As we came around the gentle bend of the island's shoreline, recognition hit me -- I knew where we were, even though we had only been there once before, just two days prior. Then again, how could we forget?
The last time, we had walked to the shore from within the island, but this time, we approached the shoreline by boat, praying that this would be the day that the slave masters would agree to release the child slaves whose freedom we had fought so hard for.
At first look, we didn't see them, just a few adults. Would they cause issues? Were they waiting for us? The woman kept looking to the trail behind her. Had the children hidden from us?
Then, a flash of turquoise moved from beyond the tall grass... it was him, it was Patrick*, one of the three child slaves we had negotiated for.
Two more children followed, along with their slave master. Who was the third child, a girl? We hadn't seen her when we were here on Saturday, why was she here this morning?
The three children waited quietly, staring at us while we continued the negotiations for the release of Patrick and Innocence*. Given that the other girl had come with a yellow bucket, we were surprised not to see her working as her slave master continued to talk with George Jr. and our team.
Looking into those children's faces broke my heart. The uncertainty, the mistrust, the inability to communicate with them and ask them what was going through their minds right in that moment... all we could do was comfort them without words, through kind eyes and a compassionate demeanor, until, God willing, they were released to us.
Still aboard our own boat, we were too far to reach out to them.
Without warning, the tides turned to our favor... we were asked to find paper and something to write with, as the slave master was agreeing to provide us with the children's information -- their full names, their ages, where they had been trafficked from, their parents' names.
Last but not least, we had to obtain the price that had originally been paid by the slave master to "purchase" them -- oh, how my heart wrings itself sick just speaking those words... one should not be able to purchase a child as though they were a dishwasher, a machine, a piece of property... Lord, what has humanity come to, that precious children should be bought and sold like commodities?
The price paid for these children by the slave masters?
150 Ghana cedis each, which is the rough equivalent of $100 USD per child.
My heart further broke... knowing that these children provided labor for these slave masters for at least three years... 14+ hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, no sick days, no time off, no rest, no love, no nurturing, no education... nothing received in return but pain and suffering... and the price placed on this was less than $33 a year each.
My head was swimming, my stomach was turning, and had it not been for the fact that things were happening so fast and I did not want to miss one moment, I would have leaned overboard and proceeded to throw up.
All of a sudden, a set of strong arms grabbed Innocence and swiftly lifted her into the boat. The sudden move took us by surprise, leaving us stepping back to make room so that she wouldn't be overwhelmed. Debra grabbed her and held on to her, and she began to cry, understandably afraid and overwhelmed. The relief of freedom is never immediate for children released from slavery. It is a process, a transformation, a healing.
We continued to watch to see if Patrick would be released to us as well.
It didn't take long for them to finish negotiating his release, and he, too, was freed onto us.
Tia, holding Patrick's hand. He seemed more at ease.
As we thanked the slave master and pulled away with both children on board, my heart couldn't help but think of the third child, a girl, having been left behind.
Her situation was just as desperate, yet, this was not the day she would be released. Would she now do the work of three?
Although I know that this is a long process that must be handled sensitively as to be sustainable and successful in breaking this cycle rather than simply putting a bandaid on a fatal wound, it still hurts to the core to leave a child behind, much less the estimated 7000 children still held in slavery on these islands.
Looking into her eyes then, and even now in this photograph, I can't help but ask questions I will never know the answer to on this side of heaven:
What is going through her mind, seeing two children granted freedom, while she isn't lifted "over the fence", as Shaun Groves so aptly put it...
Jesus, come quickly. These children... please come.
Our boat returned to where we had initially came ashore two days ago, the place where we had seen children scramble into the woods in terror.
Since we now had two rescued children on board, we volunteered to stay behind with them, as it was not wise to walk back onto the island with them, placing their rescue into jeopardy. Tia and the German lady opted to stay behind to continue to comfort the children and keep them safe.
We had come prepared to minister to even more children we made our way to where Richard* was being held. This precious little girl received one of our dresses, and while she was a little timid and perhaps afraid of us, she clutched her dress tightly, and we hoped that the cheerful design would brighten her days a little.
Since I remembered where Richard was being held, I hung back from the rest of the group until all children had received either new shorts/boxers or a pillowcase dress. The mothers made sure each child was tended to -- at least this way, we were able to leave no child behind... every child was made to feel special and receive something. Several older girls walked along with me as I left to rejoin the rest of the group, where the negotiations had already begun.
The team sat in the shade, surrounded by curious onlookers, as they sat across from the man in the pale striped shirt, Richard's slave master.
At first, I sat in and observed the negotiations going back and forth, back and forth, back and forth...
Seeing that it would take longer than usual, I turned my attention to the children who had begun to surround our group. One particular baby, with her naked and dirty body and her big curious eyes, made me wish I had a bucket of clean water to gently wash her with -- I so would have, right then, right there.
I could have gotten lost into her beautiful dark eyes, so shiny, so alert, so attentive.
We had smaller dresses, so I handed her one, and she clutched it in her arms, never breaking her intense gaze.
As other children saw the dress being handed out, they quietly but persistently and curiously gathered closer to us in hopes of receiving one too.
We handed out candy to waiting hands, as well as dresses and shorts to children whose clothes were either threadbare, or missing altogether.
This little naked boy was so sweet and precious, he grabbed his shorts, showed them to all his friends, and rather than put them on excitedly as the other children had, he continued to walk around, baring it all.
So thankful that these children don't suffer from sunburns... :o)
The negotiations continued as the children continued to warm up to us, but it did not sound very promising. So many lies being told to us, so much deceit, so many tangled webs to untangle.
