INTERVIEW: Former African child slave calls for end to global scourge

by Emma Batha | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 19 November 2014 06:00 GMT

Anti-slavery campaigner James Kofi Annan is pictured at a school run by his charity Challenging Heights, which helps former child slaves. Photo taken by Anne L Geissinger on Feb. 3, 2014.

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Enslaved at age six, James Kofi Annan escaped seven years later, immersed himself in education and now rescues child slaves

LONDON, Nov 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - At six years old James Kofi Annan was sold into slavery. For seven years he risked his life diving into the murky waters of Ghana's vast Lake Volta to untangle fishing nets.

Today Annan runs a charity which is credited with rescuing more than 1,200 children from slavery and preventing thousands more being sold into Ghana's fishing industry.

"Half the time we face violence from the fishermen because of course by taking the children away we are destroying their business," Annan said. "I've received a lot of death threats. But they won't stop me doing the work I'm doing."

Although child labour is illegal in Ghana, thousands of children are sent away by parents who believe traffickers' promises of an education and good living. In reality, their children end up working in such horrendous conditions that many die.

One of the biggest man-made lakes in the world, Lake Volta was created by flooding a huge tract of land. Aside from routine fishing chores, boys are used to dive down and untangle nets which often get caught in the many submerged trees.

"It was extremely dangerous," Annan said. "Many, many children die doing this work. It is the number two cause of death for boys on the lake after illnesses like malaria.

"The fishermen buy the child for about $20, they buy the net for about $200. If the child dies, then fine - you can easily replace children, unlike the net.

"The day I was taken away there were six of us. Three of us survived. The other three drowned."

Annan worked from 3am to 8pm with meagre food and regular punishments. "There was physical torture every time I made a mistake - beating, slapping, kicking. I was always trying to run away," said Annan, speaking ahead of the Trust Women conference in London which on Wednesday will focus on tackling slavery.

Once when he tried to escape they pulled a rope tight around his neck as a warning to other children. On another occasion, he saw a boy beaten to death with a paddle.

The International Labour Organization estimates 21,000 children are forced into slavery on the 400-km (250-mile) long lake.

They are among an estimated 193,100 Ghanaians trapped in modern slavery, making the country the 21st worst in the 2014 Global Slavery Index released on Monday.

RESCUE

Annan, now 40, grew up the youngest of 12 children. His parents, uneducated and poor, were easy prey for the traffickers when they visited his home near the coastal town of Winneba.

"The traffickers come and promise the parents that they will take care of the children, that they will send them to school and give them an apprenticeship so they can have a better life."

The men are finely dressed and accompanied by well turned out children who are paraded in front of the families.

"They say, 'Your children could be like this too'. This excites the community and makes them believe these people are coming from places where there is happiness and food."

Annan finally escaped at the age of 13 and buried himself in education. Although illiterate when he started school, he quickly caught up, went to university and ended up as a manager for Barclays Bank in Ghana.

But he remained haunted by the thought of the thousands of children working on the lake. In 2003 he set up Challenging Heights, a charity which rescues child slaves and runs community programmes to prevent trafficking.

Annan has raised the issue of Ghana's child slaves with the Vatican and Anglican Church whose leaders have launched the Global Freedom Network - a movement to end modern slavery by 2020.

Many rescued children are in poor physical and mental health, Annan said. "There are issues of trauma, malnutrition, disease and behavioural issues. You can get very aggressive behaviour and others are very withdrawn. They don't trust anyone or want to talk about their situation."

The charity rehabilitates the children, giving them medical and psychological help, before reintegrating them into their communities and sending them to school.

"The slavery system thrives on vulnerability and ignorance. For me, addressing education is number one, and empowerment of women is number two because you need to empower women to support their children in school."

The charity teaches women how to run small businesses and helps them secure funding. But there is one condition: their children must stay in school.

(Reporting by Emma Batha, Editing by Ros Russell)

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