Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan

The Bitter Side of Sweet is a novel about the use of child labour and child trafficking in West Africa which supplies most of the world's cacao, a key ingredient in many types of confectionery. A report released last year by the Tulane University's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine determined that in 2013/14, approximately 2.26 million children were working in cacao production, 2.12 million children were working in child labor in cacao production and 2.03 million children were working in hazardous work in cacao production in Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana combined.

Fifteen year old Amadou and his eight year old brother Seydou work harvesting cacao pods in the Ivory Coast. Two years previous, they left Moke and Auntie for what they thought would be one year of work. Instead they found themselves forced to work on a cacao farm run by Moussa and his two brothers, "all day, week after week, season after season, never getting paid."  They are beaten if they don't meet their daily quota.

Then one day a girl is brought into the camp. Her appearance at the camp is bizarre to Amadou because the camp is only filled with boys and men and because she is brought in alone. The girl is wild, cursing and fighting and she attempts to escape the minute she is untied. Amadou notes that she is well fed and her skin dark and shiny.  The girl is tied to a tree while Seydou, Amadou and Moussa go about harvesting the cacao pods. Amadou becomes annoyed with Seydou who does not listen to his instructions on how to cut the cacao pods safely from the trees and he moves off to another area. However, shortly after this Amadou hears Seydou crying and discovers that the girl tricked Seydou into cutting her free and she's now run into the forest in an attempt to escape. Knowing that his little brother will be punished terribly for this, Amadou decides to take responsibility for her escape.He is dragged into the forest as Moussa tracks the girl and she is caught with the help of Amadou. When they return to the camp, Amadou is badly beaten for not making quota as is another boy, Modibo, and the girl whose name is Khadija. They are not given dinner and are locked into the toolshed. The other boys are locked into the sleeping shed. The next day, despite attempting to prove he is well enough to work on a crew Amadou is assigned to work in the camp shelling the pods. This greatly upsets him because he will not be able to watch out for his little brother.

Seydou goes out to work in the farm while Amadou and a reluctant Khadija work on the shelling of the cacao pods. To Amadou's great relief, Seydou returns home safely and has made quota. However as they are being locked into the shed that night, Khadija manages to escape again. This time she is brutally beaten. Once again, Khadija and Amadou are chained together and must work shelling cacao pods. Amadou helps Khadija but also works hard to shell the cacao pods.  However, the worst is yet to come when the crew returns that evening and Amadou learns that his brother Seydou has been seriously injured by a machete, which cut through his left arm near his hand.

Moussa tries to save Seydou's mangled arm by stitching the horrific wound together with thread and a needle but by the next morning Seydou is running a fever and his arm is infected. Amadou is sent into the fields for the day with Moussa and Khadija is made to look after Seydou. But when Amadou returns Seydou's arm is festering and  swollen and he is delirious. The next day Moussa sends Amadou into the fields telling him he will take care of Seydou. He chains Amadou and Khadija together telling Amadou that if she escapes he will kill Seydou.

In the cacao trees,  Amadou and Khadija work together. Amadou feels some sympathy for Khadija when she begins to get blisters. They know they have to make quota as the pisteurs, the drivers who collect the cacao seeds, will be coming soon. Khadija promises Amadou she will not run because she does not want any harm to come to Seydou. When they return to camp at first Amadou is heartened to see Seydou sitting up but when Seydou begins crying Amadou realizes that his arm below the elbow is missing. Horrified at what Moussa has done to Seydou, Amadou punches him in the face. He is tossed into the toolshed, still chained to Khadija. Thinking about what has happened to Seydou, Amadou realizes he will never be able to protect Seydou on the cacao farm and that they must escape. But how will they make it off a farm in the middle of the forest without being caught? Working together, Khadija and Amadou create a perfect storm that allows them to flee to safety and ultimately have their story of trafficking told.


Cacao pods on a cacao tree.
One of the major factors that makes a successful historical fiction novel is the ability of the author to recreate the era or setting for his/her readers. The same applies to novels which are set in a country which is culturally very different from the one most readers of the novel live in. The Bitter Side of Sweet is set in the West African country of Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and from the very opening of the novel, author Tara Sullivan sets the stage for her novel. The first thing readers of this novel encounter upon opening the book is a map showing the location of Cote d'Ivoire within the African continent and a map of the Cote d'Ivoire showing the cities in the novel.

