A bus roars away from the station leaving in its wake a cloud of dust. Small, brown faces are pressed against the grimy window, their large, unsmiling eyes watching Sikasso, Mali disappear behind them. Their parents are nowhere to be seen.
Ill-fitting clothes hang on the skinny frame of the small boy back at the station. He appears to be lost and quite alone among the chaos of haggling vendors, roaming chickens and dust. The smell of raw meat hanging in the air brings a growl to his empty belly.
"Are you looking for work?" A tall Malian man approaches the boy. "I can offer you well paid work on the Ivory Coast." The man smiles ingratiatingly. The boy, only 12, comes from a rural village some several hundred kilometres away. If he returns without having made any money, his parents will be upset with him. The West African nation is among the poorest in the world with little to no exports. Children are often required to help support large, hungry families.
Sombrely, the boy nods, following the man to a ramshackle building where several other children are being held. Before long, they are herded onto a bus headed for Zegoua where they will be spirited across the border to the Ivory Coast and the promise of paid work. Hungry and alone, the grubby, sad eyed children likely believe it is their lucky day.
A world away from the hardships of life in Western Africa, a girl clings to her mother's hand as they enter the brightly lit supermarket, their large, empty shopping cart waiting to be filled.
"Mommy, can we get one, please ?" She cajoles, pointing a pudgy finger at the cornucopia of sparkling confectionary thoughtfully placed right at her eye level. Her mother carelessly tosses a bar in the cart. It weighs 50 grams and costs only a dollar.
At the Malian border town of Zegoua, the children are herded off the bus and the boy is spirited away by another strange man. They will cross the porous border by a dusty back road avoiding any officials, although any problems that may arise can easily be handled with a simple and unofficial cash transaction.
"Just call me Uncle," the man instructs the boy as the bike roars away in a cloud of dirt.
Most well fed westerners take a cheap chocolate fix for granted. Yet many are unaware that the chocolate they so covet is often tainted by the blood and sweat of child slaves in Western Africa. Eighty per cent of the three million tons of cocoa we consume annually is grown here, about half of that on farms in the Ivory Coast. Many children are either kidnapped or sold by desperately poor families in neighbouring countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Togo and Benin, lured by the irresistible promise of paid work. Plantation owners, desperate to make a profit selling a cheap commodity, purchase these children to harvest their cocoa. Many are as young as eight years old. Most never get paid.