Let me tell you the story of Edith, a woman in her late 30s who is a friend of my wife. The first time I met my wife, Edith was there. She was also there at our first meet-up after the initial encounter. She is pleasant and kind and smiles easily. Back in 2008, with her two-year-old daughter, she shared a bedroom with my wife who was with her own two teenage daughters, living at her aunt’s home (the younger sister of her late mother) in Abidjan’s middle class old-Cocody suburb. The story goes that my wife’s grand-parents sent this aunt to get educated, on the understanding that she would look after the others. My wife’s mother died when she was fourteen.
Edith didn’t go very far in school, and struggles to read, though at various points in recent years she has been taking literacy classes. She also doesn’t have a birth certificate which means she doesn’t have a national ID card. She makes her living as a hairdresser. The father of Edith’s daughter, Carole, was one of my wife’s half-brothers.
Skip forward ten years, and Carole is still at the same address and doing very well in school – in fact she gained a government bursary this year for secondary school studies. Edith is living somewhere else, with the woman who runs the hairdressing shop where she works, because the aforementioned aunt is ‘difficult’. She earns 50,000 cfa (about $100) a month from her work, giving 20,000 cfa to the lady for her rent, and 20,000 cfa to an after-school tutor (‘maitre de maison’) for her daughter. She lives on the rest ($20). She had another child, a son, with another man, about eight years ago, though he now lives with his father in San Pedro. The relationship with the father of Carole had ended even ten years ago, and he almost never contributes to their daughter’s upkeep, despite the fact that he recently settled a legal dispute to gain access to his parents’ land in the centre of the country and purportedly sold it and made around $60,000. He apparently has a nice car, and can be violent. He was about the only member of my wife’s family who didn’t come to our wedding in 2009. In fact, I’ve never met him.
Two weeks ago, the aunt where Carole stays and goes to school found that some money she had set aside had disappeared. In a rage, at 3am, she threw Carole and the son of another of my wife’s brothers who recently moved there to be close to his secondary school, out on the street. A solution had to be found, but Marie-Therese’s housemate doesn’t want Carole to live there as the place is already quite small. So she was sent north to the city of Bouake to stay with an uncle. Fortunately, it’s the summer school break.
Carole’s father proposes that she just be sent back to the ‘village’ to go to school there. My wife says that if she went there she’d be pregnant within two years. A second proposal has now been found for Carole to attend a boarding school run by nuns on the northern outskirts of Abidjan where Edith’s housemate’s daughter also attended, and passed her baccalaureate. The cost per year of the fees, including boarding, is about $600, which my wife has agreed to pay.
Why am I telling this story? A few reasons. Firstly, despite the distance, we still feel very involved in affairs in Abidjan. Secondly, these stories are totally run of the mill in Cote d’Ivoire, and you could probably find 15 million tales with similar themes (absent fathers, children born here and there, the ties between city and village, surviving on very little, family tensions and disputes, the prioritisation of education, the fear of teenage pregnancy). Thirdly, the one part of this story that really blew me away was that although there must be more to living on 50,000 cfa a month, the fact of dedicating 40% of this meagre income to some extra tuition for a daughter is really incredible, and highlights more than anything the desire and perceived value of education.
(Names have been changed)