“Ungrateful child!” I try to keep up with Rita as she stalks ahead of me with a distracted, hurried gate. “Who is ungrateful?” I ask gently, matching her stride. Rita has two children of her own, but with the liberal way the words ‘mother,’ ‘father’ and ‘child’ are used in Burkina Faso I know that she could be referring to any one of a dozen children.
“Badjah!” she says spitting the name out like a dry corn kernel. “My clients come to my salon for me! They would go elsewhere if it weren’t for the good service they get when they are chez Rita. But if I leave for 30 little minutes to run an errand and leave her in charge, she is lazy and rude to the women and they complain!” I know from experience that the words ‘lazy’ and ‘rude’ are also used liberally here. Most Burkinabe would be floored if they saw what kind of behavior it takes to label an adolescent either of those words in America. “Ungrateful!” Rita goes on, “I take her in as my own child, clothe her, feed her, try to teach her something, and look how she acts!”
The ungrateful child in question is a skinny, giggly, post-pubescent fourteen-year-old orphan girl with a bright, rare smile and a fascination with selfies. She is only one child soldier in the army of orphan girls raised as in-house help by Burkinabe women of a certain socio-economic status. Caught in the awkward space between daughters and servants, girls like Badjah often come from the natal village of the family they are adopted into after their birth parents die, and help their new mothers with anything from child-rearing to cooking to running hair salons.
The practice of taking in a young girl for extra help around the house is hardly unique to Burkina Faso, or even Africa-it is practiced in various forms all over the world. It is also not exclusively girls that end up in this situation. Never the less I was somewhat perplexed by Badjah’s role when I first met her. I asked Rita if she was her daughter, and it was explained to me that Rita had taken her in when Badjah was only ten. Her primary job was to care for Leandre, Rita’s youngest child. Unlike Rita’s well-groomed and well-educated eleven-year-old daughter, Badjah has never been to school and does not have much personal property. She, like all Burkinabe girls, is expected to help with household chores and child rearing, but her role and duties are amplified by her status as mother’s-helper. I know a few families with these ‘mother’s-helpers,’ typically around the age of nine or ten when they are adopted (though not officially). The recent addition to Madame Dioma’s family for example, Ouidjah, is nine, and may still be young enough for Madame Dioma to get her back into some kind of formal schooling. This, as per my understanding, is rare.
Though the idea of taking in a child merely for help with household chores can seem callous at first glace, the situation is too nuanced to judge quickly. The children that find themselves adopted by friends or relatives of their deceased or impoverished families often move to larger cities and towns and enjoy a level of food and personal security that would have been impossible in their villages. Often times they get access to some kind of education, whether formal or informal, and consequently they are prepared better for adulthood. In this way, families that are struggling to provide for themselves can send a child to a more affluent family that could use some extra help, and the situation becomes win-win. By the same token however, the quality of treatment that the girls face can vary. It is not hard to imagine what kinds of things can happen to a vulnerable young girl with no family and no resources.
But Badjah and girls like her are lucky. Since she rode to Solenzo on the back of Rita’s moped four years ago, Rita has been grooming Bandjah in the ways of a beautician. Rita is keen on providing Badjah with a way to support herself when she one day leaves her care. This endeavor however, according to Rita, is fruitless. Badjah is (apparently) cantankerous, slow to respond to commands, talks back and displays insufferable laziness, just like any good fourteen-year-old. This perceived fact can draw considerable venom from Rita on occasion.
However, none of this is to say that Badjah is treated badly. Rita is sharp with her but refuses to use any physical punishment, and though I have heard her threaten to send Badjah back to her village many times, Rita has never actually acted on this threat. She knows that Badjah would probably get pregnant within a year of going back. It is clear to me, spending time for them, that Rita feels more than a sense of responsibility for Badjah. I can tell because no matter how much Rita complains, she keeps trying with her. That, unequivocally, is a mother’s love.
Badjah does not have an easy road ahead. She cannot read or write and her French is very minimal. In addition, she’s at an age where she is very vulnerable to unwanted pregnancy. I have chatted with Rita multiple times about sitting Badjah down for a sexual education lesson, and though Rita has agreed I know it will be hard for me to communicate with Badjah in her mother tongue about such a sensitive issue. Especially when I break out the wooden penis. I am lucky however in that she trusts me. Her face brightens when she sees me and she sticks out her fist to initiate our secret handshake. We speak in broken French and Djula and she enjoys being tickled. One night, closing time at Rita’s salon, Badjah comes to sit next to me. She presses her body into mine and rests her head on my shoulder. I can tell that, though she is tired and worn from her chores, she is entirely content.