Trevor and Tim are both officially ‘former traffickers.’ They now live in Za-Kpota but were patrons in Abeokuta’s quarries for many years and so organised the labour mobility of dozens of youngsters from the Zou to Abeokuta. When we met in 2010, they claimed that parents would ask them to take their sons back with them every time they returned to their villages, and at least as often as they themselves searched out apprentices. ‘People would see our success,’ Tim said, ‘and they’d ask us to help their sons and nephews, to give them a chance, to help them make some money and also to make something with their lives.’ But of course they would say that, wouldn’t they, as former ‘traffickers?’ Indeed they might. Yet they were far from the only people to do so. Many of the parents I interviewed said exactly the same thing, as indeed did former young migrants themselves, especially when the alternative had been for the boy in question to ‘sit around doing nothing’ and when he had been of an age—say between 11 and 14—when he needed to begin contributing more seriously and did not have the alternative of school.
Adri was a case in point. When I interviewed him in 2007, I was fascinated to learn that he had actually been on the infamous Etireno ‘slave ship’ that had heralded the arrival of child trafficking as problematic in Benin. Yet far from being a victim of kidnap or sale, he and his fellow passengers had been sent by their fathers to work abroad when a former son of the village had come back looking for apprentices. Although initially he was reluctant to go, Adri had ultimately agreed that doing so would be beneficial for him and his family given how poor they were. He thus migrated again as soon as he had been ‘rescued’ at sea by the state. In discussing his situation, the key refrain I heard (repeated again and again in my interviews) was ‘C’est une question de moyens’—‘It’s a question of means.’ Children, and in particular younger children, are often been sent away for their own good, but that decision always comes in the context of their parents’ lack of the means to do otherwise. For in Freddy’s blunt words, ‘Poor people send their children away here because often it’s the best option that they’ve got.’
Unfortunately, however, there are times when this option is far from a good one and when it is exercised in desperation. This was particularly the case in the poorest village I researched, Tenga. Tenga lies just beyond central Za-Kpota and is visibly less well-off than many of its surrounding villages. Bricks and mortar are rare here, and even the wattle and daub is crumbling. Although the village’s poorest children do sometimes go to Abeokuta, more frequently they go to Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire, where the village has strong links with the informal building sector. Jeg was an example. He was 20 when we spoke and grew up in Tenga until his father fell ill and died after a lengthy and costly illness. This was when Jeg was 10. In order to cope, his mother sent him to work in Abidjan, where he spent an unpleasant and particularly exploitative decade. According to Isiugo-Abanihe, her decision can be characterised as one of ‘crisis fostering’ (1985: 57). Its purpose is to mitigate the shock that has been experienced and that has rendered ordinary coping mechanisms futile. Like migration more generally, it is a common response to economic hardship in contexts of economic lack (Dercon 2007; Dercon and Krishnan 2000). And as such, even where it leads to the kinds of exploitation that blighted Jeg’s experience in Cote d’Ivoire, it is rarely perceived locally as a parenting failure.