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For nearly two months, water did not flow from the city lines throughout the town of Winneba. Turning on a faucet and

Dozens of buckets line the house mothers’ room, ready to be filled to wash/clean and cook.

realizing there is no water – is not uncommon in the town, but usually the water may go off for a few hours at a time; that’s when water tanks refill and families can fill their buckets when it is flowing. Many weeks without water, however, makes life that much harder. Children spend extra time fetching water in the mornings and evenings, including students at Challenging Heights School.

Twenty four students board at CHS for much of the school year, most of them are a part of the Junior High School Class 3, preparing for their Basic Education Certification Exam. Each afternoon, the group walked 15-20 minutes from the school to the Challenging Heights office to fill dozens of buckets and gallon jugs with fresh water from the newly dug bore hole. While the rest of the town needed water from buckets, Challenging Heights staff and some beneficiaries in the area received fresh water from deep underground from faucets as usual.

JHS students fill buckets with a hose at the Challenging Heights office and carry them back to the school.

The decision to dig the bore hole came after water bills skyrocketed at the office, compounded with inconsistent water flowing from city lines. The cost of the drilling is something that is expected to be paid off within four or five months of its use (and not paying city water bills), plus the benefit of having water that flows regardless of the overall water system has already paid dividends in convenience and fulfilling needs.

Since not all children can afford pure water to drink or use for washing, they rely on water that flows from the city. When children do not have access to water at home, they are more likely to spend their time fetching water for family members than doing school work, and may not even be able to get to school on time, if at all. Having to walk and fill buckets for washing and bathing means time taken away from serious studying for the students boarding at CHS.

JHS boys fill buckets with the hose at the Challenging Heights office.

Even as the water flows in Winneba today, we know that this will not always be the case and that our children will be filling buckets to carry back to wash often into the future. A bore hole dug at the school will alleviate time and energy spent on something that should come as a natural right for our children: easy access to clean water.

Your support will go a long way in supplying water to Challenging Heights School for years to come.

 

HR Manager, Araba Korsah, leads a child protection training class at the CH office.

After managing a family-owned rental real estate company, Araba Korsah left her hometown of Cape Coast for Winneba, to re-energize Challenging Heights from the Human Resource standpoint.

Araba directly manages the administrative office, security team and staff drivers, but she works with managers from across the organisation as they hire new staff, discuss salaries and organisational policies.

A company policy overhaul was Araba’s first task to tackle when she started in June 2015. “Human Resources Manager” is a new role at Challenging Heights, and Araba is learning how to walk into an organisation that has had an unwritten office culture for so long. She says there were always policies in the books, but the way Challenging Heights actually operated was different. What is currently in practice needs to be added, reviewed and updated. Araba is here to get things in order and keep office operations running smoothly.

Arriving as a newcomer to the non-profit where many people on staff have climbed the ladder and created success was a bit overwhelming. Araba says it’s always a challenge trying to change a culture, but she breathes easier with full support from Challenging Heights’ president, Dr. James Kofi Annan.

When Challenging Heights has job openings, Araba works with managers to find out a job description and salary range. She talks it through with Senior James, writes up a contract and works with the finance office to see if the position fits with the organisation’s vision and budget.

Driver, Gideon, loads one of the CH trucks full of TOMS Shoes to take with the field team as they monitor rescued children’s families.

Araba also manages the office premises, day to day operations, making sure supplies are ordered, bills are paid and even the post office box is checked. She oversees the Challenging Heights drivers and arranges their schedules, which can get complicated! With so many visitors coming to see operations at CH, plus our staff needing to travel for daily family monitoring and bus trips for the rescued children at the shelter, the drivers are often pulled in many directions and Araba organises.

Multiple capacity building trainings have become part of our workplace. A few of these include child protection trainings, media skills training, and trainings in how to train staff who trains community members. Araba arranges and helps facilitate these trainings.

As new contracts are written and signed, our new human resources manager and systematic organisation have proven helpful and necessary as Challenging Heights adds to our staff and capacity as we expand the breadth of our community assistance.

