In the late 1960s and early 1970s, until I was 13 years old, I lived with my grandmother in Takoradi, in Ghana’s Western Region. There were 13 of us in the house and the respective roles of adults and children were very clear. Household chores for children (six years plus) included cleaning dishes, stepping out to fetch water from the community tap (when I was 8) and selling potable water (when I was 10) at the community car park and market. As a child, I observed adults cooking and ran short errands to purchase foodstuffs for them and dispose of rubbish and wastewater. At age 10 I was encouraged to assist older girls in ‘pounding fufu’, a staple of the local diet. I did this at least once a week for three years.
At age 14, I went to live with my parents and entered boarding secondary school, which I completed aged 21. All the chores that kept the school compound clean and tidy were shared among the students. Each morning there was sweeping and dusting; each weekend there was sweeping, dusting, scrubbing and weeding. During vacations, the house chores I engaged in were like those carried out at school. Since I had savings from my pocket money from school, I started some income-generating activities, selling greeting cards, toffees and chocolates to friends and relatives. I also assisted my mother to prepare ‘home-cooked dishes’ (kenkey, fish and pepper) for sale at her workplace.
In the 1970s the Dunwell Methodist church was putting up a church building and the policy was ‘all hands-on deck’. Children aged nine and over were encouraged to gather gravel and pebbles from along the roadside. At the construction site, children were given small buckets of water to fill bigger containers. We also participated in cleaning the church compound before church service on Sunday mornings.
About the same time, my grandmother had organised a community Brigade, as a platform for self-help and community action. It involved children and adults of all ages. Children aged three to eight were called ‘explorers’. On the community farm, they sorted good seeds from bad, picked weeds from plots and protected the crops against animals. I joined other children aged nine to 15 years in weeding of small plots, harvesting of vegetables (pepper, tomatoes and okra), shelling maize and carrying of small loads of harvested produce from farm to home (a distance of about 1 km).
All the work activities I engaged in up to the age of 14 were voluntary. After turning 14 my parents informed me that I was an adult, and as the firstborn child, it was compulsory, whenever I was on vacation from the secondary school or university, to help my mother wash the clothes, cook full meals and keep the house clean.
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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