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LOCATION: West Africa (Côte d'Ivoire)
POPULATION: 18,373,600 (2008)
LANGUAGE: Approximately 60 ethnic languages, including Akan; Mandé; Gur (Voltaic); Kru; Dioula (the most widely spoken); Baoulé (Akan); Sénoufo (Voltaic); Yacouba (south Mandé); French (official language)
RELIGION: Islam; Christianity (both incorporate traditional indigenous beliefs)
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol 1: Aka; Dyula; Malinke


Côte d'Ivoire is a French-speaking country in West Africa. A number of important kingdoms existed in the area from early times. In the 14th century the Mali empire extended into part of Côte d'Ivoire; later empires included the Kong and the Baoulé kingdom of Sakasso. Many different ethnic groups migrated over the centuries into what became known as Côte d'Ivoire.

Early trade with Europe was based on ivory, which gave the country its name—Ivory Coast (although in 1986 the government decided that the country should be known only by its French name, Côte d'Ivoire). However, the trade in ivory led to such a decline in the elephant population that the trade virtually disappeared by the beginning of the 18th century. An elephant's head, however, still is portrayed on the country's crest. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach the coast of Côte d'Ivoire. The earliest recorded French voyage took place in 1483, but it was only in the mid-nineteenth century that the French firmly established themselves in the region. At first, trade was governed by treaties; later, French exploration and occupation intensified. In 1893, Côte d'Ivoire became a French colony.

The best known recent figure is the first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Houphouët-Boigny came from a wealthy Baoulé chief's family. Born around 1905, he grew up to study medicine in Dakar (Senegal) and became a medical assistant, a prosperous cocoa farmer, and a local chief. He campaigned for fairer cocoa prices for African farmers and founded the country's first agricultural trade union for African planters. This trade union was quickly converted into the Parti Démocratique de Côte d'Ivoire, which is still the dominant political party. Houphouët-Boigny became a deputy to the French National Assembly (parliament) in Paris, and the first African to serve as a cabinet minister in a European government. At independence in 1960, he became the country's first president, favoring a continued close relationship with France. He promoted agriculture and led Côte d'Ivoire's economy to great success until the beginning of the 1980s, when prices for Côte d'Ivoire's two major export crops, cocoa and coffee, crashed. The drought of 1983–84 compounded the problem, as did excessive borrowing and the steep rise in oil prices. Côte d'Ivoire's economy declined dramatically as its per capita income fell from $1,290 in 1978 to $510 in 1995. Despite good harvests in 1985–86, a fall in coffee and cocoa prices, the outflow of capital, and too much government spending led to serious indebtedness. Resulting austerity measures were met with protests, strikes, and riots. However, despite charges of corruption and a lavish lifestyle, Houphouët-Boigny still was revered and honored until his death in December 1993, when he was succeeded by Henri Konan Bedié.

Côte d'Ivoire was the richest of the French colonies by the late 1940s, based on the export of timber and forest products, such as palm oil and cocoa. Since independence, the strength of the economy has varied considerably, attaining average annual growth rates of 6.7% in the first two decades, then declining significantly between the beginning of the 1980s and 1994; it finally began to improve again after a 50% devaluation of the French-backed Communauté Financière Africaine (CFA) franc in January 1994.

In December 1999, a military coup—the first ever in Cote d'Ivoire's history—overthrew the government. Junta leader Robert Guei blatantly rigged elections held in late 2000 and declared himself the winner. Popular protest forced him to step aside and brought Laurent Gbagbo into power. Ivorian dissidents and disaffected members of the military launched a failed coup attempt in September 2002. Rebel forces claimed the northern half of the country, and in January 2003 were granted ministerial positions in a unity government under the auspices of the Linas-Marcoussis Peace Accord. President Gbagbo and rebel forces resumed implementation of the peace accord in December 2003 after a three-month stalemate, but issues that sparked the civil war, such as land reform and grounds for citizenship, remained unresolved. In March 2007 President Gbagbo and former New Force rebel leader Guillaume Soro signed the Ouagadougou Political Agreement. As a result of the agreement, Soro joined Gbagbo's government as prime minister and the two agreed to reunite the country by dismantling the zone of confidence separating North from South, integrate rebel forces into the national armed forces, and hold elections. Several thousand French and United Nations (UN) troops remain in Cote d'Ivoire to help the parties implement their commitments and to support the peace process.