Most readers have no idea what a cacao tree looks like nor the pods that Amadou and his crew must climb for and cut from the trees. They probably don't know how the seeds from the cacao pods are made into the chocolate that we enjoy in Canada and the United States.  However readers of The Bitter Side of Sweet will learn all this and more - especially about how most of the cacao in West Africa is harvested using child slave labour and that many of these labourers are trafficked. Underage workers harvest the cacao pods, doing work that is both difficult and unsafe. Forced to work in fields, these children do not attend school, meaning their futures are compromised if they escape.

Tara Sullivan does a wonderful job portraying how difficult Amadou, Seydou and the rest of the boys' lives are working on the cacao farm. This is evident from the very first page. The receive little food, "Neither Seydou nor I have eaten anything since breakfast, but Moussa is working too close for us to be able to sneak one of the cacao pods out of the sack", the working conditions are hot and dangerous, "I take a moment to wipe the sweat off my forehead. You'd think it would be cooler up here, but some days there isn't a breeze even halfway up a tree." They are beaten if they do not harvest enough pods, "Only twenty-five pods. Our sacks need to be full, at least forty or forty-five each, so I can get Seydou out of a beating. Really full if I want to get out of one too." In such conditions it's easy to see why boys like Amadou would quickly lose hope. "I don't count unripe pods. I don't count how many times I've been hit for being under quota. I don't count how many days it's been since I've given up hope of going home." Amadou has quickly learned to give up trying to escape, in the hope that he can somehow protect his much younger brother Seydou.

When Amadou and Seydou were first taken to the cacao farm, Amadou "used to think all the time: How can I run away? What is my family doing right now? Is Moke worried about us? Are they searching? How much longer will we have to work before we pay off our debt and the bosses let us go?"  But Amadou soon realizes that thinking about home means he doesn't make quota and he will be beaten. And so he has given up on trying to escape.

When Khadija arrives on the farm, she mocks Amadou for being "such a good boy" and tells him she's determined to escape. When her two attempts fail, she seems to have lost her will. However, it is Khadija's determination to escape and her refusal to accept this as her life combined with Seydou's serious injury, that leads Amadou to realize that they must either die trying to leave the cacao farm or spend a lifetime enslaved."I've been trying to take care of Seydou in little ways for years, and clearly, today showed that it's not enough. Now it's time to take care of him in a big way. Because when I really think about it, Khadija was right all along. Living here is nothing more than killing Seydou slowly." 

As it turns out, Khadija's presence in the cacao farm is not by chance. Unlike Amadou she was not tricked into working on the farm but was kidnapped so as to force her mother from publishing an article on the illegal methods being used to farm cacao.  Later on in the novel, when Amadou, Seydou and Khadija return to Khadija's home, the author uses Khadija's mother to explain present some of the facts about cacao farming in West Africa within the context of the story. The situation is further explained in her Author's Note at the back of the book. Readers will learn that the luxury of chocolate bars we enjoy in Canada and America come at a high price - the lives of children in West Africa.

Those children are represented by the characters of Amadou, Khadija and Seydou. These are beautifully crafted characters, exhibiting courage, perseverance and compassion. Amadou shows compassion for Khadija when she is brutally beaten after her second escape attempt. "She's no one to you, why do you care? I try to tell myself, but the words are a lie...Then I hear a rustling as she pulls herself back together and a soft, broken sobbing, and all I can think about is how terrible it is to be alone when you're hurting." Amadou comforts Khadija and the next day helps her clean up, wiping her face and hands and giving her water to drink.

As the older brother, Amadou feels responsible for Seydou, but Seydou also takes care of Amadou when he receives a beating after taking the blame for Seydou when Khadija attempts to escape. He sneaks mangoes into the bag of cacao pods so his brother will have something to eat during the day besides the cacao seeds. Khadija undergoes a transformation during her time on the cacao farm. At first she is concerned only for her own fate, but soon comes to see that her actions have consequences on the other workers.

The Bitter Side of Sweet is a well written novel that will educate and awaken the social conscience of young people to the dark side of a treat taken for granted in Canada, the United States and Europe. Like Amadou and Seydou in the novel, most cacao farmers and child workers have no idea that cacao seeds are used to make chocolate for consumption by people in these countries. Despite the terrible experiences that Amadou, Seydou and Khadija have lived through, the novel ends on a hopeful tone. The exciting conclusion demonstrates the risks some have taken to get the truth about cacao known to the rest of the world.

Despite widespread publicity about the trafficking of children and the use of slave labour on cacao farms in Africa little has changed. The Dark Side of Chocolate, a National Geographic documentary is worth watching.

For further information on the use of child labor in the cacao industry in West Africa, readers are directed to the website of Tulane University's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. The school undertook a research project to determine the extent of the problem specifically in Cote de I'voire and Ghana.

Book Details:

The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons Ltd.    2016
299 pp.

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