The Bitter Side of Sweet, by Tara Sullivan

Friday, August 31, 2018

Fifteen-year-old Amadou and his young brother Seydou spend every day picking cacao pods on a plantation in the African Nation of Ivory Coast. Two years before, Amadou left his impoverished village in search of work, hoping to make enough money to help his family survive the dry season. Younger brother Seydou insisted on tagging along, wanting to be just like his big brother. Thinking they were being hired for day jobs working close to home, the boys were tricked into forced labor. Now, Amadou and Seydou must pick enough cacao pods daily to avoid the brutal beatings of the bosses in an attempt to pay back the money they "owe" to the plantation owner so they can return home. Problem is, the bosses won't tell Amadou how much that is, and in the two years he's lived on the plantation, he's never seen any of the boys actually repay their debt.

Near starvation, beaten down by the constant abuse and hard physical labor, Amadou is beginning to give up hope of ever escaping the plantation. That is, until Khadija shows up. The only girl Amadou has ever seen brought to the camp, she is a spitfire, constantly fighting against the bosses and trying to escape. Despite the rules he's made for himself over time designed to keep him and Seydou safe from the worst of the abuse, Amadou finds himself being inspired by her spirit, and when Seydou is injured cutting cacao pods, Amadou realizes that if he doesn't act soon, there's a good chance neither of them will survive.

This story is one of struggle and survival that takes the reader into the world of forced labor and human trafficking in a very intimate way. Amadou fights to retain his humanity, while at the same time trying to harden himself against the suffering of others. He sees it as the only way to survive his captivity; make no friends, stick your neck out for no one, keep your head down and do as you're told. Without Seydou, I think he would have lost himself completely, but having to protect his younger brother, physically and emotionally, forces him to persevere against the despair and hopelessness that could easily come from living in slavery.

The Bitter Side of Sweet is not Sullivan's first foray into human rights abuses in Africa. Her book, Golden Boy, describes the trafficking of albino children in modern-day Tanzania, who are considered by practitioners of traditional medicine to have special curative powers-but only in pieces. Sullivan brings a well-researched perspective to issues of human trafficking of children in that part of the world. Each of her books ends with an afterword that gives the real-life context for the stories she tells and highlights the ways in which global consumption and the effects of poverty drive modern-day human slavery. Sullivan's writing doesn't shy away from the brutality inflicted on victims of trafficking, but it also doesn't glorify it in any way. Her books are a good avenue for exposing young people to an important social justice issue, one that affects them whether they realize it or not due to the increasing globalization of our economies., and the way consumer behavior affects the people who produce the things we consume.

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