Archives For Rescue and Recovery

Visiting home for the first time after being rescued from modern slavery on Lake Volta.

It’s a relatively routine morning in Joma, a small town along the coast of Ghana. Women are walking the streets, selling produce carefully balanced on their heads. Children are in school, sitting with their attention turned to their teachers. At one house, young children play near their homes while their parents tend to chores, like braiding hair and cooking for the mid-day meal. In the middle of this routine, the Challenging Heights bus pulls up and four boys file out. This is their home, one they haven’t seen in years.

At Challenging Heights, we know that we provide high-quality care to the children who have been rescued from modern slavery at the Challenging Heights Hovde House. We also know that there is always room for improvement, which is why we’re taking a close look at our reintegration practices, comparing them to the Guidelines on Children’s Reintegration from Family for Every Child and seeing how we can best incorporate their recommendations into our practices.

One thing that we recognised that we could be doing was to better prepare the children for their transition back home. Many of them have been gone for several years. Some of their families have moved while they were working on Lake Volta. In order to give them a better idea of what they can expect at home, such as who will be there, how far away school will be and what their future will hold, we did our first ever supervised home visits for children who will be reintegrated in a few months.

Children having a meal with their family members on a supervised visit home.

There were joyful hugs from siblings of all ages. There was exploring houses to see where they might sleep. There were walks around the neighbourhood to figure out where the best place to buy biscuits is.

And in Joma, the boys embraced their grandmother, sat down all together with their siblings and their aunts and had a meal together for the first time in a long time.

After we conduct a rescue and the children are brought to the Challenging Heights Hovde House rehabilitation shelter, they are interviewed about their experiences while working on Lake Volta. Nearly all of them report having been physically and verbally abused, with many of them bearing scars on their bodies as testaments to the beatings they endured. Indeed, corporal punishment at home and in schools is widespread throughout Ghana.

Because of these experiences and the behaviour modelled to them, the children often come to us having learned a number of anti-social behaviours. Fighting, insulting others, quarrelling and general disrespect are how many of the boys and girls have learned how to interact with each other and with adults. We know that these experiences are a part of the greater trauma that the children experienced, and that in order to help assist and facilitate their healing, we must not repeat this treatment of them. Additionally, through our modelling, we’re able to help them to learn acceptable and appropriate behaviours.

At the shelter, the shelter team observes the children and completes a weekly behaviour chart. Good behaviours, such as doing their chores, maintaining self-control when experiencing conflict with others, following instructions, helping others and behaving well in class receive points. Negative behaviours, like lying, cursing and insulting, teasing, fighting, damaging property or stealing all result in deducted points. The total possible number of points each week is 20, and if the child receives 15 points or more, they receive an award at the weekly award ceremony.

In the exit interviews of children who are ready for reintegration, nearly all of them comment that one of the most important things they learned in their time at the shelter was how to behave well. Many of them remark that when the arrived, they used to insult others and not listen to adults, that they had a quick temper and would fight easily. Receiving the weekly awards is a highlight for many of the children in the shelter, and their growth in their time here is a testament not only to the staff at the shelter, but to the anti-corporal punishment policy in place.

The majority of the children working on Lake Volta are 10 years old or younger, and this is reflected in the demographics of the children we rescue and rehabilitate at our shelter. However, there are a number of children who are teenagers, who were trafficked at a very young age and have never been to school. While they are at the Challenging Heights Hovde House, they are enrolled in school to gain basic literacy and numeracy skills, however it is often a struggle for them to catch up academically. This is why the older children, upon reintegration, are given the option to choose an apprenticeship rather than enrolling in school.

There are a variety of trades and jobs in Ghana that are taught by a master to an apprentice, but the two most common that our children choose are mechanic and tailor. We’re very luck to have strong relationships with an excellent master mechanic and master tailor. These men are extremely understanding of the lives these children have led and the difficulties they face in returning to their communities; they have each taken on a number of our reintegrated children as apprentices and under their tutelage, the children have excelled.

Kwame works on the engine of a taxi at his apprenticeship.

Our reintegration officers spent this week paying the fees for the apprentices and providing the necessary supplies and materials. The taxi was loaded up with sewing machines, thread, needles, scissors and tool sets to ensure that the boys and girls are prepared to put their best foot forward in their new learning environments.

We also checked in with the masters to find out how the children were performing, and they only had good things to report about their progress. We’re looking forward to the days where we can get our cars repaired and clothes made by these young people, and knowing that we are contributing to their continued success.

