After walking on the sandy beaches of Abidjan, I have often romanticized the name of such a beautiful place, and no matter how much intellectual gymnastics I did, I could never decipher its meaning. After all, I do not speak the local language, but I somehow thought that it could have been a French name with some local texture to it; but which one?
Well, according to oral tradition of the Ébrié people as reported in the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Côte d’Ivoire, the name “Abidjan” results from a misunderstanding. Legend states that an old man carrying branches to repair the roof of his house met a European explorer who asked him the name of the nearest village. The old man who did not speak the language of the explorer, thought that he was being asked to justify his presence in that place. Terrified by this unexpected meeting, he fled shouting “min-chan m’bidjan“, which means in the Ébrié language: “I return from cutting leaves.” The explorer, thinking that his question had been answered, recorded the name of the locale as Abidjan.
A slightly different and less elaborate version of the legend is as such: When the first colonists asked native women the name of the place, the women misunderstood and replied “T’chan m’bi djan“: “I’ve just been cutting leaves“. Thus the name Abidjan.
Originally a fishing village, Abidjan was made the capital city of the French colony after a deadly epidemic of yellow fever decimated the French colonists in 1896 in Bassam. In 1934, Abidjan became the third capital of Côte d’Ivoire after Grand-Bassam and Bingerville. It offered more opportunities for trade expansion, particularly with its greater wharf. In 1983, the capital was moved to Yamoussoukro, the village of then-president Félix Houphouët-Boigny. However, Abidjan has remained the political and economic heart of the country.
Today, Abidjan is Côte d’Ivoire’s largest city, and the third largest French-speaking city in the world after Paris and Kinshasa. The city is located in the Ébrié Lagoon on several converging peninsulas and islands connected by bridges. Abidjan is considered a cultural hub for most of West Africa, and Francophone Africa in particular. It has the biggest port in West Africa, and second largest port of Africa after the Lagos port in Nigeria. With the political unrest of the past decade which reached its paroxysm in 2011 with the French army bombing strategic places in Abidjan in order to impeach President Laurent Gbagbo (including the presidential palace), the city has been destroyed, and is today going through a rebuilding phase.
Affectionately nicknamed the “Manhattan of the tropics“, “Small Manhattan“, or “Pearl of Lagoons“, because of its impressiveness, Abidjan is a unique city perfect for business tourism. The place is so beautiful, that the French once considered making Côte d’Ivoire an overseas department of France; it is not so far from it today, but that will be the subject for another day. The video below is on Côte d’Ivoire as a whole. Enjoy!