Hey kids, ever wonder what the children in Northern Benin do for fun? No, they don’t have computers or video games, and there really isn’t much to watch on TV. Most kids here don’t have any toys except what they make themselves.
If you are a girl, you help around the house a lot. You make meals and wash laundry. Hardly any girls have dolls because they have real babies instead—brothers and sisters to take care of. You entertain your baby brother or sister and carry them around all day while you do your other jobs.
School is free for girls in Benin, but you are lucky if you get to go to school, because often your mother needs you to help at home. You run errands, like hauling 30 to 50 lbs. of water on your head in a big bowl or jug. You carry grain to the mill to be ground into flour. You grind tomatoes, onions, herbs and spices between stones to make sauces. You sweep the dirt courtyard and the house every morning before you leave for school.
If you don’t go to school, you might be put to work earning money selling onions or herbs. Since there are no drinking fountains here, some girls sell water in little plastic bags. Selling is a hot and tiresome job, but the girls who do it learn how to calculate prices and change very quickly in their heads, even if they don’t know how to write numbers.
Poor families from outlying villages often send their daughters to work in the homes of people who live in town in exchange for a promise that they can go to school. Sometimes the host family doesn’t keep their promise and instead makes the girl work like a slave. They make her get up very early and start the cooking fire, wash the dishes, sweep the floors, get water from the well and take care of the baby if it wakes up. Everyone in the family orders the girl around, speaks harshly to her or even hits her. She often gets to eat only what is left over. She might have to work late into the night while the children of the family play and watch TV. Many girls have a bald spot on the top of their heads where their hair has been worn away from hauling so many heavy basins.
If you are a boy in Northern Benin, you have it a bit easier than the girls. Most boys go to school. You also may have to sweep the yard or take grain to the mill to be ground. How much you work depends on whether you have sisters to help. If you don’t have a sister, or she is too young, then you get to be the family babysitter.
As a boy, your real work begins in planting season. You work long days in the fields plowing endless rows in the hard dirt by hand. During your free time you might hunt through the trash for tin cans and pieces of metal to use to create a nice toy car or truck. Circles cut out of old flip-flops make good tires for it to roll on. These vehicles can get pretty fancy, with steering wheels that turn, dump truck beds that tip up, and other clever touches. These “trash cars” aren’t just for little kids, either. Ten- and twelve-year-olds make them, too. It takes a lot of skill and care to cut open metal cans with a knife or sharp rock and not cut yourself in the process.
Lots of older boys like to play soccer. They don’t have nice soccer balls, so they make their own balls by packing plastic bags together and tying them up with string. The soccer goals might just be marked with sticks or stones. Others get more creative and make goals out of old mosquito nets tied between two poles.
Many younger boys play with old tires from bikes, motorcycles or even cars. They push them along with a forked stick, guiding them as they run along behind. Another game that boys and girls enjoy is tying rubber bands together and taking turns hitting them with a flip-flop until they untie. The winner gets to keep the rubber bands. Yet another game is to place rubber bands on the ground and take turns blowing on them until they land on top of another band. If you can blow your rubber band on top of another one, you get to keep both. You can always tell which kids are good at this game because they wear a whole stack of rubber bands on their wrists.
For kids in Northern Benin, especially girls, life can be quite busy and full of hard work. They don’t have much, but like kids everywhere, they manage to find ways to have fun with what they have.