The Jeff Kashdin Express, which is Challenging Heights’ rescue boat, anchors at a community on Lake Volta.

In the week traversing Lake Volta in October 2015, the Challenging Heights Field Operations Team rescued 24 children from forced hazardous labour. This comes after a similar rescue in March with nearly as many children saved. With tips from villagers, the team found the children in fourteen different remote communities across the lake.

Before the mission began, covert investigations took place to locate the children whom Challenging Heights had been requested to bring back to their families.

After the drive from Winneba, the field team stopped in a small town about an hour from Yeji to prepare the temporary shelter where the children would be taken during the rescue.

Once the Field Team arrived in Yeji, which is a main corridor for trade and travel on Lake Volta, they spent a day visiting local authorities. The team needed local police, the Navy, and Social Services to be aware of the rescue mission and make sure they were prepared to step in with force if traffickers refused to return a child. The local departments were all supportive of Challenging Heights’ mission. Two Yeji-local staff members prepared the boat for its journey, securing fuel and supplies.

Our rescue team interviews a boy who had been spotted in ratty clothing ,eating hurriedly. He said he was from Winneba and works on the lake for little food.

During the first full day in Yeji, some members of the team were on the lakefront and noticed a boy wearing ratty clothing and eating from a small bag on the ground. Stephen, the Field Team Manager, called him over and asked him questions about where he was from and what he was doing. Hearing that the boy was from Winneba but working on the lake with relatives, Stephen knew that he had been trafficked. The boy was hungry and said he would do extra chores for women near the lakefront to get extra food in the evenings. The boy was taken to the Challenging Heights temporary shelter as Stephen and team went to meet with the trafficker and summon him to Winneba.

On day two, a rain delay meant only a couple stops were made, but the children who were meant to be found were not at the villages. The team stayed in a small village on the lake that night and cooked food they brought.

Wake-up on day three kicked off many stops at different communities in search of a few children. Two boys were rescued from separate places and taken to the temporary shelter.

When the field team tried to negotiate for children at the first village on day four, community members challenged them and even tried to start an altercation. The rescue team retreated and sought out escort backup from the Navy. Four officers joined the team on their boat and went back to the community. The Navy officers had to physically defend against community members who challenged getting the children during the first visit. The navy officers gave warning to the communities that they are not allowed to hinder Challenging Heights’ rescues. After searching many villages and communities, with members telling the team that certain children were not there, the team found four children in four different communities. One child was spotted by a Navy officer and it was determined that he, too, had been trafficked. Social services allowed Challenging Heights to take the child into safety at the temporary shelter.

Our field team navigates Lake Volta in search of communities with children who need rescuing.

After the previous day’s need for authoritative force, two Ghana Police officers joined the rescue team on the fifth day. Three children were rescued and taken to the Challenging Heights temporary shelter.

On Sunday, no police or navy escort joined the team, but five children were rescued from five different communities.

Two children were found on day seven, with help of the Yeji social welfare officer. The officer had identified them earlier in the week and Stephen and team then followed up to figure out where to find the two. The social welfare officer gave directions to where the villages of the two were located and called the informant to let them know CH was coming. They were not on the initial list, but it was determined that they had been trafficked and were then rescued. The team searched many villages to find the other two who were on the CH list.

On the last day of searching, the team located two children, but their traffickers had already sent them on a bus back toward the Central Region. The children were tracked down by Challenging Heights staff once they were in Winneba and they were taken to the Hovde House Rehabilitation Shelter when the rest of the children arrived on the bus from Yeji.

Children are rescued and travel back to Yeji with the Challenging Heights field team before heading to our temporary shelter.

With a more-than 10 hour drive, the field team returned to the Central Region with children aged 6 to 16. Others who were sent home just before Challenging Heights arrived to rescue them were also taken to be cared for at the Hovde House.

In the days following the rescue, family members and traffickers made their way to the Challenging Heights office in Sankor, Winneba, to plead their cases as to why their children were sent to Lake Volta, and oftentimes, claiming they did nothing wrong. The law, though, reminds them that child trafficking of any kind is illegal. They were informed of any restitution or potential jail time they face and are warned not to send children into forced labour on Lake Volta.

