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Guinea's Slave Children Struggle to Break Free

Children in Guinea who work in slave-like conditions for no pay are struggling to break free and end a cycle of abuse that limits the country's progress. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from the capital Conakry, where local aid workers are trying to help.

Thirteen-year-old orphan Mamadou Aliou Barry works as an apprentice mechanic. He does not get paid, and has to walk one hour to and from work. He sleeps on the floor in the small living room of a house owned by a man he calls his tutor.

Mamadou says that when he leaves in the morning at six, there is no breakfast for him. Sometimes at the garage, he says, someone will give him about 20 cents to buy beans. That is usually his only meal of the day.

When he returns home, he says, at around nine at night, sometimes there is a plate of food waiting for him, but sometimes there is not.

Mamadou explains that when his parents died, he was given away to a man who shared his last name.

But after that man died, his children started beating him, so he fled and was taken in by a neighbor.

But Mamadou explains little of his fate changed with this new tutor. He was forced to break rocks for him, to help other people build houses. He says he was beaten, never paid, and rarely fed.

But he says his luck changed when an aid organization located him and convinced his tutor to let him become a mechanic apprentice.

He says now, even if he is not paid yet and his tutor is not too happy, he is learning something worthwhile for himself.

Alia Camara works feverishly in a carpentry workshop, putting the finishing touches on a wooden door.

He explains he used to go to school in the town of Kindia, in central Guinea. But on the day of his father's funeral, his brother gave him to a man who shared his last name.

There are just a few last names in Guinea, but people still feel kinship with those who share their name, however common it may be.

Alia was taken to Conakry and forced to sell plastic buckets and pots on the streets of Conakry, until he convinced his tutor to let him be a carpenter's apprentice.

He is not paid either, but now feels confident in his future.

He says he would one day like to open his own workshop, and also save children who have been abandoned.

He also says if he has children one day, he will always help them, and he will make sure they stay in school and also learn a trade.

Jeanne Ali says she is overjoyed by the changes both Alia and Mamadou are going through, even if their life is still very difficult.

She is an aid worker from a group called Action against the Exploitation of Children and Women who is trying to convince one tutor at a time to give the children working for them better prospects for their future.

She says she also is able to convince tutors to stop beating these children, and that when they are told it is not a good idea, they actually stop. She says a lot of people are not aware of the extent of how you can destroy a child's future by the way you treat them.

She says Guinean youth make up more than half the population and that so many more thousands than the dozen or so she is able to help, continue to work in slave-like conditions, without any prospects for a better future.

She says the government and aid groups must become aware that the practice of child slavery, prevalent throughout West Africa, is no way to build a nation, and that helping to end this reality is crucial in making progress.