Young people are abandoning their villages and children for the bright lights, leaving their mothers to pick up the pieces
In the great movements of population going on around the globe, there are 300 million people living somewhere other than their country of birth – and three times as many have migrated within their own country. But for every migration there are those left behind and most of them are women and children.
The city of Daloa and its surrounding villages in western Ivory Coast encompasses all of this. An important regional hub, the trade in cocoa and coffee made Daloa prosperous and provided people with a relatively comfortable life. Small landowners could employ people to work the land for them and extend their fields to the forests. Labour came from elsewhere in Ivory Coast and from Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali, but also Ghana and Liberia. Ivory Coast is home to between 4 million and 5 million foreigners, more than a quarter of its population.
In the countryside, where it was once possible for a family to live off their land and afford seeds and fertiliser, send children to school, pay for a medical visit, and be able to save a little, hard choices now need to be made between shoes for the children or pesticides to guarantee a harvest.
Where there was once joy at seeing crops grow, now there is a fatalism: pray for the best, expect the worse, as the seasons are disrupted and the erratic fluctuations of commodities make every decision a gamble.
In the hamlets of the Sassandra-Marahoué district you can see what the new economic reality means – people ranging in age from teenagers to their mid-30s are absent. The village elders have a word for this exodus, l’aventure: younger people who have left the strictures of village life for the city, jobs, anonymity and freedom. But they have also left their children.
In village after village, grandmothers are bringing up four or five or six grandchildren, in some cases great-grandchildren, too. Often the parents slip away in the dead of night, without warning, leaving their children behind.
The grandmothers become sole breadwinners, toiling in fields in heat and dirt. It’s hard to imagine the physical toll as well as the impact on their emotional and psychological wellbeing as they again feed and raise children, but without the vitality of their youth.
These women have to rewrite traditions set by their ancestors. A life that once followed the seasons, gave an abundance of crops, provided a retirement plan, has changed irrevocably in the face of the climate crisis.
“My ID card says I was born in 1956, but they reduced my age by years”, says Kouakou Amoin Audette. “I gave birth to 13 children, but two didn’t live beyond their first year and two others have since died. I look after five grandchildren and a great-grandchild, two grandsons and three granddaughters. Some are old enough to go off to earn in other people’s fields. It’s difficult because they’re impolite, they don’t listen to me, and it’s been very difficult to ensure their schooling.
“I even have great-grandchildren – imagine becoming a mother three times over. First, you have your own children, then when you expect your children to look after you, they have children and you become a grandmother who is left with all the duties the mother would normally take care of, and if that isn’t enough, I am now doing it all over again for my great-grandchildren – mothering them.”
She says the same thing many of the grandmothers say: “My retirement will come the day I’m buried.”
It’s no surprise that many older women complain of back pain, arthritis and poor eyesight, but they continue with all the household work and tending their smallholdings. “I will continue to work as long as I have my health even though my back gives me terrible pain,” says Audette.
“I think it’s because I gave birth to so many children. I did have an X-ray and they gave medicine for the pain, but as soon as I started working in the fields again the pain came back. It used to be that the fields gave us enough, now they don’t provide enough to support families.
“What’s more, either one child inherits the land, or several of the children divide the land. Either way, that leaves most families without a means to a living.”
In Audette’s village, like all the surrounding villages, work only ceases at prayer times and on holy days. But for the grandmothers, this never means getting up later than the sunrise.
“It’s good they left here, there’s nothing for them here,” says Kouame Aya Marie, 50. She had five children, but only the youngest, aged 16, remains at home. Three are in Abidjan, one in Soubré.
“Some of them return home once or twice a year, one of them I never saw him again. Those with children have sent them to me. It’s really difficult to look after the grandchildren, the cooking, the cleaning, working in the fields and then also I have to wash them and get those who are at school ready for school. I need to give them 100 francs (12p) a day so that they can eat something at school as I don’t have time to come home from the fields to give them lunch.
