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The story of Muslim slave in Africa: Not 200 years ago, but today

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  • Tarek Fatah
    November 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
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      November 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

      Michael Finkel
      http://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/18/magazine/18SLAVES.html

      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
      later.

      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
      these weeds.

      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
      cages.

      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
      sunrise.

      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
      price.

      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
      physically abused.

      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
      things.

      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.
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