Letter From - Winter 2017

Côte d’Ivoire: Smart Girls

By Julia Lichtblau | December 5, 2016
At Sainte-Marie de Cocody, founded in 1962 and one of five public écoles d’excellence, girls learn to swim as well as study for the baccalauréat. (Julia Lichtblau)
At Sainte-Marie de Cocody, founded in 1962 and one of five public écoles d’excellence, girls learn to swim as well as study for the baccalauréat. (Julia Lichtblau)


On a drizzly September morning, I sit in the last row of an unadorned classroom at Lycée Sainte-Marie de Cocody behind some fifty 14-year-old girls in navy skirts and white blouses, hair cropped to the skull. I sat here as a student four decades ago, when my father, a foreign service officer, was stationed in Abidjan, the then-capital and principal city of Côte d’Ivoire. Virginie Gnazebo, the teacher, a tall woman in a vivid African print dress, is preparing these troisième (10th-grade) students for the oral exams of the baccalauréat exam, three grades hence. Heads bent over their cahiers, they write.

Today’s lesson is on obtaining information. The practice theme is “the education of the young girl.” When Gnazebo asks for examples, hands shoot up. One girl proposes: “Aya, a young girl of Abobo, whose father refuses to send her to school. She talks with her friends before going to see him.”

Later in the lesson, Gnazebo calls on two girls. One missed a class on teenage pregnancy, so she asks her friend to fill her in.

“The causes of teenage pregnancy are lack of awareness, bad company, and the fertility of young girls,” the first student says.

“What are the elements of bad company?” the second asks.

“The difference in age between the girl and the man, going to nightclubs.”

“Say, ‘According to the teacher.’ You’re not qualified to answer your friends on such a delicate subject,” Gnazebo interjects.

A murmur arises.

“If you’re going to behave like you’re in the village, I’ll take points off,” she says to quell the chitchat.

Silence falls. Outside, crows carry on a raucous dialogue.

After class, I compliment Gnazebo on the girls’ studiousness. She smiles. “They’re good girls, but a little chatty.”

Neither scenario—clubbing with older men or negotiating with a father who won’t send his daughter to school—seems particularly relevant to girls at Sainte-Marie, one of five public écoles d’excellence here in Côte d’Ivoire. To get in, they must score 150 points on the secondary school exam—nearly double the minimum requirement to enter seventh grade. Virtually all Sainte-Marie students pass the baccalauréat.

Widen the lens, though, and it’s clear why the curriculum includes these themes. In 2013–14, only 29 percent of Ivoirian 10th-grade girls finished the first phase of high school, and fewer than 19 percent of those who went on graduated, Education Ministry data show. The single biggest reason: pregnancy. Girls are married early, often against their will, especially in the Muslim north. According to a 2013 World Bank report, “Being a Woman in Côte d’Ivoire,” 14 percent of girls younger than 15 have been subjected to infibulation, the most traumatic form of female genital mutilation, excising the clitoris and labia and stitching closed the vagina—ostensibly to control a woman’s sexual desires. Close to 70 percent of Ivoirian women over the age of 15 are illiterate. The figure for men is 47 percent. Some parents of Sainte-Marie girls can’t read or write.

In 1962, two years after independence, the country’s first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, asked the French teaching order of Saint-François-Xavier to found a public girls’ school in Abidjan. The order did so; five years later, the European Union’s precursor, the Common Market, opened the Cocody campus. Dignitaries from all the member countries attended the opening ceremony, and each class sang a national anthem. I was there with my quatrième (ninth-grade) class, singing the Luxembourg national anthem. The campus was new and treeless, the desks shiny, the plaster walls white.

I returned to write about Côte d’Ivoire today and to research a novel set in the time I knew. I wanted to rekindle memories and understand the country better than I could as a teenager.

When my family arrived here in 1966, only one private co-ed school accepted non-French speakers. I became fluent quickly. But when I failed math and written French, my parents, diagnosing the problem as the influence of boys, made me take the entrance exam for Sainte-Marie. I failed. The principal, Odile de Vasselot, invited me to try again in September, so I studied all summer. When—stroke of luck—I broke my writing arm, she tested me orally. I passed this time (no spelling).

