Lost generation feared in Ivorian school chaos

It looks deceptively as if Côte d’Ivoire is at peace again. Many schools have reopened in the rebel-run north and noisy groups of children wearing black and white or gingham check uniforms kick up the dust on their way to class in the morning.

But after two and a half years of armed confrontation, the war is far from over. And despite appearances, the schools are not running normally.

Classes and exams have been disrupted for three years running and a generation of young Ivorians risks being left out in the cold.

“We haven’t had exams this year.
Everyone’s waiting for exams. We’re stuck, we can’t go on,” said Pierre Yao, a secondary school pupil in the northern city of Korhogo. At 16, he has only two years to go before taking his secondary school leaving exams.

In mid-2004, 63 985 students in northern Côte d’Ivoire registered to sit three key exams closing the 2003/2004 school year.

Most were primary school pupils wanting to sit the entrance exam to get into secondary school. Others were secondary school pupils who wanted to try for their school-leaving certificate or the prized baccalaureat, which paves the way for a place at university.

Exams initially were scheduled for November 10. But on November 4, the simmering war between southern loyalists and rebel northerners flared up again and President Laurent Gbagbo’s government refused to allow the tests to go ahead.

So Pierre and other youngsters are marking time, playing a waiting game thumbing through last year’s textbooks and notes.

Meanwhile time is running out for many of those waiting to move on from primary to secondary school. Those who turn 15 before sitting the secondary entrance exam will be deemed too old and thrown out of the system.

Most schools, hospitals, courts, tax offices and other state-run services closed down in the northern half of Côte d’Ivoire in September 2002, when civil war broke out, partitioning the country of 16-million people between the government-controlled south and insurgent north.

Teachers and other civil servants fled the dusty villages and towns of the dry savannah for the lush south and its lagoon-side capital Abidjan, while the government cut off funding to rebel-held areas.

War interrupted schooling for 700 000 children, according to the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef).

“War or no war, it’s not right to cast children aside, people shouldn’t toy with schooling,” said Adama Ouattara, the deputy head of education for the New Forces rebel movement.

The issue of the exams is a top priority, he said. Rebel leaders even have appealed to South African President Thabo Mbeki, the international mediator in the Côte d’Ivoire conflict, to intervene to allow the exams to go ahead.

“In spite of the war, the exams took place last year and the results were excellent, though we lacked means and staff. The government agreed to send up examiners,” Ouattara said. “This year we’ve reopened the schools and found volunteer teachers, but the government is blocking everything.”

Parents have paid the exam fees, the lists of candidates have been drawn up and the schools are ready.

Lack of teachers

In the village of Kassoungbarga, set on a red dirt road that runs through cotton fields near Korhogo, primary schoolteacher Seydou Kone single-handedly teaches 100 children aged between 7 and 15, six days a week.

“There used to be two of us, but when the crisis began the other man went home to the south. He didn’t feel safe here,” Kone said.

Kone sits the crowd of children in two of the school’s three dilapidated classrooms. One is decorated with a large crocodile and an elephant—the national symbol of Côte d’Ivoire. The other is hung with yellowing paper-chains.

An older child helps keep the peace in one class while Kone zaps from room one to room two teaching his charges how to read and write. The desks are battered and the tops of many of them are missing. There are few books to be seen.

In the dusty schoolyard, lines of neatly-placed stones mark out the football and other playing fields, and there’s a vegetable patch near a grove of cashew nut and mango trees.

Kone, who is 30-something, explained that he must leave the village every two or three months when he runs out of cash to travel south to Abidjan to pick up his pay. Banks in the north closed down as soon as the war began. So too did a host of other businesses based there.

“The trip used to be really difficult, we’d be scared, there were lots of roadblocks and no transport,” Kone said. “You’d have to go by scooter and it would take four days just to get to Abidjan. It was best not to travel alone. But now the buses are running again.”

The teacher would like extra help from a volunteer. But this is only possible if the parents of his pupils, hard-working farmers who earn a pittance, can club together to provide this longed-for assistant with food or a salary.

The volunteer teachers, some of them university students waiting for the local university to reopen, are paid between 5 000 and 10 000 CFA francs ($10 to $20) a month.

Communities turn to self-help to keep schools open.

When most of the teachers fled south and Education Ministry funds dried up for the six million people living in the north, parents, local communities and the rebel authorities recruited retired teachers, students at college and university and other literate volunteers to help reopen the schools.

To the irritation of the government, international aid agencies stepped in to support the effort. Unicef for example donates school kits and clothing, the World Food Programme (WFP) supplies school meals.

The aid seems to have brought more children into the classroom, Kone said. The village school had only 75 pupils before the war.

“Schooling,” said Besida Tonwe, who heads the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Côte d’Ivoire, “is not only about maths, it’s about protection. It keeps children off the streets.”

Amy Martin, the WFP programme officer in Korhogo, said her agency also had contributed food to help schools function in the south when war broke out and northern establishments closed down.

“When schools reopened here, after the kids had lost a year, we helped. Our concern is keeping children in school. We give food if there’s a certified teacher,” she said.

“To get the schools opened and functioning here has been a political battle for people,” she added. “The ministry is reluctant, they won’t announce dates for exams, the kids are waiting.”

OCHA’s Tonwe said Education Minister Michel Amani N’Guessan, a member of President Laurent Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party, had said he would refuse to provide teachers or administrative staff for schools in the north unless the country reunified and the rebels disarmed.

“The government are playing politics with their own people,” she said.

According to the local NGO Ecole Pour Tous (School for All), the situation in schools in the north has improved as a result of the self-help schemes implemented there.

During the 2002-2003 school year, when the fighting was intense, only 230 000 children saw the inside of a classroom up north. There were two volunteer teachers for every qualified staff teacher.

But last year, as the self-help system settled into place and Gbagbo’s government approved the return of some staff following the 2003 Linas Marcoussis peace deal, the number of children going to school in rebel territory doubled to more than 400 000.

There were also nearly 1 000 more qualified teachers at work in the north during the 2003-2004 school year. According to Ecole Pour Tous, the number went up to 4 448 from 3 407 during the previous academic year.

The NGO had estimated that 584 000 pupils would enrol in schools in the north in the current 2004-2005 school year, almost a third more than previously.

But that estimate was drawn up before the short-lived resumption of hostilities last November.

The situation now is almost as bad as it was. Although many schools are functioning, as the war grinds on the economy is more or less at a standstill. Cash is running short to repair schools, pay volunteer teachers and provide materials.

“We’re overloading classes now with children whose parents can’t pay,” said Ibrahim Coulibaly, the headmaster of a primary school in the rebel capital Bouake.

“But what can you do? You can’t leave these kids out in the street. What’ll become of them?”—Irin

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