Hey D’jo, Carpe Diem

I was just at a meeting with the minister of planning and development, Mabri Toikeusse, who set out the objectives of the government, which include having a “performing educational sector that prioritises an enterprise culture and a spirit of excellence”.

Last night I was with a couple of parents concerned because the public university system will remain closed until October 2012 (two years in total) so that construction and restoration work can finish on the campuses. “There was no point passing the baccalaureate exams this year”, one parent said her daughter had said. The parents worried that their children would now be sitting at home all day.

In Europe this sort of things, far from ideal, might be labelled an ‘enforced gap year’ – and in those three words is a world of cultural difference. The concept of a gap year is to take a break from formal education to have new experiences, widen perspectives and learn new skills. I’ve never heard of someone doing a gap year here.

In Ivory Coast, I often feel oppressed by a degree of passivity. Children grow up, wait to be told where to go to school (‘orientation’), then if they happen to pass an exam (‘ca n’a pas marche’ – ‘it’ didn’t work out), then university, and then a career in the civil service (though the French loses the idea of ‘service’ with the word ‘fonctionnaire’). At each stage the state gives something to the passive actor. People are told what to do. Even those looking for work in the private sector often seem to feel that it’s a case of dropping off your CV of educational history and then sitting at home to wait for a phone call (“j’attends”). The call generally doesn’t come. It’s rare to come across a young person who is after some work experience/an intern-ship when it’s not prescribed as part of some formal study programme.

In the distant past things may have worked this way. But the message (not communicated very prominently) by the new government is “forget about the public sector”. That means that the person with their baccalaureate sitting at home waiting for the university to open is not in too different a position to the person at the other end of the process who’s spent five years getting through a three year sociology degree and now has no job.

University is not the eldorado it perhaps once was, and more than ever students need to seize their lives by the scruff of its neck, get the skills necessary for working in the 21st century, and starting finding or creating work. For some, it may be a question of taking advantage of free movement in the ECOWAS zone to move to Ghana to gain a second/third language. For others, it will be abandoning the city overflowing with unemployed youth, for some rural entrepreneurship to take advantage of the vast areas of arable land not under cultivation. For others, it’ll be starting their own business. In short, the same skills that students will need after university to find work, are the same skills they can refine now they have an ‘enforced gap year’.

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