I spent two years at Sainte-Marie. Its ethos of seriousness was a revelation, as was being one of the few white girls in an African school. Many girls came from villages; a few were rumored to have children. My interest in culture and language emerged here, my French leading to a career in international financial news. Now the experience emerges repeatedly in my fiction.

I doubt they could make an exception for me today; Sainte-Marie’s 1,500 slots are too precious. Abidjan has several international schools now, as well as a lycée français. I saw no white students on the campus or in displayed class photos. How many village girls from my time would have made the cut?

Houphouët-Boigny, a Baoulé (the largest of Côte d’Ivoire’s 60 ethnic groups), managed a bloodless independence and built an economy based on coffee and cacao that collapsed with commodities prices in the 1980s. He kept a lid on ethnic tensions. After his death at 88 in 1993, his successor, Henri Konan-Bédié, promoted Ivoirian purity (Ivoirité), labeling northerners, many of whom are Muslims, as foreigners and pitting Christian southerners against them. In doing so, he successfully delegitimized his political opponent, Alassane Ouattara, whose family was rumored to be from the majority-Muslim country to the northeast, Burkina Faso. Then Laurent Gbagbo, elected president in 2000, further exploited the country’s ethnic divisions. After a coup in September 2002, Côte d’Ivoire split: rebels controlled the north and west, and Gbagbo held the south. African and French peacekeepers arrived in 2002, but in 2004, after the government bombed a French installation and the French destroyed the Ivoirian air force, the United Nations had to intervene. Elections took place in 2010, and Ouattara defeated Gbagbo. Both sides claimed victory, and war erupted in Abidjan. Gbagbo, who surrendered in April 2011, is on trial for human rights violations at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. At the end of the war, a million children were out of school. Ouattara was reelected peaceably in 2015.

Côte d’Ivoire’s economy is projected to grow by 8.5 percent in 2016—the fastest of any African country. In traffic-choked Abidjan, a chaotic mix of decay and renewal, bulldozers rip red gashes in the clay soil to build factories, houses, and roads. Downtown, ruined buildings sit windowless and empty, mere blocks from glassy new banks and the grand, blue-domed mosque. In the wealthy suburb of Cocody, huge residences dwarf the house where I once lived.

I had lunch with Mother Superior Béatrice Joly at the Cocody community’s residence on the Sainte-Marie campus. A French citizen, Joly came to Abidjan and became Sainte-Marie’s principal from 1988 until 1994. After living in France for several years, she returned to serve as mother superior of the community that oversees the girls’ school. With a new infusion of young Ivoirian nuns, the order is thriving, she said, so she is preparing to “pass the baton to the Ivoirian family.” We reminisced about my old teachers—one had died, another retired.

Joly told me that Madeleine Daniélou, who founded the French order in 1911, believed that “each child has a creative spark, and it’s up to us to bring it out so she can contribute to society as a woman to the greatest extent.” I hadn’t heard this shockingly progressive idea as a student, but it seemed to explain why Mademoiselle de Vasselot gave me a second chance.

The order retains an important role in the school, thanks to an agreement with the government, including the appointment of its principal. Joly expressed concern about the school’s future but also pride in the Ivoirian women who have taken the helm.

One of them—chic, youthful Marie Christ Allou—is a veteran educator and the school’s third Ivoirian principal. She said the hardest part of her job is the pushback from the strapped state over Sainte-Marie’s exceptionalism. The school’s annual budget is only 10 million CFA francs, or $16,520, excluding salaries. Its dormitories, built for 400, have become dilapidated and operate below capacity. The school won’t open them until money to pay food suppliers for the year is in hand to assure that deliveries continue uninterrupted.

Other schools have it much worse, Allou pointed out. One high school, which now occupies the 1,000-square-meter building that Sainte-Marie vacated in 1967, must serve its 7,000 students in shifts.

