“It’s very painful,” Clarisse says, “because I have to keep doing it until he tells me I can stop.”
Without herbicides and pesticides, Clarisse must defend the crop against weeds and other invaders — by hand. One of the cotton farmer’s greatest enemies is the boll worm, which can quickly destroy an entire crop if left unchecked.
Clarisse says she walks the rows, delicately reaching into a plant when she spots a worm. Without disturbing their fragile bolls, she extracts each worm with a firm pinch. They can grow as large as her index finger. She throws them onto the ground, flips over her hoe and uses its flat side to crush each one against the gravelly earth.
By the time Clarisse started picking her first harvest in 2010, Victoria’s Secret was becoming the program’s only buyer instead of just the most prominent, according to Guebre of the growers group and Meier, whose Swiss group advises it. That’s because the country’s overall organic yield was shrinking ever- closer to the 600 metric tons per year guaranteed to the lingerie company.
At about 5:40 a.m. on the first day of Clarisse’s harvest this November, the horizon behind her hut starts to glow red, almost purple, while she stirs inside. Just before sunrise, she pushes open the metal door. She places a bucket inside a wicker bushel and tightly folds a faded propylene sack until it’s the size of a pocket book, flicking it into the bucket with a snap of her wrist. Without breaking stride, Clarisse raises the bushel with both hands, walks beneath it and balances it on her head.
She heads down a path beside a corn field leveled by the harvest, a pair of flip-flops with pink straps popping beneath her feet, her hands resting easily at her sides. All around Clarisse, the earth is like a wasteland. It’s black and charred from clearing fires set by farmers, filling the air with the smell of burning grass, sweet and strong.
Row Upon Row
She crosses the main village road, the one that leads to Benvar’s school, and steps onto a slender trail winding through dry, golden stalks of grain that rise above her head. After about 50 paces, she emerges to see the work that awaits her: row upon row of bolls bursting with cotton. The farmer is already here, working where the plants are most in danger of being trampled by passersby. At the opposite end stands a tree branch topped by the green flag.
By 7:15 a.m., the sliver of shade in the bottom corner of her field disappears, as the West African sun rises with the temperature. On the road above the field, a boy walking to school says he and his friends notice the children working almost every day. “We see them to be suffering,” says Seuka Somda, who, like Clarisse, is 13.
Giant Shea Tree
The harvesting pauses at about noon, after six hours of picking. Clarisse heads to the village square to cool herself in the shade of a giant shea tree that grows in its center. Before long, a woman calls her name. She jumps to her feet and scurries over. Three men traveling through the village have stopped to cool themselves and drink some of the local brew, called “pito.” As Clarisse refills their bowls, one man tells her: “If you give me a refill, it means you have agreed to sleep with me.” She pours his pito, turns and walks away.
Around 4 p.m., Clarisse returns to the field. A large wicker bushel bulges with cotton. She bends over and compacts it as tightly as she can. Cotton towers above the bushel’s rim. Clarisse wobbles as she sets it atop a blue, yellow and red scarf wrapped on the crown of her head.
She makes her way along the road under the weight of the harvest, weak from eating nothing for two days except some roasted groundnuts given to her by another child laborer. Two men on bicycles pedal toward her, both carrying bulging bags balanced on their frames. “Have you gone to grind some flour?” she calls out. “Can you kindly give me some so I can make something to eat?” The men say nothing, continuing down the red dirt road toward the village square.
Storing the Cotton
Clarisse carries her bushel to a neighbor’s home where Kamboule stores his cotton because it’s closer to the pickup point for the organic and fair-trade program. The house, in relative luxury with its poured concrete foundation, sits just down the road from the school she used to attend.
Back at Kamboule’s hut, under the light of a full moon, Clarisse says she’ll use some of the water she’s drawn from the well to wash herself, then she’ll go to the homes of neighbors and friends in the village. If they’re eating, she’ll wait politely and hope they offer her some food. For an enfant confie, this is everyday life, Clarisse says: “If your mother is not with you, you become like an orphan.”
Far away, in midtown Manhattan, Irina Richardson says she’s shopped at Victoria’s Secret for bras and underwear for 15 years and was pleased to think she was doing good. Told of Clarisse’s role in providing cotton for lingerie, the 51-year-old property manager from Long Island says she was stunned. “Buying something made under those conditions shows no respect for other human beings,” she says.
No More French
Clarisse, who once stared at the world in wonder, now has difficulty looking others in the face. She no longer speaks French, because, she says, there is no one left in her life who would understand her.
Exhausted at the end of each day, she can’t fall asleep easily after she lies down on her faded plastic mat. “I feel uneasy,” she says. “Sometimes, I’m very angry.” It’s hard to close her eyes, she says, when she knows waking up means “I will suffer again.” She tries to think of a better life: She imagines owning and tending a few sheep and some goats. Women can earn money raising small animals, and it’s easier than working the fields. This is her new dream now that she knows, as she says, that “I have no chance to go back to school.”
Once she does fall asleep, the nightmares return.