1The story of Muslim slave in Africa: Not 200 years ago, but today
- Dec 1, 2001November 18, 2001
Is Youssouf Male A Slave?
The Journey of a 15-Year-Old From Mali Who Sold Himself Into Bondage
By MICHAEL FINKEL
The New York Times Magazine
The man came to the village on a moped. Youssouf Malé watched him. A man on
a moped was unusual. When visitors did come to Nimbougou, deep in the hill
country of southern Mali, they were almost always on foot, or on bicycle.
The man on the moped had come to sell fabrics, the flower-patterned kind
from which the women in Youssouf's village liked to sew dresses. Youssouf
sat beneath a palm tree and watched.
He saw that the man was wearing blue jeans. The man was not that much older
than Youssouf, and already he owned a pair of genuine blue jeans. Maybe
three people in Youssouf's whole village owned blue jeans. And on this man's
feet -- my goodness. On this man's feet was something that Youssouf had
never before seen. In Nimbougou, people either wore flip-flops or plastic
sandals or nothing. What this man wore on his feet looked to Youssouf like a
type of house. Like a miniature house, one for each foot. Two perfect,
miniature houses, painted white, with curved walls that rose to the man's
ankles, with a fence up the front of each one made of thin rope.
Youssouf asked the man about his shoes. He asked how he might be able to get
money to have a pair of shoes like that -- shoes that made you look
important. The man asked Youssouf how old he was, and Youssouf said that he
was 14 or 15, though he didn't know for sure. People in Nimbougou didn't
keep track of such things. The man told Youssouf that he was old enough to
get money. He said it was easy. All Youssouf had to do was leave Mali, where
everybody was poor, and cross the southern border to the Ivory Coast, where
everybody was rich. In the Ivory Coast, the man said, there were jobs and
there was money, and Youssouf could find one of these jobs and earn some of
this money, and then he could buy a pair of shoes.
The man said he knew many people who had done this. He said that he himself
had gone to the Ivory Coast when he was younger and had started his own
business with the money he'd brought home. What the man did not say, but
what he surely knew, was that many people come home from the Ivory Coast
with nothing. Less than nothing, actually. They come home broken from labor;
they come home unable to afford even a loaf of bread; they come home with
machete wounds that have turned all the wrong colors. Some of these people
have said that the work in the Ivory Coast is not work at all. They've said
it is more like slavery.
But the man did not mention such things. He focused on what was good.
Youssouf listened to the man. He listened, and he made a decision.
One morning, not long after the man with the moped had visited, Youssouf
woke before dawn. He shared a room with a half-dozen other boys -- a few
brothers, a few cousins -- and was careful not to disturb anyone. He put on
a T-shirt and a pair of shorts. He placed another T-shirt and a pair of long
pants and his slingshot in a little plastic book bag, and he walked out of
his village. Nobody saw Youssouf leave. He did not say goodbye to his
parents; he knew that if he did they'd forbid him to go. He knew this
because he had mentioned the Ivory Coast to his father, and his father had
said that the Ivory Coast was a bad place, and that there was plenty of work
to do right here, picking cotton in the fields. His mother said the same
thing. It would have been rude to disagree with his parents, so Youssouf
stayed quiet. But it seemed strange to him -- if picking cotton was so good,
why did his parents still wear flip-flops on their feet?
Youssouf walked through his village and into the bush. Soon, he was as far
from home as he had ever been. He kept walking. Later in the day, he worked
for a few hours in a family's fields, in exchange for a meal and a place to
sleep. The next morning he walked on. He walked for 12 days. Then he reached
a very wide path that looked to be made out of a wonderful kind of rock. He
had never seen an asphalt road before. The road was filled with bicycles and
mopeds and four-wheeled mopeds and giant four-wheeled mopeds that had rows
and rows of seats and even bigger mopeds that carried enough sacks of rice
to feed his village for a year. It was a very exciting road. It led to a
city named Sikasso.
Along the road, at tiny wooden stalls, people were selling things. They were
selling watches and sunglasses and toothbrushes and knives and razor blades
and nail clippers and key chains and shoe polish and padlocks and
cigarettes. Youssouf wanted one of everything. But of course he had no
money. Or, rather, he had a little. He had been paid two coins by one of the
families whose fields he had worked in. It was the first time he had ever
been paid, and when those two coins were pressed into his palm, he felt,
well, he felt different. Like maybe he wasn't a kid anymore. Like maybe he
was an adult.
