Today was a really amazing day and the first time that I’ve gotten to do anything remotely “rescue-like” in almost a year!! Getting Faith Roots up and running has been such a priority to me, to all of us here at City of Refuge, that we haven’t had much time or opportunity to do many community entry events, investigations, negotiations, etc for quite some time.
But, as the second Children’s home gets closer and closer to being completed, we have begun to prepare for child rescues…and today was our first day of community entry.
In the past, we have been primarily working lakeside. We see a child who is fishing out on the lake, find the master, and then negotiate with the fishing master for the child’s release. This is a looooong process and in some cases, we are still negotiating for the same children’s release YEARS after our first community entry into certain areas. But, we are all about relationship instead of paying off a slave-owner. We are about development and education. And in no way to we ever offer a bribe or pay off to the fishermen for a child’s release.
But, this time, we wanted to come at it from a different angle. You see, the problem of slavery here in Ghana is two-fold. We talk about it from the angle of “sending communities” and “receiving communities”. The coastal fishing communities are where the Volta fishermen will come down, purchase children, and bring them up with them. The coastal communities are what we call “sending communities” while the Volta fishing communities are what we call “receiving communities”. We realized several years back that while we can do continual work at the lakeside, rescuing endless numbers of children and doing development type projects and education among the people there, unless the problem is stopped at the ROOT…the coastal communities, then the problem will just continue. And out of that idea, 7 Continents was birthed. A single mother’s women empowerment program in coastal fishing communities aimed and empowering and educating women so they can provide for their families and selling their children never becomes an option.
So, this time around, we wanted to try that ROOT approach in even our rescues. Ultimately, the goal of City of Refuge is not necessarily to bring gobs of children here to live with us, it is to reunite children with their families and enable the families to provide an education for their children. So, we headed out to Lalonya and its surrounding communities, where both Abigail and DK were from, and Dora and Mary were rescued from. We have hired Abigail and DK’s uncle, James, to help us during these investigations as he is from that area and was a child slave himself (now he is 29 and just finished senior high school).
We arrived in Lalonya around 11 am this morning and picked up the assembly man (like the mayor of a given area) and went to the first village where we were to do community entry. The journey to Lalonya was such an interesting one for me. I kept thinking about Dora and Mary and their many tears leaving that place last August and what they must have been thinking during that whole time. I think about Abigail and DK—DK so strong that he said he had to check out City of Refuge before agreeing to move in with us. I see so many changes in them, so much good that has come of our guardianship of them, and I see so much promise in what they could do in this country—when they finally have a voice to speak up.
As I looked around at the scenery before me, it was unlike anything I’d seen before. Lalonya is surrounded by salt fields and lagoons. The salt fields are places where ocean water has been pumped in, the sun dries it out and hired workers go out to the fields to harvest the salt into large piles, where they bag it and sell it. Piles of salt were everywhere…some pure white like piles of snow…others covered in the dusty sand of the ocean nearby…and some covered with branches sewn together to prevent it from blowing away. You could see the workers out in the fields…no telling how old they were, but I can guarantee that there are children working in those fields.
The lagoons were just as interesting…a mixture of fresh and salt water, the lagoons are places for small tilapia fish to reside. The lagoons are shallow waters, some only reaching ankle deep, while other places are probably waist high. Groups of children were gathered out in the waters with large metal bowls. They step on the small tilapia fish with their toes and pull them up and put them in the bowls. They stand there forever just marching up and down on these fish and putting them in their bowls. Out of all the people we saw in the lagoons, only ONE was an adult. A fishing trade entirely run by children.
When we arrived in the first village, our community entry begins with meeting with the village chief. There are all sorts of rules that govern meeting with the chief. First of all, you always have to greet in a certain way, which I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do it because it’s a call and response type of greeting in the local language! You also have to be careful not to cross your legs (especially girls), have to only gesture with your right hand (otherwise you are being offensive), need to shake hands from right to left (or is it left to right…I never can remember!).
After that, we discuss what we do and talk to the chief about the laws that govern human trafficking and child labour in this country (it was made illegal in 2005, not that it is actually prosecuted very often, but it is there!). Finally, we find out what the chief knows about the situation in his own community, if anyone had sent their children to the lakeside for payment, and discuss the importance of education for children—that children should have the freedom to BE CHILDREN and not have to do the work of an adult at an early age.
The first chief that we met with was a younger guy. Usually chiefs are quite old, so I was surprised when the chief came to the door. We followed our usual protocol for community entry and when we got talking about if any families send their children away, the chief was adamant that they hadn’t. But, he made sure to let us know that HE himself, sends his own children away to be shepherds (those that wander with the cows) until they are 14 and then he sends them to school. We really got after the chief about that situation. We come to them and talk about the importance of education, and the chief himself sends his own children away to wander around with the cows. They are practically adults by the time he sends them to school, which leads to all kinds of problems (early pregnancies, marriages, etc). In the end, we told the chief that we would not provide help for his family until he showed an attempt at being an example for his community. But, we did discover three children from that community (even after the chief had originally said that no one sends their children away to the lake) that had been sent away (3 girls, ages 3 years to 10 years approx.). We were able to get names and contact information for those children so that we might be able to locate them.
