Pierre-Andre Krol recently spent several weeks in a high school in Gagnoa in Ivory Coast. The school was overcrowded, underequipped, and poverty-stricken. Yet the school functions and the students work hard.
THE high school in Gagnoa, Ivory Coast, an inland regional capital with a population of 180,000, mirrors the decomposition of a country that was once held up as a model for Africa.
The 30 or so crumbling buildings in a scrubby park have dilapidated classrooms with peeling walls. The ruin bursts into life when the school's 4,000 pupils - it was built for 1,000 - stream in and crowd 60 to 85 to a class. There are no cupboards to store equipment in, but then there's no equipment to store, anyway.
``We teach empty-handed. It's ages since we had a wall map,'' says Yapi Achi, who has been teaching history and geography in the school for 15 years, ``and the pupils have no books.''
The only things vaguely scientific about the science rooms are the china sinks, dry all year round for want of test-tubes and chemicals to use in them. ``My pupils will leave this school without having either seen or carried out a single experiment,'' says Georges, who teaches physics and chemistry. ``I have to draw diagrams on the blackboard, and often I don't even have colored chalk to make them clearer.''
No better equipped, the physical-education teachers wonder what they are there for. ``With classes this size, we are just keeping the pupils amused, not teaching them anything,'' Ousmane Gbane says as his class of 70 lines up for the long jump.
The school's library consists of just three shelves of books kept along with the school records in a windowless shed with a mud floor.
And yet the place functions no worse than any of the country's other high schools. Every morning before the 7 o'clock siren, the school's students, one-fourth of them girls, file in through the gate. The girls wear white and navy blue; the boys wear pale khaki.
Social problems abound: pregnant girls, small-time prostitution, adolescents upset by separation from their parents who live far from the town, and children too poor to satisfy their hunger each day. ``I came to school in November because my father couldn't afford to pay my registration fee at the beginning of term,'' says Tiemoko, the son of a farmer from the north of the country. Hundreds of pupils started school weeks late for the same reason.
There are two simple explanations for why the students press on in their studies despite such conditions: Without school, there is no hope for their future, and there is nothing better than this run-down high school. They must make do with what they have. Discipline is not an issue, because school is sacred for students, parents, and society as a whole.
In remote villages, parents dream of sending their children to school, because education is the only path to becoming ``someone,'' and that means becoming a civil servant. Few students contemplate a job in the private sector, which is too precarious and too poorly paid to have any appeal.
In Ivory Coast, school is at once day nursery, refuge, unemployment shelter, and place of learning. Hence the dramatically increased baccalaureate failure rate. Many students, young and old, rent tiny cells about the size of half a garage space, opening on to a noisy yard. These are usually extremely old or without either water or electricity.
``Since I don't have electricity, I wait until 10 o'clock when there are fewer people walking along the street, and then I study by the light of the street lamp, using the table the orange seller uses by day on the corner of the street,'' says Sebastien, a strapping youth who is bursting out of his threadbare khaki clothes.
Teaching methods, syllabuses, examinations, and diplomas are still largely modeled on the French system. Students are required to study Moliere and even Racine and Corneille, whose sophisticated alexandrines they are asked to scrutinize. It is a lot to ask of youths who have started out with two or three African languages and are still not comfortable with correct French (let alone that of classical French writers), so different from the slangy version they speak among themselves.
``There are texts I just can't make head or tail of, even after reading them several times,'' says Koffi, who is in a literary section. ``It's really depressing, and when I have to write, I am completely stuck.''
In philosophy, the students are taught Kant, Plato, Kierkegaard, Descartes, and other great Western thinkers, ancient and modern. They are dictated pages and pages of concepts that they are expected to consider universal without any reference to their own environment and ignoring the fact that Africa has its own culture.
Like all towns of the interior (other than the provincial capital, Yamoussoukro), Gagnoa is a stagnant city. Its crumbling cinema shows indescribably bad films; there is no attempt at a youth center, a community hall, a theater, or a library; most pupils never see television.
For the students here, their high school is an oasis where they are introduced, albeit in miserable conditions, to a purely Western idea of modernity, the echoes and glints of which they can just trace in their teachers' voices.