The confusion between child labour and education in Africa

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A child working in Africa (photo: courtesy of Dazzle Jam)

According to UNICEF, the activities “given to children between 5 to 11 years of age are considered child labor if they work at least 28 hours a week”.

There is a real thin line between child labor and education in Africa. The above is the definition of child labor, according to UNICEF, the institution whose duty is to ensure the well-being of children all over the world. However, if we take into consideration the practice and requirements of education in Africa, what is branded as ‘child labour’ by UNICEF is often seen as education by Africans. This is noticed when some adults reminisce about their youthful days – around age 15 or 14 – when they were carrying hoes, posing for a picture, on their way to or from the farm. A professor who looked at one of such pictures wrote “I miss those years. That was not child labour at all”. Strangely enough, all the reactions that I gathered, and that refute the blanket definition of child labour came from educationalists, professors and coincidentally the comments were made on May Day or Workers’ Day. Some years ago, one of them said “our parents were not very rich civil servants, they were average level employees, and we joyously assisted them in any way we could on the farm. So, the notion of child labour is relative”, she concluded. In communities where cattle breeding is the main activity, like the Fulani in West Africa, the duty of a young boy who reaches age 11 is to look after the family’s cattle. They learn how to ensure control over the cattle, where the best pastures and water points are, when to take the animals to the pastures, and so on. The cattle are the sole and main property and source of livelihood for the Fulani families. Therefore, taking care of animals is fundamental in the upbringing of boys.

Raising a child in such societies is an activity that is based on pragmatism, ensuring the acquisition of skills required by the community. Girls are taught very early how to carry out chores required from them. Sexism has been eradicated in most societies today so a task like cooking is taught to both young males and females. Boys are told that learning about culinary activities makes them independent in life. In communities where washing machines are non-existent, boys and girls are taught how to launder with their hands. Many children as young as seven years, especially girls begin to learn how to wash their own clothing, starting from the lightest ones and their parents (mothers most of the time) wash the slightly heavier ones, while the girls watch and learn.  That guarantees that the young girl will grow into a woman who can launder for her family (while teaching her ward[s] the same activity). This is such an important education because in rural Africa and the average African city, washing machines are not that common and a woman who cannot launder brings embarrassment onto herself. The same applies with cooking meals. A lady who is incapable of cooking meals for her family might lose her marriage, since her husband can send her back to her parents for them to teach her how to cook.

Per the definition or by UNICEF which I opened with, an 11-year-old Fulani boy who attends school and takes the cattle to graze two hours in the morning before he goes to school and two hours after school, from Monday to Friday and does the same thing four hours over the weekend (Saturday and Sunday) would clock 28 hours tending to the family cattle. That fulfills all the requirements of child labour. In fact, the young man is lending a helping hand to the family, to guarantee and protect the household’s income. The boy is also acquiring the skills required of him as a man who belongs to a “tribe” of cattle breeders. If he grows up into a man who cannot tend to those animals, he might not find it easy making money, since that task is their main activity. The person might be gainfully employed in an institution, but rearing cattle on the side will provide extra income.

The young 10-year-old girl who spends three hours every day by her mother’s side learning recipes and other culinary practices is simply edifying herself to be a respectable skilled woman in society.  The main point I am making is that sharing tasks with one’s parents trains the young ones and prepares them for the main activities society expects from them.

We should not, however, lose sight of the fact that child labour really does exist in the world and, sadly enough, in Africa. Wealthy farmers who seek cheap labour contract the services of young boys and girls, below the age of 15 to work on their farms for long hours. Migration from rural areas to the city in search of greener pastures forces young boys and girls into extremely tedious and hazardous activities. A case in point is the plight of the penniless girls from northern Ghana who travel to the southern cities, especially to Accra, where they really toil. They live on coins gathered by carrying heavy loads of merchandise bought by customers, in the market. They live in squalor, in open areas, vulnerable and they are called “the Kaya Girls”. Their aim in most cases is to “make enough money” to buy a sewing machine and return to their native communities and start a job, sewing. The boys and girls who are forced to drop out of school or who simply stay out of school and work on cocoa farms in Ghana are trapped into forced labour. The fishing sector in Ghana relies on child labor (tragically, many of the children end up dead) and gold mining activities involve the same exploitation.

Child labour is, therefore, a reality and should not be condoned under any circumstance. But let us avoid the serious mistake of taking societal organic training of youngsters to be child labour. That is an indictment of noble and compulsory training which is beneficial to children and the whole community. The difference must be made clear.

Moussa Traoré is Associate Professor at the Department of English of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.

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  1. A very good piece, The confusion between child labour and education in Africa is a long existing debate. One terms it as labour or training depending on the angle one chooses to see it from. But I would rather say the confusion is as a result of lack of education on the subject matter and failure to properly define the parameter. I would like to put on records that aside the few wicked relatives who choose to be mean to children and other adults who choose to take advantage of cheap labour; it is in place to engage your children in activities that would shape them or prepare them to be able to fit into society, to grow to be independent, acquire basic skills for survival but emphasis must be on their age, their development both physically (in terms of muscles and nerves) and mentally and the quantum of work must correspond to their age and be within their ability to manage it conveniently/not negatively affecting their development in any way.

  2. A piece well written. I think as Africans, we still have a long way to go as far as child labour is concerned. In fact, there is a great deal of ignorance and this has led to what one may term as “norm”. As we are advancing in terms of technology, education… I believe things will change for our good. There is still much to be done especially in rural communities.

  3. I worked with UN Peacekeeping, communication and information office. We have a child protection unit. Concerning this confusion, it’s more deeper. When the UN staff is eating chocolate, it tastes good, but when the coco bean was cultivated by the parents with help of their children, it’s a case of a report wich will involve the whole country and object of resolution vote. That’s amazing!!! I love my village because I could learn how to use cuttler to weed in a coco farm, how to fermente coco beans, how to master bush tricks, with my parents, it was a nice period. I have a farm now and no one of my children can at least learn how to weed, even cultivate garden eggs with fear of practicing child labour. Don’t worry there’s no child labour but child education labour.

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