The cruel irony of the chocolate industry made it easy for me to give up chocolate for Lent: The children producing the cocoa beans used to make our chocolate never actually taste the chocolate. The Kit Kat bar that I might rip open, break apart and share with my kids is never enjoyed by the children who made its production possible. It strikes me as terribly unfair. During my chocolate fast, my two sons were asked to sell chocolate bars as a fundraiser for special activities at their school. Here I was helping my boys sell chocolate bars to enhance their experience of school, knowing that these chocolate bars were produced from cocoa harvested by children who will never go to school. It is a horrible injustice. Yet somehow most of us consuming Kit Kats, Mars bars and Snickers have never heard this bitter truth about chocolate.
I learned about it by watching the Panorama documentary Chocolate: The Bitter Truth which I have been posting in parts on this blog and by reading Carol Off’s book Bitter Chocolate. In this post, I want to share with you a scene from Carol Off’s important book, accompanied by a video excerpt with a similar scene from the Panorama documentary. At the end of the post, I will include part 3 of 4 of Chocolate: The Bitter Truth which begins to look for answers to this grave problem. My plan is to have another post on chocolate within one week (including the part 4 of the documentary) and then, finally, to suggest what we can do for the children of Africa working so hard to produce the chocolate we enjoy.
The village is called Sinikosson, which in the official French language of Côte d’Ivoire translates into “Faite pour Demain” and in English means “Made for Tomorrow.” In fact, the villagers seem to make everything for today, living hand to mouth with little remaining for tomorrow. They grow some corn and cassava and cultivate bananas for food, but their primary activity here is to produce cocoa for the international market. As such, they earn just enough money from cocoa sales to pay for rice and cooking oil. There’s usually nothing left over.
As remote as the community is, it is also the poorest I have seen in the region. Everyone looks tired and hungry, but at least for the time being the village has escaped the violence in the surrounding countryside. The drunken Ivorian soldiers we met at the last roadblock couldn’t exert themselves to come all the way up here to either conquer or extort.
The arrival of a visitor from a faraway country is an extraordinary event in Sinikosson. Within minutes, the covered verandah of the central house in the village is crowded with people—all of them men and boys. The few women and girls who are visible remain a discreet distance away… None of the children here go to school, and there are no services—no electricity, no phones, no clinics or hospitals. The farmers eke out an existence here in the hills, in a land infested by volatile gunmen. Yet they seem satisfied to be here. Even in the midst of all the trouble around them, they say they are better off than they would be in their drought-stricken home country, where people are chronically hungry.
I explain to them that I am writing a book about cocoa. They all nod. Cocoa is something about which they have immense knowledge. The quality of beans, the capricious rains, the unpredictable harvests, the cost of pesticides, the threat of witch’s broom (a disease of the Theobroma tree), the see-saw prices and the exorbitant government taxes. These farmers know everything about the difficulties of growing cocoa in this region.
“What would you do if you couldn’t grow cocoa anymore?” we ask.
“A catastrophe,” one man answers, and they all look grim.
“This is our life,” declares the chief, Mahamad Sawadago. He tells me he is fifty-four, but he looks many years older. Three of the women here are his wives; he has eleven children.
“Where does the cocoa go after it leaves here?” Ange asks the villagers. There is a confused silence, and everyone turns to Mahamad.
“It goes to the great port of San Pedro,” the chief explains with authority, “and then on to people in Europe and America.” They all nod.
“What do those people do with the cocoa beans?”
Silence again, and everyone looks to the chief. But this time, he too seems puzzled.
“I don’t know,” he answers honestly.
He’s certain they make something with it, for sure, but he doesn’t know what.
They make chocolate, I explain. Has anyone ever tasted chocolate? One man says he tried it once when he was away from the village and thought it tasted good. No one else even knows what it is.
Even Ange Aboa, who reports on the Ivorian cocoa industry, is surprised by how little these people know about the commodity they harvest. Ange tears a sheet of paper from his notebook and rolls it up into an oval tube. He explains that people in the West grind up the cocoa and add lots of sugar to make little bars this size. The bars are quite sweet and delicious. Sometimes milk and even peanuts are added. Children in Europe and America often get such things as treats.
Ange goes on to explain that one of these bars costs about 500 West African francs (roughly equivalent to a Canadian dollar). Their eyes widen in disbelief. The sum strikes them as staggering for such a small treat—almost enough to buy a good-sized chicken or an entire bag of rice. It represents more than the value of one boy’s work for three days, if they are being paid at all, which I’m sure they are not. I explain that a child in my country will consume such a chocolate bar within minutes. The boys look awed. Days of their effort consumed in a heartbeat on the other side of the world. And yet they don’t begrudge North American children such pleasure. West Africans rarely express envy.
As I look at the young faces, the questions in their eyes are the measure of a vast gulf between the children who eat chocolate on their way to school in North American and those who have no school at all, who must, from childhood, work to survive. And I feel the profound irony before me: the children who struggle to produce the small delights of life in the world I come from have never known such pleasure, and most likely, they never will.
It’s a measure of the separation in our worlds, a distance now so staggeringly vast. . . the distance between the hand that picks the cocoa and the hand that reaches for the chocolate bar.
I tell the boys of Sinikosson who do not know what chocolate is that most people in my country who eat chocolate don’t know where it comes from. The people in my country have no idea who picks the cocoa beans or how those people live. The boys of Sinikosson think it would be a good idea if I told them.