It is 12 a.m. at Adakope, a fishing community in the Krachi East Municipality of the Oti region.
Dark police boots take crunchy steps into the night sands of the sleeping village. The steps are at first slow and anxious. And then fast and determined as armed police officers close in on their targets.
“Where is Adonai?” an officer, gun by his side, barks into a house, turning his head quickly to scan the house for possible threats and for the face of a small boy whose picture he holds in his hand.
A lanky, dark boy steps forward with the frightened look children make when pleading innocence in domestic “crimes”.
A strong hand clutches his arm before, suddenly, the police officer’s barking voice melts into fatherly care.
“We won’t harm you,” he says and walks the boy to parked police vehicles, where Adonai will find he is not alone. There are other children too.
Nine children in all.
On this October 4, 2020, targeted operation, five suspected traffickers were arrested. One had a gun.
And after flustering several households, the muddy tyres of three police pick-up trucks and a van left the awoken fishing community, vanishing into the night with their own catch—trafficked children.
The scale of child labour and trafficking on the Volta Lake
Several of them had been trafficked into lives of slavery on Lake Volta, the world’s fourth largest water reservoir, with a shoreline along which 1,232 fishing villages do not just make a living but also make life a living hell for children.
Child trafficking carries a minimum of a five-year prison sentence, according to the 2005 Human Trafficking Act, amended in 2009. Several laws kick in when a child is a victim of trafficking. The Children’s Act of 1998 , the Labour Act of 2003, the Criminal and Other Offences Act of 1960, and the Domestic Violence Act, 2006 (Act 732) list criminal offences and punishments meant to protect children from economic exploitation, inhumane treatment, and child labour.
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), “Child labor is work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and interferes with their schooling by: depriving them of the opportunity to attend school; obliging them to leave school prematurely; or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.”
On the Volta Lake, child labour is rife.
In 2014, the Ghana Statistical Service (GSS) Child Labour Survey found that in all three regions along the Volta Lake, around one in three children were reportedly engaged in child labour, including fishing. An International Justice Mission report counted 771 children working on the southern Lake Volta waters in 2013. More than half of these children (56% or 444) were trafficked into forced labour.
Each year, new children are brought to the lake for a life of criminal servitude. One such child is Adonai Owu, 12, who said he was trafficked to work on boats when he was seven years old. His first port of slavery was at Gadakope, and later Adakope. He said his father, alias ‘Papa Stay, gave him out to a boat master called “Manager”.
Under his caretaker, Adonai said fishing started at about 4 a.m. until they docked back at 10 a.m. By that time, the first lessons in class were already lost. Adonia would have to try and catch up in class.
Faced with this setback, he said he often missed the entire school day. In Basic Two and aged 12, Adonai said he did not know the name of his school, except the name of his teacher he recalled as Mohammed.
His education was slipping away. But the fishes in his net were not. Adonai watched out for them in the net. But he also watched out for slaps, for the boat master could get angry over anything, anything like celebrating a good catch.
Adonai recounted one of the days he was beaten. “No one was home,” he told The Fourth Estate. He went around looking for food. “Manager” was pissed to learn about that later, he said. And as the boy stood before his incensed boss, his dark cheeks were too exposed in an environment of tantrums.
“He slapped so hard blood came from my ears,” he remembered that day. Alarmed, his boat master took him to the hospital for treatment. Adonai said the hospital was not the only place they visited for treatment. They tried some remedies with herbal medicine practitioners in the community.
Sometimes when he inserted a finger into his ear, it fetches blood, he said.
There were occasions the children gathered to play. On one such occasion, they gave themselves nicknames. He chose the name, “Body Bony.”
When you call out “Body Bony!” He flashes a wide, boisterous smile and responds; “senior man; no one cares!” He could not explain to me why he chose that playful response.
“Body Bony,” I said. “Senior man, no one cares,” he said and smiled.
Picking up intelligence over a ball of kenkey
Far back in Accra, a group of investigators had held a meeting at the Dambai police on how to rescue children like ”Body Bony”.
