The large man's hand had a slightly uncomfortable press around mine. I smiled at him, and asked what he did.
"I'm a businessman. I'm from Zimbabwe". He settled into his seat on the bus next to me.
"Really?" I asked, "What sort of work is it you do?"
"Mainly textiles. We have offices in the north of Africa, too." He stretched out a bit, getting more comfortable in the seat.
"How big is your operation?" I asked, wondering about this rather jovial fellow.
"We employ 6 men, some women, and about 30 children at each location. It's -"
I cut him off: "Full time?"
This sank in for a moment. "How can you do that?"
"Do what? Employ children? What do you mean? We pay them well, as much as five dollars per day. We treat them well. What else would they do?" He was genuinely curious, as if this had never
occurred to him before.
"Well," I said, "They should be in school! They should be -"
It was his turn to interrupt: "In school? What school? There are no schools in these
communities. Five dollars a day is enough to feed a large family for a week! If the children are working, they aren't stepping on landmines. Working for us is safer than working for the diamond mines or the chocolate plantations! We're good employers, and we don't exploit children. We pay a fair wage, and they do light work. You Americans assume that if you can't live off five dollars per week, no one can. You think everyone lives off McDonalds? 70% of my country is unemployed."
Then he smiled. "You see, there are good people out there, too. We create jobs in our home countries. These children can feed their families if their fathers are sick or dead. We recognize the fact that our children are precious. We provide the job to keep them from more dangerous work. That his how we can do this. That is how I sleep at night."
I looked at him for a moment. "I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't mean to offend. It's just that we have different ideas here."
His smile grew a bit broader, "I know," he said, "and I respect your honesty and concern. Just realize that what you hear about us is not always true. We Africans are proud, and we're not bad just because we live in a different country. Not every child is endangered by working. When I was first accused of 'endangering children', I was angry, but I have learned that it is better to explain the situation than to be angry about it. This is my stop. Take care, friend."
I never saw him again.
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