As soon as the Save the Children vehicle pulls up and parks outside a Catholic Mission in the western town of Duekoué, now home to an estimated 27,000 people — approximately two-thirds children — children suddenly congregate around the car.
They’re looking for a little diversion, if even a brief conversation and a few laughs with the girl who hops out of the car in a red Save the Children hat and greets them with a funny accent. For me, it’s a privilege to take the time to meet the many smiling faces of the children crowding around to shake my hand and practice a few phrases in English. One little one tugs on my shirt getting me to bend down and proudly counts in my ear from one to ten in both French and English.
Emotionally, it’s a mixed moment. On the one hand it’s a delight to share and bond with the children, but at the same time my mind rests on the reality that it is eleven in the morning on a weekday and this congregation of smiling and bright children are not in school. In this town schools are closed and many teachers in the area are still absent as they have yet to return to their home communities. Five months after the elections that sparked a major crisis, these children are still far from their own homes, friends and schools where they were registered before. They are still lacking sufficient essentials — food, clean water, bed, clothes and shelter. Beyond that, the children are also missing the basics for school, having left behind everything when they fled their homes — including books, notebooks and pencils. It is with such a thought that I focus on the purpose of this visit.
Is the schoool building safe?
The agenda for today is to assess the school building next door to the camp to see how Save the Children can assist in its reopening as a safe learning space for the many children in Duekoué camp. Along with me are two construction specialists to assess the school building. Upon entering the school yard next, we are greeted by more groups of children playing in the courtyard, some innovatively jumping rope made out of piece of scrap cloth tied together, who excitedly run up and want to know if and when classes will start. Many have been out of school already for three to four months — some for up to six months.
As we move from classroom to classroom, the school director points out caving in wood ceiling boards, crumbling cement floors, cracked chalkboards and a wall riddled with bulletholes. The benches and tables have been carefully stacked in a corner, but on closer inspection, we are shown how many are broken and worn. The director motions outside to the playing children and informs me that more desks are needed to accommodate the growing number of children now in the school’s area. With more and more children in the area wanting to get back into school, there simply aren’t enough teachers to meet the growing need.
These are precisely the educational issues that Save the Children is working to address in Ivory Coast. We are providing new materials such as school benches, chalkboards, functioning toilet facilities and access to drinking water points. Until these are ready, we will set up safe temporary learning spaces for children who have been forced to flee their homes during the conflict. We are coordinating our response with other humanitarian agencies and working with the Ministry of Education to make sure children’s educational needs are met.
Tents used as temporary schools
For this specific school site, the construction specialists are in agreement that the school requires rehabilitation and the school director has suggested erecting tents as temporary learning spaces in the courtyard in the meantime. For the children at Duekoué camp, tents can function as temporary learning spaces providing learning activities, such as an accelerated learning programmes while providing recreational and psychosocial activities. Save the Children has a lot of experience in this area, as we often use school tents and provides school materials to construct temporary learning spaces in emergencies.
Beyond improving school facilities, Save the Children is also advocating for the return of school teachers, identifying volunteer teachers in communities and collaborating with the educational authorities in the provision of teacher trainings for teachers and volunteers. Through these combined efforts, Save the Children aspires to support children to go back to school; ensuring children have access to an educational space with appropriate educators and materials so that the children at Duekoué camp can access their right to a quality education.
Later, as we make our way back to the car, a young girl of around ten years old shows off a baby sister wrapped in a blanket she carries in her arms. The two girls are beautiful, and again thoughts rest on how important education’s role is – to provide the girls with a bright future.
Save the Children has been working in Ivory Coast since 1996. We have the capacity and commitment to support education for all children affected by the crisis. Tomorrow, thanks to all of those dedicated to Save the Children’s work, a plane is arriving with school tents and school kits and we will be able to be set up learning activities for the children who are ready and waiting at Duekoue camp.
Lisa Deters, Duekoué, Ivory Coast