A Childhood up in Smoke






Pay close attention next time you light up a cigarette. Maybe you can feel the bitter taste of child labour.

The sun is in zenith, and drops of sweat are shining like diamonds on Obrey Banda’s (11) forehead. It is harvest time, and Obrey is working in the tobacco-field like the rest of his family. The boy is using straw to tie two fresh leaves of Burley tobacco together. This way his mother, Florence can hang them to dry.

Big brother Maupo (17) tosses a new load of leaves in front of Obrey. The sore skin of the child-labourers hands tells a painful story of countless hours in the field.

Today, Malawian tobacco is found in blends of nearly every cigarette smoked in industrialised nations including the popular and ubiquitous Camel and Marlboro brands.

Without knowing it Obrey and his family are contributors to the world’s most tobacco dependent economy. Most Malawians have a positive attitude to the tobacco-industry.

According to the Malawian Constitution children are protected from interference with their education and economic exploitation. British-American Tobacco and Philip Morris, two of the largest purchasers of Malawian tobacco, issued labour policy statements in the early 2000s which stated their position against child labour. But as it is Obreys parents and not the boy himself who are employed by the landowner the multinational companies can plead “not guilty” when accused of supporting child labour.

It is inhuman, one might think, of parents to force their kids to work in the tobacco-field. True, but still inevitable. We are in the Kasungu district. The burley tobacco from here is treasured for its high quality and good price. The Bandas are praying for good prices when their burley is sold on the tobacco auction floors in Lilongwe. Like thousands of other Malawian families the Banda’s rent a small plot from the land owner. They get a credit from the Man to cover rent and seed and a little extra so as to survive until the crop is sold. When the leaves are picked, dried and sold the farmer knows whether he makes money or not this year. In good years they are left with a little profit, in bad years they end up owing money when the season is over. The only way to deal with the debt is to keep on working, even harder, from dusk till dawn for the same landowner – hoping they make more money next year. Sending the kids to school, and loosing important labour force is out of the question.

According to The Guardian 75 percent of the Malawian population depends on tobacco farming. Along with the dependence comes the suffering. Obrey straightens his back for a second before returning to the heap of leaves at his feet.

Everyone knows that smoking is unhealthy. But smokers have chosen their own bad habit. Children like Obrey have no choice. Working with tobacco can lead to Green Tobacco Sickness – a kind of nicotine poisoning that cause severe headaches, abdominal pain, muscle weakness, coughing and breathlessness. The international children’s organisation Plan claim child labourers absorb up to 54 milligrams of dissolved nicotine, which is comparable to smoking 50 cigarettes per day.

Otto’s Canon is firing away and I am asking every tobacco-related question under the sun. The poor boy does his best to look in the camera and answer, but when the last two leaves of the bundle are tied together and tossed over to his mother, Obrey drops his hands and sighs.

─Please give me a break, guys. I need a minute of rest before my brother comes back with more leaves. He barely manages to finish the sentence before Maupo is back.

In Norway we use the term ‘Nicotine Slave’ for a person who is completely addicted to tobacco. Maybe it’s time to revise that expression and start using it for the real nicotine slaves. Slaves like Obrey.

27 Responses to “A Childhood up in Smoke”

  1. […] Read the whole story and see the rest of the photos on Øystein & Otto’s Blog. […]

  2. Too depressing for words… and a double edged sword. if they stop working, they starve. if they complain, they loose the contract to someone else… The laws are there but who is enforcing it? And if they did, how would the families cope without Govt subsidies in one of the poorest nations in the world? 😦

  3. They are modern day indentured servants. 😦 So very sad.

  4. I’d normally agree with you! I’ve just returned from (an all too brief) visit to the north of Sri Lanka where farmers are finding tobacco is a good cash crop – such a boon after 30 years of war. It was divine – the first bunches of drying leaves we saw were strung up along the walls of the cemetary – it’s inbahitants immune, we surmised, from the evil effects of the end-product 🙂

  5. Great images of a country I know…

  6. Thanks for your attention to the child labor. Sad.

  7. John Chrisrensen Says:

    Paying a desent price (acording Norwegian labouor-organitations set of rules), would not influence much of the retailing price I pay for my packet of tobacco at my groceryshop in Norway. I pay just above 200 norwegian kroner at the shop (how may kwachas do that equal?). The cost of my tobacco is mainly made by taxes to my government. If these taxes were redused for ethically grown crop, the end product would thereby outclass child labour made stuff. Anyway even if my government tripple the price every year, my tobacco will not reach the TRUE VALUE ever!

  8. True modern day slavery while the world looks the other way.

  9. Very sad situation. My aunt just passed away from emphysema. Smoking is idiotic. And while I choose not to participate for my health (just as I chose not to do cocaine which supports murderous cartels in Mexico), this problem extends deeper than that. Many people support palm oil plantations in Southeastern Asia which have the same issues.

  10. Your images bring pensive moments. They are a powerful way to shore up the narrative, which makes me cringe.

  11. Its really sad but the world is cruel ..

  12. when 75% of the population depend on this business to stay alive, it makes it really difficult to say anything about reform. perhaps by education this can be the first step. thank you, Otto.

  13. So very sad. Another wonderful and poignant post Otto.

  14. What an eye opener. Thanks for such an educational piece.

  15. Reblogged this on Whisks & Chopsticks and commented:
    When I was in school, we learned that what we in the Developed World call child labor, is necessitate by survival needs in that part of the world, but it doesn’t lessen the heart break of seeing children under these conditions. Until we all make meaningful changes for children, we will continue to see children like those documented in “A Childhood up in Smoke”.

  16. How terrible that children like this and their families are caught up in this vicious circle. This very complex situation would obviously be very difficult to change, but awareness raising can only be positive, so thanks to you for this very insightful post.

  17. […] Reblogged from Øystein & Otto's Blog: […]

  18. artblablablablog Says:

    Everything about this is awful. Another reason to quit smoking, but then they are out of work, but that is not always a blessing, but, but, but….it all sucks. Great photos and story.

  19. One more reason not to smoke.

  20. This is truly sad. It seems tabaco is nothing but poison from beginning to end. You know that the working of the little ones will never change but one has to wonder if the product was changed (perhaps legal marijuana growing) if the children would at least not be poisoned and perhaps the families could be paid better.

  21. Takk for at dere deler!

  22. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on efficiency.


  23. It feeds them…yet…???

  24. Modern slavery, that’s what this is. And our industies in the rich parts of the world have a disgusting and low moral – trying to get the very most out of the poor people producing our raw materials.

  25. I had no idea that Malawi depended so heavily on tobacco to feed its people (75%). (thanks for including the stats.)

    And I hadn’t heard of the Green Tobacco Sickness ….
    “Child labourers absorb up to 54 milligrams of dissolved nicotine, which is comparable to smoking 50 cigarettes per day.”

    OMG it makes me feel ashamed and I can’t excuse myself with a “I’m not guilty because I don’t smoke…”

  26. nastasiaalexandru Says:

    Reblogged this on VISUAL MEMORIES. and commented:
    A story/blog worth following. Food for thought.

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