Côte d'Ivoire, a roughly square-shaped country, is located on the Gulf of Guinea. It is bordered by Liberia and Guinea to the west, by Ghana to the east, and by Mali and Burkina Faso to the north. It lies between 4° to 11°n and 3° to 8°w and covers 322,000 sq km (124,500 sq mi—slightly larger than New Mexico) and has a 530-km (330-mi) coastline along the Gulf of Guinea.

Most of the country consists of a low plateau, sloping gradually southward to the Gulf of Guinea. The plateau is broken by hills in the north and by the Man Mountains in the west, which are about 4000 ft in altitude. Much of the landscape is monotonous, although in places granite domes (inselbergs) rise out of the otherwise flat surface. The heavy surf and strong currents along the coastline have deterred traders throughout history; only in the eastern half of the country was access easier because of a narrow belt of lagoons, sandy islands, and sandbars. Côte d'Ivoire has no natural, sheltered deepwater harbors; Abidjan became the largest port in West Africa only after 1950, when the Vridi Canal was constructed to give Abidjan deep-water access from the ocean.

Climate differences have led to different types of vegetation. The southern part of the country has an equatorial climate with high temperatures and humidity. Tropical rain forest traditionally occupied this region; although much now has been cut down to provide timber for export and land for plantations of cocoa, coffee, oil palms, bananas, rubber, and other crops. In the north it is drier, with almost all the rain falling within a three-month period in the late summer. The rain forest changes into savanna woodlands characterized by increasingly shorter grasses and isolated stands of trees. Vegetation becomes increasingly sparse toward the Burkina Faso border where there is less rainfall. Four rivers, the Cavally, Sassandra, Bandama, and Comoé flow from the north into the Gulf of Guinea to the south. None of the rivers is fully navigable because of rapids and large differences in the levels of the water between the seasons.

The population of Côte d'Ivoire in 2008 was estimated at 18,373,600; it has been growing very quickly since 1975 when it was 6.7 million. The population growth rate in 2008 was 1.96%. About 40.4% are under 15 years of age; and life expectancy is a low 49 years. Abidjan's population is about 3 million and has been growing very rapidly. Grand-Bassam was the original capital of Côte d'Ivoire; it was replaced by Bingerville in 1900 and by Abidjan in 1934. Since 1983, Yamoussoukro, Houphouët-Boigny's village, has been the official administrative capital, although the government has remained in Abidjan and that city remains by far the largest and most dynamic economically.

More than 60 ethnic groups make up the population of Côte d'Ivoire, each with its own distinct language or dialect and customs. The four largest ethnic groups all have their major centers outside Côte d'Ivoire—the Akan to the east, the Mandé and Voltaic to the north, and the Kru to the west. Th us Côte d'Ivoire does not have a single dominant culture. In the past people had more in common with the people of surrounding countries than with their fellow Ivoirians. Indeed, one of the challenges of the country has been to develop a national identity, so that people consider themselves Ivoirians first and members of their particular ethnic group second. The Akan and Voltaic groups form matrilineal societies while the Mandé and Kru are patrilineal. The largest group, the Akan, includes the Abron, Agni, and Baoulé people. The Mandé are among the oldest settlers of Côte d'Ivoire and are found in the forest region; this group includes the Dan or Yacouba, the Malinké, and the Dioula. The most important peoples in the Voltaic group are the Sénoufo. The Kru or Krou group consists of a number of small ethnic groups, including the Godié, Bété, and Wè. Most live in small farming villages or as fishers along the coast.

Although these ethnic groups existed as distinct entities in the past, especially in rural areas, modernization and urbanization have led to mixing, so that ethnic lines have become far less distinct, especially in the towns and cities in the south, which are more cosmopolitan. A large percentage of the population living in the country are non-Ivoirians, having come to seek work. Most are from Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea, with maller numbers from Mauritania and Senegal. In addition, there are significant Lebanese and French populations.


Although all of its approximately 60 ethnic languages belong to the Niger-Congo family, no one language is spoken by more than about a quarter of the population. Four of the eight major branches of the Niger-Congo language family are represented in Côte d'Ivoire: Akan, Mandé, Gur or Voltaic, and Kru. Dioula (pronounced Jou-lah), a north Mandé language, is the most widely spoken African language in Côte d'Ivoire, used all over the country as a market language. Other major African languages are Baoulé (Akan), Sénoufo (Voltaic), and Yacouba (south Mandé).

The official language of the country is French, which is spoken especially in the urban areas and in higher education. However, it is not spoken by the masses of the people, who prefer popular (pidgin) French or Dioula.