Parents, siblings and grandparents are shuttled to the Hovde House to visit their children, some of whom haven’t seen each other for many years and may not even recognise each other.

The children join another couple dozen former slave children as they begin their pathway to education, health and self-sufficiency.

As part of an annual tradition, students at Challenging Heights School prepare entertainment to celebrate the end of the year and Christmas holiday. Weeks ahead of time, little ones learn lines from traditional Christmas tunes, like the “12 days of Christmas” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and older children practised dances and cultural performances to share with their peers.

Classes let out for a half day so that all students and teachers could enjoy the entertainment and celebrate together.

It was the second annual Christmas Event at CHS and makes for a fun way to finish out the term before winter break.

The Challenging Heights Cultural Troupe performs.

Cadets kick off the Christmas event in formation and request to begin the programme.

The CHS Choir sings Christmas carols for the crowd.

The lower grades perform the Nativity scene.

Dancers entertain the rest of Challenging Heights students.

These two young ones performed traditional dances and drew cheers and excitement.

The older girls stepped in to show everyone how it’s done!

The cultural troupe drums and keeps the beat for dancers.

Turn Back Child Trafficking stickers are meant to raise awareness and get drivers looking out for children headed into dangerous conditions.

This fall, a bus full of children was stopped by police; the driver was questioned; all children were questioned, and they were turned BACK to their homes, away from the direction of slave labour.

Challenging Heights’ Advocacy Team says it came just after our Child Protection training, where Ghana Private Road Transport Union (GPRTU) leaders and other community leaders were taught about the realities and dangers of child trafficking in Ghana.

Since the training, our advocacy team has gone to multiple towns and cities in the Greater Accra and Central Regions of Ghana. Together with GPRTU leaders, the team tells taxi, tro tro and bus drivers about how common it is for children to be sent into forced labour on Lake Volta. Their vehicles are stickered with Turn Back Child Trafficking slogans and the message is spread.

GPRTU secretary, Charity, helps tro tro and taxi drivers put stickers on their vehicles before leaving the station.

The day the bus was stopped, it didn’t have stickers, but Ghana Police were vigilant. They suspected trafficking when they saw how many children were on the bus without accompanying adults and they were all taken to the police station. There, statements were taken from the driver and children, and police gathered that yes, this was a trafficking situation.

All of the children were turned back.

Since the “Turn Back Child Trafficking” campaign with Walk Free and now the Canadian Government, launched in June 2015, Challenging Heights has been demanding vigilance and awareness through the media. With press releases, press conferences, radio shows and interviews, we challenging Ghana Police to step up enforcement and pay attention to the reality that is putting Ghanaian children at risk and keeping them from inalienable rights.

GPRTU secretary, Charity Althul, joins Challenging Heights’ Advocacy Team on Radio Peace, Winneba’s local radio station, to discuss how to prevent child trafficking.

Since the GPRTU training, the Challenging Heights Advocacy Team has done a lot of media work, through local radio shows and press releases. We challenge the police and demand vigilance as we question what the government of Ghana has done with its 2011-2015 National Plan of Action (NPA) towards the Elimination of Worst Forms of Child Labour (WFCL). The NPA will expire at the end of 2015, but 75% of what was planned has not been achieved.

Charity Althul, secretary of Swedru’s GPRTU, joined our advocacy manager on Radio Peace, a local Winneba radio station to discuss the stickering and voice full support of Challenging Heights’ efforts. Her consistent push toward awareness is the kind of splash we hoped to make in our campaign, and we expect others to jump on board as our message to prevent child trafficking is shared.

Sometimes it’s been years since a mother or father has seen their child, who’d been sent to northern regions to work on Lake Volta. Sometimes the mother and father her/himself sent the child away, but other times it was other family members who take that responsibility.

A small boy meets with his family for the first time after he was rescued from slave labour.

