Driving through the Burkinabe countryside, little boys by the side of the road would run toward our racing white SUV and wave enthusiastically at us. It was very cute.
But then I started to notice that there were, in fact, quite a few little boys hanging out by the side of the road. And they weren’t alone – they were accompanied by a couple dozen goats or some other form of livestock. Looking even closer, I realised that most of these boys were holding sticks or rods – the kind of wood usually associated with herding animals.
I asked my driver, assuredly the more expert on Burkinabe culture of the car’s two occupants, and he told me that watching the animals is typically the job given to little boys as soon as they are early enough to work. They start around five-ish years of age. When they’re big enough, say nine or ten, they graduate to farming, joining the rest of their family in tending the fields. Though different tribes have different traditions, the driver said, in his community the work of farming is all up to the boys-slash-men, while the work of getting water, cooking and house-tending is all up to the girls-slash-women. The little girl job that parallels flock-tending is water-fetching. Five year old girls walking miles to fetch water…
So then I told the driver what I thought about child labour, that it’s a pity children are sent to work at such a young age, when they should be having fun and going to school, and how utterly important education is, in my humble opinion.
But then he pointed out that this was summer vacation season. He told me that keeping children from school so they could work used to be a big problem, but a decade or so ago the Government of Burkina Faso led a massive sensitisation campaign to convince parents of the importance of education, and now almost all parents send their children to school. The summer holidays are scheduled to coincide with planting season, and the school day still leaves times for chores in the afternoon – or something like that. This sounds more and more like Little House on the Prairie, and what could be more wholesome than American Frontier life? (Yes, I know that’s actually a complex and controversial question, but if we aren’t sure what we think about Little House on the Prairie, I figure I shouldn’t judge Burkinabe ways.)
And the more I thought of it, the more this sounded healthy and happy. Education should include more than maths and alphabets. Learning a work ethic has its place, for sure. These kids are getting to go to school – even if government resources have not yet reached a point where there are enough school buildings or teachers to meet demand, but that’s a different issue. And, really, don’t these boys look happy?