Three years ago Kofi*, then 13, had completed his time at the Challenging Heights Hovde House. He was ready to go home and continue on his path to recovery with his mom and dad in Winneba. Now at 16, Kofi has excelled in school and is nearly at the top of his class.

Kofi had previously been forced to work as a fisherboy on Lake Volta and had never attended school. After spending time in our rehabilitation shelter, our teachers determined he was able to enter into primary class three (P.3). “When I first arrived at the shelter, I felt like maybe my opportunities were limited because the school was so small. I didn’t know that they were preparing me. When I came to the mainstream school, I saw my opportunities open up, especially since I like a bit of competition with the other students,” Kofi said.

He started schooling in P.3 at Challenging Heights School (now Friends International Academy). After the first exam, his teacher and the headmaster looked at his scores and promoted him to P.4. During this time, Challenging Heights was helping to support his mother with livelihoods support and provided him with school supplies which decreased the financial burden on his parents as they gained better financial footing.

The next school year, Kofi transferred schools. The teachers gave him the placement test for P.5, the class he was supposed to enter, and he passed with flying colours. So, they gave him the next test for P.6, which he again passed with ease. It was decided that Kofi would start the school year in Junior High School form 1 (JHS1).

While mathematics is where Kofi excels, his favourite subject is social studies. He really enjoys learning about current affairsand like using his own opinion to answer questions. This past year was particularly special for his social studies class as they followed Ghana’s election. One area that he struggles in is Fante class, partly because his native language is Effutu. However, he doesn’t let his struggles hold him back. He has worked with his Fante teacher to develop some strategies to improve, such as focusing on the phonetics of the words rather than just the spelling, which sometimes are different. With all of this, at the end of JHS1, he was 3rd in his class out of 62 students.

At home, Kofi is happy and comfortable. Most days he helps his aunt sell things in her shop, but he can also be found playing with his siblings and neighbourhood friends. However, he enjoys doing his homework the most.

“My vision in life is to succeed,” Kofi said. “I want to prove to the world that kids who were on the Lake [Volta] can succeed if given the opportunity.”

Kofi’s plans for the future involve passing his BECE at the end of JHS3 and continuing onto Senior High School (SHS). He hopes to get a scholarship so that he can go onto university, where he plans to study medicine and become a doctor. If medical school doesn’t work out, Kofi has a back-up plan: he’ll continue to university and then enter the police force.

When he was working on Lake Volta, Kofi didn’t have any idea of what the future might be, other than fishing. Now, he sees his future as very bright. “I want everyone to know that through Challenging Heights, children can succeed and that there are other children out there that need help.”

Last month, Challenging Heights and their partner Mercy Project reintegrated 30 children with their families after they completed the recovery care programme at the Challenging Heights Hovde House.

The children spent an average of six months at the rehabilitation shelter, where they received therapy, counselling, basic literacy and numeracy education, health care and nutritional care. A number of the children came to the shelter with health problems ranging from bilharzia to wounds from being beaten to malnutrition. With support from the local hospital, all of the children were in excellent health and enrolled in the National Health Insurance Scheme on reintegration day.

Nearly all of the children had spent multiple years on Lake Volta, where they were forced to cast and drag large fishing nets, dive to untangle them, scoop water from the boats and perform domestic chores. For many, their days lasted nearly 18 hours, every day of the week and they survived on a single meal for the day, often just enough to get by. All of them experienced some kind of abuse, typically verbal abuse and often physical abuse.

Prior to reintegration day, our reintegration team spent months tracing the families of the children and preparing them for when the children would return home. The week before reintegration, our recovery team met with the caregivers to share with them information about how children experience trauma and how it can affect family ties. They also talked about financial planning strategies to save money for the future. All the the caregivers were asked what kind of livelihoods support they would like to receive in the form of in-kind goods to sell and our team got to work to procure the goods for them.

On reintegration day, our bus was loaded up with the children who would be returning to Winneba and the surrounding communities and their belongings. We set out and made our rounds to each of the children’s homes where they were greeted by their families with smiles, hugs, handshakes and shouts of joy.

In the coming weeks, our reintegration team will be back at the children’s houses, helping to enrol them in school and apprenticeships and providing them with the necessary materials for them to be successful. We’ll also follow up to provide advice and support in the coming years to make the transition as smooth as we can.

We’re excited to watch as these young people grow and and succeed in their new, free lives.

IMG_7168There was a buzz in the air all week. Classes had been closed for a few days and the children had set about to learn a new choreography. Ribbons were wrapped around the pillars that support the roof and tinsel and garlands were hung around the doors and windows. Christmas had arrived at the shelter.

