By SOMINI SENGUPTA
ZA-KPOTA, Benin — The hands of small boys hold up this place. As young as 8, barely able to handle picks and shovels, the small boys of this cluster of dust-poor villages are sent to break stones in the quarries of neighboring Nigeria.
At home, the proceeds of their labor buy sacks of grain, pay a father's crippling debts, put tin roofs on mud huts and bring bicycles and radios to families who have nothing. Sometimes, after years of a boy's poorly paid work, his patron — in French, "master" — builds a house for his family. Sometimes, the boys grow up to be masters themselves: they come home dressed in smart new clothes, with cash in their pockets, and ferry a new batch of small boys to break stones across the border.
For generations, the people of this rural county have ranged across West Africa seeking work. It is only in recent years that the tradition has been passed on to its youngest boys. In fact, men who recall breaking stones themselves at age 20 or 25 now send their sons, at less than half those ages. It is a snapshot of how much tougher life has become for children here.
Today, it seems, child labor has become a way of life in Za-Kpota. A father with several boys in Nigeria offered an explanation. If you steal, he said, you get burned (setting suspected criminals on fire is one form of local justice), but if you send away your son, you get paid.
Breaking that habit is the pressing challenge before local officials and children's advocates. In recent months, high-level talks between Nigeria and Benin resulted in the release of about 260 of these child workers from the stone quarries in Nigeria's Yoruba heartland.
They were fed and clothed and given checkups. Their parents were tracked down in Za-Kpota. Take back your children, they were told, and promise not to sell them ever again. There would be repercussions otherwise.
In December, the first busload of the small boys came home, unearthing a mix of shame, greed and dismay in Za-Kpota that spoke volumes for the depths to which poverty had made people sink.
Mothers and fathers and uncles and sisters came to welcome them home. They were pleased to see their children were clean — even the soles of their feet were clean, recalled Aline Adimou, the director of Za-Kpota's social services agency.
Yet the homecoming — prompted by what villagers here call "the trouble with Nigeria" — was not entirely a cause for celebration. How, the parents wondered aloud, were they to feed another mouth?
Martin Atinkpo, 26, lounging in the shade, spoke of having sent his three little brothers to work in Nigeria. Asked what he would do if government minders were to send them home, he considered his toenails, painted an improbable bright pink, and said flatly: "I have to send them back. There's nothing I can do for them here."
Bernardin Adadja, 58, a farmer, is the father of seven children. One was among those returned, after only a few months of work. Mr. Adadja promised to keep his son at home from now on. They would eat sand if they had to, he said. Yet he could not hide his sense of dismay. There are children who come back with a radio for their fathers, a bicycle for their fathers, he offered. "In my case," he said, "I have nothing."
The son, François, 12, stared at the ground. Later, he too said he was disappointed that he had not worked long enough to bring back a radio, or, better still, for his master to build his family a new house. In his case, the master was a cousin.
Why this practice began here, and not in other equally destitute communities in this country, is difficult to say. By now, in Za-Kpota, 15 miles east of Abomey, where the Dahomey kingdom famously enriched itself by selling rival tribespeople into the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the trafficking of children is established and well organized.
A child is taken for a two- to three-year term, usually by someone known in the community. It is understood that the child will get $100 to $200 in cash and either a radio or a bicycle. After three terms each, the child will be free to go. The family will be rewarded with more cash and ideally, a new house. The child, it is hoped, will have a better life than he would have had at home.
Some people describe the practice as a modern distortion of an old Beninese custom, in which poor families send their young to live and work with those better off. The children attend school or learn a trade, often in exchange for domestic work.
It is Ms. Adimou's job to track down the parents and warn them about the perils of selling their children, to ride her scooter from village to village and exhort them to take responsibility for their young. Villagers listen and nod. The government is considering offering aid to the people of this community, she says. Parents found to have sold their children will face consequences, she warns.
"I don't like the excuse that it's because of poverty I'm sending away my children," she said.
The small boys of Za-Kpota are cursed by many forces beyond their control. Their families' cotton, the principal cash crop in the area, cannot compete on the world market with subsidized American cotton prices. (The United States government recently started a program to help the government of Benin combat child trafficking.)
The land can no longer sustain the large families produced by a long tradition of polygamy. There are new demands of a cash economy — not least, the demand for child labor across the border, less costly than hiring adults.
The new attention on child trafficking has made it a difficult issue to broach with the parents of Za-Kpota. Stories change. Answers are incomplete. A stranger raising the subject gets a mix of lies and obscured and confusing answers.
On a blazing Sunday afternoon, a widowed mother named Adohinzin Houkintinde described her plight this way. She had sent away two sons, ages 15 and 11, to work in the fields in Nigeria. Both, she said, had since returned. The older brought back $150 after two years of work. The younger brought back nothing after five months. Ms. Houkintinde did not hide her disappointment. About the government's campaign against the practice, she said, "I have to keep quiet."
Asked about her sons' whereabouts that afternoon, she said they had gone to a nearby village to visit friends. But a drive through the narrow dirt paths from village to village turned up only the younger of the two. The other, she finally acknowledged, had gone back to Nigeria.