“My right to education was ensured by one woman: my mother”


Meet Yao Ydo, Regional Director and Representative of the UNESCO Abuja Office. A passionate advocate for the right to education, his personal story highlights the power of learning and its ability to transform lives.  

Tell us about your background?

I was born in a small village called Tankessé in Côte d'Ivoire. My parents were originally from Burkina Faso. My father was a farmworker and left his native country when he was thirteen to move to Côte d’Ivoire. That is where he got married and where I was born into a family of 26 children. My father had four wives. I was the seventh child on my mother side, who had nine children.

How was your right to education guaranteed?

I can say that my right to education was ensured by one woman: my mother. I went to school thanks to her and I owe her all of my achievements. My father did not want to send me to school at first: he instead wanted me to attend koranic lessons. He was an animist and an oracle had told him that one day he would have a son who would achieve great things. When I born, my father had just converted to Islam and he was set to make me a marabout, a religious teacher. However, my mother was determined to enroll me into formal education at a catholic school. My father was against that idea and refused to pay for my school fees. So my mother saved money from the vegetables she sold at the market to pay for my fees, uniforms and other expenses. I still remember helping her sell food every Friday morning. It was a major sacrifice and investment for her. It was only when I got to secondary school that my father started contributing. By then he had realized that it was worth the cost, and I was able to complete my secondary education.

What did you do after secondary school?

Once I completed secondary school, I decided to pursue higher education in Burkina Faso. I enjoyed learning and I knew that it was through education that I would be able to become successful. I decided to study English at the university in Ouagadougou. After four years, I received a scholarship to study at the university in Grenoble, France where I focused on education sciences and eventually earned my PhD. Later, I went to Paris to study at the school of diplomacy. During my university years, I also trained to become a security guard so I was able to have a side job to cover my costs. I also worked as a janitor and mover during that period.

How did you first join UNESCO?

One time, I was hired for a temporary job to distribute documents during UNESCO’s General Conference. I also worked as a mover at UNESCO, which is how I met the head of the literacy section who helped me to get an internship in the Organization when I told him that I was finishing my PhD in adult literacy in the developing world.

After the internship, I was lucky to get a two-year post as an associate expert. Then I moved to several UNESCO offices in Africa where I worked as education specialist and today, I am the Regional Director in Abuja, Nigeria.

What has been the key to your success?

I believe that humility is essential in order to succeed. You always have to respect and treat everyone at the same level no matter what they do and where they come from. In addition, you should never take things for granted and you should never forget where you came from. Helping others and opening opportunities for people, especially young people, is very important.

Sadly, my mother passed away before I started working so she was not able to see the fruit of her sacrifice and her investment. That was very painful for me, not having had the chance to provide for her, as I had always wanted. She is the one who guaranteed my right to education and I owe her everything that I am and that I have today.    

What are some of your personal commitments to guarantee the right to education in your community?

Every year during the holidays, I go back to the village where I was born. I provide learning materials to students and families. I also motivate and guide parents to continue to support their children’s education. Many children in Côte d’Ivoire still do not have birth certificates, which is essential in order to go to school. This is because their parents are not able to pay the fees to have them issued. I actively contribute to fundraising efforts to ensure that children have what they need to be fully enrolled in school.

What are the main challenges to the right to education in some of the places where you have worked?

In Africa, what restraints most children from going to school today is the cost and the expenses linked to education. So it is mostly an economic issue, rather than cultural. This is why UNESCO fights for making primary and secondary education free everywhere and accessible to everyone. It will also exponentially increase girls’ enrollment and eventually change mindsets. We are already witnessing that phenomenon today.  

Joblessness is another factor that discourages parents from sending their children to school. If they see that people who have gone to school are unable to find decent jobs, they will not want to “invest” in their children’s education. What people learn in school should also be relevant to the skills that are in demand in the labour market.

We have to remember that about 40% of the African population is illiterate. If at least one parent has gone to school, the chances of their children accessing education is much higher. So in the long run, as more people have access to free education, their children will mostly likely benefit from that and their right to education will be guaranteed. Communities will be able to lift themselves out of poverty. There are many challenges indeed, but from a long-term perspective, we are on the right track.

The transformative power of education is undeniable. This is why I am proud to work for UNESCO.

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