Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Ghana: Day 8 -- Face To Face With Slavery

It wasn’t that our body clock hadn’t yet adjusted.  

No – it was midnight in Atlantic Canada and merely 4am here in Ghana, but either way, I should have been fast asleep.  Instead, I found myself prayerfully anticipating what was to come.  In a few hours, we’d be heading out to the Lake Volta islands to see first hand the human cost of desperate poverty and child trafficking.

Even though it is early morning, the shore is already bustling with activity.  Mothers gathering to wash clothes or bathe their children, merchants setting up for the day's work, and boats loading up with people and goods.  

Every morning, this woman and her child can be seen doing 
laundry and bathingon the shore of Kete Krachi.

Our boat arriving to take us to the islands.

At the shore, we were joined by our PACODEP team, as well as a German woman and man who were posted in Ghana for the year as assistant teachers.  We boarded the boat in the early Saturday morning hours, the sun rising on our backs as the coastline faded behind us.

It is a difficult feeling to describe.  We’re here to see this situation with our own eyes, a situation we know exists...  but even though we’re here to report the truth of what is happening, we want nothing more than to find no evidence, nothing to see...  We want to come out onto the water and see no more boats with exploited children, no more haunted eyes staring back at us as we speak with their slave masters, no more children suffering unspeakable horrors.  We want to hear no more news of dead children floating in the waters of Lake Volta, unidentified, unclaimed, unspoken for. 

Seeing it won’t make it any more real than turning our eyes away will make this problem disappear.  

We’re here because we stand behind His command to seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly.  We’re here because He loves, and this is how we express His love to these children.

The first boat sighting turned out well – a local pastor with a group of people.  We loved watching George Jr. Interact with ease, relationships having long been established with many of the people regularly on the lake. 

It wasn’t long before a second boat was sighted, and without words, we knew.  

These two children are trafficked into slavery.  

There were two boys in the boat, one in his late teens, one much younger, along with a man we knew was the slave master of both these boys.  

Both boys were trafficked children, forced into slavery on Lake Volta, but the oldest one had been forced to become a team leader, which meant that not only was he a slave, but he was also acting on behalf of the slave master and forcing this younger child into slavery as well.  Psychological brutality at its worst.  Should the boy not comply, he wouldn’t be beaten by the slave master, but instead by this team leader, a fellow child slave and friend.  All under the humiliating watch of the official slave master.

George Jr.  Eased into discussions with the slave master and team leader, but the younger boy would not speak.  

We reached to him alongside their boat, holding his hand and looking into his despondent eyes.  To know that this young boy, likely not older than 11 or 12, had spent several years in these conditions, was heart shattering.   To know that he was one of thousands on Lake Volta, and millions worldwide – there are no words...  No words.

We had known from our research that there are currently more slaves in the world than there has ever been, a number reaching past a staggering 37 million, at least half of which are vulnerable children like this boy.  We’re not even talking about child labor, which is another atrocity in and of itself, but actual slavery. 





It’s one thing to see and hear cold and impersonal statistics, but when you come face to face with a precious child who is one in 37 million, it becomes excruciatingly painful.  Especially when there is little we could do for these two boys but gather information, explain that we were working on their behalf, and continue to build relationship so that as soon the opportunity came, one or both could be rescued. 

It’s not as simple as plucking them both out of their boat and bringing them to safety on the mainland – doing so would jeopardize the negotiations and rescue of thousands more children on the island. 

Patience and grace must reign. 
 One cannot be saved at the cost of thousands. 

The process of negotiating and releasing children into freedom’s awaiting arms must be done in a holistic, systemic way that effectively combats slavery and poverty permanently without putting the children in danger.   The single most comprehensive process for this is what is currently being done by the Touch A Life & PACODEP team.  We trusted in their vision and success of teaching and assisting the slave masters in order to build trust and community, and helping the slave master communities to break their cycle of poverty so that in turn, they will not depend on the children for survival.  Through these efforts, little by little, we have seen their hearts change against this barbaric practice, one by one.