When children are rescued by Challenging Heights, they are taken to the Hovde House Rehabilitation Shelter. They live, learn, and play with children just like them, who have also spent time working in abusive, hazardous conditions instead of going to school and were unable to enjoy a safe and loving family life.

After a couple weeks of initial introduction to shelter routine and care, the children receive their families – parents, siblings, and grandparents. These visits bring tears; there may be some anger. Sometimes there is even confusion about a child’s name.

In one case, a boy whose family said he was about 8 years-old, told the shelter one name. When his father visited, the father called him by a different name. The next week, his grandmother and a few aunties visited and called him by the first name. Staff at the shelter then need to do some research to determine what the boy’s actual name is, and call him by that name.

Often on the lake, children are given new names by their traffickers, so that they will be harder to be found and brought home to their families.

A mother speaks to her newly rescued son at the Hovde House shelter after years of separation.

The 8 year-old had been working on the lake for four and a half years. That means he was a very small boy when he was first sent to Lake Volta, and memories as to what his name is could be hazy. The group of children from Challenging Heights’ last rescue has many who are very young, even four or five years-old. Those children could have been born on the lake, or brought to Lake Volta when they infants or toddlers. Life on the lake is all they knew.

A slightly older boy, his parents said he is 15, though he’s small in stature, seemed uncomfortable in the introduction to his parents. Shelter staff explains that the father left his mother before the boy was born, so the boy never knew this man claiming to be his father. His mother had been unable to care for him as a child, so he mostly lived with his grandmother.

When the boy’s mother saw him, she began to tear up; wiping her eyes with a cloth as he absently pulled up a chair and sat down. The mother spoke to the boy with a sort of yearning, with an expression of regret on her face. The boy mostly looked away. He seemed disinterested and distant towards the mother and the small boy who jumped around on her lap as they spoke.

This separation of family members is a common practise among lower-income families in Ghana, and the emotional pain that it may cause the children is something that counsellors and social workers at the Hovde House work on throughout their care.

Field officer, Rosemond, interviews a boy just after he was rescued on Lake Volta.

Rosemond, a Challenging Heights Field Officer, was on the last rescue when 24 of the children at the shelter were picked up from their masters on the lake, and brought back to the Central Region. She says she feels a stronger connection to the children she was there to rescue. A smile stretched across her face as she described how they are after a few weeks after the rescue, compared to when she first met them on the boat. Their physical appearance is better kept; they’re nicer, Rosemond said. The children who may have arrived at the shelter angry or silently keeping to themselves, now talk more and show warmth.

Parents’ visits give them a chance to see how their child is being cared for with Challenging Heights. Some people hear false rumours that the organisation will take their children and use them for traditional juju (witchcraft) practices, but once they see the Hovde House, and realize that their child is eating well, in school, and in a safe environment, they are relieved and pleased for all the help their child receives.

Classmates listen attentively to recitation contestants as they compete.

The best English speakers from five different schools pitted against each other for an intense recitation competition. The librarians at Hand in Hand for Literacy’s Challenging Heights Community Library hosted the event, offering prizes for winners, as well as a chance to compete again on a local radio show.

Head librarian, Madam Safowaa explained to the students that this competition is meant to implicate positive reading habits to those living in Sankor, near Challenging Heights, but also far beyond.

With the plan to be an annual event, Madam Safowaa and her team educate about various disciplines and uses it as a way to bring the community together. Each of the schools participating in the competition have students registered as users of the Challenging Heights Community Library.

CHS competitor, Emmanuel Okyere, is a JHS 2 student.

As a way to promote the library and remind other schools that it is open to the public after Challenging Heights School hours

The competitors were selected as some of the best English speakers in their classes; those were narrowed down to the top five to be on a school’s team, and the best one of those five became the contestant. This means one person competed from each school, with about four supporters watching from the audience.

A local assembly member served as an honoured guest and spoke to the children about the importance of education and community.

H&E took home the winning prize; a trophy and a large stack of books for their school.

There were three rounds to the competition. First, each contestant was asked to summarize a story they were given to prepare before the event. Second, the moderator mentioned a part of the story and the students were supposed to share the exact line, quoted, from the original story. Third, each student was given two questions to answer; if they were wrong, the student to their left could “steal” the answer and get an extra point.

