The father of 26 children who's helping to preach birth control

Students at the School for Husbands

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.

Image caption Madame Adiza Ba with district health chief Dr Bernard Konan

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".

Image caption Kouayou Kouayou, also known as "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!"

Moliere's School for Husbands

Image copyright Getty Images
  • A play by French writer Moliere, first performed in 1661
  • Follows the story of two sisters and two potential suitors
  • One suitor is overbearing and controlling, while the other treats his intended wife as an equal
  • The latter is successful in his courtship, but the other one fails

Madame Ba began two years ago with four pilot schools including this one in Sakassou. By the end of next year she says there will be 52 of them in villages across the Ivory Coast.

But they were set up not just to make men more house-proud, less selfish or to use contraception.

Image caption Sakassou is set to be one of 52 villages in the Ivory Coast to have these schools by the end of 2015

Above all, Madame Ba wants to persuade men that antenatal appointments are not a waste of time and that it is far safer for women to give birth in hospital rather than stay in the village.

Once the economic powerhouse of West Africa, the world's biggest exporter of cocoa has been through a decade of bloody upheaval. It now has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world. Every day, across Ivory Coast, as many as 20 women die in childbirth - nearly as many as in China, a country with more than 60 times the population.

Maternal mortality

The five countries with the highest maternal mortality rates per 100,000 live births are:

  • Sierra Leone - 1100
  • Chad - 980
  • Central African Republic - 880
  • Somalia - 850
  • Burundi - 740

Ivory Coast is ninth with 720

Source: World Bank (figures for 2013)

Many women in Sakassou are keen to give birth in hospital but usually men control the family purse strings, so they need to be convinced it is worth spending money on the transport to get there.

The village, which has no electricity or running water, is a few miles from a tarmacked road and a night-time taxi to the regional hospital in Toumodi costs around 10,000 CFA or $20 (£12) - nearly the average monthly wage.

Kouadio N'Goran's daughter fell in love with a man in Ivory Coast's main city Abidjan but when she fell pregnant he abandoned her, so she came to live with her parents in her native village. N'Goran admits he felt powerless when his daughter's contractions started and the village midwives couldn't help her.

"My daughter had terrible labour pains about 10 o'clock in the evening," he says. "She was crying Papa bring me to the hospital! Papa bring me to the hospital! I am going to die but I told her it is very late - there is no car here - what can I do?"

Image caption Kouadio N'Goran with his four-year-old grandson N'Daoule

By the time he got her to the hospital the next day, the doctor said it was too late and she died shortly afterwards. The baby survived and is now a shy four-year-old boy who hides behind his grandfather's legs. They call him N'Daoule which means "the pain I felt".

Now thanks to the School for Husbands the men have got organised and when a pregnant woman is close to term they go around the village with a loudspeaker collecting contributions for the cab fare.

According to Dr Bernard Konan, the district health chief, the initiative is paying off.

In 2012, 12 women died giving birth in the area he covers - one every month. In 2013 there were eight. And up until August this year there were only three.

Lucy Ash's report for Crossing Continents is now available on BBC iPlayer, or you can listen to it on Radio 4 at 20:30 BST on Monday 22 September.

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