Hundreds of thousands of children labor in bondage, sold by their impoverished parents and left unprotected by the state.
“Today is now. Yesterday was the day before. Tomorrow is the next.”—Ghanaian school song
A dusty ride west from Accra brings us to Feteh, a town of 700 people, where the only attraction is the Village of Hope, an orphanage of 160 children.
Some of these children are former slaves, sold into bondage by their parents and forced to work in the fishing industry on Lake Volta, the world’s largest man-made lake.
Seven escaped with the help of George Achibra, a local teacher who purchased their freedom, and later brought them to this Christian-run orphanage.
The children range in age, but all are under 12. And their story of neglect is the same.
There is 9-year-old Helga, who remembers the spur-like scales slicing her hands while dressing fish over and over. And 6-year-old Mark, his arms too small to paddle under the gray, moist sky of the lake, was reduced to scooping water out of the fishing canoe with a bucket. Of his experience he could only say with lowered eyes, “I never want to go back.”
They are just a few of the voiceless 39% of children aged five to 14 believed to be working illegally in Ghana under hazardous conditions, according to figures kept by the Ghana Statistical Service. As many as 1.3 million Ghanaian children labor under these conditions, despite a 1998 law that prohibits the use of children in dangerous labor.
Severely abused, malnourished and unable to speak any English, the children Achibra brought here were absorbed into an already-overcrowded home stay facility, after Achibra consulted their parents and discovered that none could afford to keep their children at home.
While the penetrating afternoon sun beat down on a small concrete slab outside a Village of Hope building, the former fishing industry slaves, hunched in a circle, played with one another and showed their scars, left from years of canings and ritual abuse by their former masters.
In those days, the boys dived and rowed. The girls spent hours preparing fish. Helga, scrawny with pooling ebony eyes, exposed her legs to show the knotted scars from her three-year servitude in Ghana’s northeast. She did not remember the home or village she came from, only the creed of surviving the bleak 17-hour workdays her parents sold her into for $10 a year.
“You can’t tell your slave mother and father that you are afraid. If you say you are afraid, they will beat you. If you are afraid you will not survive,” she said. Helga remembered the pain of her life on the lake but looked to John, the eldest of the rescued clan, to tell their story.
Among the white and blue buildings that make up the school and housing arrangements in this sun-baked compound, 12-year-old John is known as the boy found with the blood.
The Bloody Boy
John is young and intelligent, with a soft, whispering voice. At 11 a.m., he told us, he would rise to peddle slices of sweet coconut cake in a glass container along the roadside. Until 6 p.m., he sold the moist pieces of cake he wished to one day taste himself, then returned to the vast waters to fish until 6 a.m.
Here John watched several boys die while diving to untangle the fishing nets stuck on trees underneath the water.
“There was a boy called “Old Man” who dived down one day and never came up. After waiting a long time for him to surface, our master took a hook and fished his body out of the water. They buried his body in the sand near the water. After seeing that I never thought I would survive,” he said. “I didn’t think I would see my 12th birthday or ever leave Lake Volta.”
While the fishing was the most dangerous part of his past life, it was a day’s worth of coconut cake that nearly killed and eventually saved him.
The air that day had been thick with a swallowing, engulfing heat. John remembered he had sold nearly $2 of cake and then lay down to sleep in the shade, only to wake to find that his master’s belongings and money had been stolen. ”I was so scared. I cried and cried. I prayed that my slave mother would understand. I feared for my life because I lost everything,” John said.
After returning home, John was severely beaten. ”They told me I was a liar, that I lost the money on purpose. Then they told another boy younger than me to beat me. He said no, so they beat him in front of me.” John was then thrown headfirst through a glass window, stripped of his clothing, tied naked to a tree and beaten. After being untied, he was covered in blood. Still fearing for his life, ran to the nearby town of Kete Krachi.
Achibra, a native of Krachi, found John there, crying. He decided to shelter John. He notified the police, and together they contacted his parents.
“I didn’t have any clothing. I didn’t have a cloth to sleep with. George is a good man. He gave these to me. He saved me,” John remembered.
John, who had long, scratching white scars across his head from his final beating, had not yet been saved.
A Good (But Beleaguered) Samaritan
“I rescued him, thinking I was doing a good thing. His masters abused him. They tied him to a tree and beat him,” recalled Achibra, a noble fiftyish man with a sturdy, youthful build and mature eyes that command attention. “But, after the police gave him to his parents, he was once again sold by his parents, this time to fishermen working on the Bay of Guinea near the Ivory Coast.”
Achibra traveled to the coast and rescued John. With funding from U.S. donors, he then paid for the rescue of six other children in Kete Krachi. Now he runs a small NGO called PACODEP, devoted to helping other exploited children.
