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Childhood in Burkina Faso

In attempting to apply European values to educational needs, and with notions of protecting the "innocence" of children in non-European countries, do we undermine the one opportunity by which children can survive in their own communities? Julia Guest met child mechanics in Burkina Faso.

Sitting under the scant shade of a tree, a small huddle of boys started to talk about their life. I want to be the boss of a garage, said Xavier, a small boy; they all did.

This hope is what keeps them coming back, day after day, year after year. No they were not paid, as apprentices; food at lunchtime is all they receive. I watch them learning their trade in the blazing sun: Xavier and Bernard watch intently while the mechanic welds the car chassis, no more than a foot away from their tiny feet. Xavier holds the welding rod. The mechanic has welding glasses, while the sparks fly over Xavier's legs. Yes he got hurt once, his fingers were burnt, they all remember the incident and look down, all the local people have gathered round, they know if they say too much the owner of the garage would find out.

Working for a future

With me Bernadette and Herman, from ABSE, carefully guide our conversation; these children are too vulnerable—however bad these conditions are, it is all they have. Only 7% of children in Burkina Faso have the luxury of secondary education, the rest have to work. For some this means leaving family life in villages and staying with relatives in the cities, and working like these young mechanics. This work is their only hope of a future.

Offering hope

“What we hope”, explained Herman, “is to build a centre for these children. At the moment we monitor around 1,000 children in Ouagadougou—some work as domestics, carpenters, mechanics, vendors. You see children everywhere, pushing rubbish carts, anything to survive.” “The centre will give us a chance to offer help to those children who experience serious abuse. We can give them 10 days to a month of rest and counselling, we can help them refocus their lives, and help them become more self reliant, find new jobs and give them hope. Educating a child costs around £20 a year, many families cannot even find that much. The average wage in Burkina Faso is less than £1 a day. If the family can take them back, we help them get home.” Xavier has already been working in the garage for the past two years. He claims he is fourteen. Bernadette gasped “Xavier!” He looks no more than ten years old. Would they like to be in school? I ask. No, they say, everything is OK.

Burkina Faso Association For Survival of Children (ABSE), works for the development of women and children (email abse@cenatrin.bf; http://www.multimania.com/abse).

Julia Guest is a photographer and sometime PN photo editor. She recently visited Burkina Faso to make a documentary film.