What does every Westerner who has ever been to Africa have in common? Adorable photos with cute African children, of course. This is a common trope, subject to much admonishment by ‘savvy’ people on the internet who love to get into arguments with strangers. I admit that I have been guilty of both ‘upgrading my Facebook profile picture’ and rolling my eyes at others that have done the same. Not until I got to Burkina Faso did I realize that it’s nearly impossible to take a photograph without being photo bombed by an adorable child. Photographs of children in the developing world have been problematized a-plenty, most famously Kevin Carter’s photograph of a severely malnourished girl being stalked by a vulture. They are used to win awards, start campaigns, solidify people’s impressions of themselves as humanitarians and mobilize raw Western sympathies. So what are the secrets behind those wide-toothed smiles?
At least in Burkina Faso, children represent a significant and important strata of the population, and their childhoods are very different from those of American children (in most cases). If you are one of the 80 plus percent of Burkinabe children that lives in villages, your mother may have given birth at the local health clinic or at home with the family where a traditionally trained midwife may or may not be present. According to UNICEF, the infant mortality rate in Burkina Faso in 2012 was 66%, and the fertility rate was 5.7 children per mother. If you are one of those beautiful and lucky children that grows into a healthy toddler, you spend most of the first years of your life tacked to your mother’s back in a pagne. Women are the only member of the two part union it takes to make a baby that I have seen taking care of children, whether the baby is theirs or not. The day after a safe delivery, most mothers are up and resuming their roles as wives and anchors of the household with the new baby with an aunt or sister or on her back while she goes about her daily chores. (A new baby is no excuse to rest). Burkinabe children to not wear diapers (a fact which forever escapes me), so potty training tykes run around pantsless and need to be washed a lot.
Childhoods end when a little brother or sister comes along, especially for girls. As soon as the elder sibling is about four or five they are considered old enough to be responsible for their younger sibling, and the bare bottoms and playing in the dirt are traded for a demanding, squirming baby. Girls as young as 10 become the 24-hour babysitters for their younger siblings, carrying them, feeding them, cleaning them, and removing the poop they are trying to eat from their mouth. In general, children old enough to take care of themselves are delegated tasks and become responsible for helping the family, whether its fetching water doing dishes and laundry, cooking, cleaning, shopping, errand running, vending or anything else mom and dad might need. ‘Petits’ as most PCV’s call them, are always eager to help with anything you might need, and they will literally throw punches in order to have a chance to carry your things.
Adolescent hood for most Burkinabe children can be abysmal. Classrooms are crowded, tests are hard to pass, home life can be complicated and unwanted pregnancy is rampant. The culturally inappropriate and rigid vestiges of the French school system make sure that most children repeat grades multiple times, sometimes until they age out or until more pressing concerns remove them from the classroom. There are a number of success stories, but the majority of young villageois are fighting a system that is impossibly stacked against them.
Despite how hard it is to grow up in this country compared to most children in the developed world, I never cease to be amazed by the resiliency of the kids here. Simply speaking, they’re a tough bunch. Their backs are stronger, their wills are harder and their recovery time shorter (I swear I’ve cried more in country than I have every seen any Burkinabe children cry). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve relied on children to help me resolve issues, translate, learn new skills and open doors into Burkinabe culture and society. I’d love to see each and every one of these tiny Burkinabe receive the same attention, support and coddling I received as a child at the center of my parents’ attention, but the fact of the matter is that childhood is simply considered differently here. It is shorter and rougher. I got to be a kid right through my college career because nothing in my life demanded otherwise. Kids grow up fast because they don’t have a choice.