Stolen Childhoods: The Girls of Ghana’s Lake Volta

Eighteen-year-old Millicent lives at an orphanage in Kete Krachi, Ghana
Eighteen-year-old Millicent lives at an orphanage and school for formerly trafficked children, in Kete Krachi, near Lake Volta. As a child, she had been forced for years to do such labor as smoking fish captured from the lake. She would ask herself, When will I be rescued from this mess? Now she is free and in school. KAYLA STEWART

KETE KRACHI, Ghana — To smoke a fish here, you need to first remove its skull. Then you insert a sharp knife into its stomach, slowly cutting a clean line across its belly to avoid flooding your hand with guts. Remove the intestines, bile and blood. Smother the fish in salt and place it above a blazing fire. Repeat.

This is what Mamane “Delight” Akorli did nearly 12 hours a day from the ages of 5 to 8, under the eye of “Jacob,” a human trafficker in a village near Lake Voltain Ghana. Jacob had got hold of her this way: He showed up at Delight’s home, in the village of Manoryikpo, and made the inconceivable promise to her family that he would send her to school.

Delight was already excited by her very young dream of becoming a nurse. Instead, she was sold for 250 cedis — about $36, the price of a goat or small cow — and spent three years in Jacob’s home, rising at 4 a.m. and returning home at 6 p.m. to her harsh “master,” as traffickers commonly require children to call them.

“Sometimes, whenever he asked me to do something,” Delight, now 14, said as she shuffled in her seat during a conversation in this town, near the upper lake, “he would just shout at me or beat me.”

I traveled to Ghana to hear from young women who had been trafficked along Lake Volta. Along with countless other girls, Delight waited for the boys — also trafficked — who went out at 5 a.m. and returned with their catch, which Delight sometimes helped to pull in. The fumes the girls inhale while smoking the fish — known to be toxic in an enclosed space — often made her nauseous. Delight not only cleaned and smoked the fish but also sold it in the market. Over three years, she never saw a pesewas, or Ghanaian cent.

Ghana’s presidentNana Akufo-Addo, declared 2019 The Year of Return — a call for the descendants of those who were forcibly enslaved in the Americas to visit their homeland. The same year, as many as 50,000 Ghanaian children — an estimated 30 percent of them young girls — worked in the fishing industry for minimal or no pay under hazardous, if not lethal, conditions, according to the International Justice Mission, a private group that fights violence against the poor.

Governmental institutions have documented this type of child labor but rarely illuminated the experiences of Ghanaian girls — even as trafficking flourishes. 

“We’re seeing growth and it doesn’t get talked about a lot,” said Will Lathrop, county director of the International Justice Mission. Referring to the girls as an overlooked minority, he added, “Many of them end up going into sex trafficking or become house girls.”

Simone Monasebian, who works on child trafficking issues in New York City for the Vienna-based United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, says it is hard to get the world’s attention. “People don’t hold women and children in high regard, and they’re considered disposable,” she told PassBlue.

This problem is monumental in Ghana, a vibrant democracy that has largely avoided the mass famine, ethnic conflict and other violence that have afflicted fellow West African countries like Nigeria, Niger and Mali. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who died in 2018, came from Ghana. 

Western Ghanaian leaders and influencers, like the actor Boris Kodjoe and the businesswoman Bozoma Saint John, encourage West Africans and African-Americans to build connections in Ghana. There’s a tech and tourism boom. New businesses and art and cultural institutions are being developed, alongside older institutions that are being restored, as President Akufo-Addo continues, with some controversy, to support rapid development.

Against the backdrop of modernization, some of Ghana’s darkest inequities are easy to ignore, starting with the seemingly intractable poverty that traps women and girls in a life of cheap labor.

As she prepped okra at Village of Life, an orphanage and school for formerly trafficked children here in Kete Krachi (part of the Partners in Community Development Program), Millicent Fiakedzu, 18, told me her story.

“I was sent to the forest to look for firewood to smoke the fish, and I was thinking, ‘Oh God, when will I be rescued from this mess?’ ” she said of her first tasks, at age 8.

With a radiant if cautious smile, Millicent recounted a yearslong ordeal that included losing a parent, being transferred to an aunt’s home in another village, then being viewed not as a family member but as a commodity.