Christmas Eve was passed with a church service. The children listened to the story of Christmas and stories from the Bible, sharing the spirit of the season with one another. Many of the children could relate to the relief that Mary and Joseph felt at being taken in. When the church service closed at 1 a.m. the staff and older children set off fireworks and passed around sparklers for the younger children to enjoy as well.

The next morning, everyone got to sleep in a bit. Once everyone was stirring, it was time to begin the day’s activities and celebration. It wouldn’t be a holiday and celebration in Ghana without food, and everyone feasted. Everyone pitched in to clean the house and courtyard for the afternoon’s programme to begin.

IMG_7163Some of the children, who had prepared the choreography, performed their dance for their friends and the staff. Carols were sung by everyone and it was truly a party atmosphere. Finally gifts were given to all of the children. The boys and girls were given Santa hat, watches and sunglasses, which they all wore with pride and joy for the rest of the day.

For many of the children, this was their first of many Christmases to come spend in freedom, and that is something to celebrate this season.

IMG_6341There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but the soft haze of Harmattan had settled above the waters of Lake Volta. Water levels were higher than they were the last time our rescue team visited in June, covering some of the tree stumps and making navigating the water a bit more dangerous. With the list of children who he had collected background information on tucked safely in his breast pocket, Stephen Adoo, the Rescue and Community Engagement Manager instructed the team to set out for a village an hour’s boat ride away.

The navigator of the boat expertly directed us to a village, using only his memory and 30 years knowledge of the lake. Upon our landing, we made our way to the chief of the village, to introduce ourselves, explain our mission and request for his assistance. His wife sympathised with our mission, saying that sometimes even she felt bad for the children who were forced to fish and endure abuse. The chief called the master of the two boys who were on our list.

The master came and our negotiations began; we explained that the parents and families of the boys had called for the boys return and asked for our assistance and that he needed to turn over the boys to us, and that if he didn’t we would return with the police. After some negotiating, he turn the boys over to our rescue team and they set off for the next village to find the next boy on the list, for the process to repeat.

_DSC1450 (2)The rescue team spent a total of 10 days on Lake Volta, traversing the lake and searching for the children who they had gathered information on. With the assistance of the Ghana Navy, they were able to rescue 18 children. These children arrived at the shelter just in time for the Christmas celebration. The rescue team handed them off to the skilled and capable shelter staff and the reintegration team began the process of tracing and preparing the families for the children’s ultimate reintegration.

Kwame works on the engine of a taxi at his apprenticeship.

Kwame works on the engine of a taxi at his apprenticeship.

Kwame props the hood of the taxi up and bends at the waist to reach into the engine. He fiddles with the wrench loosening parts to get to the thing that is causing the problems. A fellow apprentice works alongside him, helping him and asking questions that Kwesi is able to easily answer. In the year and a half since being reintegrated, Kwesi has risen from his start as an apprentice to being the second chief apprentice at this mechanic’s shop. He’s learning a lot of skills and how to diagnose a multitude of problems on all of the taxis that are regularly brought here to be serviced, and he hopes to one day own his own mechanic shop.

It was two years ago that Kwame was rescued by Challenging Heights. At 15 he had been working on Lake Volta for nine years already, casting and dragging nets, diving to untangle them when they got caught in the tree stumps and even selling the fish from 4 am to 10 pm everyday. His uncle had told his mother that he would put Kwame in school, which seemed like the best option at the time. She was struggling to provide for her nine children. It wasn’t until Kwame arrived at Lake Volta that he realised he wasn’t going to be going to school.

He found some solace when his brother and cousin joined him on the Lake, but was not happy that they too would have to endure the brutal treatment he was experiencing. However, it was the stories of his cousin nearly drowning that made their way back to his aunt that prompted his mother to come to Challenging Heights for help. We were able to rescue Kwame and his family members, after which they were brought to the Hovde House shelter for our recovery programme.

After successfully completing the programme, we reintegrated Kwame with his mother, a traditional medicine maker, and his father, a fisherman, in Winneba. Kwame was enrolled in the mechanic apprenticeship, where he has excelled. We know that he will be able to achieve his dreams of opening his own shop in the near future.

Years as a domestic servant for fishermen on Lake Volta, Ruth knew cooking and washing. She would take boat trips into Yeji from her small village each Sunday to buy foodstuff for the week. Her master, who was also her grandmother, verbally abused her constantly, and she expected insults from the least provocation. She knew she wasn’t happy, but had nowhere else to go.

