On Child Labor: Diversity Among Humans
Working in the cocoa industry, the issue of child labor arises quite often. All of the new certification programs to make cocoa more “sustainable,” “ethical,” and all around “better” have strict stipulations about child labor. Under these programs children are prevented from doing any hazardous work on the farm and any work at all when school is in session.
We all can agree that this is a good and admirable regulation. After all, we went to school and are much better for it. We never had to carry heavy loads or be exposed to harmful chemicals, so why should they? Those kids deserve a good education! It’s the only way to improve their prospects in life.
The common counter-argument to this, which I sometimes hear from farmers (and economists), is that children are a valuable (and free!) source of labor; the farm wouldn’t produce as well and thus make as much money without their help. This makes for a fairly compelling argument, particularly when you consider just how important every additional dollar is to most cocoa farmers. And of course, they look after their children and don’t let them do terribly dangerous work—though some may be unaware of the long-term dangers of chemical spraying.
However these two arguments, that child labor is bad because it deprives them of an education and, conversely, that child labor is admissible because it improves their living standard with increased family income, essentially argue the same point. They both espouse the idea that children need to excel (or be trained to excel) within our economic framework. The only difference is timeframe—education advocates look long-term and child labor defenders maintain that helping at home improves their present economic livelihoods. Both of these arguments miss the fundamental point.
The more basic question we should be asking is, “Why do we think they should excel at all?”
At first the question seems heartless and absurd, but that’s only because our current hegemony is so ingrained in every aspect of our thoughts and actions. Stepping outside of the only context we’ve ever known or even read about is next to impossible. But that doesn’t mean we should not try to do so.
Let’s frame the question in terms of diversity. We all love diversity, right? (Neo-Nazis, please leave.) Of course we do! It’s been the dominant buzz word in college and corporate culture for the past 20 years now. Diversity is what fosters innovation and growth. Diversity of backgrounds, ideas, and even species provides our world with richness and meaning. Diversity is the cornerstone to our success!
Yet on a more elemental level, we despise diversity. We loathe it so much that we’ve nearly eliminated it from the earth. Our current agro-industrial-financial capitalist framework for relating to the earth and other humans is so successful at propagating itself that we have covered the entire planet with one system. Our glorification of diversity rings hollow when you consider the infinite ways the human species could live and prosper on this planet.
Now considering our lack of human diversity, let’s ask the question: “Why do we want those kids to excel?”
Well, we aren’t cruel. If we believe in our system (which we do) and we recognize that those children are impoverished, the solution we’ve found for escaping poverty is to receive an education and work hard. We want our fellow humans everywhere to have access to similar privileges we had—or at least opportunities that imitate our privilege.
Who’s to say that an education similar to ours is what’s best for them? We are, naturally, because we have the power and privilege within this system, and being beneficent we want them to do well. We believe our method of education is so important that we’ve created international metrics to judge entire nations based on how well they can educate their children. We even convince the parents, by demonstrating that educated people get better jobs and more money, that an education is the only way to a brighter future. It’s not like we are deceiving them; we really want to help! Getting the children off the farms and into schools is crucial to their future success.
However, we must not forget that it is only vital to success within our system. Of what use would a Western education be to a child in Africa before colonial times, or a pre-Columbian Native American, or even a child of those still ‘untouched’ (but somehow highly photographed) Amazonian tribes? None! They had (and have) their own methods for raising children, but within a dozen generations our system has supplanted whatever they had been developing for millennia.
I’m not arguing that our way of living is the worst thing ever or that it’s destroying our people and our planet (okay, it probably is). I’m just saying it’s not the only way. Some systems teach their children skills by direct example, some send them to boarding schools to learn from strangers; some strictly separate genders for different purposes, and some don’t even acknowledge gender or sex until puberty. We only claim ours is best because it’s ours. (And because it’s basically the only one left, so by default it’s technically best—*high fives*).
The past cannot be reversed; it is only a fading record of what once was. Yet we must make use of whatever methods of living we can still decipher and realize that there are other options for the present and future. By fighting and displacing thousands of generations of thought on how to raise children (or do pretty much anything), we are depriving our species and our planet of valuable knowledge and possibilities. If—rather when—our dominant system collapses, it would do us good to have a few ideas to fall back on.