“I got to know him [Adonai] and others following some intelligence gathering in August,” a source close to the police told The Fourth Estate.
Through intelligence-gathering, a resident at Adakope spilled the beans over a ball of kenkey. And it set the ball rolling.
“That was when he began pointing out all the fishermen and boat masters who had ‘imported’ other people’s children to come and fish,” a source close to the police said.
On a fairly cold night on October 4, 2022, at 10 p.m., about two dozen police officers in Dambai met to go over the rescue plan one last time.
“You are going on a rescue mission,” the police commander said. “I will not mention the name of the location, but you will know when we get there.”
He showed the officers pictures of all the victims. Then he urged his men to be at their professional best during the operation.
The armed officers hopped into pick-ups concealed in the bucket and sped off in a two-hour journey into a community cut off from strangers by bushes and bad roads.
That night, Fosu, a 12-year-old boy, remembered sleeping a little angry and disappointed. His favourite team, Barcelona had lost a UEFA Champions League match against Inter Millan.
“The defenders were not good,” he tried his hands at punditry. He only had good words for Lewandowski, the striker. Fosu had walked from a nearby community to watch the game on DSTV at a house at Adakope. It was now late.
He felt it would be safer to sleep in Adakope and go back to his boat master in the morning. It was safer. But it got one better, and it became his freedom.
When the police picked up Adonai and the others, they also picked up Fosu. He was mentioning the names of other trafficked children to the police even during the operation. Fosu was the least frightened of the children.
“I had always wanted to leave,” he said in Dangbe. Fosu said he had been praying to God about it. This December was to be his month of escape if he saved enough money. He would learn there was no price for his freedom as the police picked him up although he was not part of the original list.
The rescued children have driven two hours away from Adakope to a facility where their personal hygiene became a priority.
“Today, when they were brushing, did you get any blood?” a team member of International Justice Mission, Yvonne, asked her colleague.
“Oh plenty”, another officer replied almost nonchalantly.
That morning they found blood in Fosu’s urine, a suspected case of Bilharzia. Another boy, Patrick, looking emaciated, had what looked like guinea worm that had drawn the map of Europe over the back of his neck.
Some of the children complained of stomach aches in suspected cases of ulcers. Headaches were common complaints among the victims.
Some of the children came from broken homes.
Sam was sent to labour on the lake with a relative because his mother did not want him to stand in her way of marrying a man she had met. Part of the conditions for the marriage was that he left home. He did. His sending-off is a criminal offence under the Human Trafficking Act. According to the law, a person who provides another person for purposes of trafficking commits an offense even when the provider is a parent.
The children in that rescue, not older than 12 years, all recounted stories of deprivation. Abedenego said he was the third of his parent’s seven children. At 11 years, Abedenego said he had never been to school.
Even in the comfort of a new and safe environment in Dambai, at least one child wanted to return to the lake.
“I have to go back to the lake otherwise my boat master won’t pay my father his money,” he said. He mentioned a balance of 500 cedis in what appeared to be a two-year contract of exploitation.
When the children had breakfast. Adonai commented, “I have never eaten bread with fried egg before.” He was the most playful in his new environment, jumping on the mattress and flipping the switch over and over again.
On Thursday, October 6, 2020, the children got ready to leave for a shelter at an undisclosed location. They could not stay in their current location for long because of possible attacks from the trafficking community.
The Department of Social Welfare would be working to locate their parents while the police would screen the suspects and charge them where appropriate.
The International Justice Mission (IJM) would continue supporting the police to stop child trafficking in Ghana and free other children somewhere on the lake, longing to see their parents.
There are hundreds of such trafficked children in fishing communities along the Volta Lake. They yearn for their freedom, like Moheb, who on the night of the rescue, had gone to bed in a T-shirt with “All I see is victory” inscribed on it and was woken at dawn by the police to find he had gained it.
All the reporter’s interviews with the victims of child trafficking were conducted in the presence of a social welfare officer and the police. The interviews were conducted in Dangbe. The identities of the children have been changed to protect them.
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