He asked a shopkeeper how he might get to the Ivory Coast, and he was
directed to the bus station. The bus station seemed to Youssouf like a big
corral that contained one example of every color and every noise and every
food in the world. He walked around until his head felt filled up, and then
he sat at a table and ate a plate of rice and beans and drank a soda out of
a glass bottle and spent both his coins. While he was sitting there, holding
his soda, a man came up to Youssouf. He had a friendly face. He had eyes
that seemed to have seen important things. He had nice shoes, though not as
nice as the shoes that Youssouf desired. His name, he said, was Dosso. He
asked Youssouf if he wanted to work in the Ivory Coast. What an amazing
thing to be asked, thought Youssouf. He could not believe his luck. Yes,
Youssouf said. Yes, yes. Good, Dosso said. Then he said that he could find
Youssouf an excellent job, a high-paying job, a job that would allow
Youssouf to buy anything he wanted. Come with me to the Ivory Coast tomorrow
morning, Dosso said, and I will get you a job. Yes, Youssouf said. Yes, yes.
Dosso said that he could pay for Youssouf's trip to the Ivory Coast, and
that once Youssouf had earned enough money he could pay him back. Yes,
Youssouf said. Dosso then led Youssouf to a one-room shack near the bus
station and told him that he could stay there. He would bring some rice
Inside the shack there were nine other boys. Most seemed a little older than
Youssouf; some had hair on their chins. They were also waiting for Dosso to
take them to the Ivory Coast. All had been promised jobs. A few said that
their fathers had worked in the Ivory Coast and had encouraged them. Some
had older brothers or friends who'd been across the border. Others were like
Youssouf; they left without the permission of their families. Everyone,
though, had the same goal -- to make money.
hat evening, in the shack, Youssouf made a friend. His name was Abdoul
Toure. Abdoul looked at least as young as Youssouf. His hair was short and
clean and neat, as if he had just had it cut. Abdoul seemed relaxed. He
seemed to know exactly what was going to happen. Abdoul told Youssouf that
he was heading to a big city, to a place called Abidjan, where he would work
in a restaurant. He had discussed everything with Dosso, the man who was
going to take them across the border.
This was the second time that Abdoul had left home. The first time, he said,
he went to Mauritania, where he had washed dishes in a Chinese restaurant
called Bird of Paradise. He stayed for a year and came home with 200,000
Central African francs -- the equivalent of almost $300. He gave most of the
money to his family, but not all. He showed Youssouf his backpack. It was
filled with clothes. Nice clothes, including an extra pair of shoes --
still, though, not as fine as the shoes that Youssouf was going to buy for
himself. This time, said Abdoul, he planned to bring home more money. The
Ivory Coast, he explained, was richer than Mauritania. His goal was to
return to Mali and open a restaurant of his own. Youssouf found this idea
very satisfying. He realized that he hadn't asked about the type of work
that Dosso could find him. He didn't care. A restaurant sounded good. He
asked Abdoul if he could work with him in the restaurant, and Abdoul said
that he could.
In the morning, when Dosso returned, he escorted Youssouf and Abdoul to a
place nearby, where a man took their pictures with an instant camera. Dosso
pasted each photo into a little cardboard booklet. He asked the boys if they
could write, and they all said no -- none had attended school -- so he wrote
their names for them and filled in their birth dates. Youssouf and Abdoul
promptly gained several years. Both were now 19. Dosso did not give the
papers to the boys. He kept them in his hands.
They boarded a minibus. The bus had no windows, just holes cut in the sides
where windows would normally go. About 20 passengers got on, along with
Dosso and a driver. Three of the passengers were girls, and the rest were
boys. Youssouf sat next to Abdoul. The bus shimmied along the road, and
Youssouf imagined that he had become a king. All he had to do was sit, while
the countryside moved past.
After a while, the minibus drove off the pavement and headed across the
roadless outback. Youssouf wondered what was happening, but he did not say a
word. Nobody said a word.
They were taking the back way into the Ivory Coast. Dosso no doubt knew that
the official crossing could cause trouble. Border guards ask questions, and
it takes a lot of money to stop them from asking questions. Border guards
can tell which identification papers are real and which are not. It would be
easier to skip the whole border crossing and instead sneak through the bush.