A female student from a nearby school in Winneba, H&E, won the competition; she spoke with confidence and competence.

Through competitions like this, teachers and librarians at Challenging Heights School hope to inspire thoughtful reading and engagement among students in Winneba.

The CH Rescue Team talks with traffickers in Yeji, delivering a summons letter.

At the time of rescue, traffickers and families who are said to be misusing children and forcing them to work on Lake Volta are given a letter – a summons – that they must report to Challenging Heights’ office in Sankor, Winneba. There, they will be interviewed and decisions will be made as to what consequences they face.

Mr. Mensah is Challenging Heights’ Community Stakeholders Manager, who is ordained by Ghana’s court system to mediate an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Programme. The traffickers and families of the children rescued report to him.

He asks four main questions:
1) Did you work your own son or daughter?
2) Did you give your child over to a trafficker?
3) Did you collect money from a trafficker?
4) How long was your child working in slave labour?

24 children were rescued from forced hazardous labour on Lake Volta.

From the answers to these questions, Mr. Mensah decides how much to charge the parents in reparations – money that they were paid by traffickers to use their children, which would go directly to child’s care.  If the children had been making money for the parents, the money is now owed to the children themselves. The amount of money paid depends on the number of years the child had stayed with the traffickers; typically between 200-400 Ghana cedis (which is around $50-100 USD). Sometimes families are asked to buy clothing and supplies for their children while they are in Challenging Heights’ care. The fines are hefty for families in places like Winneba, Senya and Swedru; the goal is to deter families from trafficking their children again.

If families and traffickers do not show up to Challenging Heights to meet with Mr. Mensah, the Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit (DOVVSU) of the Ghana Police Service will be called. Mr. Mensah says that one person called from a Lake Volta village explaining that fishing has not been lucrative lately, and she wasn’t financially able to make the 10-14 hour trip to Winneba. She asked her sister who lives closer, to meet with Mr. Mensah in her place.

In twice-a-week ADR mediation sessions, Mr. Mensah meets with families from the region to resolve disputes, from men who do not take responsibility for their children, to women who have too many children to raise on their own. He sees the poverty issues that many families face, but he says that is no reason to traffick a child into slave labour. Some families may need to lessen the burden of number of children they care for by sending children to family members on Lake Volta, others accept payment for their work.

Stephen, Field Team Manager, meets with traffickers back at the Challenging Heights office in Winneba.

When digging into the gravity of each trafficking situation, to determine appropriate punishment, Mr. Mensah hears all kinds of stories and reasoning from families who sent their children to work. When there is proof that families accepted money in exchange for their child’s labour, they may be brought to court and if convicted, spend time in jail. Child, in Ghana, is a person under the age of 18. Many families tell Mr. Mensah that no, they did not sell their child into slave labour; they simply send them to live with relatives on Lake Volta because they could not provide enough for them. Oftentimes, they may not be truthful in their descriptions of what happened, but that is hard to prove, so they are strongly warned, but it’s too difficult to try for conviction and jail-time.

Without knowing Challenging Heights’ staff and style, some families may express concern about how their children are cared for. Once the families initially visit Mr. Mensah, they are taken to the Hovde House Rehabilitation Shelter to visit their children. They are given opportunity to speak with their children, some of whom have been separated from their parents and working on the lake for many years. When they see the shelter, the parents are always put at ease, seeing the bright and healthy environment the children are in as they start school and work toward reintegration.

Every step that Challenging Heights takes in the process of rescue and rehabilitation is in each child’s best interest.

Hundreds showed up to hear the Challenging Heights field team discuss child trafficking.

Gasps and groans erupt from a crowd of hundreds gathered at the Methodist Church in Senya, which is nearly an hour drive from Winneba, on Ghana’s coast. Over a couple of hours, they watched a film showcasing the reality of child trafficking and forced labour on Lake Volta.

