Bat City

In Ivory Coast's Abidjan, soaring bats give city gothic edge

August 4, 2001


ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) _ When the sun sinks beneath the lagoons, the bats spread webbed wings and soar into the twilight above this glittering West African metropolis.

Hundreds of thousands stream past skyscrapers and apartment buildings in great swarms. They cast eerie shadows over jammed freeways, a network of waterways and a 70-meter-high (230-foot-high) concrete tower in the form of Christ extending his arms out toward the city's tree-filled suburbs.

The spectacle begins a nightly hunt for food in villages outside Ivory Coast's financial hub that ends at dawn, when the bats return to spend the day hanging upside down in green mango trees that line the boulevards.

Peering down from their roosts, flashing fangs at passers-by, the bats might seem a menacing sight. But it's one most residents are used to.

"We're not afraid of them at all. Here, we eat them," says Emmanuel Wilfried, a teen-ager who guards parked cars for change on a street downtown.

Ecologists estimate 1 million fruit bats live in Abidjan, giving a decidedly gothic edge to a city whose 3 million people have learned not only how to live with the creatures, but also how to hunt them, cook them up in sweet stews and put them to use in voodoo.

In other parts of the world, bat colonies often live in dark caves secluded from humans, but Abidjan's population has clearly adapted to urban life.

Most try to get shut-eye hanging from treetops in Plateau, the bustling business district in the city center. But it's not easy sleeping in town.

The bats have to put up not only with the tropical heat and intense humidity, but also diesel fumes, incessant honking of car horns and cries from street vendors trying to make a sale.

"All the noise doesn't seem to bother them. They're used to living in the city," says Mamadou Ouattara, who works as a guide for foreign tourists.

But many of the bats seem restless, flapping their wings and squawking high-pitched chirps throughout the day. In the recent military and political unrest, they _ and a few armed men _ were the only life left on deserted streets.

Dusk is the daily signal for the bats to take off in unison in search of mangos, bananas and papayas _ or any other juicy fruit they can find.

As the bats leave, so too do the hordes of street hawkers, business people and beggars who make a living downtown every day.

"When they leave the city at night, it's our cue to go, too," Ouattara says.
Residents say the bats are never aggressive toward humans _ but the favor is not always reciprocated.

Hungry customers with a few dollars to spare can easily find somebody willing to break out a slingshot and knock a few bats to the ground for dinner. Others say they clamber up into the thick mango trees to catch bats by hand.

Bats that survive their capture sometimes end up tied to sticks, sold live on street corners.

A visit to the Gero market on the city's north side finds about 60 smoked bats lying curled in fist-sized balls on an old newspaper spread across a fragile wooden stall.

"We sell them for 1,000 CFA (about dlrs 1.25) apiece. You want some?" asks Elise Yaou, holding a specimen up for examination.

The bat's black wings shields a patch of light-brown fur on its chest. Yaou rotates the creature again to show a small set of claws and sharp, permanently clenched white teeth.

A brief negotiation yields three bats for the same price _ and some cooking advice.

Yaou says the bats taste best boiled and mixed with a sauce of crushed red berries. "The meat is sweet. People like it enormously," she says.

Not everyone has the same taste.

For Hossou D. Fuslin, a native of Benin, bats are a ritual part of voodoo magic that his ancestors have practiced for centuries.

"Some people eat them, but for people like me it is forbidden. I'm a healer-consultant. I use them for work," Fuslin says while reclining on a couch at his blue-walled home.

For those in need _ and who have 45,000 CFA francs (dlrs 60) _ Fuslin promises to boost the number of clients at failing bars and restaurants.

The formula is simple: Take one chameleon, one hawk, one parrot and one bat, cook together with leaves over a fire and mash into a powder. Wrap the mixture in a white sheet and bury in the ground _ or hide behind a picture or a painting _ at the entrance of the establishment.

"In 30 days, you'll see the results," Fuslin says confidently, a creeping grin framing the large gap between his front teeth.

He says each ingredient has a certain power: Chameleons change things. Bats attract things.

"There is no place in Abidjan that's popular, that's full of life, that hasn't used something like this," Fuslin says.

Outside his house, a deep blue spreads across the horizon. A car's headlights illuminate the narrow dirt street. A few children play barefoot near the doorway.

Few take notice of the bats fluttering overhead, their wings silhouetted against the fading sky as they move together into the villages beyond.

Copyright 2001 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

First photo is by AP. Second photo by Todd Pitman