The next village we came to was completely FILLED with children. I mean, FILLED! We saw probably three times more children than we saw adults. And we noticed the lack of a primary school. The whole time I was there, I saw only ONE child in a school uniform, even though government schools were to have started back up today. When we sat down with this chief, he said that the biggest problem that they had in their community was lack of education. It wasn’t that the people sent their children away to the lakeside, but that there was only a nursery and kindergarten school available and even though it was a government school, it was run by the community and the lack of money kept children out of school. And it was true…the kids weren’t attending school! But, it wasn’t because of lack of desire to attend school (as the chief put it), but lack of putting their “money where their mouth is” on the parent’s behalf. So, we discussed future education with the chief, about coming to their community to put together a workshop on the issue of education, and then we gave our well-wishes and left the chief’s house.
As we were walking out of the house, we noticed three young boys who had just brought in a load of fish to a woman who was standing outside of her house shouting at the three boys. Right away, we could tell that these kids were not being treated as normal children (there are all kinds of signs to tell the difference between slave children and a master’s child). We discovered that one boy was living with his grandparents and that he had spent several years on the lake and was just brought back to fish here. He was only about 10 years of age, but had never been to school in his life. We talked with the grandfather and found out that the boy was from his mother’s first marriage. When she remarried and moved down to this village, this boy was used as a slave to help the step-father (a common practice here) so the other children could attend school. We spoke with the step-father and will continue to educate and negotiate with this man for the boy’s release (whether this means that we will help get the boy to school or take him to be here with us, it is yet to be seen).
After talking with that man, we immediately saw this young girl, probably 8 or 9 years of age, cutting fish at a nearby house. We had seen her earlier with her bucket of fish and went to talk with her mother. Apparently, she works for a neighbor man collecting fish, is the second-born of her mother, doesn’t attend school, and the mother doesn’t really care much that she doesn’t attend. She is also from a previous marriage, so the new father probably doesn’t see it as important either. We spoke with the mother and will continue to education and negotiate with her for the girl’s release (whether this means that we will help the girl get to school or take her to be here with us, it is yet to be seen).
And finally, we ran into three little boys on our way out of the village who looked very mistreated (distended bellies, peeling skin from the salt, etc). We went and met with the grandfather who said that he was sending them to school (which might have been partly true, but you could tell that they fished with the majority of their time). The grandfather was very frustrated with our line of questioning and eventually, we ended up leaving, but we did get the children’s names and we’ll be back to check up on the boys and make sure that the grandparents have them in school and not solely out in the ocean fishing.
The next village we went to was Lalonya proper. It is a larger village and I suppose the “capital” of that area. We went and met with the chief who knew about the issues of child trafficking and labor and quickly agreed that something needed to be done with it. He was a very wise and well-spoken man, so we were excited to be working with such an open and honest chief. We set up a time next week to return to meet with the families of that village. We will do an education event and discuss what the issue of child trafficking is, the laws that govern this issue in the country, and ways that they can be supported to do the best for their children. This will also give us room to identify the neediest families (perhaps grandparents with orphaned children who have sent them away) and see what we can do to bring them here with us and give them a better chance at a brighter future.
The same thing happened in the next village, Goi. We wanted to visit the chief there because we’d heard that the grandmother of the first children that we had talked about in our first village that morning, was in Goi. She knew where she had them taken, so we wanted to check in with her and see what we could do to bring the children back. We also heard news of an infant who was delivered several weeks ago by a young mentally handicapped girl in the community. The baby, a boy I think, was left at the hospital as the young girl wasn’t able to breastfeed. They’re unsure of what will happen next for the baby and aren’t sure if the next of kin are able to care for him. Finally, we discussed a community education event and we will conduct one in this village next week as well.
All in all, the community entry was very successful. We were able to identify about 8 children that have the possibility of being rescued (and either returned to parents or brought to live with us) and the possibility of actually dozens more.
So, it’s begun! The floodgates have been opened and we’re ready to bring them in. Let’s see if we can get this house finished and house parents found because I have a feeling, these kids are going to be brought in FAST!
One more side-note that has absolutely NOTHING to do with anything in this post...usually on trips like this, I have been known to dehydrate myself so that I won't have to pee somewhere really random. Well, I didn't do that this time...and both Stacy and myself had to find some pretty random places to pee. Stacy had some kids lead her out into the bush and I had one of those three walled "bathrooms" found in most villages, expect the bathroom wall only camp up to my waist. Good thing Stacy kept them occupied! Go squatty potty!