James Kofi Annan: turning around the life of a child slave
We speak to a former child slave who went on to be nominated for the World Children’s prize. But for Annan, there’s still much work to be done in his native Ghana
Charlotte Lytton – Guardian Professional, Friday 13 September 2013
As the youngest child of an illiterate family, being enslaved was not uncommon in Ghana when I was growing up. I worked as a child fisherman in more than 20 villages between the ages of six and 13, when I finally escaped and returned home. During the time I was captive; I was tortured and abused in various forms. On a daily basis, my working day started at 3am, and ended at 8pm, and was full of physically demanding work. I was usually fed once a day and would regularly contract painful diseases which were never treated as I was denied access to medical care.
I was first trafficked with five other children, and out of the six of us; three lived, and three did not. I saw many children die from either abuse or the rigorous work they were forced to do.
What was it like transitioning from those awful conditions back to your regular life at home?
When I finally escaped, the most important thing to me was getting an education. In some ways, coming home was so easy – all I had ever wanted was to go to school, and being able to do that felt like the biggest achievement I could ever experience – just being in my uniform and having a book to write in was all that mattered. But there were also challenges to face when I returned: I was 13, and didn’t know how to write, so was hugely disadvantaged compared to my peers. Trying to put aside all the pain I had felt during those seven years, and catch up with school work while not having basics like food or clothes made things extremely difficult.
But you did complete your education. Tell us about the journey from your childhood to your charity. How did Challenging Heights begin?
After I completed my university education and a year in Ghana’s national service, I was conflicted about being self-employed or working for someone else, as I still had trust issues because of the way I’d been treated when enslaved. I got a job at Barclays Bank of Ghana – while also running a small printing press business – and told myself that I would leave in five years to pursue my real goal of working to protect children’s rights. I used my savings from my former salary and the income from my business to finance my dreams and establish Challenging Heights, which I did unofficially in 2003, and then registered in 2005.
What does the charity do and how has it changed since its inception?
When I started it, the charity was just intended to mobilise children in the community and put them together to defend themselves against trafficking, to create awareness, and to promote education among them. We started with five children, and within a year, it had grown to 100 children. When we were working with 200 children, I decided to register the charity, and until then had been funding it alone. When we grew to over 1,000 children, my personal resources were no longer enough to sustain it, so donors began financing our work.
You’re nominated for the World Children’s prize, which has previously been won by the likes of Nelson Mandela. How does it feel to have your work recognised in this way?
I’ve won eight international awards and it’s very important to me; it feels like a real feather in my cap. I live a very lonely life, one in which every minute is spent thinking about the children, but when I see them, I feel revitalised. Witnessing their progress as well as receiving recognition of this nature adds enormous energy and motivation to my work. I don’t have anybody to tell me that I’m doing well, but these awards make me feel as though people do really appreciate it.
Is child slavery still a major problem in Ghana?
It is very difficult to tell specific numbers on child slavery: we have limited official statistics on the prevalence of the situation, and because trafficking has been made illegal [in the 2005 Human Trafficking Act], those who recruit child slaves are more careful to hide what they are doing. I do ask myself whether the reduction we are observing is because the children have become invisible due to their captors’ added efforts to conceal them, but I want to believe that there has really been an improvement.
How are children’s rights treated in Ghana now compared to when you were growing up?
We’ve made some progress: over the past 15 years, the government has put in place both the Children’s Act to protect the rights of children and the Human Trafficking Act, we now have a national plan of action to eliminate child labour – and these are all positive steps forward. But my disappointment has to do with certain attitudes which do not bode well for the advancement of the cause of children: we still have government officials who do not believe that child labour exists in this country [a 2012 Unicef report found that 34% of Ghanaian children aged 5-14 are currently engaged in underage labour], and that is very difficult to work with because if the person does not believe the issue exists, we have a long way to go.
What’s your vision for Challenging Heights?
This organisation must be a strong international platform upon which children’s rights, and child protection, is vigorously pursued. I see it becoming an institution that will stand the test of time and go into research on issues relating to child protection on every level from the ground up. I want there to be the opportunity for us, as well as other children’s charities, to join in a concerted effort to advocate for the rights of children.
I believe that the government has the ultimate responsibility for the protection of children, and therefore, it should allocate sufficient resources to the cause, but we are not seeing that. I believe that the situation will change, and I want Challenging Heights to be in a position in the future to put pressure on and corroborate with the government to tackle this, and to be a force to be reckoned with when it comes to children’s rights. We’re not there yet, but we will get there.