All the dresses and shorts having been handed out, I stood up in search of the little naked boy, so that I could help him put his new shorts on. It seemed too late, he was already wandering off with his friend -- still unclothed.
A few of the girls stood by, eating the candy we had given them. The girl on the left recognized me from Saturday, and followed me around everywhere. Her skin was flaky and dry, little spots covering her entire body. I wondered what would cause that, and whether or not it caused her any discomfort.
Nearby, in the shade of a home across from where the negotiations were taking place, a few mothers and a group of children had gathered to observe us. They talked excitedly among themselves while tending to their babies and young children. This girl wasn't too sure what to think of us "obruni".
This mother was so gentle spoken with her children, and spent most of her time breastfeeding her little girl while we interacted with her and the children.
This sweet baby did not take kindly to us being there, and proceed to burst into screams and tears each time we approached, which sadly made the mothers burst into laughter. It was bittersweet entertainment. I had hoped that in time, she would grow a little more comfortable with our presence, but short of coming toward me as I extended my water bottle to her, she kept her distance.
Meanwhile, her brother sat quietly nearby, watching everything calmly as it unfolded.
Much to my delight, the little girl reached back as I reached out to her. This time, the tears were mine. See her tiny, beautiful toes?
Her mother graciously allowed me to hold her. Ahhh, bliss... she melted into my arms like butter. Nothing quite like a tiny, precious baby content in our arms. The only thing missing was Tia, she would have loved to have a turn holding baby Leah. I wondered how she and the rescued children were doing back at the boat, waiting for us all this time in the heat.
The negotiations were still under way, but it looked more and more as though we wouldn't be taking Richard with us this time. Lord have mercy on these children...
After what seemed like an eternity and yet just the blink of an eye, the negotiations were over and it was confirmed that they would not yet release Richard to us this time, asking us to come back once more.
We said our goodbyes to the children and mothers we had spent time with.
The little girls, now wearing their dresses, smiled for us as we began to leave.
The boys, no longer sceptical of us, began to pose for the classic silly photos all children love!
The girl we had seen cleaning fish when we had first arrived was still hard at work... such endless work for these children, both girls and boys... such a hard life all around, for everyone here.
This smiley boy was the sweetest, most gentle boy I came across on the island. He tenderly held my hand and smiled at me constantly with not only his smile, but with his eyes, as we walked back toward the boat. I gave him the longest hug.
I got to hold a few more babies as we walked across the last of the group of mud homes.
Back on the boat, Innocence was resting quietly in Tia's arms, while the boat operator waited for us.
Tia has such a comforting mother's touch, all children gravitate to her for comfort, calm, and playfulness too.
Nearby, Patrick watched us quietly, deep in thought.
We stopped by George Sr.'s home on the way to the Village Of Life to introduce the children to him and celebrate their freedom together.
Back at the Village Of Life, we offered the children lunch. Innocence quietly ate two bananas, but barely touched the rest of her food. She was warm to the touch and didn't seem to be feeling well. We suspected she had a fever, her tiny body fighting off something. She was lethargic and unresponsive.
Patrick ate a little more, seeming more and more to come out of his shell. We saw him smile once or twice... a hesitant grin, but one nonetheless.
Although the children were now in the arms of safety, they were not yet out of the woods. Healing would take months, even years. What they'd been through would have to come to the point of peace, and that process would be long and difficult.
Providing for the rescue was one thing, but providing for the children financially for the rest of their childhood was another entirely. Each rescue is a commitment and a responsibility to that child. Children at the Village Of Life are provided for through sponsorship, and all sponsorships are done through the Touch A Life Foundation in the U.S. at a cost of roughly $150 / month.
By the time we were ready to leave the Village of Life mid-afternoon, we felt as though our day had lasted a lifetime. We were emotionally spent, exhausted, but also overwhelmed with gratitude that these two had finally tasted freedom and would now have the opportunity to reach their full potential.
Still, our joy was bittersweet.
We couldn't forget this face.
The celebration, joy and peace won't be complete without his release and that of the other 7000 children like him on Lake Volta... not to mention the 37 million modern day slaves currently in captivity worldwide.
What can you do?
- Prevent slavery by sponsoring a child through Compassion International -- simply click on the Sponsorship Photo in the header of this page.
- Send a donation to Touch A Life Foundation in the U.S.
- Support those ministering to the needs of these children.
- Research the products you buy (chocolate, for example) ensuring that they do not perpetuate the issue of human trafficking. How many slaves are working for you? Find out more by taking the Slavery Footprint Survey today.
- Spread the word. So many people do not realize that slavery is worse today than it's ever been.
- Get involved. Knowing is not enough -- act on what you know. Be the hands and feet of Christ.
Day 1 -- Ticket Revoked?
Night 1 -- Altitude 0m
Day 2 -- The Adventure Continues
Day 3 -- (Pre-Posted) Dear Ato Sam
Day 3 -- Enyan Abaasa (Meeting Ato Sam)
Day 4 -- Precious
Day 4 -- (Pre-Posted) Double The Joy
Day 4 -- George & George (Meeting the twins)
Day 5 -- Back To Accra
Day 5 -- I Like Tacos!
Day 6 -- "Bobble Boobs"
Day 7 -- Breaking Ground
Day 7 -- Life In Kete Krachi
Day 7 -- Beyond The Surface
Day 8 -- Face To Face With Slavery
Day 8 -- Rooster Boy
Day 10 -- Bittersweet Rescue
Day 10 -- Tasting The Joy Of Freedom