If seeing those three boys wasn’t difficult enough, the next boat proved harder still.  

We were not able to obtain the name or age of this boy, but the terror on his face as we spoke to his slave master said it all.

It wasn't until the look passed that I felt comfortable raising the camera to photograph him. I wondered what he was thinking in this moment...  Was he asking himself silently if we knew his reality?  Was he asking himself why we were here and why there was such a contrast between our demeanour and what he had been told about us?

Many of these children have been lied to, saying that PACODEP is going to take them away and not feed them, that they are going to arrest the children or worse, and that they shouldn’t be trusted.  They have also been warned in no uncertain terms that cooperating with anyone with PACODEP will bring severe punishment onto the children. 

I saw myself in this child’s eyes, I knew the look on his face all too intimately.  The situation may have been different, but the manipulation, the control, the psychological warfare, the damage, the terror... all strikingly similar.

We gave the boy some candy and spoke softly to him, holding his hand, looking into his terrified eyes with love and compassion, praying that he would sense enough of this love and compassion to be comforted and feel hope that we would be his voice and advocate on his behalf.  We prayed for his protection as our boat pulled away, leaving him behind as our hearts broke once again.

Even three was too many – and to think there are millions more?

Each boat encounter became harder... each a personal account of unthinkable suffering. 

The next boat had one trafficked child who was quickly told to throw clothes on as they saw us steer in the direction of their boat.  This was done in an attempt to hide the child’s overdeveloped muscles, but nothing could hide the expression we had come to know so quickly. 

The next boat, two more young boys.  We were able to interact more with the slave master this time, perhaps the fruit of earlier relationship building.  We learned the boys’ names and approximate ages, and were able to spend a little more time with them. 

It was difficult to see one of the boys with his back to us in a despondent social response to our presence.  

When we first gave him candy, he tossed it aside, but as we opened some for him and placed individual pieces in his hand, realization reached his face that this was something for him, and that he’d be given brief permission to stop working as we spoke to his slave master.

Boat after boat... many fleeing away from us as they realized they’d been spotted, knowing all too well that child trafficking is illegal, and yet taking part in it so brazenly...  it was hard to digest.

And yet, we continued toward the islands.

George Achibra, Jr.

Prince Achibra (left).

Joshua, my 13 year old son. 

One boat in particular raced us to the shore of an island, and we watched, stunned, as children scampered from the boat and fled into the woods to hide.  They’d obviously been told lies about us, and it was heart wrenching to know that our presence elicited such fear in these young children. 

We pulled up to the shore and disembarked where the children had scattered moments earlier. 

Slave masters worked nearby, out in the open.  It was a reminder that although they are a part of the situation, they are people too and need help to break this inhumane treatment of children.  It's possible that they, too, were trafficked children back in their youth, never having received an education, and therefore never having had the opportunities and abilities to rise above the extreme poverty.  If we don't reach out to them with compassion, who will?  

In many ways, the slave masters, too, are victims of poverty.  It's not enough to rescue the children if we don't also take the time to minister to the needs of the slave masters.  That's part of our team's successful approach.  Without this holistic process, the cycle of slavery and poverty will continue.  

More importantly, though, our Master, Jesus, taught us to love these people as He would have.  It'd be harder not to love them than it would be to turn our hearts from them.

One little girl had been on shore when we arrived, and stayed even as we approached.  She was only wearing a pair of tattered underwear, so we looked through the bag of pillowcase dresses we had been given by our friend Gina, and gave her a blue one of her own.  Her face lit up and she stood a little straighter as she wore it.  It put a smile to our face after the emotions of the past few hours. 

We proceeded to follow the trail leading from the shore and into the island villages. 

The poverty is unlike anything we see in America, where even the poorest of the poor are amongst the world’s richest. 

Words would not do it justice...  and while perhaps these photos help, unfortunately the beauty of them distracts from the reality -- something that is hard for me to accept as a photographer given the opportunity to offer a view into the lives of these people...  I don't know that I can give it justice, through words, or through photos.

