“It was difficult to get food in those days, Asingiya said. He was referring to the early 1900s and before. “You see, if you give birth to so many children and you cannot provide for them, you don’t have the food to feed them, you can give one of your children to a person who has food, for millet and salt, so you will be able to provide for the rest. It’s simple. If you don’t do it, the others will die.”
Losing a child to illness or other circumstances is difficult to comprehend. Selling one’s child so the family can eat is unimaginable. After listening to stories about children sold into servitude, I considered what it would be like. Is it possible to grasp this experience? How do you decide? Which child? Would you meet again? When are hunger and suffering unbearable?
Etched into the Ghanaian landscape and the people’s collective memory are the vestiges of the slave trade. The Volta Basin was a region besieged by groups interested in capitalizing on its people. The Ashanti would appear from the south and the Mossi would travel from what is now Burkina Faso to capture or trade for slaves. Even one’s neighbors could be a menace. A nearby clan or ethnic group might catch you in the wrong place at the wrong time and sell you to roaming human traffickers. Northern Ghana’s greatest resource, even today, is its people and their labor.
Asingiya was giving me Nankani “history lessons”—sharing his oral traditions and memories over several months. “What was it like?” I asked.
“It was painful to do that,” he said, “to give one of your children away. But what could you do? If you don’t do that, all of you will die. You won’t get food from anywhere.”
“I can’t imagine.”
“The Mossi from Burkina Faso would come. They always came with millet, and they would stay around a particular house. The people who need to sell their children, they will take their children there and collect the millet.” Other elders told comparable stories. “When we think of slavery,” Asingiya continued, “we think of the two types. First, people were coming to take us. Second, we were selling ourselves.”
Throughout my ethnographic research, people often spoke of hunger. Not hunger pangs but famine conditions and months of food limitations. The region has only one growing season. If the crops fail or are insufficient, a family might face starvation. Even in good years, families ration their food in the weeks leading to the first harvest. They also have limited savings (often animals) that are subject to unpredictable conditions.
Neighbors knew this and took advantage. Today, surviving a crisis depends on one’s relationships, migratory labor, and family generosity. I spoke with a man planning a trip to Kumasi to beg a family member for help. His newborn was sick, his brother died in the previous year, and he was supporting his brother’s family and his own. He could not pay the fees needed to get his child into the hospital and food had run out. Visitors from the United States compared this poverty and precarity to America. They declared that the hunger and poverty seen in Ghana is of an entirely different sort.
Ghanaian mothers used tactics to help their children cope. They would boil rocks in the cooking pot to dupe them into thinking dinner was on. They hoped that the children would fall asleep to the sound of trundling rocks without noticing the absent food. Maybe tomorrow would be different. It never took long for even the youngest to spot the deception.
Sometimes people went to the bush to find food or some approximation. An elder described how during his father’s life (around 1930) families searched for edible grass during the dry season. The grass was difficult to prepare; people had to boil it several times for it to become palatable. “These days we don’t eat those grasses anymore,” he explained. “But then you had to go out to get them or you would have nothing to eat. That is also the time they would start selling their children in return for food.”
We need to recognize the context of selling a child. Also relevant are how similar systems of exchange and child mobility can be a source model that make it a possibility. For much of human history, families saw children as property, not as precious angels. The phenomenon of having a few children and investing in them heavily is recent. Nankani families soon expect their children to contribute to the family economy. Young children begin by gathering dung for fertilizer or carrying a small pot of water. This is typical in many developing areas. Unlike Western children today, kids should not be expensive. A major reason to bear children is to have able-bodied workers to farm or, if one is fortunate, earn money. When the government first required children to attend school, families sent only their disobedient, dim, and listless. They valued the hard workers at home. Even now, some families question the value of education over work.
It is not unheard of in West Africa to give or “sell” children to tradespersons to learn a skill and to work. Today, child rights groups often identify these work arrangements as exploitative. Due to their size, children are appealing as mine laborers. Fishermen use children to dive underwater to untangle or mend nets. Their masters pay parents little for such dangerous work. Parents hope their child will acquire the trade and soon earn an income. It also helps to have one less mouth to feed. David Lancy describes how selling a child into involuntary labor was likewise a feature of Western European society and present globally for over two thousand years.[i]
Prolonged separations between parents and their children are common in Africa. A parent will send a child away to live with a relative, attend school, work, or learn a trade. They might not see each other for years. Bob Levine noted that African people, when compared to Westerners, “appear to find physical separation from loved ones less upsetting” and do not regard the lengthiest of partings as final.[ii] These partings do not rouse as much anxiety or sentimentality as among Westerners, in part because families construct their relationships and attachments on different terms.
