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Perceptions of Work and Labour Migration

Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, work (and economically productive activity in general) is not seen as a specifically adult sphere in Benin or as something from which children and the young should be sheltered. In most of the households I encountered during my research, children as young as 3 may be asked to perform basic tasks such as filling pots with water, progressing at 5 or 6 to keeping an eye on their very smallest siblings, at 8 or 9 to washing those younger than themselves or sweeping the courtyard, and at 12 to cooking, cleaning, working in the fields and taking care of the rest of the tasks performed by adult household members at home or within the context of their small-scale economic activities. As one village elder in Tenga Village explained to me with regard to the incorporation of young males into the agricultural labour force: ‘Already at 8 you can go to the field. At 12 you can begin to work like a man.’

This work is not viewed by anyone as a grave hardship. For one thing, with young children, the line between work and play is often very thin, and inventive children regularly incorporate pot-filling and sibling care into various entertaining games. For another, children young and old regularly claim to enjoy the activities they are asked to do, even if at times these may be taxing. This is because they have been socialised to understand doing them as positive. In one of the many group interviews I conducted with a band of teenagers in Sehere Village, for example, I asked how everyone felt about working and whether they liked it. I received in response a cacophony of ‘Yeses,’ with the revealing addendum, ‘Because it feeds us!’ This addendum is critical because it points to the materiality at the root of this understanding of child work. It reflects nothing less than the need to secure subsistence in a poor environment. ‘We’re not in France, after all,’ said one of my former migrant worker interviewees, and the young, along with all other able-bodied household members, are expected and needed to contribute as best they can to the collective endeavour that is survival.2 Within this logic, child and adolescent work is both an immediate necessity (and thus duty) and a fruitful way of implanting in the young the self-sufficient, responsible habitus that will be necessary as they grow through the locally dominant model of childhood. This duality is underlined in local-level symbolism. In all of my case study villages, the thief is the principal figure of revilement, since thieves embody the unacceptable principle of taking without giving. And as such, I was repeatedly told by interviewees that children were put to work precisely so that they could have the opportunity to learn how not to be a thief, how not to take without giving. They are put to work so that they can avoid ‘doing nothing’ and ‘so that they can learn how to take care of themselves’.3 Even if this includes migration. For as the common Beninese saying goes, ‘la poussiere despieds est mieux que celle des fesses1—‘it is better to have dust on your feet than on your bottom’ (Imorou 2009: 7).4

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