I witnessed a tragedy. I must warn you that what I saw had a profound impact on me and you should prepare yourself for the prose that follows.
While visiting a village in the Soubre District, I saw a young boy who looked about the same age as my oldest son, Lewis who is 10. Wearing only blue jeans rolled mid-way up his calves, his tattered and dirty white shirt was wrapped loosely around his head. He had a bare chest and no shoes. He had a golf-ball sized bulge from his navel, which I assume was an umbilical hernia. His feet were coated with fresh mud.
He was getting water by lowering a bucket into a well. This looked interesting so I went to watch. After pulling up the gallon sized bucket, he dumped it into a large vessel, about the size of a car tire. It held approximately 4 buckets. He then lifted it onto his head and began to weave through the patch work of small houses to an area where a hole had recently been dug. When I say hole, think of an average sized swimming pool. The dirt here reminds me of the red clay in North Georgia. It’s dense and becomes very slick when it gets wet. So, he then poured the water into the hole into a pile of dirt and jumped in the hole and began mixing the water in by stomping up and down with his feet.
At this point, I still don’t understand what he’s doing. So, I asked the translator about what was happening. This boy was preparing mud to make the walls for a new house. The homeowner-to-be was very proud and eager to explain about his new house.
The next part of the story was sobering. As it turns out, this boy was from Benin, a country outside of Côte d’Ivoire and he was being forced to work. My heart sank as this harsh reality set in. This was at 13:00 in the afternoon. This boy had started at 9:00 without a break. I couldn’t help but think of my own son when I saw this boy working. I observed much more closely what was happening from that point on.
After mixing the mud with his bare feet, he used a shovel to throw the mud out onto the bank, where it would be mixed with straw and supported with large bamboo to support the walls. At this point the hole is approximately one meter deep, so removing the mud requires the boy to bend over and then stand up and fully extend to remove the heavy, wet burnt orange colored clay from the hole. He would then take a pick-axe and begin removing more dirt from the sides of the hole. He swung the axe with a balance of speed and precision. There was a rhythmic sound of thumps as the pick axe pierced the hard baked earth and fell off in large chunks. It was then I noticed that the boy had not previously looked at me. Every so often, after 15 or 20 swings at the axe, he would look up at me for a brief moment. As long as I live, I will not forget those brief glances. Had they been longer, I would have had to look away. This process of enlarging the hole, adding water, mixing, and removing mud was repeated over and over and over again.
The blistering sun and 90 degree F (32 degree C) heat roasted him as he worked. There was no shade to be found in the hole. His body was wet from the sweat as the steaming humidity did not allow the sweat to evaporate. Instead it ran down his body, following the path of least resistance and blended into the mud he mixed with his feet. His skin, the color of darkly roasted coffee beans, bore a stark contrast to the whites of his eyes. Those eyes, although they seemed dull and distant, pierced a hole in my soul.
Thankfully, the man offered the boy food consisting of rice and a few scraps of chicken in a small bowl. The boy had no chair to sit in for his brief respite and simply squatted over the bowl. He cupped his hand by pressing his fingers like an excavator and moved the food to his mouth with the same rhythmic pace he used for the pick-axe. He licked his hands clean to take in all the nourishment. I wonder if the man viewed this as an act of generosity or one of necessity, like refueling a car before a journey? I wanted to load the boy in the car with us and take him away, but knew that such an act would not be tolerated and might bring harm to the boy and my traveling companions. So, I offered the homeowner a piece of chocolate and asked if I might also give one to the boy, on his behalf. To my surprise, the man agreed. So, I bent down and unwrapped the chocolate, held it in my hand and gestured toward my mouth, so he would know it was to eat. The boy cowered away and would not look me in the eye. His posture reminded me of a dog who had been abused. He took the chocolate, but was told he would have to finish his lunch first. Then we were asked to leave.
I must also say that the homeowner was not involved with cocoa farming in any way. Before this day, child labor was a foreign concept to me. I am also learning that this is a complex issue. It was explained that this boy is part of a network of children from countries outside Côte d’Ivoire. These countries are so poor that in many of them, the parents cannot feed their children, so they send them to this network. In America, I would have called the police or children’s services. Those resources are not available in their village or anywhere near here. Helplessly, I had no choice – as there is no infrastructure in remove village to deal with this issue. Returning him to his parents was not an option – they put him here. I had to proceed with caution as pressing the issue further could have endangered the boy and my colleagues.
It was incredibly hard for me to leave him there.
This experience has made me research the issue of child labor. UTZ Certified and Mars both have a ZERO Tolerance policy on child labor. In fact, one of the great benefits of UTZ certification is that it requires that children attend school, avoid heavy lifting and must not be involved in the handling or application of any pesticides.
I am also happy to say, that all of the cocoa farmers and co-operatives that we have talked to not only fully understand that they must not use children outside the code standards, they are so proud that they are sending their children to school. One of the villages only had a 10% literacy rate among adults and they are anxious to tell us that their children are in school and can read. In fact, several of the villages showed us their schools and some were even expanding their schools and building new ones!
In closing, I haven’t blogged for a few days because I could not find the strength to tell this story. Part of me died that day and will always be there in the hole. I will always wonder if the boy got to taste the chocolate? I can only hope so. I have not seen my children in over a month now. I really needed to hug them at the end of that day.