I was child laborer. Throughout my youth I worked in the creation of different ceramics pieces that were produced in my hometown of the rural Northern California foothills. While not child slave labor, I was paid very little if at all. It may shock you to hear this, after all this sort of thing is not supposed to happen in such a civilized country as the United States, but it does and it has.

Of course, in making that statement, it needs to be qualified with the fact that I was helping my parents’ business out and it was largely by grumbling choice. My situation was different than that of children who are forced in to garment or agrarian work against their will and exploited. But, it needs to be noted that in the narrow scope of how journalists are defining “child labor” that they are accusing my parents (as well as countless others) of human rights abuses when it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Remember my old chair in Abengourou, Cote d’Ivoire? It was horrible and needed replacement. Through a friend of a friend, I found Babacar. He was a nice 19 year-old fellow that was a carpenter. That’s all he did for a living was make furniture and he’d been doing it since he was 12, having started as an apprentice which was yes, child labor. He had little choice though as both his parents had died and he had no relatives to take him in. Sure, he should have been going to school, but he was left supporting himself and so he learned a trade that allow him to do just that.

Now, you can view Babacar’s story from two angles. The first is that of any article you find when searching “ivory coast child slave labor”. The other is the angle of context wherein you see the choices that he had and how he had to survive in his environment. Don’t get me wrong, there are indeed child laborers and even those who are slaves in Africa… as well as Asia, the Americas, and Europe. They’re an easy group to exploit and so the truly evil of the world do so.

It’s just that when it comes to Africa, journalists drop in, search far and wide to come up with their example of child labor in say, cocoa production, then they take off and write their sensationalist article. In reality, they should be looking at the surroundings and understand how and why children end up working at an early age which is often to help out their entire family to make a living and eat. Context is crucial in this understanding and it’s oft ignored all in the name of a headline.

As for Babacar, he’s not getting rich working as a carpenter, but he supports himself. He isn’t a victim, although a North American or European journalist might choose to show those in the same situation he was in seven years ago to be that of an exploited child. A lot of it depends on how lucky one is to tell their own story, such as in my case where you can see that I was just a kid helping out my parents and not some child trafficked to produce artwork. Keep this in mind and look to the periphery when reading about “child labor” and especially “child slave labor” in Africa.

My office chair and child labor in Africa