Elders call on children to run errands so much that an actual verb has been created to name the act. “Small-boying” or “small-girling” kids to buy items from a nearby shop where they can’t see over the counter or to carry a stool bigger than themselves is not uncommon in The Gambia.
From a young age, children are meant to work. It is their duty to not only obey, but to consider it an honor to be told to do a job.
Boys are not to perform housework, but they do help their fathers on the farm. In bigger towns, boys as young as 7 start apprenticeships with mechanics and tailors so they can learn the trade. But they still always have time to play.
If you ask a Gambian girl what her favorite thing to do is, however, she will say sweeping and cooking. Chores take up so much of girls’ lives that they rarely have time to enjoy other activities. Work is all they know.
From the time their hands can reach the top of a bucket placed on their head, girls are responsible for fetching water. My four-year-old sister helps the older girls in this task nearly every day.
By age 7, washing dishes and sweeping are added to the list of a girl’s responsibilities. If a girl has a younger sibling, the baby is often tied to her back while she works. Some even bring their baby brothers and sisters to school.
Pre-teens often go to the market to buy fish for lunch. Some girls go to the market to sell it.
Teenage girls and young women are perhaps the busiest people in The Gambia. If they are lucky enough to still attend school, they also have to balance their studies with raising younger siblings, fetching water, cleaning, laundering clothes, ironing and cooking three daily meals for their entire family (which can be upwards of 20 people if the father has multiple wives). They wouldn’t dare ask their brothers to help.
Although I’ve never heard a Gambian child complain, I’ve seen plenty work with toothless grins spread across their faces.