Each ethnic group has its own traditions and heroes. One of the most famous legends tells the story of how the Baoulé people arrived in Côte d'Ivoire. In their original homeland, Ghana, they wisely had stored grain in case of famine, but then were attacked by other groups when famine came. Rather than forfeit their food, their queen, Abla Pokou, led her people west into Côte d'Ivoire. Finding it impossible to cross the Comoé river, the queen sacrificed her own child to the genies of the river; they in turn, in recognition of the gift, caused the trees to bend over the river and form a bridge to a land of peace and safety. The word baoulé means “the little one dies.”


Most people in Côte d'Ivoire follow traditional religions, revering the ancestors and believing in the spirits of nature. Even those who profess to follow one of the two major universal religions, Islam and Christianity, generally incorporate traditional practices into their religious observances and daily lives. Many follow syncretic cults loosely based on Islam or Christianity. Sorcery and witchcraft have a strong impact on people, especially in the rural areas but even in the cities. Belief in fetishes is widespread. Traditional ceremonies, dances, and funerals are all related to religious beliefs; they often involve wearing masks. Animal and other sacrifices also may play an important role.

Islam was brought to Côte d'Ivoire by Malinké immigrants from the Mali Empire of the 13th to 18th centuries and is particularly strong in the northern savannah area of the country, although the spiritual center is Abidjan, where one-third of the population is Muslim. About 40% of the population is currently considered Muslim.

Christianity was brought by the Europeans. The French established their first missionary work in the 17th century. About one-fourth of the population, mostly in southern cities, belongs to either the Roman Catholic (the majority) or Protestant churches. Some Ivoirians are followers of the Liberian prophet, William Wade Harris, who spread his version of Christianity along the coast in the early part of the 20th century; the Harrist church continues to gain adherents in urban areas.


August 7 is Independence Day. Both Christian and Muslim holidays are celebrated: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost; and Idul Fitri (the feast at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan) and Labaski, 70 days after the end of Ramadan. The Ivorian government recognizes the following holidays: New Year's Day (January 1), Labor Day (May 1), Assumption (August 15), All Saints' Day (November 1), and Ascension Day.


Each ethnic group has its own traditions (seeAka , Malinke , andDyula ). The major transitions of life—birth, puberty, marriage, and death—all are marked with ceremonies and rituals. Among the most important are initiation rites. The Sénoufo, for example, pass their values and traditions down the generations through poro, an ethnic educational system that spans twenty-one years. During the initiation participants undergo endurance tests and other secret ceremonies in the sacred forest adjacent to the village. Traditionally excision festivals occurred, but these have been severely limited by the government, as have some other initiation practices.

Marriage is basically family, not individually, based. Many marriages are arranged, although in the towns and cities more young people now choose their own spouse. Marriage generally takes place early, particularly for women and especially for those in rural areas. Motherhood thus starts young. By age 14 almost one-half of the girls are married. Divorce and separation are uncommon.

Funerals are central to several ethnic groups. Among the Akan, all villagers shaving their heads mark death in a village. Among the Baoulé, burial is secret, even for someone as illustrious as the first president, Houphouët-Boigny.


Men clearly dominate relationships. Much respect is traditionally accorded to the elders in the village.


Living conditions vary enormously according to whether people live in urban or rural surroundings and according to their wealth.

More than 40% of the population lives in towns and cities. Those who are well off live in nice two- or three-story homes or in air-conditioned skyscrapers, with all the modern conveniences of electricity, running water, sanitation, paved roads, etc. They shop in well-stocked stores and at sophisticated malls. The majority who are poor, however, live mostly in overcrowded slums with none of these facilities and obtain their necessities from open-air markets and roadside stalls.

Most people still live in villages, generally with dirt roads. Although increasing numbers have electricity, many still live in simple, traditional ways, in conical, thatched roof homes, collecting their own water and firewood. Frequently children have to walk to a neighboring village to go to school or to find a clinic staffed by a nurse. Official figures indicate that there is only one doctor for about every 10,000 people in the country and they are overwhelmingly located in the cities. Most land tenure systems are based on the concept of communal ownership. Each family is granted the right to cultivate particular areas, rights that can be handed down through the generations. Almost all city office workers keep alive their ties with their agricultural villages and their links with their native ethnic group.


Households characteristically are made up of the extended family, with parents and children, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins all sharing the same facilities. The family is very strong and children are much wanted. Indeed, the average Ivoirian woman has more than seven children. Women have the responsibility for taking care of the children. Babies are carried on their mothers' backs while the women work in the fields, fetch firewood or water, cook, and undertake other household chores.

