Into the Heart of Darkness: Why Terms Like "Child Slavery" Are Offensive and Damn Africa


Choice of words can be even more damning than cruel acts, and when it comes to Africa, the language of the heart of darkness still lingers, with a blatant revelation that the West still misconstrues the continent.

Even well-intentioned institutions fling negative and exaggerated labels of Africa without censor. For example, many at the United Nations have already branded the Democratic Republic of Congo the “rape capital of the world.” I do not know who conceived of the idea of branding an entire country a “rape capital,” but I am certain they didn’t even consider the repercussions on the people, even as terrible as the country’s human rights records are. The irresponsible use of genocide, for instance, has also left many activists in limbo about what’s really happening in Darfur, Sudan. In similar flippant and unscrupulous use of language to describe Africa, the CNN Freedom Project is conveniently inter-changing the words child labor with child slavery. The fact is, just because children are working on cocoa plantations do not make them “child slaves,” or what David McKenzie calls “the simplest of terms.”

According to the project, in the upcoming documentary film Chocolate’s Child Slave, “David McKenzie travels into the heart of the Ivory Coast to investigate what’s happening to children working in the cocoa fields.” The CNN report aims to investigate the effects of the Harkin-Engel Protocol, a U.S.-sponsored voluntary protocol signed in 2001 prohibiting the use of child labor in the West African cocoa industry. In a clip promoting the film, McKenzie is seen speaking with one of the alleged “child slaves,” Yacou, about how he got to Ivory Coast. The boy responds, “my mother brought me when my father died.” Seconds later the boy says, “I wish I could just go to school. I want to read and write.” But McKenzie misses the point in the boy’s message; for to him, the boy is ‘simply’ a slave who needs his western abolitionists.

There is no dispute that we have a problem, but it is child labor, not slavery, even if there are a few children who are unwillingly brought to the cocoa plantation. The boy whose statement is quoted above summarizes the real issues confronting many African countries: poverty and underdevelopment. The facts are unknown, but we know that the boy wasn’t on a plantation until his father died. Like many African families, his father was probably the sole breadwinner in the household, and in many African scenarios, the illiterate widow is probably not allowed to inherit property where there is any, so she is left on her own with nothing to feed her child. A poor, but loving mother is not a slave merchant if she is compelled by circumstance to pragmatically evaluate the prospects of her child’s survival and decides that in a country like Ivory Coast, her boy is better off breaking cocoa shells for food and shelter until he becomes a man.

Granted the choice, the boy would rather be reading and writing. But it is exactly that choice that is lacking for many children in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to the most recent fact sheet of the Millennium Development Goals, about 69 million school-age children are not in school, and 31 million of them live in Sub-Saharan Africa. This number shows that poor Yacou’s wishes, like many of his peers, will never be realized, but his mother would have given him a chance of survival in Ivory Coast, a country ranking 170 out of 187 countries on the UN Human Development Index and recovering from a civil war.

Photo Credit: DFID