The terrain was rough. The bus made noises that sounded to Youssouf as if
someone were trying to split the vehicle in half, like a coconut. There was
a lot of dust. For a while Youssouf tried to keep track of where he was, so
that if he had to walk home, he could. Later he just worried. They rode
until the sun went behind the hills. Then they rejoined the pavement.
By the time the bus stopped, it was night. They were in another city. Dosso
took Youssouf and Abdoul and two of the other boys off the bus and put them
in a room. The walls and ceiling and floor were made of cement. There were
no windows. Abdoul asked if he was going to work in a restaurant, and Dosso
told him that if he wasn't quiet he'd be put in jail. Then Dosso left. He
locked the steel door behind him. From inside the storage room, Youssouf
could hear the minibus drive away.
Dosso did not return until late the next morning. Youssouf and Abdoul and
the other two boys were hungry; they hadn't eaten since the previous
morning, at the bus station in Mali. Dosso was with two other men. One was
wearing a police uniform, the other a loose-fitting robe.
Dosso and the policeman spoke to each other in a language that Youssouf
could not understand. The man in the loose-fitting robe walked up to each
boy and motioned for him to stand and then looked him up and down, as if he
was trying to guess how much he weighed. The man in the loose-fitting robe
asked Youssouf if he was willing to work. He asked the question in Bambara,
which is Youssouf's tribal language. Youssouf nodded yes.
The man in the robe told Youssouf that he owned a cocoa plantation. He told
Youssouf that if he took him to the farm, Youssouf would have to work for
several months in order to pay off his purchase price. Then, once he'd paid
it off, Youssouf was told that he would start to earn a monthly salary of
7,500 Central African francs -- about $10. The man in the robe also told
Youssouf that he would not give him any of this money until Youssouf had
worked on the plantation for a full year. He asked Youssouf if he
understood, and Youssouf nodded yes. Then he asked Abdoul the same
questions. Abdoul, too, nodded yes.
The man in the robe and the policeman and Dosso then stood together and
spoke in the language that Youssouf could not understand. They pointed at
the boys and spoke in loud voices and pointed some more. Eventually, the man
in the robe reached into a pocket and brought out a bundle of paper money
and handed some of it to Dosso and some to the policeman. Dosso handed the
man in the robe two identification papers. Then the man in the robe took out
a pen and a little book and wrote something down.
If Youssouf had spoken French, he would have known that the men had just
agreed to a purchase price for him of 33,000 Central African francs -- the
equivalent of $45. He would have known that Abdoul's purchase price was the
same. If he had been able to read, and had been allowed to look at the robed
man's little book, he would have seen, written in blocky letters, in blue
ink, the words le transport, le kaxeur and la police. Next to each word he
would have seen a number. And he would have known that the $90 paid for the
two boys included $17 for transportation costs, $42 for the trafficker fee
and $31 to send the police officer home happy.
After the money was spent, the man in the robe took Youssouf and Abdoul out
of the room. He said his name was Lagi and introduced them to his oldest
son, Saydou. Both Lagi and Saydou had bicycles. Lagi asked Youssouf to sit
on his bicycle seat and Abdoul to sit on his son's bicycle seat. The men
climbed on the bikes in front of the boys and pedaled out of the city.
From the back of the bicycle, Youssouf studied the land. They rode on
pavement for a while, and then they rode on a thin path. This is when
Youssouf knew that he had arrived in a wealthy place. Here, the corn was so
tall that the stalks on either side of the path bent toward one another,
almost covering the sky. Back home, in Mali, the corn came up to Youssouf's
thigh. The soil here was as red as a bolt of freshly dyed fabric. Even the
weeds were impressive. A giraffe, thought Youssouf, might be able to hide in
They bicycled for such a long time that it was past nightfall when they
reached Lagi's farm. When Youssouf saw the living quarters, he was
disappointed. After he had seen the corn and the soil and the weeds, he had
expected a castle. What he saw was less impressive than the houses in his
own village. In Youssouf's village, almost everyone lived in a round house,
made of mud brick, with a conical roof made of palm thatch. On Lagi's farm,
the houses looked like places where chickens might live. They looked like
There were two of them, each with two rooms. The roofs of the houses were
flat, though instead of thatch there was metal. The walls were mud brick.