This extended family system, together with ethnic and village loyalties, provides a form of social security. It also provides a mechanism for income to be redistributed. Hospitality and solidarity are a way of life; this spirit of hospitality and brotherhood is expressed clearly in these lines from the Ivoirian national anthem: “land of hospitality.... the homeland of genuine brotherhood.”

Customs regarding family life vary from one ethnic group to another. For example, among the Beng (one of the south Mandé group) menstruating women may not work in the forests or the fields, touch a corpse, or cook for their husbands.

Although the law in Côte d'Ivoire allows only one wife, in practice almost one-fourth of men in the country have two or more.


As in most of the developing world, both traditional and Western clothes are worn. Particularly in the urban areas, most people wear Western clothing—pants, or blue jeans, and shirts, although many women wear traditional brightly colored dresses (pagnes) with matching head scarves. In the rural areas, traditional clothing is most common. Women wear pagnes or blouses with long pieces of cloth that wrap around. Men wear shorts or wrap short pieces of cloth around their bodies. Many men have long, beautiful robes for ceremonial occasions.


Yams, plantains, rice, millet, corn, and peanuts are staple foods in Côte d'Ivoire, although each region has its specialties. For example, in the northern savanna area, a common dish is rice with a peppery peanut sauce. Closer to the coast, fish with fried plantain is popular.

The national dish is fufu, made by pounding plantains, cassava, or yams into a sticky dough that then is served with a highly seasoned meat or vegetable sauce, called kedjenou. Fufu is eaten by hand with each person taking a fingerful of dough and dipping it in the sauce. The sauce, prepared from different bases, such as peanut, eggplant, okra, or tomato, can be made with chicken, beef, fish, or other meats; it is simmered like a stew in a canari or oven or over a wood fire. Wood is still the most common fuel except in the towns and cities.

Traditionally people grew their own food and sold the surplus. As in almost all of West Africa, markets play an important role in people's lives. In the cities and large towns, markets are periodic, held every 3, 4, 5, 8 or even 16 days. Merchants are clustered according to the product sold—kola nuts, salt, cloth, animals, leather, baskets, etc. Women are very active in the markets, selling their produce, and purchasing needed goods.


The Ivoirian educational system is an adaptation of the French system. Very few received an education during colonial days, but after independence far more children had the opportunity to attend school. By 2008 Côte d'Ivoire had a literacy rate of about 50.9%, with 57.9% literate males and 43.6% literate females.

Primary school, which is officially compulsory, lasts for six years and secondary school for seven. Children start school generally at age seven. Secondary education is divided into two cycles, the first four years, which culminate in a certificate of the lower cycle of secondary study (the brevet d'étude du premier cycle— the BEPC), and the second cycle, whose graduates earn the baccalauréat, a level of learning roughly equivalent to one or two years of university study in the United States. About two-thirds of primary-school-age children attend school. About 20% continue on to secondary school. Higher education includes the university in Abidjan and a large number of technical and teacher-training institutes. School is free, although students pay an entrance fee at public schools. The public school system is supplemented by Catholic and Quranic schools. However, lack of trained teachers and inadequate equipment and supplies make it hard for most children to obtain a good education.


Music, dance, and storytelling are all important in the lives of Ivoirians. Rhythm is an important part of music in Côte d'Ivoire as in almost all of West Africa. Songs are about typical topics—love, money, friendship, peace, death, and national heroes.

There is great variety in dance in the different regions of the country. It is associated with physical, spiritual, and social benefits. In Côte d'Ivoire there are three types of traditional dancing: the royal dance performed only by a king or tribal chief; the fetish dance, danced by male initiates who have undergone initiation rites in the sacred forest; and the popular dance, open to all, including women. Mask dancing, which belongs to the second category, includes performing a wide variety of twists, turns, twirls, and handstands, sometimes on tall stilts; the dancer's identity remains unknown throughout the ceremony.


In 2007 close to 68% of the population worked in agriculture, far less than the 84% who were farmers in 1960. In general, men clear the land and also take most of the responsibility for the cash or export crops that are grown, such as cocoa, coffee, and pineapples. Women frequently plant and tend the crops and also have the responsibility for growing food crops, such as yams, cassava, plantains, corn, and rice.

A much smaller proportion of the labor force works in industry, concerned largely with processing foods and other raw materials, and producing items such as textiles and machinery. About one-third of the population works in the service sector—more than double the proportion in 1960. Non-Africans dominate the managerial and professional ranks, and work also as mechanics, technicians, and storekeepers. Non-Ivoirian Africans mostly are employed as rural unskilled labor.


By far the most important sport in Côte d'Ivoire is football (soccer), which is played throughout the country.