Men, women and children of all ages waited for the Challenging Heights field team to work through setting up a projector and getting speakers working and as the movie played, more and more people showed up to see the excitement.  It’s not often that new faces show up to the small town with a projector to play a video on the side wall of the church. This community sensitisation programme is one funded by a new partner, Engage Now Africa, which is learning from Challenging Heights’ experience.

Before starting the video, field officers, Alfred and Rosemond, quieted the crowd and explained what Challenging Heights is and why they were there.

Field officer, Alfred, translates the film as people huddle together to watch.

The short film, called “The Fisher Boy,” interviewed children who had been rescued from slave labour on Lake Volta and even their parents who trafficked them. An interviewer asked what it was like, and asked care givers why they would do such a thing. The children explained in detail how they were beaten if they were slow in their fishing duties, and mothers claimed that poverty made it hard to care for their children and selling them was the best option at the time. They may or may not have known the traffickers who requested the young workers, but they said they didn’t realize that the children would not go to school or that they would be abused.

There were shouts and yelps from the viewers as they saw close up shots of bad scars, humpbacks, and other uncomfortable permanent damage on the children. One boy showed how gruesome his eye became when he lost it from a beating.

Throughout the film, Alfred held the microphone, translating the English subtitles into Fante, the local language in Senya. When people seemed antsy, he paused the movie and drew back their attention. He kept the crowd entertained and engaged, while making sure they understood what really goes on when families send children to Lake Volta.

It was evident that many in attendance hadn’t known the atrocities, but others among the faces had been rescued child slaves themselves, or even traffickers or former Lake Volta fishermen.

After the video, some children who had been reintegrated by Challenging Heights greeted the staff and showed their friends in their community how they know these strangers with the projector.

Adults and children of all ages watched the video with great interest.

More than fifteen people spoke to Challenging Heights staff, reporting cases of child trafficking that they hadn’t realised could be such a disturbing problem. Names were written down and contact information exchanged. One man explained that he had been working on the lake himself and he actually knew many of the faces showed on the video.  He seemed eager to share his knowledge and help Challenging Heights in their efforts in the future.

It’s from events like this, where Challenging Heights staff speaks directly to the families who are likely to send their children into forced labour, that they may think twice and look into alternatives for making money to raise their families.

Education is a key to preventing child labour and keeping children in school.

Classes enjoy trips to the library at Challenging Heights School.

“All these little faces are smiling, reading, and enjoying books.”

For about the first ten minutes of stepping into the Hand in Hand for Literacy Community Library at Challenging Heights School, the founder and president of Hand in Hand, Deb McNally, smiled as she explained how she could barely speak as she “had to soak it all in.”

The Challenging Heights’ Community Library is the second in Ghana for which the former school teacher coordinated fundraising. She says it all started after a trip teaching in the Volta Region, where she first learned that so many students in Ghana don’t have books to read. Unaware that there were places on earth without books, McNally was determined to create a pipeline for books from America to land in the hands of Ghanaian children.

In April, the library celebrated its first anniversary with much fan-fare. Librarian, Madame Safowaa, drove through the town and stopped along the way, sharing the excitement with anyone around using a megaphone. On that tour, mothers and fathers stopped her for more explanation.

The last time McNally saw the library, she was helping unpack boxes and stack books; there was no life enjoying the space yet. It sees more and more visitors; it’s open to the public after school hours until 5 p.m. and on Saturdays until 1:30. More than 1300 people are registered to check out books and the building has become a venue for quiz and recitation competitions, expanded learning and provides space for studying.

Students study during break-times.

With bright posters and signs adorning the walls, the library presents an excited energy. Thousands of books are kept neatly on shelves. Nursery-aged smaller children are read to by librarians and watch educational videos to practice English words together. Older children use the library as a resource, but also as an escape from the heat or a refuge to study during boisterous break times.

After the first library at Senchi Ferry, Challenging Heights’ community library is thriving. It’s an image of success and growth that McNally is working to bring to another Ghanaian community, Jukwa, where twelve nearby schools will use the facility.

“What strikes me the most – if it were not for the love and generosity and vision of so many people, those kids could spend a lifetime without a book,” said McNally.