While she enrolled in nursery school as a small girl, Ruth’s grandmother asked her mother to take her to Lake Volta, and her mother agreed. She was never afforded formal education.

ruth-6Her life is so different now from when she worked on the lake. Ruth says she now knows what life is. Now that she can learn a trade, she sees what she can become in the future.

In a dream, Ruth says she saw herself sewing. Since then, she wanted to be a seamstress, but she never anticipated that she could until she visited apprenticeship opportunities with the Challenging Heights Hovde House and she began her own within a month of being reintegrated with her family in Winneba. She’s already worked on many pieces and sewn one for herself.

“I’m very happy in everything that I do, especially ironing for my master, and when my master asks me to sew some part of the dress,” Ruth beams. She’s excited to try new skills and hopes to master them so that she can one day open her own seamstress shop and employ children like herself, who had no hope in the future. She wants to give opportunities to those who may have had difficult backgrounds, too.

Thankful to Challenging Heights, Ruth says she won’t let us down. She wants to let the whole world know that children who find themselves on the lake have so much potential, so “there is no need for them to rot on the lake forever.” She hopes Challenging Heights continues receiving support so others like her can be rescued, live with their families, and have a bright future of their own.

Upon entering the gates to the Challenging Heights Hovde House, you could tell that today was not a normal day. It was class time, but the children, most in their yellow and blue checked uniforms were not learning. They were huddled in small groups around the courtyard, milling about with their peers and vying for the attention of Stephen, one of the house fathers, and his camera. Then it becomes apparent that 17 of the children are not in their uniforms; they are donning their newly issued Challenging Heights t-shirts. When the bus pulls into the courtyard, the dull, underlying emotional tension of the day ratchets up because today is the day that those 17 children are being reintegrated with their family members.

Bernice, one of the social workers, calls the children over to collect the pieces they made during their time in art therapy. They scurry into the meeting room to stuff their artwork and new sandals into their bags, already packed with their clothes and toiletries. Throughout all of this activity and final preparations, their friends drape their arms across their shoulders and pull them close, shouting, “Sir! Sir!” for Stephen to take their picture together. Their faces are mostly adorned with smiles and excitement, after all many of them haven’t seen their family in years, but there are of course tears. Friends sad to be apart, children whose families aren’t quite ready for them to come home and concern about friends and siblings still on Lake Volta are the emotions that come bubbling to the surface and stream down their cheeks. Our shelter staff is prepared for this emotional day and makes sure to reassure those who are having a particularly hard time and check in with each of the kids who are still going through the rehabilitation process.

Once all of the final checks are made that everyone has all of their belongings, the kids are shepherded onto the bus. They press their faces against the windows and align their hands with their friends’, who are stretched up on the outside. The engine roars to life and the door to the bus squeaks shut. The kids remaining at the shelter step back, still with their arms stretched up, waving and shouting their good-byes as the bus backs out of the courtyard and on down the dirt road.

Our reintegration team has spent months preparing for this week. They began by tracing the children’s families, where they live, who they are, who is still living and who would be willing to care for the children once they completed their time at the shelter. Most of the parents did not know the fate of the children when they sent them to live with a distant relative; they were told and believed that their child was going to living in a nice home and enrolled in school. In those cases, we sensitise them to the realities of trafficking and the situation of many children on Lake Volta. We ask them about their income and livelihoods and provide support through our livelihoods programmes. Some parents did know the situation they were sending their children to, and in those cases, we find extended family members for the children to return to, such as an aunt and uncle or grandmother, who was also provide livelihoods support to. Based on the family assessment and an assessment of the child, we classify each case according to risk, which then determines the intensity and frequency of our monitoring visits.

The bus makes its way around the communities, sometimes driving far off the paved road, deep into the residential communities to the children’s homes, the reintegration team pointing out directions and turns and helping to navigate the terrain. As the bus pulls up, the activity at the house slows and eventually comes to a stop. The team steps off the bus, with the child following behind and the family members’ faces break into smiles. Siblings come running and sweep their brother or sister up into a warm embrace. The staffs gather the primary caregivers and explain that the children must attend school or their apprenticeship, that we will provide support for their education for the next two years, that our livelihoods programme is available for them and that if the child is re-trafficked, we will arrest them. Once everything is explained, understood and agreed to, the forms that give legal custody to the caregivers are signed and the team waves good-bye with promises to return in the next couple weeks to assist with school registration, while the family takes the child and their belongings home.

The bus then heads off to the next home, until all the children have been reunited and night falls. The major work of the transition is still to come, through our years of monitoring, but the smiles of satisfaction on the staffs’ faces is an indication of the success of the day.