There were no windows. One house, Lagi said, was for him and his family. He
said he had nine children and two wives. The other house was for his 11
workers. Both houses looked the same. In front of the two houses was a dirt
yard, and in the yard was a fire pit, a few metal bowls and, tied to a
stake, a young goat. The forest seemed to be creeping in on all sides. The
insects made a noise that sounded to Youssouf like someone screaming.
Youssouf looked around, but there was nothing more. Just two houses and a
yard. There was no four-wheeled moped. There was no regular moped. There
were only the two bicycles, their chains orange with rust. Lagi's robe,
Youssouf had seen, was sewn with many patches. Lagi's son wore clothes whose
holes didn't even have patches. On their feet, Youssouf had noticed, both
men wore flip-flops.
Youssouf and Abdoul were given a room with four others. There was no
furniture. Once Youssouf's eyes adjusted to the dark, he could see the other
workers sprawled on the floor, on reed mats, bent about each other, like
pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Clothing was piled in one corner, along with a
flashlight and a radio, both of which turned out to be broken. In another
corner was a gas lantern, a broom fashioned out of thin twigs and a small
prayer rug, rolled tightly.
Lagi came by and handed Youssouf and Abdoul each a machete. The wooden
handle on Youssouf's machete had cracked and was held together with a bit of
vine. Lagi told the boys to take care of their tools -- if they were lost or
broken they'd have to buy new ones. A new machete, he said, cost two weeks'
salary. Many of the workers, Youssouf noticed, slept on top of their
machetes. Then Lagi told the boys that work would start the next morning, at
hen Youssouf woke, he was finally allowed to eat -- his first meal in two
days, a bowl of cornmeal flavored with oil and salt; a dish known as kabato.
Lagi's wives had made the food. The workers and Lagi and his family all ate
the same thing. They ate out of two big bowls and dipped their hands in to
serve themselves. After they ate, Lagi's oldest son, Saydou, and two of
Lagi's younger sons and Youssouf and Abdoul and the nine other workers left
the compound. They walked single-file. They followed a trail and waded
through a swamp and arrived at the fields.
The day's job was to clear weeds from the cocoa groves. This was done by
holding a machete in one hand and a stick in the other. The stick was shaped
somewhat like an old man's cane. On the way to the fields, Saydou hacked a
few branches off a tree and made sticks for Youssouf and Abdoul.
Saydou assigned every worker a row of trees. He told Youssouf and Abdoul to
be careful not to damage the trunks of the cocoa trees. He told them to be
careful not to chop off their toes. Then Saydou and his brothers and the
other workers began to cut. Youssouf and Abdoul watched for a minute. They
saw that the stick was used to gather weeds into a bundle, so that they
could be chopped, close to the ground, by the machete. Then Youssouf and
Abdoul began to cut, too.
Youssouf had worked in his family's fields since he was a young boy. He had
handled a machete but never had to cut anything like the weeds on Lagi's
plantation. The other workers made the job look easy, but it wasn't. The
machete had to be held at just the perfect angle, or it wouldn't slice
smoothly through the weeds. Sometimes Youssouf found the right angle, but
usually he didn't. The others looked almost as if they were sweeping up a
dirty floor. They swung their machetes once and every weed fell. They moved
swiftly up the row. Youssouf had to hack at each bundle as if he were trying
to chop down a tree.
By the time Youssouf finished his row, he could hardly lift his right arm.
He felt as if there were a rock inside his arm. He was so sweaty that he
would not have been wetter if he'd jumped in a river. On Lagi's plantation
all the workers moved from one row to the next at the same time. The fastest
ones got the longest breaks, waiting for the slower ones to finish. When
Youssouf was done, the other workers were already resting -- all except
Abdoul, who was still cutting. The workers had jammed their sticks into the
soil and were sitting on the short ends. Youssouf was so tired that he just
flopped on the ground.
As soon as Abdoul finished, everyone was assigned another row. They cut some
more. Again, Youssouf finished second-to-last, and Abdoul finished last.
Again, Abdoul was not given a rest. This made him even slower. One of the
wives brought out some water, but it was gone before Abdoul finished
working. Abdoul, Youssouf knew, had grown up in a city. He was not used to
fieldwork. He was supposed to be working in a restaurant.
Youssouf could see in Abdoul's face that he wanted to cry. He was sure the
other workers could see it, too. The sun rose, and the day was very hot. But
no one offered to help. The workers just sat on their sticks and waited.