We strive for diversity in our colleges. We demand diversity in our stock portfolios. We revere diversity in nature. Why not allow for diversity among humans?
on colonialism: the french influence
Being West African neighbors, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire share countless similarities; if Ghana’s signs were not in English and Cote d’Ivoire’s all in French, it would often be difficult to tell them apart. Despite the overwhelming likeness of the two, during my brief stay in Cote d’Ivoire, the French influence became obvious.
The first French-induced difference I noticed in Ivory Coast was advertising for cigarettes, and accordingly, people smoking those cigarettes. Smoking is so rare in Ghana I almost forgot the habit existed. In the past, the government has created health campaigns against tobacco products and its crusade has been unbelievably successful. Not only do most Ghanaians abstain from smoking, but they abhor secondhand smoke, claiming it kills them when someone smokes near them. In Ghana, it is difficult to find stores that sell tobacco products and you certainly don’t see advertising for it. However, in Cote d’Ivoire, signs are prevalent, smoking is common, and vendors make their living just by selling cigarettes. Makes you wonder about the effects of advertising on creating demand for a product.
Although I derived no benefit from the widespread tobacco in Cote d’Ivoire, I did enjoy a few culinary delights of the French persuasion. Full-sized baguettes and good cheese were the first victims of my hunger. This was followed the next morning by buttery, delicious croissants (pronounced in atrociously over-the-top accent). Because I’m vegetarian I didn’t partake, but there is also a lot more ham/pork/prosciutto, which for reasons that may or may not be accurate, I associate with the French. Local food was pretty similar, although I found a greater assortment of vegetarian fare in Cote d’Ivoire.
Likewise, there is a large alcohol presence in the Ivoirian diet. Wine is had with almost every meal, and 10am is apparently not too soon to have beer or spirits (as evidenced by people getting their early-morning drink on for a co-op’s annual celebration). This is a major contrast to common practice in Ghana, at least with the people I’ve come to know. Many Ghanaians don’t drink at all, and if they do it’s rare and moderate. Sure, there are men who drink excessively and frequently here, but alcohol is far less a part of the culture in Ghana. Wine is more of a luxury in Ghana, whereas it—or cheap varieties of it—seems to be a lunchtime staple in Cote d’Ivoire. Again, this a clear sign of the cultural influence France has had on its former colony.
Finally, the most obvious difference is language. What surprised me about Cote d’Ivoire is how many people speak French. It truly is the national language and the primary way that most people communicate. Only one of the farmers I encountered didn’t speak French. This is poles apart from the situation in Ghana. Although it is the “official” language, only those with formal education speak English, and even then it can be limited. English is the language of power, position, and education in Ghana; it is not the language of the people. In the Ghanaian countryside, I’m pretty useless when we meet with farmers because so few of them speak much English and I know even fewer words in their local language. I don’t have any compelling explanations, but it seems the French (for whatever reason) were far more effective than the British at having their language adopted.
While none of these observations is tremendously insightful, it is interesting to examine the differences between two neighboring countries (especially when they share a very common ancestry). Without a doubt, much of the divergence comes from which European country claimed the area as a colony. I must say, given my linguistic deficiencies, Ghana is the place for me. But Ivory Coast, with all of its French legacies and adaptations, was a wonderful place to visit.
on racism: a troubling confession
Being a white American in Africa, it is natural to think about race. However, I did not expect the topic to be so predominantly featured in my thoughts that I consider the concept and its various implications on a daily basis. My near-constant contemplation has grown unruly and seems to tumble endlessly, so I will write my thoughts in an attempt to make them more manageable. I’ll begin what I hope becomes a series of posts on this and related topics with a disturbing anecdote from yesterday. (Admittedly, this story makes me look pretty bad, but I hope future posts will illuminate my true thoughts on the issues with which I’m struggling.)
Just before 6am I was checking out of a hotel in Ghana’s capital, Accra. I had stayed for two nights and had dinner in the hotel restaurant the previous evening. At the front desk I asked for the total, which was told to me by one of the only workers present at that hour. As I started counting money I requested to see the bill which contained a dinner at more than double the menu cost. I addressed the discrepancy with uncharacteristic impatience and impertinence. I surprised myself with how rude I had been. I think (or at least hope) most people would describe me as a generally polite and considerate person, but I certainly wasn’t displaying those characteristics that morning. Sure, I could make excuses for my actions such as a lack of sleep and breakfast which led to my easy irritation. But while sitting in the car driving out of the city, in a state of failed sleep, I couldn’t help but wonder if my behavior was the result of something far worse.
