GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Every day after school, 12-year-old Ibrahim Kahasha dashes out of his fifth-grade classroom and rushes home.
When he arrives at his family’s small wooden house in the crowded Goma neighborhood of Mapendo, he loads a plastic basin full of boiled ears of corn on his head and hustles back out into town.
The oldest of four children, Ibrahim says his mother told him two years ago that he was old enough to begin contributing to the family’s income. Previously, he could focus more on his schoolwork.
“At first, my mom could single-handedly support our family by selling corncobs,” Ibrahim says. “So I could go to school and then stay at home after school.”
His father, a contract bricklayer, works inconsistently.
“We could not rely on his pay for survival because he could spend some days looking for work to no avail,” Ibrahim says, a calm maturity in his words.
Ibrahim talks about his work with bittersweet pride.
“Moving throughout the town with a basin full of corncobs on my head in order to contribute financially to the family was no simple task,” he exclaims.
When he was 10, Ibrahim learned the trade by shadowing his mother for six months. After that, he and his mother would branch off to sell individually, then meet up in the evening to report their earnings.
“When I started selling, I was given 10 corncobs, which cost 100 Congolese francs (10 cents) each,” he says flatly.
When he began regularly selling those 10 ears of corn, his mother increased his daily sales quota to 20 ears.
Ibrahim says he accepts his twin obligations.
“I study and work at the same time,” he says. “I am always obliged to perform both tasks, because I have to financially contribute to my family.”
Ibrahim says he is happy to help his family. He proudly confirms that he is responsible for bringing in at least 10 percent of his family’s income. But he admits that he often yearns for childhood fun.
“My parents always tell me that I must work to prepare for my future, because the value of a man’s life is his work,” he says. “But I really find it very saddening not finding time to have a bit of fun with my classmates and my friends in my neighborhood. I don’t get to chat with other kids apart from during school because I must financially contribute to my family.”
Ibrahim’s mother, Mwavita Kasole, knows child labor is illegal here, but she says the family has no choice.
“Ibrahim helps us solve some financial problems,” she says. “At the moment, we’re counting on his contribution. I know that children working is not good, but I do not have the choice; we are poor.”
She says Ibrahim is “at least average in school,” so she doesn’t worry about his academic performance.
But Ibrahim says he does wish he had more time to focus on his studies. He dreams of becoming a member of Parliament someday.
“But given these conditions, I might not be able to achieve my dream,” he says.
Under DRC law, children may not work until they turn 16 and even then may only work up to four hours a day until they turn 18. Still, many Goma parents require their children to work as housekeepers or independent vendors – called petty traders – to help their families make ends meet.
In DRC, 27 percent of children between the ages of 7 and 14 split work and school duties, according to a 2013 report on child labor in DRC from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Charle Bahati, chief of the Division of Social Affairs, known locally by the French acronym DIVAS, says the number of children who work and go to school part-time is higher than the report indicates. It is common for children to bring in as much as 25 percent of a family’s monthly household income, Bahati says.
Law enforcement authorities rarely investigate cases of children working as domestic laborers or street vendors, Goma residents report. International rights and aid organizations invest heavily in efforts to help DRC decrease more exploitative forms of child labor, including commercial mining, prostitution, soldiering, spying and distributing drugs.
Hamadi Djasmin, 10, sells peanuts and chikwanga, a local food made from cassava and stored in banana leaves.
“My mother told me that life is difficult,” she says.
Recently separated from Hamadi’s father, her mother, Anifa Chirimwami, struggles to pay for her children’s school fees, clothing and food.
“She said a child who did not contribute to the needs of the family would be denied the right to food and education,” Hamadi says.
Like Ibrahim, Hamadi wakes up early to go to school and rushes home when school lets out at 1 p.m. After a lunch break, she leaves home at 1:30 to sell in the city center. She returns home late in the evening, feeling tired but ready to report her income.
Hamadi says her mother stresses the value of a strong work ethic.
“She told me that if I begin financially contributing to the family and starting working at an early age, I will have no problem in my life,” Hamadi says. “She says I will have acquired experience earlier and that life will be easier for me as I will have learned to cope with life obstacles.”
But Hamadi says she isn’t doing well in school because she doesn’t have time to do homework.
“Frankly speaking, I have no time for revising my lessons,” she says. “If I do not understand what the teacher says in class, I can’t later understand it. Sometimes I am forced to get up late in the night to revise lessons while others are in bed.”
Bitalika Zawadi, 13, found that working and going to school was too much. She dropped out and now sells potatoes and french fries in front of her house every day.
The oldest of six children, Bitalika says she is happy with her decision.
“I love this work because it enables me and my family to live from one day to the next, even if it does not allow me to study,” she says.
Her father is a taxi driver and her mother sells wheat flour on the street; their income alone was not enough to cover food, rent, clothing and school fees.
“My father’s pay was insufficient to cover all family expenses, and even school authorities could no longer let me study without paying school fees,” she says.
“This is why my father saw it fit to take me out of school so that I could financially contribute to the family.”
Like other working children, Bitalika takes part in the evening ritual of reporting her daily income.
She says she aims to sell at least 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of potatoes every day. She sells four potatoes for 100 francs (10 cents). On a good day, she can earn 15,000 francs ($16).
Bitalika hopes to re-enroll in school someday.
At Bienheureuse primary school in Goma, Maombi Zagabe, a teacher, says that nearly half of his students work after school. He has 43 students, and at least 18 of them work.
Children who don’t work perform at a higher academic level than those who do, he says.
“The children who are working do not have suitable time to rest or do homework,” Zagabe says.
Tabu Bagalet, senior commissioner and commander of PEVS, the government office for the Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Violence, says the parents of children like Bitalika are subject to prosecution for the crime of economic exploitation of a child. Under the law, any adult convicted of making a child work can be fined and sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.
“We consider carrying out daily patrols to check for those cases,” Bagalet says. “If we find a child in such a situation, we will take the child with everything it carries and ask for the child’s address and go to see parents and tell them they have made the child carry heavy loads. We might take the suspect to the prosecutor’s office.”
But in reality, Goma residents say child labor is common and unregulated, in part because so many families are in dire economic straits. None of the families interviewed for this article had ever been visited by a PEVS investigator.
But even residents who often buy goods from children say they deplore child labor.
“How can a parent let a girl or a boy aged 13 years or 10 years, even 15 years travel throughout the city with goods on their head?” asks David Kabemba, a petty trader and father of three.
He says he would never allow his children to work. For them, he says, learning is more important than earning wages.
“A child is the hope for the future of its parents and even of our country,” he says.
Some children say they embrace their duty to help their families. In private moments, others express sadness at their hardship.
“This is not really an admirable life,” Hamadi says. “Every child would love to be stable, quiet, and expect parents to do all for them. But parents think differently.”
Still, she hasn’t lost faith. “I know full well that one day my living conditions will end up changing,” she says.
Ndayaho Sylvestre, GPJ, translated this article from French.