’. The following day I stumbled across a disconsolate group of French journalists comparing notes – the lucky ones had lost mobile phones, others microphones and passports. They pointed ruefully at their now vacant pockets. Halfway through the concert Tiken throws what looks like fistfuls of money over our heads. The unstoppable crowd throws itself forward.

When I meet Tiken later he says this concert was a passionate appeal from young Ivorians desperate for peace. ‘If you are in the peace time the pupils can go to school, the students can study, the trader can do what he can do, every body can be cool. I think today Ivorian people know now the difference between peace time and war time, so we have the choice.’ When analysts discuss power in Ivory Coast they tend to be talking about old men. But down here among the thousands there’s a raw energy and dynamism that you can taste and smell. It excites and slightly terrifies, as T-shirts soaked in each others’ sweat a dark African night shakes to infectious reggae beats.

Travels in the north, Ivory Coast 2007-8

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In my first week in Ivory Coast, President Laurent Gbagbo set off to the north of the country for the first time since 2002, so so did I. I went back a few months later to spend a bit more time there are some of these photos are here as well. It was an interesting time as this large rebel zone was peaceful but outside normal government administration.

Pokola visit, 2007


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At the end of my time in Congo, I visited CIB’s logging operations in the far north of Congo close to the border with Cameroon. I did stories on logging and also the innovative work the company is doing in helping pygmies map out their forest.

Working with the Canon 650D

Two weeks ago I took delivery of a few new gadgets, principally a new camera, the Canon 650D/T4i. I’ve been a big fan of these entry level digital SLR cameras for a while and have sold plenty of work on the initial 300D and then more recently the 450D. In many ways, I didn’t need a new stills camera as the 450D is quite adequate, but it’s the amazing new capacity to film high quality video that has really attracted me back to the shops.

These cameras offer the possibility of producing high quality HD video with interchangeable lens for a relatively small cost ($849 in the case of the 650D body). Of course, they have their drawbacks, and the difference between high quality reports and amateurish work remains in the skill of the operator. Still, I think these will really open up a new world, particularly as internet speeds improve in Africa.

I’ve set up a Youtube page and Vimeo site as well as a Facebook page under the brand Babito Creative, which is just a little structure for my video work. In two weeks I’ve enjoyed filming a dance festival (2 videos), a photo shoot and a photographic expo. I figure that the best way to get my foot in the door is to show what I can do or at the very least, improve by trying. Over the weekend I shot a music video, something I was only told I would be doing when I got into the car to head to the beach. I’m going to try and keep producing material (even if so far it’s all be gratis) with the aim of an average of 1 video every 2 weeks for the rest of the year. I’m editing on Adobe Premiere Elements (for simple affordability, though I find it’s a big step back after using the Pro version and above all Avid Express DV). I’m also not doing any colouring for the time being, though that may change.

Feedback has been good so far and I find video provokes much more of a response than photos and particularly radio. Personally it’s been a fantastic challenge – which each video I’ve learned a lot of things and I find it ten times more difficult than photography, if only because I’m focusing manually. The camera is a great tool for features and of course when some like me goes on a trip and has to bring back photos, video and sound, it combines two elements in one body, so there’s one less thing to carry.

If you’re interested in seeing my work, the best thing is to follow Babito Creative on Facebook, Tumblr, Youtube or Vimeo.


The Ninjas arrive, 2007

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On a warm day in September, rebel leader Pasteur Ntumi, was due to come into Brazzaville to take up a post in the government. The Ninjas had controlled the Pool region to the west of the capital since the civil war in the 1990s. They’re a mystical sect that wear a lot of purple and look like rastas. Unlike their peace-loving equivalents though, the Ninjas are armed to the teeth and somehow succeeded in keeping the government army at bay, something many Congolese attribute to mystical powers. I wasted a couple of hours waiting at the presidential palace where nothing was happening. I wrote a little colour piece which was never used in the end, but which I’ll print below:

It was supposed to be a significant day in the final stages of the peace process in Congo-Brazzaville. Instead, it ended with military attack helicopters swooping down on the former rebels and their instant rearmament.

Former rebel leader Pastor Ntumi was supposed to be at the People’s Palace in the morning. After leaving the capital Brazzaville in 1997 to fight a rebel war against President Denis Sassou-Nguesso, he was now expected to take up a position in government as a junior minister responsible for peace and reparations.

It soon became clear that there were some last minute difficulties between the government and the ex-rebels, who call themselves the Ninjas. After spending several hours at the palace, I took a taxi to the village of Madibu on the outskirts of the city where the ex-rebels were waiting. All along the avenue leading out of Brazzaville crowds of Ninjas were ready to welcome their leader. The young fighters in this semi-religious movement stand-out from the onlookers thanks to their beards, dreadlocks and purple cloth.

