Sunday, October 16, 2011

"The Stranger looks with bulging eyes, but sees nothing." Northern Ghanaian Proverb

Today I experienced one of the most interesting, exciting, frightening, and sad days of my life. Since I arrived in Ghana, I have been working with the NGO CHALLENGING HEIGHTS, interested in their work in eradicating child slavery in the fishing industry in Ghana, and keeping kids in school. In fact they say that their chief interest is in “keeping children in school. “ And their founder, James, believes that the key to solving the problem of child slavery is improvement of the education system.

Lake Volta, the world’s largest man-made lake, was created by the damming of the Volta River at Akosombo dam in the 1950s. Since that time, as you can well imagine, a huge fishing industry has opened up on the lake. The new opportunities in employment also created a labour shortage, so what do you do? It is a common practice for the fisher-people to use their own children on the boats, but it is also a common practice for fishermen to coerce families and children into coming with them where they are used in slave labour to work for them fishing on the lake. Sometimes they tell false stories and lure families into thinking that the child will receive an education and trained in fishing for a small fee paid to the master. Other times the children are abducted from a parent.

When I first met James Kofi Annan, the founder and director of Challenging Heights, I was immediately impressed by his humility, his passion, his love of the children he rescues and his life-commitment to such an important cause. Immediately I wanted to join with him in his efforts and so I placed two Calvin students to work with Challenging Heights during this Ghana Semester 2011. But I also wanted to learn more and become personally involved in some manner. My plan is to come to Ghana for a full year on a Fulbright fellowship to write a piece of theatre for development about child slavery in Ghana and to take this piece on tour so that we can educate communities about the effects and wrongdoing of child trafficking.

To that end, James and the team from Challenging Heights graciously allowed me to come along to Yeji, on the Western side of Lake Volta, to witness their operations there and to see the fishing villages where they rescue children. I have learned so much on this trip about human trafficking in this country and how they conduct investigations, discovering where children are being held and by whom. Today I honestly thought we were just going to travel to the villages, witnessing some of the investigative practices. Much to my surprise, we went on the attempted rescue of six boys in one village! After much negotiation with the chief, argument and anger erupting everywhere, we were allowed to take three of the children, but the chief would not release the other three who were sent into hiding. Tomorrow, the Challenging Heights social workers will locate those three children and rescue them as well.

We travelled to a second village where supposedly two more boys were being held, but they too were sent into hiding, even though the fisherman master had agreed to release them to Challenging Heights. The fishermen know, clearly, that they could be imprisoned for a minimum of five years for the crime of human trafficking, but in these cases, the children were kept anyway. The social workers will have to return to those villages tomorrow to find the children and take them into custody.

When a child is taken into custody, as the three who are with us now, the child is re-socialized and rehabilitated with careful attention paid to the whole being – psychological, physical, social and cognitive – all parts are given attention. And then the child will be reunited with his/her parents and allowed, probably for the first time in their lives, to go to school.

So, today we rescued three brothers Ko (6), Otu (8), and Kwesi (10) who will be returned to their mother in Winneba. They are such beautiful children, and we learned upon interviewing them, that they had been sold into slave labor by their father to over 10 fishermen on the lake. They worked from 2 am until 3 pm every day and received one meal, at best. They also had to mend nets in the evening, and received little more than 6 hours of rest per night, if that. After they were safe in James’ SUV, on our way back to Accra (a seven hour drive), their first questions were asking if they were going to Winneba. They told us stories about being hit on the head with oars as discipline and abused by pounding on their bodies, telling all of this with great bravery and a stoic sense of self. We can only wonder how much psychological abuse topped off the physical abuse. James estimates that they are verbally abused once every five minutes as part of the warped disciplinary culture of slavery.

On our way back to shore, after this dramatic rescue, we saw another boy Akwame whom we could not rescue because there was no social work investigation on him, but we learned, on interviewing him, that he was a trafficked child and he told us, we feared, too much about himself. Indeed, we learned, on our way back now, that the boy was severely threatened by his master and that the master had also made a death threat to the rescue team (specifically to James’ brother who conducts the investigations on the lake in Yeji). Luckily, James gave them instructions to go to the police, to report the death threats and to rescue Akwame TODAY! We have not heard yet, but we hope and pray it is happening right now.

It struck me, as we were driving away, that the brothers’ first questions were asking “will I have to paddle any longer?” and “will I hold a pen now instead?” They are beautiful boys, as you can see by the photos. Keep them in your prayers. And, if you’re interested, sponsor one of them at a rate of only $250 per year for their education. Save a child, give them a future.

To eradicate child trafficking in Ghana will take a ton of work, money and the re-education of a culture. So, I can’t wait to be even more a part of this!

One element that was disturbing to me was that I felt exhausted by the level of observation I had turned on all day, and yet I was still missing so much of the total experience. The title of this blog: "The stranger looks with bulging eyes but sees nothing," came to mind. Learning a culture is one of the most difficult shifts in seeing that one can experience.

Here's a photo I took of the boys' flip-flops which they held on to like teddy bears and gave them to me to hold while they slept. They have nothing but the clothes on their backs, but now they have safety and hopefully a future. You can sponsor a child at the Challenging Heights website.

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