Despite Ghanaian legislation that has made the trafficking and exploitation of children in dangerous labor illegal, the corruption of a generation still breeds in Lake Volta’s placid waters. That fact is apparent to Achibra and his NGO workers every day.
“The children that have been rescued by George Achibra are just one in five. That means there are still literally hundreds out on the lake that we have seen but can do nothing about,” said Steve Allen, a 28-year-old American independent labor researcher who was working in the Volta region. “You need funding, education programs, and you need the police to arrest fishermen. So far they haven’t arrested one fisherman here. The fishermen here have been operating with complete impunity.”
“The police never go to the lake to arrest the fisherman. We want the police to assist us,” Achibra said.
The Ghanaian Ministry of Women and Children Affairs and the International Organization of Migration have undertaken public educational programs, and were instrumental in Ghana’s passage of the Human Trafficking Act of 2005. But the exploitation of children in the dangerous and strenuous fishing industry is still commonplace.
Marlene Annan, who heads the human trafficking unit of the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, which works with the IOM to rescue and rehabilitate the children, recognizes the labor situation and points to progress. “It’s not just a question, this is happening. The social initiatives have been put in place and they are living up to their expectations.”
The IOM, with the help of a donation from the U.S. Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, says it has rescued more than 576 children in Ghana since 2002.
Wilbert Tengey, the founder of the African Center for Human Development, believes more progress needs to be made. “The help is here. But to say that we have solved the problem is untrue. Maybe 1 or 2 percent have been rescued from the industry — that’s it.”
After witnessing John’s story of abuse, Achibra decided to start buying children from local fishermen, to house and educate them. He plans to build an orphanage with private U.S. funding. His NGO, PACODEP, is run by members of his family and community.
By the summer of 2007 PACODEP had rescued 39 children, 25 of whom Achibra turned over to a government social welfare program in Accra.
With the assistance of his family, local missionaries and European and Canadian volunteers, Achibra continues to patrol the lake, but is hampered by lack of funding, and under stress from local conflicts over payment.
He’s taken up the cudgels against child slavery in Kete Krachi, but his mission is both draining him financially and making him a controversial figure in his community. Local fisherman, who say the IOM promised to compensate them for the children they gave up – with, say, cows or nets – protest that Achibra hasn’t kept his promises.
Walking along the narrow broken streets of this lake town on evening, the only light on Achibra is from the scattered stars and orange moon in the sky. Evening Muslim prayer begins to rattle off a few hundred feet away. The rhythmic whine of devotion vibrates and lingers while the shadows of bodies flowing through prayer positions is illuminated by a burning lantern onto a parallel wall.
Two men home in and abruptly approach Achibra out of the darkness. Their arms, rowing arms, are thick and strong. Tension rises in Achibra’s voice as he rapidly sputters in conciliatory tones in his native Krachi language to the two fishermen demanding their promised money. The men depart, but Achibra, usually confident in demeanor, looks uneasy.
“These two men are fishermen,” he says. “They are hungry and want the
money we have promised them for giving up their children.”
Achibra said that Eric Peasah, a director at the IOM in Accra, privately promised Achibra and the fishermen money or goods.
Peasah acknowledges that the IOM funds private NGO groups to carry out rescues of children, but claims he only offered what he called “incentives.”
“We don’t give money to fishermen,” Peasah said. “We will give them incentives like a
goat or a sheep.”
Samuel Acquah, a prosperous fisherman with several trafficked children of his own, believes in Achibra’s mission, but is angry that he has not received any compensation for other children he gave up.
“We are really worried about the IOM, since we give them away and don’t get anything in return. We would take anything. Why should we do this when we [fishermen] use these children for our work?” Acquah said. “There is one child in George’s book now that he wants, but we will not give him now.”
Achibra perseveres in his mission to rescue, educate and feed children forgotten by his Lake Volta community. He sees it as his personal mission, something he cannot give up on.
“I see PACODEP in five years raising good children and changing the attitude of the community. In 10 years, I will be able to say I have graduated these children from college,” Achibra said.
Researcher Allen thinks PACODEP has made progress in the community, but that it’s hampered by the IOM’s refusal to compensate PACODEP for the rescues it has carried out.
“The IOM has not only lost a resource, but also fanned distrust in an area that needs the promised help,” he said.
In the summer of 2007 three more children ran away, and sought refuge at Achibra’s home. After fleeing for miles from their masters, the 8-year-old boys were bone-thin with ringworm patches on their skulls. Like John, these boys were in need of clothing and a meal — and Achibra was ready for the task.
Sarah Conway is a teacher for the Peace Corps in Madagascar. She wrote this story while studying in New York University’s summer journalism program in Accra, Ghana.
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