“It’s tough this year. Like recent years, the harvest isn’t good, there’s too much sun and not enough rain. Last year and this year our fields didn’t produce enough, so I had to buy food for the first time, but I needed to borrow money. Sometimes I pay a young person to help me in the fields as it’s difficult to manage on my own. Only one of my four grandchildren is old enough to help.
“My last child has only one thought, to leave here. She says it’s too quiet, no electricity, you have to fetch the water, no television, she listens to music on her phone, but from time to time we don’t have any network.
“There’s no future here. They need to at least learn a trade, otherwise at best they’ll work as a domestic. That pays 25,000 francs (£30 a month).
“The grandchildren suffer, they don’t see their father or their mother. They call me ‘mum’. I have to pay for the grandchildren’s clothes, for the school registration, schoolbooks, school materials, uniform, their shoes. The schoolteacher chases them from class when they don’t have shoes. There are more than 40 pupils in the classrooms.
“Even when their parents have jobs they don’t earn enough money to send any to help me with their children. My daughter-in-law is pregnant, she’s going to give birth here and then leave me with her child as they don’t have enough money to look after the child. I’m obliged to look after the children.”
Her eldest grandchild, Konan, tells me he remembers Abidjan. “There the school had a sports ground where we played with a football and I learned to play basketball, here there’s nothing … I want to be a policeman in Abidjan. Because here there aren’t any policemen.”
Like many grandmothers, Kouassi Akissi Jeanne doesn’t know her age but has an identity card with a date of birth which may or may not be correct. Jeanne has two sons and two daughters. She has a disability that keeps her from working, although she can manage small household tasks such as going to the communal pump to collect water.
“After my children left town to find work, at first I looked after two of my grandchildren: Kouffia, who is 13 and my eldest son’s child, and Samira, who is eight, and then Divino, a third grandchild from of one of my two daughters, but five months ago, Amennan, my other daughter, was abandoned by her husband and she was left with twin girls.
“What’s she going to do? She has no qualifications. She hopes to sell barbecued fish. She’s an additional burden.
“I can barely cope, I couldn’t manage them all, so I sent Divino, temporarily, to my sister. My granddaughter Kouffia was our only source of income. She used to sell sweets from a stall outside our front yard, but business is slow, so I have now sent her and Samira to a restaurant to do dishwashing and bussing tables. They work there six days a week from 8am in the morning to 6pm in the evening and bring home 500 francs (60p), enough to buy rice and some vegetables to make a sauce.”
The restaurant owner knows it’s illegal to employ children, but they work for less than half of what she would pay an adult and she knows that without a job they will go hungry. There’s no shortage of children willing to work, but she’s often exasperated and threatens to sack them because at the first chance to play, they’re off.
Kouffia, 13, is a quiet, shy and devoted granddaughter. “My mother is in the village, she can’t look after me. I was still small, I don’t remember my father, but I do have memories of my village. I begin my day at sunrise sweeping the yard, I help prepare the breakfast, I know how to cook the rice when my grandmother is tired, and I wash our clothes.
“After I have finished the household chores and cooking the breakfast, I go to school. When I return from school and on weekends I sell sweets that I place on a table because my grandmother can’t work. When there are no buyers I play with my sisters, or in the evenings when there are no clients I do my homework.
“I’d like to become a teacher. I ask God to protect me and my family so that I can continue at school. Now times are tough, the children no longer buy as many sweets as they used to, so my sister and I have to wash dishes and pots and pans at a restaurant. She [the owner] tells us to go clear the tables or serve the food.
“I hope God gives grandma a long life. I often think of my mother. I would like my mother to come and visit me.”
Grandchildren: Kouffia, 13, Samira, eight, Divino, five, Princia and Priska, 17 months
Bokwaya Angel Naonou, 57, has spent two hours walking to her ricefields, her six barefooted grandchildren following her. They don’t pause to rest – this is their regular routine as they tend to Nanou’s smalholding. At her ricefields they walk along a narrow ridge before they step into the glutinous mud to start plucking the weeds and grasses.