If food is often scarce why would households create so many mouths to feed in the first place? This is a typical question asked by those interested in why epidemic poverty and high fertility rates occur together. Families are larger in places with high infant and child mortality. Until the late 1990s, one in five Nankani children did not reach their fifth birthday. During the colonial era, children in Northern Ghana had a lower chance of making it to 15 years old—over two out of every five died. Most of the older women I met during fieldwork had lost at least one child. Hence, families need a fertility strategy that ensures some children survive. When people gain access to primary health care and infant and maternal health services, mortality rates decrease. Households then have fewer children because they know they will live.[iii]
Having several living children is the only retirement strategy. Some male children will continue to live at home, farm, and support their parents. Families must also make sure at least one son survives to sacrifice to the ancestors upon his father’s death. If no descendent lives, it dooms the ancestors to roam and beg from spirits for eternity. When a daughter marries, her family gets cattle for their loss of a productive and valued member. This also ensures that wealth is redistributed across families. A man explains: “In those days, they don’t consider someone who has money to be rich. It is only when you have people; when you give birth to many children. If you are alone, have a farm, and don’t have children, what are you going to do? When you are old, the children will feed you with whatever they get. If you give birth to a girl that grows up to marry, she will get you animals. You will use them to support yourself, or you take them to use to marry women for the other children. If you have children, so many of them, it is not a bad thing.” This calculus changes, however, when children survive and become expensive.
Finally, Western decision-making prioritizes the view, predicament, and rights of individuals over the family. People in Ghana often place the family over the individual. Group well-being and survival come before personal desires.
Asorigiya, the chief of the Bugsongo section of Sirigu, recounted the history of the slave trade in the region.[iv] He described harrowing stories of human capture and exploitation. In our discussions focusing on predation, Asorigiya closed them on a positive note, underscoring how the Nankani were not passive. He detailed how people resisted and, in this account, cheated the powerful.
“There was a Mossi man that came to buy people,” Asorigiya said. “When he came, one son named Alagiba offered to sell himself for his family, because he knew that his father was suffering. His father loved him and didn’t want to sell him. So, his sons devised a plan that they should sell Alagiba to the Mossi man, but he would run back to the house a few days later. The Mossi man bought Alagiba and, knowing he had come willingly, did not worry he would run away.
While they were traveling, Alagiba said that he needed to go to the bush to relieve himself. When he was out of eyesight, Alagiba ran back to the house. Because the Mossi man was holding the other slaves he had bought, he could not search for Alagiba or they would all run. So, he delivered the slaves, gathered more grain to sell, and traveled back down to Sirigu to buy more people.
Before entering Sirigu, he went to Alagiba’s house and told the father that Alagiba had run away and asked if he had returned. The father responded that he sold his child and that he was not there. Then he thanked the Mossi man for coming back to tell him that his son had died. ‘That is why you are coming back,’ the father said crying. ‘To tell me my son has died.’ The Mossi man remained suspicious. The father, affirming that his son had not returned and must be dead, called all his sons over for the Mossi man to examine. Alagiba, who had returned, had received many tribal marks on his face and changed his name to Akabire.[v] The family hoped he would not recognize him. The Mossi man looked at all his sons but could not identify Alagiba and gave up. The father thanked the Mossi man again and said that he was a good person for coming to tell him that his son had died. It was the correct thing to do. The Mossi man went away unable to do anything.”
Humans are creative. Even when vulnerable and confronted with limits, we can transform our lifeworlds in extraordinary ways. I am taken by instances where people, facing adversity, turn on those in power. I want to think other households also fooled the traffickers and the powerful seeking to exploit their circumstances.
Selling a child does not mean people are morally flawed. And I do not want to posit that having models that facilitate child mobility and exchange make it simpler. These families decided amid circumstances we cannot imagine. Can we or the Nankani reduce the value of a child to a few bags of grain? I doubt it. No one wants to consider such a plight. Yet when a family must decide, everyone survives, and the child recognizes they made a lifesaving sacrifice. It remains conceivable, and we might also hope, those children, one day, found their way home.
What to read more? See my second essay on experiences of slavery and resistance. Additional essays are here.
[i] See page 100 in: Lancy, David (2008). The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
[ii] It is important to remember this has nothing to do with parental “love,” but reflects how people understand relationships and the emotional dynamics that construe them. The observations behind this statement are dated. It would be interesting to see how parent-child relations and sentiments have changed with the globalization of parenting practices and changing economic contexts. Levine discusses this in greater detail in: Levine, Robert (1973). Patterns of Personality in Africa. Ethos 1(2):123-152.
[iii] This is a demographic transition and an established global pattern.
[iv] To be the subject of a future essay.
[v] Extensive facial scarification was more common in the past. Some examples are quite elaborate and artistic. View some contemporary images here.