Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Lost Childhood

Clarisse’s life and her experience in Victorien Kamboule’s field capture a childhood lost at the bottom of an American company’s purportedly ethical supply chain.

As a little girl, Clarisse viewed the world around her with wide eyes, giving her a look of constant amazement, her mother says. Her expression earned her a nickname, Pree-Pree. In her family’s native tongue, Dagara, it roughly translates into “bug-eyed.” Though a term of endearment, it wasn’t terribly flattering. The girl, born in 1998 to migrant-worker parents in neighboring Ivory Coast, hated it. Still, Pree-Pree stuck.

Pree-Pree’s Journey

After her parents split up when she was about 4, Pree-Pree was shuttled between her father’s relatives on either side of the border until the age of 9. That’s when an aunt took her to the village of Benvar in Burkina Faso and left her in the sod- covered, mud-walled home of the farmer, Kamboule, where she lives today. Though they’re separated in age by a generation, Clarisse and Kamboule, 30, are cousins. Clarisse also is his enfant confie.

In the room where Clarisse sleeps, a narrow wooden bench lines one wall. A few clothes washed by hand dry on a line strung along another. She has no dolls, no photos, not even a toothbrush. “Nothing,” she says. Kamboule, his wife, and their own children — a 3-year-old girl and a 1-year-old boy — sleep together under a mosquito net on a bed in the adjoining room. The air inside the room where Clarisse sleeps is stale, heavy with the smell of perspiration.

Except for the metal door, a small triangle is the only opening in the mud walls that surround her. It’s stuffed with a yellow rag, but when Kamboule wakes Clarisse for work she knows it’s still dark outside: Her mornings begin before dawn when the season demands it. After the farmer shouts her awake, “he tells me to go to the farm,” she says.

Slinging a Hoe

Clarisse steps outside after Kamboule has already pedaled his bicycle to the organic cotton plot. Slinging a hoe with a freshly sharpened blade over her shoulder, she makes her way alone along a ribbon of dirt, explaining how in the planting season in May and June she walks through a blanket of humidity and heat, when temperatures reach well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius).

The sun begins to rise as Clarisse approaches the empty field. She takes the hoe from her shoulder and clasps the handle, placing her right hand above her left along a patch of wood faded by wear. The grueling routine is so well-practiced that she demonstrates it with ease. Her hands are thick and strong, her thumbnails blackened. Her only possession, a gift from her grandmother, encircles her left wrist — a bracelet of eight strings of orange and blue beads, as small as apple seeds, and a single strand of white ones.

‘It’s Painful’

Bending at the waist, Clarisse buries the edge of the blade and starts scraping a deep row into the earth, taking small steps backward with each cut. “It’s very, very hard,” she says, “and he forces me to do it.” Before long, her arms and hips ache. “It’s painful,” she says. When she strikes rocks beneath the soil, it sends the blade cutting into her bare toes.

If she slows down from exhaustion, “he comes to beat me,” she says. He whips her across the back with the tree branch and shouts at her. “I cry,” she says, looking down as she speaks and rubbing the calluses on her hands.

The two of them dig for weeks to carve a plot stretching the length of about four American football fields.