Archives For Rescue and Recovery

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.

Rose Attah Profile 01Rose Attah sat among the small group of women gathered in the meeting hall, surrounded by large bags filled with charcoal, cassava, salt and maize. She had a slight smile on her face as Alfred Mensah, Challenging Heights’ Reintegration Officer, explained the terms of the contract each of the women would be entering. She already knew the benefits that she would reap from this programme because she had participated before.

Rose thought she was sending two of her children to live with a family member who would enrol them in school, fed, clothe and take care of them. With eight children to take care of, finances were stretched thin and it seemed like the best option. Instead they were forced to work as slaves on Lake Volta. When she learned of their situation, she knew that Challenging Heights would be able to help her children. They were rescued, rehabilitated at Challenging Heights’ Hovde House shelter, and reunited with Rose and the rest of their family. Now Rose knows about the lies that traffickers tell, recognises when other children in the community are at risk and takes them in as foster children.

Rose is fortunate enough to have a mill at her house, where corn and other grains can be ground into flour, which is how she made her livelihood. She would grind up maize to sell as cornmeal at the market. But there wasn’t enough for her family to be comfortable and provided for. Two of the children were out of school. She was receiving some monetary support from Challenging Heights as the mother of a reintegrated child, but family member would take advantage of the money and she wouldn’t be able to repay properly. Which is why she really like the in-kind microloan programme.

Rose Attah Profile 02Through this programme, the parents of reintegrated children are given 300 GHS (about $70) of goods of their choosing that they can then sell in the community. Interest-free repayments begin two months after the initial loan is made, and they remain interest free as long as all the children are enrolled in school, have health insurance and are registered. Should those conditions of the loan not be met, interest increases to 30 percent per annum.

With her first microloan of maize, Rose was able to make 500 GHS. All of her children, aged 6 to 12 are able to attend school and are well provided for. After each day of sales, she saved a bit and at the end of the month she used her savings to reinvest in her capital. She’s hoping that this new microloan will allow her grow her business even more.

Immuna CCPC 01As the rate of trafficking has declined in Winneba, Challenging Heights has begun to expand into other communities along the coast that are major source communities for child trafficking to Lake Volta. This is seen in our increased work and presence in Senya and the recent training of a Community Child Protection Committee (CCPC) in Manford. Adding to that expansion is the initiation of a CCPC in Immuna, a small coastal community between Apam and Cape Coast.

The initial talks with local community members was extremely positive. The residents of Immuna expressed their desire for Challenging Heights to help them combat the trafficking problem in their community, and relayed that by their own estimations nearly 60% of children had been trafficked. They hoped that we would be able to do more for them in the future, including community sensitisations, checking the school rolls for missing children and eventually rescues.

Immuna CCPC 02Stephen Adoo, the Rescue and Community Outreach Manager for Challenging Heights, explained the operations of Challenging Heights, the general working of trafficking in Ghana and the role of CCPC’s in both. The majority of trafficking in Ghana is done domestically, rather than transnationally, and so it is a uniquely Ghanaian issue that Ghanaians are in a position to respond to. The CCPCs are made up of respected community members such as pastors, imams, teachers, assembly men and even students in source communities. In collaboration with Challenging Heights, these committees work to keep children in school. When a committee member becomes aware that a child is missing, they are empowered to investigate a bit on their own to try and figure out if it is a trafficking case. They can then either help the child go back to school if they have not been trafficked, or reach out to Challenging Heights if they have been.

As we’ve seen the success of our anti-trafficking message in Winneba, with the number of cases dropping, we know that it is important to take this message beyond the town and into the villages where this problem still persists, but we cannot do it without the support of the local community members.

After months of research and preparations, our Rescue Team spent the last two weeks on Lake Volta locating and rescuing sixteen children from forced labour.

_DSC6525Stephen Adoo, the Rescue and Community Outreach Manager, works closely with the Community Child Protection Committees (CCPCs). These committees are made up of local community members in high standing, such as elders, pastors, imams, assemblymen, as well as students, and they serve as points of education for their community about trafficking, the importance of children staying in school and report instances of trafficking to us. When we get these reports of trafficking, our field team works to gather as much information as we can about the child, their family, where they were trafficked to, who trafficked them and where on Lake Volta they are likely to be. Their name then gets added to Adoo’s rescue list.

_DSC6727We aim to do a least two rescues on Lake Volta a year, along with a number of other rescues from interceptions before the children make it to the lake. These rescues usually last around two weeks, with long days spent under the sun in a boat on Lake Volta. Our team goes to a number of small villages that dot the lake shore to search for the children on our list. When we find them, we work to convince them to come with us and their masters and the villagers to let us rescue them. Nearly all of them express a desire to go to school, and we explain how they will have that opportunity with us.

As the children are rescued, they stay in a transitional shelter until the rescue operation has finished. Then, we bring them to the Hovde House shelter, where our qualified and trained staff takes over to help them on the road of recovery and rehabilitation. This week, we and the children at the shelter, welcomed 16 new residents with warmth and open arms. We know that their journey to recovery is just beginning and will be a difficult one, but we are proud to say that we will be with them every step of the way.