A male staff member (another innovation) gave me a tour of the campus, now leafy and expanded to include a chapel, a swimming pool, and a chicken coop. Girls can attend dance class, learn to play multiple instruments, or practice a sport. Environmental studies classes meet in a grove planted by a teacher. Seventh-graders learn organic gardening and study biodiversity. Eighth-graders learn commercial poultry raising, from chick distress symptoms (cold feet, uneven growth) to bookkeeping.

Côte d’Ivoire’s girls need more schools like Sainte-Marie, but more than that, they need a chance to finish school. In Aboisso, two hours east of Abidjan, I stopped at a roadside restaurant. A chicken ran across a dirt floor as a woman cooked lamb stew and manioc on stoves of mounded earth. She proudly introduced her daughter, who was in troisième. Tall, poised, and impeccable in a pretty blue-and-white dress, the girl took care of three younger children while helping her mother. What are the odds she’ll earn her bac?

Throughout my visit, I met people trying to improve girls’ lives—like author Fatou Keïta, who wrote a novel on genital mutilation, Rebelle, which is taught in schools, and Agnès Kraidy, senior reporter for the state-controlled newspaper Fraternité Matin, who collected women’s testimonies for the World Bank’s 2013 report. A third pioneer, Christiane Gaodé, runs her tiny nonprofit, LUCOP (Fight Against Poverty), out of her modest apartment in Abidjan’s Deux-Plateaux neighborhood. She took me to see the school she established in the village of Daguikoi, about 30 kilometers north of Abidjan, built with a grant from the United Nations. The one-story orange building holds three grades, latrines, and an office, and Gaodé hopes to raise more money to make room for the remaining primary grades. The village was waiting for the government to assign teachers to the newly finished school when I visited. By early fall, Gaodé told me, the school was in full swing with three teachers. Previously, children had to walk six kilometers to the nearest school. To avoid the walk, says Gaodé, “they pretended to be sick.”

Gaodé’s nonprofit focuses on women and children. “When an African woman goes to the fields,” she says, “she carries the load on her head, even when she has a baby on her back or she’s pregnant. Once they get home, she has to heat the water so [her husband] can wash; she has to cook so he can eat. … She’s conscientious, and therefore she’s hardworking. And when you organize something with women, it’s successful.”

Daguikoi is a tidy village of wattle-and-daub houses thatched with palm fronds. The community of 1,500 has no electricity and only one pump, yet there’s cell phone coverage. We gathered under a pavilion with the members of LUCOP and assorted children. None of the women I met could read or write or speak French, so the village chief, Théodore Dagui, translated.

The women told me that having a school in the village allows them to work without worrying about the safety of their children. LUCOP also helped them learn to work cooperatively. They run a tontine, or lending circle. Together, they collect 1,000 francs (about $1.60) a month to a pot. Each month, a different person receives the sum. The women have used their shares to pay for cookware, school fees, and school supplies. Gaodé uses household objects to teach them the alphabet.

Gaodé hopes to build an infirmary in Daguikoi, which has no doctor. The youngest villager, a two-month-old, was born in a bamboo grove. Once, when a pregnant woman was in labor, Chief Dagui transported her 10 kilometers to the nearest hospital on his motorcycle. He pointed to a young woman working the pump who gave birth not long ago. Her eyes were swollen. Gaodé advised taking her to a clinic, but medical care, even for people as poor as these villagers, isn’t free.

We left as the rain started. Gaodé’s car couldn’t make it up a steep, muddy hill, so we caught a ride into Abidjan with a priest, who talked with us about the social situation of women in his parish. He agreed with Gaodé: “Women do all the work. They need agency. In our culture, the man commands.”

The conversation turned to the trafficking of young girls into work as domestics. The priest blamed polygamy. “The women are like a series of single mothers,” he said. “The father doesn’t take real responsibility. He isn’t engaged with any of his children, so he sells them.”