My taxi driver won’t take me into the village. He drops me off and makes a hasty retreat, while I’m quickly surrounded by hundreds of Ninjas. I’m asked what I’m doing and given a thorough search by one of the senior Ninjas who goes by the name of Rambo. He leads me through the crowd and we walk to the centre of the village where Pastor Ntumi is sitting with his advisors waiting for news from their delegation in the city.

‘Everyone’s waiting for me all along the road to the sports centre in order to hear me speak and hear what I’m going to say to reassure them’, he tells me.

‘We’re also still waiting.’

He’s spent a decade hiding out in the forested Pool region to the west of the capital. Although tired of the delays he says he still wants to enter Brazzaville to show that they’re serious about peace.

‘We want people to know that we’ve changed into a political movement – and it’s also to explain the steps we’ve taken on the road to peace; what’s been done so far and what’s left to be done. It’s important that people know more about these things.’

There’s only me and another journalist from a local newspaper in the middle of 3,000 ex-fighters. Not particularly comfortable, but I don’t want to miss to witness their historic arrival.

After a couple more hours, the Ninjas say the sticking point is the presence of armed police on the bridge over the Djoué river; the gateway into the city. I’m beckoned into a 4×4 along with Pastor Ntumi, three advisors and a bodyguard. We head to the bridge; it was as close as he ever got to the city. The police indeed had guns, something that appeared contrary to the day’s security arrangements.

We drove back to Madibou and Pastor Ntumi continued negotiations with the government on his mobile phone. The government was nervy; Pastor Ntumi had permission for 30 armed bodyguards, but the government said he had at least 300 armed men. The presence of up to ten thousand supporters waiting to welcome their leader was also cause for concern.

Such negotiations often run for days without development. In this case, the government seemed to have had enough. We heard the sound of helicopters and the weary crowd sprang to life. Attack helicopters were the government’s major weapon during the five year civil war with the Ninjas, which ended in 2003. The helicopters swooped down on us in a series of close fly-bys. People panicked. Within a minute, what had appeared to be a largely unarmed crowd of young men was suddenly bristling with assault rifles and rocket launchers. Even Pastor Ntumi’s suited advisors now had Kalashnikov rifles on their shoulders. I didn’t hear any shots but the Ninjas were shouting that the government had betrayed them and wasn’t serious about peace.

Things are getting out of hand and the Ninjas were concerned for my safety. A United Nations bus came around the bend and was brought to a halt when someone smashed his rifle against a side window. The crowd started banging on the bus and telling the driver to take me back into the city. He didn’t refuse. On the way back the main avenue was full of people streaming out of the city.

Less than two hours later I’m with the government spokesman, Alain Akouala.

‘Thing went wrong because Pastor Ntumi didn’t respect the way that we defined how he could come in Brazzaville. Our responsibility as a state is people’s security. To let Pastor Ntumi come here with three hundred men is impossible. No country in the world would allow that.’

I ask how using the attack helicopters would help negotiations with the ex-rebels.

‘No explanation. It was just a routine flight like in any country. It has no meaning. The war is over.’

The fly-by had meaning for the Ninjas and the peace process has now taken a few steps back.

Pan-African musical festival, 2007

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The Pan-African music festival, FESPAM, is a huge biennial music festival that takes place in Brazzaville. All the concerts are free, with many of Africa’s biggest artists having performed there at one time or other. The stadium is transformed, while the French Cultural Centre is also the other major part. The atmosphere was great, even if I got my phone stolen when going into the stadium. There was also an intellectual side-line with debates in the parliament building.

Chimpanzee reserve, 2007

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Photos from a trip to a chimpanzee reserve just outside Pointe-Noire close to the Atlantic coast. Included here are photos of the late Gregoire, a local celebrity who had been rescued from Brazzaville zoo by helicopter during the civil war in the 1990s. He had been placed in the zoo in colonial times.

Deaf carpenters cooperative, Brazzaville


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The first of several photo galleries I’ve produced in Africa was this one from a cooperative of deaf carpenters. They made some decent material, and a British friend of mine, Michael, had bought some furniture from them and helped them out with supplies. You can see the BBC photo gallery here  (though the display style is not as pretty as modern BBC galleries). If you’re in Brazzaville, it’s close to the western exit of the city on the road that goes down to the bridge (but before WHO).

Brazzaville orphanage visit, 2007

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A few photos from a toy distribution at one of the orphanages in Brazzaville. I forget the name of the quarter, but I think it was a western district.

Congo legislative elections 2007

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The legislative elections in 2007 provided a bit of welcome attention on a quiet Sunday in June. The organisation was a shambles and few people were interested in voting, and those that wanted to often couldn’t. I don’t believe participation rates have ever been released.