He’d heard of Challenging Heights and the work they did to take children working on Lake Volta away from their labour, but he turned away their efforts to rescue him at least three or four times before he arrived at the Hovde House Rehabilitation Shelter. The 18 year-old we’ll call Kodjo, to protect his identity, enjoyed fishing. He enjoyed the money he made with his uncle, and he had no interest in going back to his father who had kicked him out of his house when he was a small child. It was the fact that he wished he spent more than just five days in his entire life in school, that he wanted to see how the Challenging Heights rescue team could help him.

When he was just a small child living in Winneba, there was an incident after which Kodjo was kicked out of his house, and he had been gone ever since. He found money while sweeping his house, spent it, but after his father found out, and Kodjo went to sleep, his father beat him with a stick and told him to leave the house.

Kodjo - Alias, Aug -2015 (4)Walking alone toward his grandmother’s house, Kodjo said a friend of his mother’s saw him, asked where he was going and said that she would bring him to another city, Tema, when she was going that way a few days later. The woman picked him up and Kodjo lived with her in Tema, east of Accra, for many years. There, Kodjo said, he had a good life. All the while, his father wanted to bring him back to Winneba and Kodjo refused.

The one time he went to school, Kodjo had been told to write his ABC’s on the blackboard and when he didn’t, the teacher beat him. Kodjo received a cut on his back and so he hit the teacher in the head with a stone and left, never to return.

Eventually, his mother’s friend brought him back to Winneba, where he lived with his grandmother.  When Kodjo was about 15, his uncle visited Winneba and asked if he wanted to come to work on the lake with him in Yeji, since he needed help. Kodjo agreed.

For a few years, Kodjo worked tirelessly, dragging nets and pulling fish into canoes. He went to the lake by 3 a.m. and finished around 8 a.m., before heading out to sell the fish in the afternoons. It was a busy time, but he appreciated the benefits he got since whatever he needed was provided. He knew of others who had been beaten or starved, but he felt like he had everything he needed. He did not, however, get to go to school. It was something he hadn’t realized he wanted until he was rescued by Challenging Heights.

He had known of Challenging Heights, but refused to go with the field team when they arrived to rescue him because he felt like he had been making decent money and on the path toward financial stability., plus he didn’t want to be near his father, for whom he always held a grudge. His family in Winneba, though, wanted him home – and many of the promises he had been told from his uncle, like that of getting a home of his own when he returns to Winneba, would not be fulfilled.

Finally his uncle told him, “Every year they come and you don’t go. This year, go. Go and listen to your father.”

The fifth time Challenging Heights arrived on Lake Volta and showed up to his village to bring him back, Kodjo agreed to be rescued. At the time, he had a hernia and needed medical care that was not being provided in his current situation. Now grateful to Challenging Heights for taking care of his surgery, medication and care, Kodjo may not have come for help if it had not been for his uncle’s urging.

Kodjo was taken to the hospital and his hernia was taken care of, plus he remained at the Hovde House rehabilitation shelter and began basic schooling. He’s now eager to continue his learning and realizes that there are more opportunities for a successful life than just fishing.

Kwame (4)Having never been to school before, Challenging Heights field officers call 11-year-old Kwame the role model to his family. While his brothers may skip school, Kwame is eager to learn, eager to get ahead and achieve more than he could have while working on the lake.

Kwame was rescued from slave labour on Lake Volta in March 2015. He spent four years working, sometimes alongside some of his siblings, including his twin sister. At least six of his brothers and sisters were also sent to work on the lake by their mother, who took money from traffickers for her children’s work.

Each day began at dawn; Kwame said he would work through the morning and into the afternoon and evening. He slept about four hours a day before he would wake up and start again. Even as a small boy, Kwame helped in casting fishing nets, paddling the canoe on Lake Volta, scooping water from leaky boats or diving in to the water to disentangle nets caught on branches from drowned trees. These are typical tasks boys of all ages are made to do as they’re kept in slavery on the lake.

Physical and emotional abuse were a party of Kwame’s daily life. He said his master would hit him with a paddle. Kwame was never fed enough, and what he was given to eat always lacked fish or means for essential nutrients. Sometimes, he said, the master and his wife would insult him before they gave him the food. He never felt emotionally sound. While he wished for freedom, he never thought it possible.

Kwame (9)When Challenging Heights arrived to rescue Kwame, they knew of his brother, and in another location, his twin sister. The master, however, lied to CH, and told us that his brother was the only child he had. Kwame was hiding, so our field team did not know he was in the house. His master threatened Kwame that if he dare uttered a word; they would beat him and kill him, so he lie there crying. Once the field team went on to the next village, and Kwame’s two siblings realized that Challenging Heights was not bad, they told them that Kwame had been left. Challenging Heights returned the next day with police to back them up against the family that they must give Kwame to the field team.

Seeing his mother was difficult at first, since she was the one to sell Kwame and his siblings to the lake years before. Kwame was not happy, or even able to recognise her because it had been so long. He said he was sad when he realised who she was, and bitter that she sold him, but as time went on, they reconciled and he knows he is accepted. Kwame says he’s forgiven them all.

It was fishing work that Kwame was told he would be doing for the rest of his life, and when he grows up, he’ll manage his own boat and also traffic children to come work for him. He always thought that was his path. He never thought he’d be rescued and set free, but that he would spend his life on the lake.