Naonou works relentlessly, her body permanently L-shaped, the children stop regularly, as if coming up for air, occasionally throwing clumps of weeds at each other.
This is not what Naonou and countless grandmothers in her village envisaged for the last years of their lives. After decades of backbreaking work, when your grandchildren were born, your children were expected to take over and provide and care for you. Your children were your retirement plan, your retirement home and your carers.
Instead, Naonou’s four sons and one daughter have left the village to look for work. Some left without saying goodbye. They don’t send news and Naonou doesn’t know what has become of them. But they did leave six grandchildren aged seven to 15.
Like so many grandmothers, her main concern is their education. “Every year, I need to borrow money to enrol them at school, pay for the school materials and their uniform so that they are presentable. They don’t all have school materials – I have bought them for Trésor, but not Amilielle. If Trésor doesn’t find a job when he grows up, he will be a burden, whereas my granddaughter will get married.
“My oldest grandchild was asked to leave school because I could no longer pay the fees. I borrow money that I repay at 50% interest a year, and my only hope is that the rice I produce maintains the price. I don’t have the money to pay for a mask when I spray my fields with pesticide. I am obliged to do so, because if I don’t, how will we live? They are good children, they help me a lot, but even when I’m ill I need to go to the fields because if I don’t, I can never catch up on what needs to be done, and I can’t leave the grandchildren to work alone, because they’ll play hide and seek or do something else. I need to watch them all the time.
“I get up at 5am, and begin by sweeping the yard and continue to work all day until 9pm without a moment’s rest. I constantly worry about my grandchildren. We’re really close, I worry about them when they’re out of sight. I also think about my children and wonder how they are doing. It’s a big responsibility because it’s so tiring and there’s always necessities to buy,” she says.
“My house was destroyed in a storm, the likes of which we have never seen here. I am alone, I don’t have anyone to help me other than my brother who is currently housing us. My father helped but he’s now deceased, and my husband isn’t a good person.”
Grandchildren: Christian, 15, Trésor, 13, Fiacre, 12, Emmanuel, 10, Landry, 10, Amilielle, eight
The smallholding is several kilometres from the village and the path is busy with families heading to and from their fields. Tralou Trana Jeanette, 64, passes a field where a group of girls are being paid 750 francs (£1) a day to clear the field of weeds. The early morning heat is already getting to them. They swing their machetes without purpose and stoop mechanically to pull the weeds from the earth. When they right themselves, they start to chat before returning to their task.
Farther along the path, two teenagers explain that their grandmother is too ill to leave home, so they need to tend to the field.
It’s not long before Jeanette’s youngest grandchildren complain they can’t walk any longer. Jeanette lifts the smallest on to her back. “They are young and tire very quickly – the sun, the heat and humidity,” she says,
There’s almost no shade during the nearly hour-long walk and some of the bridges have been swept away by recent rains. “I have to ferry the youngest across the streams,” says Jeanette, who scolds some children farther along the path for playing in the water, where there are leeches.
Jeanette had eight children, but only five survived and have all left the village. “Two are with my younger brother, three of them I have no idea where they are. One of them rang me four months ago, but didn’t say where he or the others were.” Jeanette looks after five of her six grandchildren. “I have no help from anyone, no money from my children, I’m always having to borrow money which I repay with manioc and peanuts. It’s only in this way that I am able to send the children to school.
“From dawn to night, my work is never finished. The grandchildren try to help me sweep the yard, clean the pots and pans, draw the water from the well, harvest the peanuts and work the fields.”
Israel, her eight-year-old grandson, tells me: “We help grandma wash the pots and pans, harvest the peanuts and collect the water because she doesn’t have a daughter to help her.”
Jeannette adds: “It’s the only time I am not with my grandchildren, because there’s no one else to look after them. My granddaughters work with me on my farm, the boys sit and play within eyesight. The only rest I get is to sit for a few moments in my field. There’s no time to be ill.”
