Having seen another boy drown while diving into the lake to untangle a net caught on a tree underwater, Kow was very frightened that the same thing would happen to him as he worked.
With a slight build, Kow looks far younger than the 14 years he says he will soon turn. He’s been at the Challenging Heights Hovde House Rehabilitation Shelter for four months, after spending four and a half years in slave labour, fishing on Lake Volta.
He says he never got paid for very long days filled with casting fishing nets, dragging them in, being called to work on his trafficker’s farm, or hunting fish with other equipment.
Frequently, Kow says, he and two other children would work the farm, uprooting yam, corn, tomatoes and garden eggs (eggplant). After harvesting, he would take the produce to market to sell. All this often came on the same days he would head to the lake and fish in the mornings.
Kow says he ate four times a day, but his diet consisted entirely of starch. In the morning and the others would take koko, or a kind of liquid porridge; in the afternoons, beans, kenkey (a kind of dough made of maize) or garri (dried cassava), and they would have yam for supper. The children weren’t given the fish or vegetables they worked to catch or harvest.
While he was there, he says, he didn’t feel safe. He was severely beaten on a regular basis. One time, Kow said, his eyelid was even torn from the beatings.
Kow was made to fill barrels of water, but as an additional task, the trafficker, or master, would pour any unused water out on the ground and tell Kow to go and fetch more. Sometimes, Kow says he was given an especially huge net to carry on his shoulder. He said it made him very tired, but the net was never used for anything; it was only meant as extra and unnecessary work for Kow.
The abuse wasn’t just physical, but verbal and emotional, too. The master, Kow said, would insult his parents and even his extended family, calling them derogatory terms for genital parts. He would call Kow a “foolish child,” say that his parents were “irresponsible.”
Kow knows that he was there in Yeji because his mother agreed to trade his services for payment. The trafficker convinced Kow’s mother that no, she was not selling her son, but that he would be working and well taken care of.
Kow’s stay at the Hovde House is his first experience in any sort of formal classroom. Before the lake, Kow hadn’t been to school, and on the lake, he was not studying, either.
He says he misses his brothers and sisters, his mother. He says, he wasn’t even told when one of his siblings died at home while he was in Yeji. The trafficker promised Kow he would bring him back to his parents, but of course, Kow said, he never did. Kow said the master always had the final say, so when he demanded to be returned to his family, Kow was beaten.
Frightened by the mere sight of the master, Kow says he was not friendly at all to the children and they were always very afraid of him.
While in Yeji, Kow says he watched on as a child went into the lake to remove a net that had been stuck in a tree which was in the water. The child never returned to the surface alive. Having seen a boy, just like him, drown; Kow could not have been more scared of his own work. He said he did the exact same thing as the boy, diving in to remove nets that were caught. He became very scared that maybe one day, he would die, just as that boy.
Kow found his way to Challenging Heights after another child who had been rescued from Yeji told the field team that he was also working on the lake and wanted to go home. The field team tracked down Kow’s trafficker and brought him south.
His time at the Hovde House has been a positive experience but he continues to face struggles, even as he sleeps. In one nightmare, he says his trafficker taught Kow how to fish and Kow grew up to become a fisherman.
Since he had been beaten so often and so severely, Kow says whenever he even thinks of his trafficker or the beatings, his forehead itches.
Now, he’s starting school in Class 1 at Hovde House. Kow is happy to be away from the lake; happy to be in school; happy to be in a place where he is not beaten and has hope for a positive future.
(Kow’s name is an alias; we have used it instead of his real name to respect his privacy and dignity.)