Attached parenting at its best :o)

As George Jr. and his team negotiated and networked with the locals, we ministered to the needs of the children in each village, handing out shorts and dresses, speaking life into the children, and praying blessings over their lives.

This boy also received new shorts.

One boy in particular, a child slave, was dressed in threadbare and dirty yellow shorts that had more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese.   I couldn't shake the sense that in giving him a pair of new shorts, I should ask him to provide me his old pair, so that we could have tangible proof of what we’d seen for those back home who had supported our efforts to not only build the school, but to also provide clothing for these children.  The slave master’s family laughed at the sight of us taking back an old pair of shorts, but we weren't laughing – we understood the impact this would have back home.  Knowing that the yellow shorts had been his only clothing, I provided him with a second pair of new shorts so that he would at least have a change of clothes.

More dresses were given, more needs met, more children loved as we walked from one group of homes to another.  

The boy with the yellow shorts.

We had given this little girl a pair of shorts as we did not have all of our dresses 
with us on this outing, but she loved the shorts and proceeded to wear them 
and stick her hands into them :o) 

Had I not known the name of this island, I would have thought it to be “Land of a million dragonflies” – they were everywhere along our paths, playfully greeting us as we walked.

We came to the group of homes where the children who had run from us lived, and we found one child in particular, Richard*, to be in rough shape.  Compared to other trafficked children sitting with him, his eyes were downcast and vacant, his skin dry, his countenance unsettling.  As we managed to get some of the nearby child slaves to interact and laugh with us, he sat quietly, unresponsive. 

Nearby, toddlers watched us quietly.  We wondered if they’d suffer the same fate as the older boys, and it was too much to bear.

Did Jesus not warn the world against bringing harm to children?  Did He not express His passion and love for children and command us to follow His example?  

What will it take to awaken us out of our slumber?  Is it that we feel it’s already too late, or that we are incapable of overcoming evil? Accepting such lies will only perpetuate the darkness.

Negotiations continued for Richard, but the harvest would not be ours today.  They advised for us to come back Monday, and that Monday, they would release him to us.  We knew this was common, and that their word couldn’t be trusted.  We would return Monday, but there would be no guarantees that Richard would be released or even still be alive. 

Our team reached an inlet where a boat was aground and two young children worked to untangle nets in the scorching sun. 

At first glance, it appeared to be two boys, but the youngest of the two turned out to be a young girl, much to our surprise.  We will name them Patrick* & Innocence*.


The work of their hands did not pause, even as the negotiations distracted their slave master.  These young children had been worked to the bone and had little other choice but to continue at the same relentless pace.

To our surprise, the slave master also reluctantly agreed to release these two children to us the following Monday.  Sceptical by experience, but hopeful just the same, we shook hands, thanked them for their time, and began to trek our way back to the opposite side of the island where our boat was awaiting us.

The young girl who had been working the nets walked in front of us in the direction of her home, where we prayed she would be allowed to rest for a few hours in the comfort of the shade.

It was unusual to see a girl working in the fishing industry, as they are typically strictly used as domestic slaves, forced to care for the slave masters' homes, and, as they get older, many are forced into sex slavery.

Innocence*, led away by her slave master.

As she paused by the front door of the masters’ house, I motioned to my camera, asking her permission to take her photo.  

She neither nodded nor shook her head, with complete indifference showing in her eyes.  

I took a photo, lowered the camera to show her, called her by name as I took her hand and held it, speaking softly to her. 

I touched the side of her face lovingly and asked God to protect her until we could return for her on Monday, and interceded to God on her behalf, that her rescue would be made possible and that her slave master’s heart would be softened to justice and mercy not only for her sake, but for the sake of all children vulnerable to child trafficking.

All too soon, we found ourselves back at the boat, empty handed, but with steadfast hope that Monday’s return would bear fruit. 

If there was ever an opportunity for patience and gentleness, diplomacy and respect, mercy and grace, kindness, love and compassion...  such opportunities in this delicate process are certainly beyond abundant.

 *Names changed to protect the identity of trafficked children.


Other Updates:
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