“I am not sure how old I am, I think the president [Félix Houphouët-Boigny, 1960-1993] had been in power for about 10 years when I was born,” says Marilou. “I was married at around 17. I look after my two grandchildren. I’m so tired, I go to the fields every day, it’s a long way from the village and I have to carry one of my grandchildren.”
Marilou used to follow a small dirt track but now walks on a wide stretch of smoothed and compacted dirt ground, cleared by bulldozing homes and farms to bring an asphalt road that will link her village and others to the city. The track is now almost wide enough to land a plane.
The villagers thought the new road would change their lives for the better, but it has brought another layer of impoverishment – the road workers are renting homes, which is driving up prices and the cost of living. The roadside stalls that have recently opened are run by outsiders as local people can’t afford the rents. The food and meals are sold at prices only the road workers can afford, making produce that was once affordable too costly for the villagers.
Marilou doesn’t see a silver lining in the road development, although she too had hoped it would bring better times. “I still don’t have much to eat, I manage with what I have. My eldest grandchild continues to help me carry water from the village standpipe.”
Marilou, like many others, is trying to diversify her crops. “I recently planted cashew trees. I won’t see a return for a while, but I need to find alternatives to yam, manioc, peppers and peanuts, as the middlemen determine the prices whether there is a good or bad harvest because we are so many selling the same crops,” she says.
“I didn’t have a lot of luck in marriage as I was given away. The same happened when I lost my husband. My daughter was given away to my sister-in-law so she could continue her studies, but instead she worked as a domestic servant. If I had had the means I would have kept her and put her through school. I don’t have anyone to help me, in addition to which I now have two grandchildren to look after. I couldn’t say no.”
Lailou, 68, has a son and two daughters, and looks after four of her six grandchildren. “I was also raised by my grandmother, my parents were farmers. But the difference was that we didn’t go to the fields. I studied and learned French at school and my parents were there for me in the evenings. Now the parents are all in the cities.
“Studying is so important for your future. When you put them through school, they progress, you get a diploma, but then they don’t want to stay in the village, they don’t want to work in the fields. Those without diplomas but who work well want to earn a decent living which is no longer possible here, there’s no longer enough available land.
“I returned here to my village in 1990 when I left my husband. We had built up a business together near the coastal city of San-Pédro, but the money we were earning changed him, he was no longer the man I married,” she says.
“It was different then. There was plenty of land in the forest and opportunities in the villages. When I came home I found land and my father employed outsiders to help me clear it. It was a time when people came from other parts of the country and even neighbouring countries such as Burkina Faso to find work, which they did. Some didn’t pay them but instead gave them a parcel of land to farm. But that has now all changed, the land is taken, there’s no free land in the forest. What’s more, there is no possibility to create a decent living from the land and the climate has changed so much it’s difficult to know when and what to plant.
“Young women go away, get pregnant and then the man leaves them. They want everything all the time. It wasn’t like that in my day. The girls no longer listen to us, they do what they want. They follow people on the social networks, parents give up, and they grow up so quickly. They want to work, they want to earn money because they have so much they want to buy. The girls want clothes to party in. When they don’t get what they want, they’re in a mood.
“I tried my best with my two daughters, they got their degrees, they had their children later, they followed my advice. But today they don’t listen. Both of them decided to bring their children to me, I can’t say no.
“There are days when I am so tired, I don’t feel like getting up. It’s difficult to go to the fields, but I can’t rest, I need to work to pay for food, I need to cook. I grow yams, peanuts, coffee, cocoa, cashew nuts and manioc. I would like to rest, I have bad knees and my feet hurt. My eyesight is poor and I worry that I might break my glasses when working in the field. I will continue to work until I am old, so old that I can no longer do so.”
Grandchildren: Goré Angenore CM2, Laï Jean-Jaurès CM1, Goré Chris-Fréjus CP, and Vane Ignas Vencelas Akmar, two