Clarisse Kambire’s nightmare rarely changes. It’s daytime. In a field of cotton plants that burst with purple and white flowers, a man in rags towers over her, a stick raised above his head. Then a voice booms, jerking Clarisse from her slumber and making her heart leap. “Get up!”
The man ordering her awake is the same one who haunts the 13-year-old girl’s sleep: Victorien Kamboule, the farmer she labors for in a West African cotton field. Before sunrise on a November morning she rises from the faded plastic mat that serves as her mattress, barely thicker than the cover of a glossy magazine, opens the metal door of her mud hut and sets her almond-shaped eyes on the first day of this season’s harvest. (Follow her journey in videos, photos and more here.)
She had been dreading it. “I’m starting to think about how he will shout at me and beat me again,” she said two days earlier. Preparing the field was even worse. Clarisse helped dig more than 500 rows with only her muscles and a hoe, substituting for the ox and the plow the farmer can’t afford. If she’s slow, Kamboule whips her with a tree branch.
This harvest is Clarisse’s second. Cotton from her first went from her hands onto the trucks of a Burkina Faso program that deals in cotton certified as fair trade. The fiber from that harvest then went to factories in India and Sri Lanka, where it was fashioned into Victoria’s Secret underwear — like the pair of zebra-print, hip-hugger panties sold for $8.50 at the lingerie retailer’s Water Tower Place store on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.