Abidjan — Aminata, Ouly and Awa are all students at the Nord school complex. But the preadolescent girls have something else in common: the nickname 'last in class'. Not much longer. A successful empowerment programme is offering these slow learners the chance to improve their poor academic performance and, while at it, their brushstrokes.
Primary teachers and pupils across the Ivory Coast normally don't come to school on Wednesdays. But this Wednesday, at the Nord complex in Abidjan's populated Abobo neighbourhood, animated voices from a classroom echo across the schoolyard.
"Hope of the millennium," the teacher chants, to which a score of girls enthusiastically replies in unison: "We are the hope of tomorrow." Their mantra is inspired by the programme that brings them here: Fille-espoir du millénaire ('Girls: hope for the millennium'), which allows academically challenged girls to get extra help with their studies.
But that's not all. The programme uses art as a method to help the students focus and develop the habit of practising-till-perfect.
"On several occasions when I was unable to draw an image or colour in a picture on the first try, the teacher did not reprimand me. Instead, he always took the time to explain how it was done and allowed me to try again; and I eventually got it right. He realized that I am a slow learner," says a student named Aminata Ouologuem.
"The teacher explained that mathematics works the same way; the more problems you solve, the better your understanding," she adds.
"This might be a painting class, but we also teach reading, arithmetic and introduction to law -specifically, concerning the rights of women and children," explains their teacher. Mathieu Brou, who initiated these specials classes, is so passionate about painting that he is known as the "teacher-painter".
According to his colleague Nadaud, the successful initiative should be extended to many other schools.
Talking about their progress, the girls suggest bad report cards are now a thing of the past.
"At the beginning, my parents did not want me to attend the course; but now that my grades have improved, they even came to thank the teacher," says 12-year-old Matata Kamagaté. Like all her classmates, Matata is in her final year of primary school, preparing to take her secondary school entry examination.
In fact, many parents, most of whom have modest income, are pleased with the free classes and their positive impact on their children's academic performance.
Praising his daughter Matata's instructor, Mr Kamagaté says: "On top of the knowledge that he freely teaches our children, they receive free equipment, including boards, pencils, gauche paint and drawing tools. For us parents with limited financial resources, it's a great opportunity."
The sentiment is shared by Mrs Ouologuem, who is happy with Aminata's new-found eagerness and motivation to learn. "My daughter has good grades now, and I can sense she is self-confident," she says.
For these girls, Wednesdays are not only an opportunity for personal development under the supervision of a caring teacher. They now also mean not staying home and doing endless household chores.
"In many low-income families, girls are often required to help with household shores from a very young age," explains Albert Gondo, a child development psychologist. "These domestic responsibilities often tend to hinder their academic progress, reducing their chances of completing their studies."
Some of the dozen artworks hanging in the classroom vividly capture that reality. "Here it's a girl who wants to be free; go wherever she will be happy and feel free," says Déborah Ouly, pointing to her drawing of a woman breaking the shackles around her wrists.
Aïcha Traoré depicted some young girls working in a corn field. "They don't belong there," she says referring to the painting. "They belong here, at school, with us."