“My pe kin.”
Gutz is always calling into the distance, “My pe kin,” as he fishes in his pocket for money or finishes a meal that requires the plate be taken in. My pe kin (I very well may be spelling that wrong) and the female equivilant, “small girl“, are bestowed “generously” on any child within eye or earshot.
For the life of me I don’t know why they don’t hide from him- or every other adult for that matter. But they don’t. and so on any given day some child in the middle of playing, or eating, or whatever, rushes over and is sent to buy fish or beer.
It was the same in South Africa. Lunch for teachers or loose draws (single cigarettes) for someone else, they scurry along and hurry back. Mo confirmed it is the same in Sierra Leone. Task complete, they return to whatever they were doing before. No compensation save, maybe, a thank you.
It kind of explains why the kids try, and sometimes do, pump for me when I go for water. I thought maybe it was because I’m foreign but Gutz pointed out that I rarely see adults at the pump. The kids do it. And he’s right.
I think sometimes it is the errands are ridiculous, but really it isn’t that much different than how children are run back home. Changing channels – or more aptly now – finding the remote, getting drinks, washing dishes- are our variations.
Random errands aside, the concept of children doing chores for adults is sometimes expanded into odd jobs for payment. Some of the other volunteers live farther away from a pump. They hired local kids to haul water on their behalf. And here begins the trouble.
While not a bizarre or excessive concept in my South African frame of reference, stepping back it is not impossible to comprehend how someone else, removed from context, might see foreignness in a child fetching large quantities of water… Another American who lives in the area apparently did and took umbrage.
Child abuse.
She said it was child labor and that the volunteers should be ashamed. Local norms be damned…we are not Liberians and should not participate.
I scoffed at first. Thinking back to the myriad of errands kids in my village were subjected to. Thinking back to Shaka, who had his water hauled, to another volunteer whose sisters insisted they haul for her after she showcased her inability to maneuver a wheelbarrow and spilled 25 liters of water on the way home.
But just because it is local custom doesn’t make it ok. There are always customs or habits I adopt happily, others resignedly, and those that I refuse outright.  It isn’t unheard of.
Truth be told, I don’t know where the line of acceptability is in “child labor”. Chores need to be done and sometimes money needs to be made. The kids aren’t taken from school and Gutz commented that some folks wouldn’t pay…just commandeer, “my pekin, fetch me some water.” ANd they would fetch water because that is what children do.
When I was in middle and high school I babysat. Not the occasional event, I had business cards and flyers and did a steady stream of business that kept me in a fair amount of cash for someone so young. I don’t recall anyone ever accusing my parents or those that employed me, of exploitation or child labor. To my recollection, no one thought it was cruel – rather they viewed it as instilling a sound work ethic and a healthy respect for money.
Is hauling water the same thing?
Forced to consider hauling water from a different vantage point, I am no longer as sure footed on my answer. But, “when in Rome…”
Only I’m not sure when that stops being a tenet for adaptation and morphs into an excuse for questionable behavior. Still, on American farms  (hell, farms and family businesses all over the world) children are responsible for any number of tasks that both build character and work ethic and help the family/business.
But maybe milking cows  and watching tv while a 7-year-old sleeps soundly isn‘t the same as filling containers with water and then balancing them on your head or in a wheelbarrow and heading home. Of course, most homes have pipes with clean water flowing through them back home, so maybe we’ve just forgotten hauling water was a reasonable chore.

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3 Comments on My pe kin

  1. Bill Ashley says:

    …”Of course, most homes have pipes with clean water flowing through them back home, so maybe we’ve just forgotten hauling water was a reasonable chore. This last statement that you made is the one that for me stands out. One of the problems that I have with, I’m going to say Americans because I know about Americans, is that we think & believe that our way of thinking, living or what ever, is the right way and the only way. I believe, we can’t replace our values for everyone else’s without thought of the other culture. Yes there are issues that should & must be addressed… cruelty, is one of them, but – though the line maybe blurred, cultural norms must be a part of the equation. The analogy you used above, is right on… Because, we, in america, have what many in the world call luxuries, running water, indoor toilets, ect… we put our standards on others with looking at the context. I believe, everything must be viewed in context within that culture.

  2. Teresas says:

    Too true you have to consider the cultural context. At least the volunteers are paying the kids to bring the water. The kids are probably excited to make a little money.

  3. Kyla says:

    Who’s the “American in the area” who with the issue about this?

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