I tend to beat myself up when I miss a great shot, be it I never had a camera or we are traveling and I cannot get the driver to stop or something similar, but this is not a story about a photograph I wanted to ever take, its about a scene that shocked, disgusted and saddened me all in the space of a brief 5 second glimpse.
We were on our journey from Luang Namtha to Luang Prabang on our second day in Laos, on the ‘fantastic’ roads driving through the mountains and past the numerous villages that line the road. I am aware that Laos is one of the poorest nations in the world with 80% of the population living in rural villages in what one would describe as huts.
It’s a very different scene compared with that of only about 150km away in China where people are living and working in much better condition with running water and electricity, on the whole at this point what we see is that there is water and electricity for the most part but it is arguable if the water being used is clean. But again this is not a story about living conditions. About 2 hours into our 7 hour journey we were climbing up a mountain road and I could see ahead a group of four children walking by the side of the road, now in my opinion Laotian people are some of the most beautiful people on the planet and the children are so cute it’s unreal, so I expected as we came closer to see these young things monkeying around by the roadside as that is how life is here.
What I saw instead took me by surprise, it was indeed four children, 3 girls and 1 boy, but they all had traditional baskets on their backs filled with produce or sticks, in there hands tools, I suspect cutting or farming implements. These kids were I suspect related with the oldest being no more than 10 at the most as we drove past my head followed the group and the eldest turned to look at the van passing, I saw her face and it’s a face I shall never forget.
What is wrong with this picture? Take a moment – It took me a moment for it to sink in!
These children were not playing Mum and Dad, you know dressing up with clothes and props to act like Mum and Dad, oversized shoes and clothes and the like! Everything they were wearing and had on fitted them…think about it, has it struck home yet?
Yes, these children had work baskets and tools that have been made for them and their sizes, these children had been sent to work and a whole industry producing items for children to work in the fields has been created, What the Fuck?!!?!!
My travels and assignments have taken me to some very poor countries, working with the worlds poorest and seeing awful working and living conditions and the fallout this causes, but something about this scene jolted me, arguably maybe I have become immune to some of the sights I see with the knowledge I am helping where I can at the right levels to address issues at the source and helping people to help themselves, or maybe it was the fact I was bearing witness to child labour and not a child on the street selling a few trinkets or snacks but real hard labour.
For the rest of the journey this scene had me thinking so much about the implications of what I had witnessed. We all worked as children, we had chores our parents gave us, but this is more in an effort to teach discipline and life skills, and we all worked some of us earlier than others I started working at 14 cleaning cars with my friend Danny, my friend’s Stuart and Nick started earlier I think about 11 or 12 with paper rounds, but we had choices and we had the support of our parents to ensure we were not doing anything to hard or laborious.
The realization of the child made tools and implements really got to me, it blew my mind and still does. These children probably worked a longer and tougher day than I ever have in my life and at the tender age of 10 or less they were given the tools to do it! What is wrong with this World?! My hope for children is that they should all know how to swim, ride a bike and climb a tree, that’s what these children should be doing in between going to school. Sad thing is I get a sense that all the children are here for is a commodity, the more you have, the more you can grow, the more you can grow the more you can earn, ultimately what any family wants but child labour is not a way to go about it.
The thought of what I saw brings tears to my eyes as I type, this needs to change, this must change, it has changed me. I have no doubt that what I witnessed was a mere scratch on the surface of child labour and forced child labour all over the world but I can’t help but think that before I can even bring a child into this world so many need our help that are already here!
As Steph reminds me, “Be the change you want to see in the world” (Gandhi).