Uncomfortable questions began to flood my mind: Why was I so rude to the man behind the desk? Would I have treated him differently if he were white? Would I have acted like this in the States? Could this be passed off as a cultural or linguistic misunderstanding or was I expressing some subconscious racial intolerance? After analyzing my thoughts and actions, I believe the cause of my behavior is not as morally repugnant as I initially feared, but it still is distressing, even shameful.
Allow me to give a few more details of the situation to clarify what I mean. After the receptionist checked the original restaurant bill and agreed that the items on my receipt were way off, I asked how he got those numbers. He said the restaurant charges must have been entered into the computer incorrectly (“human error”). I rejoined that it should be simple to type correctly the amount on the restaurant bill. I went so far as to suggest that the incorrect entries were intentional. He denied the accusation and apologized for the mistake. I almost told him that errors like that were unacceptable because most people would not be as meticulous as I am in checking their bill. I restrained myself from saying this as I realized I had already been very impolite. Despite being visibly annoyed, I ended the interaction on a slightly more positive note by telling him it was no problem and forcing a smile.
Still, I was immediately disappointed by my actions and surprised that I had even thought of saying something so patronizing to him. In what universe is it my job to tell him how to run his hotel business? I’m young and professionally inexperienced compared to the receptionist; even so, I was curt and condescending. Why?
While trying to imagine this scenario taking place in other contexts, I realized I didn’t treat him that way because he was black. If this were to happen in the US, I wouldn’t have been so condescending, regardless of the receptionist’s ethnicity, gender, legal status, command of the English language, etc. Everyone makes mistakes so it’s only fair to be forgiving and understanding. However, in that context, I didn’t feel it was a mistake. I believed the inaccuracy was intentional. I thought this—and it pains me to say this—because he was African.
As awful as that sounds, it does have an explanation and, to a very limited extent, a justification. It was definitely not the first time during my two months in Ghana that I’ve been handed a bill with vague and inaccurate charges. This is not because most Ghanaians are incompetent at math or accounting—far from it. It’s because they are able opportunists (I use this word with both positive and negative connotations). Many Ghanaians see an opportunity and they have the skill and wit to seize it. It’s a wonderful and useful quality to possess. I simply find it less wonderful and more bothersome when I happen to be that opportunity. Me being an opportunity is based largely on race and certain economic (and other) assumptions that accompany my lighter skin tone.
Being a white foreigner in this country carries the dual assumption that I possess great material wealth and that I may be unaware of or careless about standard protocol. To be honest, the first assumption is, on average, comparatively true. The second is also true to the extent that people have enormous opportunity to deceive me the first time I execute some unfamiliar procedure. Thankfully, a huge majority of people are kind and honest and do not act on this opportunity. Nonetheless, there are times when people try to take advantage of me financially. I’m excessively frugal (thanks, Dad!) and hence never careless with my funds. In fact, the main reason I’m aware of this opportunism (and I’ve assuredly been oblivious to it on occasion) is my lack of carelessness.
Perhaps being fed up with persistently having to check and correct how I’m being charged in all financial transactions, I acted in an undesirable and regrettable manner at the hotel. Regardless of whether it was an honest mistake or another attempt to profit from my obvious status as a foreigner, the experience will serve as a reminder to be aware of and curb any initial condescension I may feel. It is not my place to lecture anyone on honesty and “good business practices.” All I can do is be vigilant of the possibility of petty economic swindling, and when I catch it, simply smile and ask for the actual price.
[On a final note, this initial disdain I sometimes feel is partially caused by the conduct of other foreigners (mostly European, American, Indian, and Arab). When I see the implied superiority and arrogance in their interactions with locals, I easily recognize it and despise it. Although much of it has to do with race, it is also how many people treat those in service positions more generally. Having worked fast-food and other service jobs, I pride myself on attempting to treat everyone with respect. Yet I’m clearly no saint as their behavior has, unfortunately, influenced my own—a practice I’ll be fighting more actively in the future.]