Some of them were older and had spent years on plantations. Some had arrived
just a few months before. Nine of the workers were from Mali and two were
from Burkina Faso. Some were so fast that they could fall asleep for a short
time before they had to work again. Not even these workers offered to help
Abdoul. They told Youssouf that he, too, was forbidden to help his friend.
They said Abdoul had to learn the job by himself.
They worked another row, and as everyone was waiting for Abdoul to finish,
one of the older boys sat next to Youssouf and told him a story. He said
that sometimes, when the work was too hard, a boy would try and run away
from the plantation. When a boy tries to run, Youssouf was told, the owner
and his family chase after him. People who grow up in the forest know the
paths very well, and they can always catch the boy. When they catch him,
they bring him back to the plantation. They take off all his clothes. They
tie his arms together and his legs together. They whip him with a tree
branch until he is bloody from head to toe. Then they leave the boy outside,
all night, still tied up, and the mosquitoes feast on him and the ants crawl
into his wounds. The older boy admitted to Youssouf that he had never
actually seen such a thing with his own eyes, but he had heard the story
many times and was very sure it was true. Youssouf believed him.
Abdoul finished the day, but he was so weak he could barely walk back to the
compound. That night he told Youssouf that he wanted to run away. Youssouf
tried to talk him out of it. Where would he run? How would he even know
which direction to go? Then Youssouf told Abdoul the story that had been
told to him.
Abdoul decided to stay. The next day, though, was worse. Abdoul lagged even
farther behind. Again he threatened to run, and again Youssouf persuaded him
not to. The third day was worse than the second. It took all of Youssouf's
efforts to persuade Abdoul to keep working. He even secretly helped cut some
of Abdoul's rows.
On the morning of the fourth day, as they were walking to the fields, Abdoul
said to Youssouf that he'd had enough. He said he was going to run. He asked
Youssouf to go with him, and Youssouf said that he was scared. He told
Abdoul that he didn't know the paths. He didn't know the language. He didn't
know the country.
Abdoul said he didn't care. He was going, with or without Youssouf. He told
Youssouf that he'd rather die running than continue to work. Youssouf said,
again, that he was scared. And Abdoul said goodbye. He said goodbye, and he
darted off the path and into the tall grass. The weeds rustled for a moment
and then closed behind him, like a door, and in a moment Abdoul was gone.
he owner looked for him, and his sons looked for him, and even the wives
looked, but nobody found Abdoul. At first, Youssouf thought about him all
the time. Then, as the weeks passed, he thought of him less and less.
Eventually, he hardly thought of him at all.
Youssouf's life on the plantation felt like a little circle. Every day was
the same day. He woke up and ate cornmeal and walked to the fields and
worked and walked back and ate cornmeal and went to sleep. That was it. He
learned how to swing his machete as if it were part of his arm, and how to
sharpen it with a piece of hardwood, and how to hurl it into an orange tree
to bring down a snack. He hacked weeds and dug holes and trimmed trees and
hauled bags of cocoa beans.
He wore the same shirt and the same pants every day, and soon his clothing
looked like the other workers' clothing -- a series of holes held together
with thread. He made friends with Dramane and Massa and Madou and Adama and
Modipo. He did not become friends with Lagi, the owner, but he did not hate
him either. He worked during the rainy season and he worked during the dry
season. For a full year, he never once left the jungle. At night, during a
heavy rainstorm, the drops crashing against the metal roof sounded to
Youssouf like the end of the world. When it wasn't raining, he spread his
shirt on the roof so that it would be dry by morning. Before they went to
sleep, the boys often dreamed out loud. They dreamed of eating beef, and
owning a moped, and building a house. They spoke about running their own
plantations. If they were not too exhausted, they played a dice game called
ludo. One boy gave Youssouf his first cigarette. Occasionally, they talked
about girls. Youssouf learned a lot about girls.
When it was quiet, Youssouf sometimes thought about his home village. He
wanted to tell his family where he was. A few times, when he was in a bad
mood, Youssouf considered running into the weeds. He thought often of how
nice it would be to go home for just a single night.
Late one afternoon, Youssouf was distracted by a bee and swung his machete
poorly and sliced open his left foot. He watched his blood spill into the
soil. He learned that there was no medicine on the plantation. He was
informed by Lagi that if he stayed home from the fields he would not be paid
for those days. He worked for two weeks with a plastic sandal on his right
foot and a bandanna wrapped around his left.
