Thursday, July 18, 2013

Child Labor

I’d like to recommend a dissertation topic to any takers. 

While I was in America a few weeks back, I got into a conversation with my pops. He’s an old-school story-teller, the type to spin wild yarns that may or may not have really happened. As he likes to say whenever I challenge the veracity of one of his tales, “Never let the facts interfere with a good story.”

Anyway. Most of dear old Dad’s stories are numbered. Not literally, but we know them all so well, they might as well be. We know about how he copied the master key to his undergraduate college. (He was the head of the dish crew and found the key on a returned plate; he carefully sanded down a blank key until he could literally unlock the campus. Not bad, until the story closes with him choosing after hours time in the Physics lab… am I making him sound like a terrorist? He’s not. Just a tinkerer.) We also know the story of my great aunt trying to scatter the ashes of her father – that one is a real gem. It involves old ladies on adult-sized tricycles, a windy final dispatch, and rubber waders. And we know about the time my great-grandfather accidentally shot himself in the foot. The stories get better and better with each re-telling.

This one, however, was new. We were chatting about my Great Aunt Dorothy. When Aunt Dorothy was just a girl in the early 1900s, she, like any girl her age, was interested in ways to earn some extra pennies to spend at the local candy shoppe.* So, she got a job.

Now, this is where I get back to the title of my post. (Did I have anyone nervous about how my organization is planning to reach sustainability? Settle down, now.) When I was a kid, there were only a few things you could do to earn extra pocket money. I babysat and housesat for the neighbors. My brother mowed lawns in the summer and shoveled snow in the winter. And that’s all I can really think of. (Because I swear no one ever made any money at a lemonade stand and I was never up early enough to even consider a paper route.)

In Mississippi, some neighborhood kids knocked on my door once and asked if they could collect the pecans that had fallen from the tree in my front yard. (PECANS?  I HAVE PECANS?)** They wanted to take them over to a local shop that would pay a certain price per pound.

But Great Aunt Dorothy was too young to be sitting for children. She could, however, get a job assisting the local doctor. All she had to do was sit on the end of a dock and dangle her legs into the lake. This might have been tricky for a kid, seeing as she really wasn’t meant to kick her legs or splash the water. Why? (I can feel your question burning through the computer screen.)

Get this: she was fishing for leeches…with her legs! These were still the magical days of yore when doctors needed leeches to “treat” their patients. So Great Aunt Dorothy would dip her legs into the water and then pull the little blood-suckers off to sell them to the local doc.

Now, this is an Africa blog, so I don’t want to neglect some local flavor. I’ll admit to pretty scattered and anecdotal research, but so far, I can’t find anyone who remembers earning money as a child. The best I can get is from a colleague who, knowing he wanted something, would spend the morning helping his mom: washing her clothes, cleaning the windows, tidying the house, only to ask her for some money later that day. (Sound familiar?  I guess some things are universal.) But this actually makes sense. Village life in rural Africa would preclude children from earning money for watching other kids and chores like fetching water, cooking dinner, monitoring cattle, and the like are expected rather than rewarded (or, if they are rewarded, it’s in the less fun-blog-joking way of getting to go to school rather than candies from the local shoppe).

But now I’m interested. I’d love to read a paper or a book or something called “Pocket Money: Innocuous Child Labor Throughout History.” But, I have a full-time job, so if one of you out there in the blogosphere has some extra time or needs a dissertation topic, you don’t even have to credit me for the idea. Just send me what you find out!

* Just trying to stick with the old-timey feel.
** This was an exciting day for me.  I had no idea.

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