Ritual ceremonies serve partly as recreation and entertainment and often include music and dance. Storytelling is another favorite traditional pastime. Griots, or bards, may sing or tell folk stories, riddles, and proverbs way into the night. Several ethnic groups have stories that revolve around a scoundrel or trickster, who is always ready to pull a fast one on his partners. Many stories relate to family relationships, such as those between son-in-law and mother-in-law.

Cinema and theater are also important. Movies are made in Côte d'Ivoire for both the cinema and television. Theater includes works by playwrights such as Bernard Dadié, Côte d'Ivoire's most famous writer, and François-Joseph Amon d'Aby. Television and radio provide recreation for increasing numbers, especially in the cities.


The art of Côte d'Ivoire is among the most outstanding in West Africa. Weaving, woodworking, and sculpture flourish. The wooden carvings, and especially the masks, of the Dan and Baoulé people are particularly famous for their beauty and intricate designs. The masks vary considerably from region to region in their designs and purposes. Dan (Yacouba) masks, for example, generally have a somewhat abstract human face while Baoulé masks typically represent an animal or stylized human face. Some may represent antelope or buffalo with large open mouths, intended to represent evil spirits; others may be humorous as with a kplekple, or horned mask, representing a disobedient child. The most famous mask is often considered to be the “fire-spitter” helmet mask, said to represent the chaotic state of things in primeval times; it is a combination of hyena, warthog, and antelope.

Art works are produced not only for ceremonies, but also for enjoyment in non-ceremonial environments; carved doors and furniture, statues, and other decorative objects form an integral part of people's lives. Painted, tie-dyed, and woven textiles, pottery, worked gold and brass, and beautiful jewelry all form a vital part of Côte d'Ivoire's rich artistic heritage. Musical instruments, such as percussion instruments, drums, stringed instruments, and various transverse horns in wood, metal, or animal horn also are made. Images are made of bush spirits, pythons, chameleons, in Sénoufo art, in cast brass ornaments and in mudcloth paintings.


Côte d'Ivoire is a country of great social contrasts. Many of its current social problems arise from its difficult economic conditions. The declining standard of living and the economic austerity that occurred between 1980 and 1994 led to social upheavals, political dissension, and repression.

Poverty, exacerbated by fast population growth and rapid urbanization, underlies the lack of adequate facilities, ranging from inadequate schools and housing to inadequate access to health care, clean water, electricity, and other important elements of infrastructure. Poverty also underlies the increasing amount of crime, including violent crime, found especially in swollen urban areas like Abidjan. Urban unemployment is acute, by 2008 registering at some 40% to 50% as a result of the civil war. Yet along with the decline of real per capita income, there are those who are rich—some commercial farmers, landowners, business executives, and others whose extravagance stands in stark contrast to the misery and squalor the poor experience. Growing inequality between rich and poor exacerbates social tensions. Corruption among government officials reduces the effectiveness of government and its ability to help the country develop, and causes deep resentment among ordinary people. It is widely felt that government officials do what is good for themselves and not what is best for the country.

Côte d'Ivoire also suffers from having one of the highest incidences of AIDS and HIV infection in the continent.

Tensions also exist among ethnic groups and between political parties, tensions that become particularly apparent at election time.


In rural areas, women and men divide the labor, with men clearing the land and harvesting cash crops like cocoa and coffee, while women grow vegetables and other staples and perform most household tasks. Women also collect water and fuel, care for their families, spin and weave, and produce handicrafts and pottery to sell. In general, men hold most prominent civic and government positions, as well as the role of tribal chief in the villages. Religious roles, from shamans to Catholic priests to Muslim imams, are dominated by men.

Men dominate inheritance practices in traditional societies. Both Baoule and Senufo people belong to their mother's family group; power and land are passed down through a mother's family line to her sister's sons. In the Bete and Nyula groups, inheritance is passed down through the father's line to the sons. In most traditional societies in Côte d'Ivoire, women do not have the right to inherit land, but only to use that of their husbands or families. Legislation was enacted in 1983 to allow women greater control of their property after marriage.

Government policy encourages full participation by women in business, but generally there is a bias among employers to hiring women, whom they consider less dependable because of their potential pregnancy. Women are underrepresented in most professions and in the managerial sector as a whole. Some women also encounter difficulty in obtaining loans, as they cannot meet the lending criteria mandated by banks, including title to a house and production of profitable cash crops, specifically coffee and cocoa. However, women are paid on an equal scale with men in the formal business sector. Men continue to dominate managerial positions and enjoy the most career mobility, usually due to a higher level of education and connections with other businessmen.


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—revised by M. Njoroge