In many countries, it’s typical for rural women to work hard from dawn to dusk, inside and outside the home, while men get plenty of time off to relax. That’s how it is in Ivory Coast, so in the name of equality some men are getting sent back to school.
The lesson under mango trees begins with loud handclaps instead of a bell. As in any class, some are very talkative, some bored and fidgety, others a bit drowsy in the midday heat. But these pupils wearing matching orange T-shirts and sitting on plastic chairs are not children – they are heads of families – because this is a School for Husbands.
After a few minutes, they all stick their hands in the air. It turns out they have voted to heroically take on a bit of dusting and tidying up. The men also start to give out mosquito nets to help prevent malaria. Adiza Ba, the woman behind Ivory Coast’s Schools for Husbands, can’t repress a satisfied smile.
Madame Ba, who has the grand title of National Program Officer of Behaviour Change, goes around Ivory Coast armed with a big poster. In each village she gathers the men together and unrolls it to reveal a picture of a family coming home from a day’s work in the fields.
The mother is walking along the side of the road with a heavy basket on her head. She has a baby strapped to her back and is holding another child by the wrist while the father is several yards ahead on his bicycle, whistling and empty handed.
“The funny thing is that they don’t realise that the woman usually has to do everything,” she says. “And when they see that picture, they act as if they’re astonished. But I have to point out that in the evenings it is the wives who fetch water, wash the children, make supper and clean the house while their husbands just freshen up and go off to chat to their mates. And some of them start to see that this is not very fair.”
But it is hard to imagine Kouayou Kouayou with a broom in his hand or a pot on his head. He is something of a celebrity in Sakassou, a small community of farmers, deep in the heart of the country. I’m told he’s the spiritual healer, some even call him “The Prophet”.
He is holding court on a raised platform outside his house and orders me to sit down next to him. Kouayou is youthful looking, with just a hint of grey, despite fathering 26 children with four wives.
“In our culture the more children you have, the richer and more prestigious you are and I have the record number in the village,” he tells me.
Despite his exalted status, Kouayou wears an orange T-shirt because he too has been sent back to the classroom. Now surrounded by his super-size family, he’s trying to persuade fellow husbands not to follow his example.
“If you space the babies, they are born healthier and it is better for the women,” he says.
But Madame Ba, who works for the United Nations Population Fund, tells me birth control was a hard sell at first.
“Some men worry contraception might make their wives sterile,” she says.
“I explain that a woman is like a mango tree – it bears fruit and then it has a resting period. A wife needs to have time to look after her new baby and to stay beautiful for her husband. If she gets worn out too quickly he will go and get himself another woman.
“Other husbands are incredibly suspicious of birth control – they think their wives will use it as an excuse to go have fun with other men and since they won’t fall pregnant afterwards nobody will find out. We explain that’s not what contraception is about.”
Her words remind me of a classic comedy actually called The School for Husbands by the 17th Century playwright Moliere. The plot revolves around a pathologically jealous man who tries to force a young woman to love him and it ends with the lines: “If any husband is a churlish fool / This is the place to send him – to our school!”