I was born in Cape Coast, the capital of Ghana’s Central Region. I spent part of my childhood there, and part in Akim Oda, in the Eastern Region. My parents were divorced, so my childhood living situation involved a series of transitions: I lived with my mother and grandmother for a while, moved in with my father and stepmother, and finally ended up in a boarding school. The transitions in my living situations corresponded with how I moved from doing nothing at home (when I lived with my mother and grandmother) to performing different unpaid and paid tasks when I lived with my father and stepmother, and at boarding school. Reflecting upon these multiple instances of childhood work, I am not entirely certain whether any represent harmful work. I will leave that to my readers. I will briefly reflect on three instances of working as a child.
Household work and trading
First, before age six, when I lived with my mother and grandmother, my life was simple. As the middle, and only male, child, my two female siblings performed all the household chores (e.g., sweeping, cooking, washing dishes). But this changed when I moved in with my father and stepmother — indeed, these gendered expectations of household work were precisely the reason my father and mother decided it was time for me to live with my father to learn how to become a ‘man.’ My stepmother had no children, so I was expected to help her perform all the household chores. In addition, my stepmother was a trader (of foodstuffs such as yam and groundnuts), so I had to help her sell after school and on Saturdays. The items were arranged nicely on a sizable tray, and I would go around different neighbourhoods carrying the tray on my head.
On Saturday mornings, I needed to sell a certain amount before coming home to eat breakfast. The quality and quantity of my breakfast would depend on how much I sold; I ate breakfast like a king if I was able to sell all the items on my tray before coming home. My stepmother’s breakfast incentive was very effective. For me, going hungry for hours on Saturday mornings became a habit because I was highly incentivised to sell more of my stepmother’s products in exchange for a regal breakfast. I still treat food as a reward for doing work, which is twisted logic: we should eat to get work done, not the other way around.
My second childhood work experience involved farm-related work. During school breaks, my father would send me to his brother in the village of Akim Oda. I would often spend close to a month in the village during school breaks. I dreaded these village vacation days because of the workload we (my cousins and I) were given on the farm. My father and his brother had large cocoa and cassava farms, so we assisted with harvesting and transporting the crops, carrying them in baskets on our heads over long distances. I recall one occasion where my cousins and I came home with swollen faces because we were stung by bees while harvesting cocoa on one of the farms.
During other school breaks, I had to work with my father, who traded in new and used car tires in Cape Coast. In fact, he boasts that he was the first person to have started this sort of business in that city. There were days I had to manage the tire shop alone because he had to travel to Accra to buy the tires from his partners. These were heavy tires, and I was a smallish child, but I had to carry the tires from the store, arrange them along the street every morning, and carry them back to the store in the evenings.
My favourite part was bargaining with customers. I learned to be confident when talking to adults, which was culturally inappropriate because a Ghanaian child must not to speak back to an adult. This norm did not apply to me, at least in the context of my father’s business. On one occasion when a customer swindled me, my father had to reiterate why my success in life was entwined with the success of his business. From my father’s point of view, it did not matter how well I performed in school because he could not afford my tuition if his business failed. I guess that was his nice way of reminding me that the cost of my labour was already too expensive for him, so I had better sit up and not cost him even more! I worked with my father on and off until I graduated from college.
Work at boarding school
Third, and finally, around age ten my father decided to send me to boarding school. As well as cleaning the classrooms and school compound every morning, students were involved in two major projects. The school had two large plots of land: one was for an additional male dormitory unit and the other was for an additional classroom unit. At the weekends, in addition to cleaning our rooms and the dormitory compounds, some of the boys (aged 10 to 13) would weed the area intended for the additional male dormitory unit. The other boys (aged 7 to 9) and some of the female students would fetch water for the construction of the additional classroom building. In addition, students who were punished for one reason or another were assigned extra weeding duties after school hours (4-6pm).
At the time, I believed that weeding and fetching water for these two projects were part of my training, and a service I had to perform for my school as a responsible student. In hindsight, and after some of our initial conversations around the ACHA programme, I cannot help but wonder if the school simply exploited our labour in the name of grooming us to be responsible adults. Mind you, this was one of the most expensive and prestigious boarding schools in the Eastern Region. This was an era when boarding houses were in vogue; there was a popular perception that the best and brightest kids attended boarding schools. I left this boarding school after two years because I was always sick. I was later sent to another boarding school in Takoradi (Western Region), which was much closer to Cape Coast, but I only lasted one year. At that point, I think my parents finally accepted that their ‘rebellious’ son would never be counted among Ghana’s boarding school-educated elite.
This mini-essay is part of the ‘childhood experiences of work’ series. As we prepared to launch ACHA we asked partners to reflect on their own childhood experiences of work. The prompt was simple and open: approach it in however you like; write as little or as much as you like, in whatever form you like; try to put yourself back into your frame of mind as a child; use 18 years old as a rough cut-off age, and think about harm.
Eighteen reflections were received from ten women and eight men aged from 29 to 70 years, who grew up in the UK (7), Ghana (3), Netherlands (2), Canada (2), Argentina (1), Brazil (1), Denmark (1) and US (1).
If you would like to share your childhood experiences of work please send a short narrative (under 1,000 words) to ACHA (ACHA-Enquiries@ids.ac.uk). All narratives that are published on the ACHA website will be anonymised.
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