He said he asks women why they don’t run away. “They say, ‘Where would I go? Who will take care of me?’ ”

As my two weeks in Côte d’Ivoire came to an end, I was afraid of missing the bigger picture, so I called the Ministry of National Education. In a high-rise office tower I met with Jeanne Kopieu, deputy director of Education for All, in the Division of Primary, Middle, and High Schools. With Kopieu were Charlotte Djédjé, the department head for girls’ education, and Yvonne Lakpa, a research officer. Polite but puzzled at first by my interest, they warmed up on learning that I was an ancienne of Sainte-Marie.

Paradoxically, the 2010–11 civil war brought new approaches to educating girls, said Kopieu. “The war wasn’t good, but it raised consciousness.” The NGOs and UNICEF, which took over responsibility for education in the conflict zones, introduced gender awareness training and the idea that the schools should be friendly places where children are free from violence, including sexual abuse. A widely cited 2010 Education Ministry report said 47 percent of teachers surveyed admitted having sexual relations with students.

Djédjé, a tiny, fine-featured woman, spoke with intensity about an initiative called the Clubs of Mothers of Girl Students (CMEF), which enlists illiterate mothers as education advocates in their villages.

“[The women] go around and make a list of children who aren’t enrolled,” said Djédjé. “They don’t leave out the little boys—because it may be the father doesn’t have enough money to send even the boys to school. They get their names. They take them to the principal. Now these illiterate women, whom no one listened to, no one respected, can be heard. UNICEF supports them. Some CMEF clubs have gotten financing for moneymaking activities. They can go into business, form cooperatives, even provide food for school lunches. When their husbands see that they’ve received visits from foreigners, who come and support them, they become important in their communities.”

The clubs have been so successful that there are now about 600. Emboldened by the prestige of their new role in these clubs, mothers can challenge deep-rooted customs that keep girls out of school. “They hear in the neighborhood that someone wants a forced marriage, especially in the north in the Muslim civilization, where people want to marry girls of 10 or 11 to old men. When a mother hears that, she runs straight to the principal, who can interrupt the action,” Djédjé said.

In secondary schools, which exist in larger towns, poor village girls live with tuteurs, or guardians, who often take advantage of them, or they share a room. “Imagine, 10 kids rent a room. By the end of the year, five are pregnant. That’s poverty. The parents say naïvely, ‘She’ll manage.’ They give her a five-kilo bag of rice to last a trimester,” Kopieu said. Girls sell themselves to eat. In 2014–15, nearly 6,000 Ivoirian girls, some younger than 12 years old, became pregnant—almost three times the global rate.

“If we succeeded, it’s because of boarding schools,” Kopieu said. “Many women who have succeeded, it’s for that reason.” But the country’s five or six public girls’ boarding schools combined have maybe 2,000 places, she estimated.

Expensive to operate, boarding schools are vulnerable to the ups and downs of central government funding. Supervised residences are cheaper, and food can be purchased locally, in keeping with another Ivoirian goal—decentralization. Kopieu described one for 12 girls, managed by a teacher and his family, that has sent its first students to university. Kopieu and her colleagues are hoping to find funds to build a facility for 120 girls for about $280,000.

Unfortunately, no single line in the Côte d’Ivoire budget exists for girls’ education. A new Ministry of Education report, “Strategic Plan for Accelerating Girls’ Education 2016–2018,” proposes $18 million in spending, but it’s not clear where the money will come from and whether it can be well spent. “Our voices don’t carry because we’re low-level technicians,” Kopieu said. “There’s a lot to do. And when we make progress, there are pockets to line.”

The day before I left, I had lunch with Marie Christ Allou and her husband, Bruno, at their house. Over the meal, we discussed poverty. “The problem in Africa is you can’t be an individual,” Bruno said. “If you’re an individual, you’re considered white. If you’re successful, you’re expected to take care of everyone. If you take care of 10 poor people, you’ll end up with 11 poor people. If you take care of one and that person goes out and takes care of one and that person takes care of one …” He opened his hands. “You see?” he said. I did.

Maybe that’s what Houphouët-Boigny had in mind when he asked the sisters of Saint-François-Xavier to build a school for girls.

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