Afousatou was just 20 when she left Ivory Coast, leaving behind her family and her 33 brothers and sisters. Independently-minded, she is making the most of her exile and her passion for cooking.
When we meet Afousatou in a café at Porte de la Chapelle in the north of Paris, the first thing that we notice is her big smile. This 30-year-old Ivorian woman keeps smiling throughout our conversation, even when she recalls some of the difficult moments in her life. The frank and communicative smile is permanently etched onto her beautiful face.
Afousatou is a woman of character - "a rebel", as she likes to describe herself. The youngest sibling of eight children on her mother's side and another 26 on her father's side, she had to impose herself to be assertive. “Being the baby of a big family, everybody had an opinion of what I should and shouldn't do", she recounts. "It was tiring!"
Thirst for independence
Her large, cheerful eyes, natural kindness and generosity hide a fierce willpower and a vital need for emancipation far from her family nest. Her desire for independence led her in 2008 to leave her town, Ferkessédougou, situated 650 km north of Abidjan, right next to the borders with Mali and Burkina Faso. The conflicts raging in the north of the country gave her another reason to try her luck elsewhere. With the complicity of her mother and her oldest sister, her "second mum" who is 20 years older than her, the young adult caught a plane for Paris. Back in 2008, Afousatou was only 21. "I needed to discover myself, to find myself in an environment far from my family to find out who I really was."
After arriving in France, Afousatou didn't contact anybody for nearly two months, even though one of her sisters lives in the Parisian region. "With a family like mine, we're a bit all over the place", she says, laughing. At the beginning, she preferred to manage with her own means, even if that meant struggling to find a roof over her head. There was always this need to assert herself alone and not be considered as "the sister of", "the daughter of" or "the cousin of". As she says, "I needed to know what I was capable of and to know myself, quite simply".
First encounter, away from home
One day, she decided to call this sister that she had never seen. The two women fell into each other's arms, hugging, before bursting into tears. When she recalls this encounter, Afousatou's face lights up as if she is reliving this moment today. After being put up by her sister, the young Ivorian alternated her nights between staying with friends, at the hotel or at centres in Paris and its region. It was a difficult period that Afousatou evokes with humour and positivity. "It enabled me to visit France", she jokes. "Changing place often has several advantages. First of all, it helped me get to know French culture and it also enabled me to adapt to all kinds of situations", the young mother observes.
Even when she was pregnant with her son Ryan, who is now four, she had to go from one temporary lodging to another after she separated from the father of her child, who is 30 years her senior. "Life is made of trials, you have to deal with it", she says simply. "I always look on the positive side, it helps me cope". Today, even though she has got back together with her partner, the young woman prefers to live alone. It's a situation that nonetheless seems to suit her. "I'm someone who is free and independent. It's better like that", she says proudly.
“My bedroom has become a restaurant”
Afousatou is always on the go, partly to avoid thinking too much. "If you don't do anything in a country that you don't know, you'd quickly become crazy", she reckons. The Ivorian has two passions: commerce and cooking. Upon arriving in France, she easily found small jobs in restaurants, washing dishes and as a kitchen help. On the side, she sold Ivorian specialties to make some extra cash. Even when she was in the shelter, she couldn't stop herself from preparing food for the other residents. "Afousatou was synonymous with cooking there. My bedroom became a restaurant", she recalls, smiling. Thanks to the association France 'terre d'asile' which gave her a leg-up, she organizes cooking classes three or four times a month and has become a caterer for private individuals. "Cooking creates links and bonds people together", says the young mother. "And I also share Ivorian gastronomy and culture."
On Sunday, she will participate in the Refugee food festival. Launched last year, the festival enables the kitchens of certain restaurants to be opened to refugee chefs. It is the occasion for everybody to try delicacies from elsewhere. For Afousatou, it will be the first time that she will be working with professional cooks that she will direct with a "brigade". "I can't wait", enthuses Afousatou, who could talk about cooking for hours. She could also talk endlessly about her birth town, where she would like to open a guest house following on from Emmaüs recently opening an office there. She also works with people with disabilities. Afousatou knows that she will return to live in Ivory Coast one day but doesn't know when. "It could be in months or years. I don't know. I go where the wind takes me."