By Shaun Tilghman, News Editor, North Manchester News-Journal
James Kofi Annan, founder and executive director of Challenging Heights, a non-profit organization in Ghana, West Africa, that rescues, rehabilitates, educates, and protects child victims, visited North Manchester this week to share his own experiences with enslavement and discuss his organization’s mission to end modern-day child slavery. He attended several area churches on Sunday, and on Monday, he was invited to address students at Manchester Jr.-Sr. High School.
James started Challenging Heights in 2003, with hopes of rescuing children from modern-day slavery, primarily in the fishing industry. As the youngest of 12 children born to their illiterate parents, James was enslaved when he was just a child and worked 17-hour days in the Lake Volta (Ghana) fishing industry with scarce food or shelter, and the only constant was the abuse he received.
“There were several years of enslavement for me, several years of abuse for me,” James explained. “Sometimes I shy away from remembering the days of my domination. As a child of six years old, I was sold into slavery. Here in America, a child of six years old should be in first grade, but I was sent out there to go and fend for my family.
“This was not books and paper – books and paper use your mind – this was physical work. We also drank the same water that we defecated in, and when we got sick we didn’t have access to any medical care. In spite of all of this, I was beaten like an animal when I made a mistake. And I had no voice; I couldn’t question anything that was happening to me.”
Through all of the abuse, James said he knew he could do something else, and he knew he could escape. “I was so strong within myself,” he continued, “I believed there was definitely going to be a light at the end of the tunnel – so I persisted.
“Unfortunately for me, each time that I attempted to escape I was caught, and I was beaten to the extent that I thought even the animals we had were more cared for than me as a human being. Finally, after several attempts, after several beatings, and after several tortures, I was able to escape.”
James endured those hardships for seven long years, and when he escaped at the age of 13, he couldn’t even read or write.
“When I escaped, I had to go to school,” he added. “I knew that an education was the single most important asset I could acquire, but here I was with parents that were not prepared to take care of me – I had to combine fishing on the weekends with schooling on weekdays, and it was not easy. But I knew the only way to prevent myself from going back to slavery was to go to school, so I was running away from enslavement by putting myself in school. I continued to be in school, I continued to work hard day and night, and it paid off.”
After becoming a university graduate, James rose to the position of manager at Barclays Bank of Ghana. In April 2007, he resigned from the bank to devote his full efforts to promoting the mission of Challenging Heights. Initially funded from his personal earnings, the organization has been providing education and rehabilitation to children rescued by Challenging Heights, as well as those at risk of being trafficked.
“I decided to emancipate these children and put them in school, while mobilizing communities to fight against slavery and the injustice that was done to these children,” James stated. “I wanted to make sure that parents understood the value of education, the rights of these children, and the rights they themselves have for their children. Putting my resources at their disposal was a way to encourage resisting slavery and saying no to the exploitation of children.”
To-date, Challenging Heights has supported nearly 10,000 at-risk children in educational settings, and rescued more than 200 children from enslavement. The organization’s efforts have not only resulted in the reduction of child trafficking in the region, but also dramatically increased the enrollment and retention rates of local schools through multilateral partnerships.
Since 2009, Challenging Heights has received much-needed support from the Eric D. and Steven D. Hovde Foundation, which was founded in 1998 with two principal objectives: to assist the neglected, abused and vulnerable children of the world, and to fund research to find a cure for Multiple Sclerosis. Its current focus is housing for abandoned, homeless children, called Hovde Houses.
According to the Hovde Foundation website, “Hovde Houses are transitional homes that provide shelter, supportive services, and love to vulnerable children, primarily those who live on the streets, but also…those rescued from slavery (Ghana). The Hovde House is the first point of refuge for rescued children, offering a transitional home of holistic rehabilitation, survivor support, aftercare, and love.”
Jessie Emelander, Hovde Foundation’s global communications manager for Challenging Heights, joined James in North Manchester to share her own experiences in Ghana.
“My desire to come around and showcase exactly what they’re doing at Challenging Heights – because it really is remarkable – comes from my experience in Ghana,” Jessie said. “I’ve been going to Ghana since 2005, when I was in college. When I first went to Ghana, I went to Lake Volta, which is over 3,000 square miles, and there were thousands of kids everywhere.