While her cousins went to school, she was forced to work for a master for several years, smoking fish to the point where her eyes burned. Eventually she was rescued by Village of Life and has spent years recovering at its center. Past wounds remain alive as she strives to build a better future for herself in school.

Many people in Ghana have views of childhood and child labor that are different from other parts of the world. You hear claims in Ghana that fishing by children is a native practice, maybe even an “apprenticeship,” and a child should contribute to the household income, albeit under adult or community supervision.

In Keta, a fishing village and former trading post about 100 miles east of Accra, the capital, this mindset has been the case for centuries. One teenager, Emilia Godega, told me she grew up sorting and smoking fish with her parents from the age of 7. Now 11,  she, like other neighborhood kids, still joins her mother fishing after the school day ends. “I want to help,” she said, “because it allows me to buy books and bags for school.”

The tradition of working alongside one’s family can be a cover for more extreme cases of enslavement. Abena Anobea Asare, acting director of the human trafficking secretariat for Ghana’s Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection, told PassBlue: “People confuse the issue of trafficking with child labor, even though trafficking is sometimes in some aspects of child labor. You need to understand the difference of a child on the move as opposed to a trafficked child.” 

Lake Volta in Kete Krachi, Ghana
Lake Volta in Kete Krachi, a site of human trafficking of boys and girls in Ghana. Many countries throughout the world contend with such serious problems with middling success. In Ghana, a law was passed to end the practice but lax enforcement, among other hindrances, has resulted in few prosecutions. KAYLA STEWART

In 2003, when George Achibra, executive director of Village of Life, began saving children from the Lake Volta region, he found that all of them were suffering physically, mentally or both. Typhoid fever, malaria and schistosome (caused by a parasitic worm) are common among children who have worked on the lake, along with issues like an inability to trust others and to sleep well. According to Achibra, most rescued girls have experienced sexual assault and abuse, sometimes having been forced to serve as young brides for an older master.

“This is not Ghanaian,” Achibra said of the practice. “If we use children this way, their future will get lost.”

Ghana’s Human Trafficking Act, passed in 2005 and amended in 2009, was designed to address these problems. But progress has been stymied by lax enforcement and persistent challenges in educating poorer parents about the risks of trafficking Between 2016 and 2018, 332 human traffickers were investigated, but a mere 53 were prosecuted.

Asare attributed some of the challenges to changes in the traffickers’ methods. While they formerly advertised their practices publicly, they now evade police by using WhatsApp, which “makes it very difficult for law enforcement to track someone.”

In Accra, festivals welcomed one million tourists during the Year of Return last year, a marker of the country’s progress since the slave trade in West Africa ended. Celebrations were held around Jamestown, an area of Accra that housed slave chambers during the beginning of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and is now paradoxically one of the many sites of child trafficking in the country’s fishing industry.

“If you look at the history of slavery, of buying something that’s not yours and treating it like an animal, well [this] sounds a lot like slavery to me,” Lathrop of the International Justice Mission said.

Child trafficking is not specific to Ghana, of course; it is found not only across the developing world but also in prosperous nations. The sexual exploitation industry imprisons children in India; boys and girls are stripped of their childhood in prostitution rings in the Philippines; and child trafficking rings proliferate in Guatemala, Peru and other Latin American countries.

The United States is both a source and transit country, according to Unicef, and Europol, the law enforcement agency, reports that the European Union struggles to address labor and sexual exploitation within its member states.

The UN has several programs aimed at fixing the problem. Its Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking is one of the world’s largest such efforts. The Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) disseminates information through its Human Trafficking Knowledge Portal, an outgrowth of the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. And a four-year collaboration by the European Union, the UNODC, the International Organization for Migration and Unicef yielded a Global Action to Prevent and Address Trafficking in Persons and the Smuggling of Migrants.

These efforts, however ambitious, can seem remote along Lake Volta, where children trapped in poverty remain invisible to more affluent Ghanaians who do not support the myth of a child-labor “tradition.”

“Our innocent are suffering,” Achibra of Village of Life said. “Ghana is more than this, and our children are more than this” — as recovering victims like Delight so often demonstrate.

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Kayla Stewart

Kayla Stewart

Kayla Stewart is a freelance journalist and graduate student in New York University's joint international relations and journalism degree program. She traveled to Ghana during the summer of 2019 as an independent journalist.

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