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"I met a kid without shoes. He says he'll be president."

Today I met a kid who could be president.

He’s 14, and his feet are covered in dust. If you had to describe his demeanour, you might say something like ‘grave’. He doesn’t say much.

He’s sitting in a small, covered shelter that does only a mediocre job of holding back the heavy, sticky heat, in a village without a skerrick of plant life and with an over-abundance of fine, red dirt.

Max-Delvin knows what he’ll do when he’s President of the Ivory Coast: he’ll build castles for the villages, starting with his own. Then he will spread those castles through his country.

And what will be in those castles?

He thinks.

And thinks.

And eventually covers his eyes with his hands to imagine all the wonders a castle might contain.

In my astounding ignorance, I think he’s comparing the merits of gold bullion or computer games or a theme park or a private helicopter pad. Something that crosses Kardashians with Kensington.

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Max-Delvin, the 14-year-old who says he will one day be president of the Ivory Coast. (Image supplied)

He uncovers his eyes, looks up and finally gives an answer.

Water.

I almost weep. The word takes my breath away. To have an idea of luxury that is so humble, so necessary, is almost beyond comprehension. Every first world problem I’ve moaned about is brought into short, sharp and very confronting perspective.

“I will buy the people rice and macaroni, and give people money to buy meat,” he says.

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“And there will always be peace.” (The former president of the Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, currently faces charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court after the 2011 civil war that that killed 3000 people.)

In a country where World Bank data shows more than 46 per cent of the population live below the poverty line, and 41 per cent of people over 15 cannot read or write a short statement about their lives, Max-Delvin might just achieve his goal.

His grinning friends think this serious boy would be good in the top job. His dad is the village leader.

And, most of all, he gets to go to school.

Back home in Sydney, I live with a teen of the same age. He goes to school. Of course he does. It’s unthinkable to us, and to him, that he wouldn’t.

Sure, there’s occasionally a bit of grumbling and I don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to know that given the choice, he’d rather be at the skate park with his friends.

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The village at Lakota, Ivory Coast. (Image supplied)

But back in the Ivory Coast, the very fact that we’ve just sat in on a session on child labor drives home the fact I’m not in Kansas any more, Dorothy. Education here is treasured. It’s a privilege not taken for granted. It’s a ticket out of poverty, to jobs that pay more, to farms that produce more, to a life that actually has options.

Of course, it’s a complex issue. To get kids into school, you have to get them out of the fields. To get them out of the fields, you have to give their farming parents options: higher-yielding cocoa plants, alternative labor sources, effective farmer co-ops. Making child labor a thing of the past is no small achievement in a country where kids have long been part of a farmer’s workforce. Where kids have brought home money for desperate families.

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Nestle, who I’m travelling with, says it is well aware of the issues.

“No company sourcing cocoa from Côte d’Ivoire can guarantee they have completely removed the risk of children working on small farms in their supply chain. Nestlé is no different, but we are determined to tackle the problem.

“The use of child labour is unacceptable and goes against everything we stand for. We’ve set ourselves the goal of eradicating it from our cocoa supply chain and have put a dedicated action plan (pdf, 451Kb) in place.”

If education is the main game for children, it is for parents too.

Child labor “sensitisation” sessions are run by the International Cocoa Initiative in villages throughout the country.

At them, determined parents, whose lives have been tough beyond the comprehension of most Australians, list – actually express –  the things kids are not allowed to do in the field, things they no longer ask their children to do.

They can’t carry heavy loads – and in the Ivory Coast, we’re talking tens of kilos balanced on small, still-forming bodies. They can’t burn fields. They can’t chop trees, a task still done too often with lethal-looking machetes.

They can’t hunt or drive machinery – and trust me when I say the machinery here is a long way from the air-conditioned cabins and lumbar-supported seating you see in farm machinery in Australia.

Of course, they can still help on the farm – just like Australian kids do. But the overwhelming message is that the place for children is school.

And I’m horrified later in the day to find there’s another reason for kids to be in a classroom.

We visit a school in Lakota built by Nestle, which sources the bulk of its cocoa for Australian products like Kit Kats and Smarties from the Ivory Coast, and has built or refurbished 40 schools there.

Someone in the group asks a local father how his childhood was different from his daughter’s, and he talks about walking 10km to access any kind of learning and the joy of having dinner with her each day. He stresses that fact that he knows she’s safe.

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Mamamia managing editor Annie Markey with Max-Delvin, 14, Celine, 15 and Francoise, 12, in Lakota in the Ivory Coast. (Image supplied)
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It isn’t until the principal tells us a child from the village was abducted the month before – most likely for child trafficking – that the enormity of the word ‘safe’ sinks in.

Later, I think about the shocking vulnerability of kids who work in the fields, and how difficult it would be to find them. We’re travelling in a convoy with armed guards who stroll the perimeter wherever we are. No such luck for these girls and boys.

Max-Delvin may well be president one day. He has a supportive dad, who says his son’s ambition makes him feel “emotional”.

“He has to work hard and study a lot.

“I’m aware of the lengths it will take. But he will study further.”

Back in Australia, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about him, and about 10-year-old Francoise, who ranks a proud fourth among the 73 kids in her class, which is taught by just one person. And about Celine, who is 15 and has visited the capital Abidjan, and tells me you know an important lady because of what they wear: jeans. I am, of course, wearing jeans. They are daggy and dirty and I had planned to chuck them; now that seems an appalling extravagance.

Those kids have changed the way I see the world, certainly for now, and maybe forever. They deserve to have everything we too often take for granted – clean water, schools, basic sanitation. A future.

Nelson Mandela once said “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world”.

Meeting these kids, I know he’s right.

Watch these kids tell us what they’d like to do when they grow up:

The author travelled to the Ivory Coast as the guest of Nestle. The views expressed here are entirely her own.

Feature Photo: Mamamia managing editor Annie Markey with Max-Delvin at his village at Lakota in the Ivory Coast. (Image provided)

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