“I remember thinking Lake Volta was amazing; there were all these kids there and they were happy to see me and they were shaking my hand and trying to touch my hair. It was just a really amazing, beautiful experience and I would have never believed someone if they had told me that all of those kids were there against their will – they were forced into labor, whether it was by their parents or they were trafficked from other source communities around Ghana.”
The communities at the base of Lake Volta are severely impoverished, with some families having as many as 10 children, or more. It is very difficult to support such a large family, so when fishermen come down from the north offering to take one or more of the children, feed them, give them shelter, put them through school, and teach them a trade in the fishing industry, it becomes a very appealing offer.
“They don’t want to let their children go, but it’s what they have to do to support their family and to be able to feed the rest of their children they have at home. So, they let them go,” Jessie explained.
“The child then travels overnight to the top region of the lake,” she continued, “and he may be very scared, but he also may be very hopeful that he’ll get to go to school, which is something that not very many kids get the opportunity to do. When he gets there, his master wakes him up at 3 a.m. and sends him to fish on the lake for approximately 17 hours straight; he’s fed maybe once, and beaten often – for reasons he doesn’t even understand – and he does that every single day. He never even sees a school or experiences any love, and he’s just abused and neglected in ways that you can’t even imagine.
“This is the reality that’s being faced in Ghana, and this is not something that is specific to Ghana. But, it’s definitely a cultural thing that has been manipulated in Ghana to survive the fishing industry. There are over 27 million slaves in the world today, and there are a variety of ways that they are trafficked and coerced into various things.”
According to the foundation website, “Challenging Heights’ mission is in line with the Hovde Foundation’s priorities, which is why we have partnered to establish a new Hovde House for Challenging Heights.”
Challenging Heights’ new Hovde House, which was built in the fall of 2011, can accommodate up to 60 children rescued from enslavement – right now, there are about 30 boys and girls, ranging in age from four to 17 years old, living there.
“Most of them can’t read or write when they come out of slavery, so there are classes held every day for them,” Jessie added. “They have their classes there, they eat there, they sleep there, and all of the housemothers stay at the house with them. They are continually given psychological and emotional support in order to rehabilitate them holistically.
“The Challenging Heights School is located at a different location in the same city (Winneba). The classrooms are meant to hold 25-30 kids, but Challenging Heights has a really hard time turning any kids away for fear of what might happen to them if they’re not in school. So now there are about 65-70 kids in each class. New classrooms are very expensive to build, so Challenging Heights only builds when the resources become available.”
In 2011, Challenging Heights School saw over 500 students enrolled, and continues to support over 1,300 children and their parents through the myriad of other programs it offers. Sarah Joy Morbitzer, of North Manchester, is currently living in Ghana as a volunteer for Challenging Heights School.
Sarah’s father, Pastor Tim Morbitzer, of Victory Christian Fellowship, is also involved with the cause, as the organizer of “Project 500,” which has the goal of finding sponsors for the 500 poverty-stricken children attending school at Challenging Heights. He played a big role in arranging for James to visit North Manchester, because he saw it as an important step in the overall process.
“Our goal is 500 sponsors, and prior to this weekend we were at about 50, but we think we’ve picked up another 20-25 sponsors this weekend since James has been here,” Tim stated. “I think it was wonderful to help them broaden their understanding of modern-day slavery and human trafficking, and get an idea of this problem that’s going on around the world. Plus, they hear the story of someone who had actually been enslaved and now is free, so I think it’s a great opportunity and we’re very thankful to the school for allowing him to come in.”
According to Tim, it only costs $20 per month, or less than 70 cents a day, to sponsor a child for a year, which might not necessarily be a lot to people in the U.S., but it certainly is for the struggling families in Ghana.
James conveyed a similar message to local students when he quoted the Challenging Heights motto: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”
“I truly admire the opportunities that you have here and congratulations for being part of such a community,” James concluded. “I’m sure that after narrating my sick circumstance, you know that you’ve been given a lot, and definitely a lot is expected of you. The question I have for you is: how do you utilize these tremendous opportunities for your own future, to ensure that you have that future you dream about? As I stand before you, I am well educated and I have a master’s degree, but just imagine if I had not escaped – never again should we allow other children to suffer this fate.”
For more information about Challenging Heights, visit their website at www.challengingheights.org.
For more information about the Hovde Foundation, visit their website at www.hovdefoundation.org.
For more information about Project 500, or to sponsor a child, contact Tim or Nikki, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 260-982-8357.