He was attacked by fire ants so often that he no longer noticed their
stings. Once, he was bitten by a snake, and he sat down in the field and
waited to die. The snake turned out to be nonpoisonous. No matter how many
times he saw a scorpion, he was so frightened that he wouldn't touch it even
after he'd chopped its head off. Three of the workers became sick with
malaria, but Youssouf stayed healthy.
A few months after Youssouf was hired, Lagi rode his bicycle out of the
jungle and returned with two more boys. He watched as one of the older boys
told the newcomers the story of what would happen if they ran away.
Youssouf worked on Lagi's plantation six days a week. Nobody worked on the
farm on Fridays, because Lagi is Muslim. Only a few of the workers, though,
stayed home with Lagi. On Fridays, Youssouf and most of the others walked to
nearby plantations and hired themselves out for the day. They charged 500
Central African francs each -- about 68 cents for an 11-hour workday. They
were paid in cash before they headed home. Youssouf kept his money buried in
a secret spot.
When visiting other plantations, Youssouf always talked with the laborers
who worked there. He learned about good farmers and about bad ones. He
learned that some workers were paid a little more than he, and some a little
less. Some ate three times a day, some twice. He saw workers who seemed far
younger than he, and others who looked as old as his father. He met a few
boys who had worked more than a year but had not been paid at all. Some of
them said that the trees on their farms were sick. The others didn't know
why they hadn't been paid. All of them, though, kept working. They told
Youssouf that they had no choice -- if they stopped and left, there'd be no
chance of ever being paid. They said that they'd be ashamed to return home
after so long with nothing. They said that people in their villages would
look at them as failures.
The trees on Lagi's plantation stayed healthy. The weeds were kept low. The
cocoa pods grew, and when the pods were ripe, the boys chopped them down and
Lagi's wives split them open and laid the seeds out to dry. Then the workers
put them in sacks, and Lagi sold the sacks to people from the city. And
then, like that, Youssouf had worked a year. His contract was over. Lagi
asked if he'd like to stay for another year, and Youssouf said no. And so
Lagi paid him the money. He paid him 75,000 Central African francs -- 7,500
a month for 10 months, with two months' work used to pay for his purchase
For a year of hard labor, six days a week, sunrise to sunset, Youssouf was
paid a total of $102. It was more money than he had ever seen. He was proud
of himself. He knew for certain that he was now an adult. Lagi's oldest son
pedaled him out of the jungle, and Youssouf's time on the cocoa plantation
came to an end.
e was dropped off in the same city where Lagi had purchased him. The city is
called Daloa. Many people in Daloa, Youssouf discovered, speak his tribal
language, Bambara, and almost everyone who spoke Bambara told him the same
thing -- they told him to go to the Malian Association. They said that the
association would give him a free place to sleep. And so Youssouf made his
way to the cinder-block building on a quiet side street in central Daloa,
and said to the person who opened the door that he had just finished working
on a cocoa plantation.
The person at the door was named Diarra Drissa. He was a vice president of
the Malian Association. He told Youssouf that the association was there to
help boys who had escaped or had been released from the cocoa plantations.
Inside the association's building, sitting on a soft couch, Diarra had a
long talk with Youssouf. He asked Youssouf if he knew what chocolate was.
Youssouf said that he did not. Diarra explained that cocoa beans were the
main ingredient in a food called chocolate, a food that was eaten mostly in
other countries, far away. He said that to keep the price of chocolate low,
some very bad things were happening. He told Youssouf that it might seem as
if he had been paid a lot of money, but he really hadn't been. He said that
nobody in the Ivory Coast would work for such a low wage. Youssouf said he
didn't know that, and Diarra said that's exactly why the plantation owner
had bought him.
Diarra said that the work Youssouf was made to do was wrong. A teenage boy
should not be made to work so hard, under such conditions, trapped in a
place he could not leave. He said that Youssouf was fortunate -- other boys
worked for years and were never paid. Some were beaten. Others ran away.
When Diarra said this, Youssouf asked if a boy named Abdoul Toure had
visited, almost a year ago. Diarra said yes. Abdoul, Youssouf learned, had
spent two nights in the forest before he eventually found his way to the
Malian Association and later returned home to Mali.
Diarra said that he wanted men like the one who took Youssouf across the
border to be stopped, and he wanted the farmers who bought the boys to be
punished. He said that many people agreed with him -- including people from
countries where there was a lot of chocolate. He said that many people from
other countries agreed that boys like Youssouf were working as slaves, and
that some human rights groups were encouraging a boycott of Ivory Coast
cocoa. In the United States, Diarra had just learned, some of the companies
who sell chocolate might soon start monitoring the working conditions on
cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast. These companies would buy cocoa from
only those farms that did not hire under-age workers. They would then label
their chocolate bars with the words: "No child slave labor."
Diarra told Youssouf that he shouldn't feel bad; he said that every year
thousands and thousands of boys came from Mali to work in the cocoa fields.
But it was too late. Youssouf felt bad. He felt as if somebody had played a
trick on him. He felt that maybe his father had been right all along. Maybe
the Ivory Coast was a bad place. Maybe, Youssouf thought, maybe he really
wasn't an adult after all.
The Malian Association paid for a bus to return Youssouf to Mali. The bus
took Youssouf over the border and into the city of Sikasso, where Youssouf
had first met Dosso, the man who had taken him to the Ivory Coast. In
Sikasso, there is another group that helps Malian children who have gone to
work in the Ivory Coast. It is a branch of the international organization
Save the Children. The Save the Children office consists of five or six
rooms on the second floor of a whitewashed stucco building. It's one of the
city's nicest and cleanest buildings -- nicer and cleaner than even the
Sikasso hospital. Sometimes 20 or more children are housed there. They sleep
on the floor, often bent about one another in the same positions they'd
slept in while on the cocoa plantations.
Youssouf lived in the office for five days. Each day, he met with a young
Malian psychologist named Ibrahim Haidara. Ibrahim told Youssouf that
leaving his country had been a bad idea. He told him it was dangerous. He
explained that it was best for Youssouf to remain always in a familiar
place, surrounded by people he knew. He said it was never a good idea to
abandon your family. He told Youssouf that if everybody left Mali, there
would be no one left in their country. Then he taught Youssouf some
patriotic songs, including the Malian national anthem. Finally, Ibrahim
showed him a video.
The video had been made by a British documentary team that was financed by a
human rights organization called Anti-Slavery International. It is a
disturbing film. One boy in the video has horrible, poorly healed scars
across his torso; he was, he says, brutally beaten by the owner of the
plantation where he worked. The camera lingers on images of this boy's
scars, while the soundtrack plays and replays the sound of a cracking whip.
Though this is the only boy whose scars are shown, an official from the
Malian Association states that 90 percent of the 600,000 plantations in the
Ivory Coast use slave labor, and implies that there are thousands, and
possibly tens of thousands, of boys who have been beaten or otherwise
The movie was both frightening and confusing to Youssouf. During his year on
the plantation, Youssouf had never seen anyone with scars like the boy's in
the movie. He had seen only people with machete scars. Maybe, thought
Youssouf, he had just been lucky.
The young psychologist did not tell this to Youssouf, but Ibrahim himself
had never actually seen a child whose body showed evidence of beatings, and
he had worked with several hundred boys. Even so, Ibrahim said he felt that
cocoa plantations were no place for children. After playing the video,
Ibrahim asked Youssouf about his plans for the future. At first, Youssouf
said that he'd like to try and work in the Ivory Coast again, this time in a
restaurant. He said that his parents would want him to. When he said this,
Ibrahim held up a machine that was making a tape of Youssouf's voice. He
told Youssouf that the red light on the machine was glowing because he had
just given a bad answer. Youssouf could not see that the light was always on
when the machine was recording. Soon, though, Youssouf was saying only good
This was when he was sent home to his village. Before he went, though, he
had a chance to go shopping. He purchased a pair of shoes, a very nice pair;
the kind of shoes that looked like little houses for his feet. Youssouf
arrived home, wearing these shoes, on the back of a moped. It had taken him
12 days to walk out of his village and a matter of hours to return. Both his
mother and his father began to cry when they saw him. They had feared that
Youssouf was dead. They were so happy to see him that they forgot to be
angry. Youssouf told his parents about his time away. He said that the
experience had been both good and bad. He said that he learned many things
about the world, but he also learned that there were many things he did not
know. He also told his parents something he knew they wanted to hear. He had
promised the psychologist he would tell them this, and so he did. He told
his parents he never wanted to leave his village again. He had seen some of
the world, he said, and now he was finished.
Michael Finkel is a contributing writer for the magazine. His last article
was about the international trade in human organs.