Sunday, February 4, 2007

Bread Winners

On Friday, I visited a town called Sogakope (pronounced shooga-kopay) in the southeastern part of the country, near where Lake Volta meets the Gulf of Guinea. I was there with Renee and Eva, and two interns from The Statesman, the newspaper that Eva is working for. They were working on a story about child trafficking, to be published in next Saturday’s paper. We had come to meet a man who runs a program to rescue children who had been sold off by the parents to work in the fishery mostly, but also to work on cattle farms or as servants in people’s homes.

We arrived in Sogakope after a two-hour bus ride from the city. The landscape was flat, and the roads dusty. A tree-lined boulevard cut through the town, with street vendors and shops on both sides of the road. Most of the vendors sold loaves of homemade white bread, and it was a mad scramble every time a bus or a tro-tro passed through town and stopped to pick up or drop off passengers. The bread business was fiercely competitive because so many people were doing it; they came running from every direction, swarming the bus or tro-tro on all sides, sticking the loaves of bread through the windows at potential customers.

This aspect of Ghanaian life reminds me very much of India. Street vendors are very common in both places, and many of them serve people passing through places on buses and trains, in the case of India. They’re very aggressive generally and have to work fast because the buses are only making a very short stop. It’s common for them to be running along the bus as it takes off, collecting money from a customer or frantically trying to make a last-second sale.

From the bus stop we walked about a kilometer to the centre that rescues and reintegrate trafficked children into their families and communities. Peter Debra, the supervisor of the program, met us there. Peter is 68-year-old retired schoolteacher with nine children and 14 grandchildren. He told us that his retirement project was helping rescue children from a slave-like life and getting them to their families and into school.

The program was currently suspended because they had lost their Danish funding partner, but Peter was hopeful that he could continue his work once a new one was found. The Catholic Church leased the land to the centre, which resembled a summer camp. It had two dormitories – one for the girls and one for the boys. We saw the boys’ house, which had bunk beds and no fans, I noticed. The heat must been unbearable when this place was full, though that would probably have been overlooked by them, so glad would they have been to escape the misery of their lives in slavery.

There were no children living there at the time, so Peter had asked some mothers and their children to come meet with us. They were all families that had been reunited with the kids.

The program had many phases.

It conducted education campaigns in towns and cities around region, informing people through media stories and community meetings that selling kids into slavery was both illegal and very harmful to the children.

They conducted searches for children who had been sold off, and went on rescue missions to bring them back and locate their families.

Before they returned home the kids came to the centre and stayed there for a period of time, which could be weeks depending on the child. They got them back into kid-like routines – eating three meals, getting a good night’s sleep, playing with each other, getting used the idea of school again with lessons in the one-room school house on the grounds.

They also got medical check-ups and treatment for things that happened to them while they were away. Some of the boys had damaged eardrums from diving too deep to free nets from rocks and tree stumps in the water. Some of the girls had been raped. They were also given psychological counseling, depending on the emotional issues they were still dealing with. “A lot of the kids were rough, not well-adjusted, because they had been mistreated,” said Peter.

When the kids went home, the centre gave the families a sum of money. It also bought them school uniforms, books, and paid their school fees.

All of these kids came from very poor families that didn’t mean to harm them. They weren’t greedy for money and uncaring for the plight of their children. They were desperate in most cases, and the fishermen, cattle farmers, et cetera, offered them a way out of poverty by giving them money in exchange for their kids. They also consoled them by saying that the kids would learn a trade, and be better able to provide for themselves and their families in the future. It was a generations-old practice that was hard to stamp out even though it was now against the law.

The women and children that agreed to meet with us were shy and didn’t speak much English, a sign that they hadn’t received much formal education. Peter had to translate our questions and their responses, which made it difficult to learn their stories in great detail. I studied their faces and expressions, but they were very shy and didn’t betray much emotion. They were kind to us, though, and warm. Most of the Ghanaians I’ve met – except the practiced ones like politicians and NGO workers – have been very shy of media interviews.

A brief sketch of one of the children (next week I’ll put up a link to the article that’s published in The Statesman): One little boy was taken away from his mother by his older stepbrother. This was more common than I thought – kids being enslaved by family members. I found this surprising and difficult to understand because we all tend to think (or hope) that family members will do right by each other, something we know isn’t always true no matter where you come from. The little boy worked from 3 in the morning until late at night, repairing nets and diving to free lines. He had been beaten regularly, and nearly drowned many times from diving in deep, wavy waters. He appeared emotionally scarred to us, because he slumped in his chair during the interview and talked reluctantly, rarely making eye contact. You had to be careful not to read much into his behaviour, though, because we were journalists conducting an interview. One family refused to come out for an interview because they feel the media exploits their stories, and makes them feel ashamed for what they’ve done.

We left the centre about one o’clock, and walked toward town for lunch. As we headed off down the street, I heard the clip-clop sound of little feet running up from behind me. Suddenly there was a little boy – maybe two or three years old – walking alongside me holding on to my baby finger. He was too shy to look at me; he stared at the ground instead. He had an un-inflated pink balloon beween his teeth that he chewed and blew on. I tried to lean over and talk to him, but he was too shy. He walked along and swung my arm until we hit the end of the street. His mother called him back before he could disappear around the corner with us.

Before we headed home, we had lunch at a chop shop (the name for restaurants here). I had rice, noodles and fish.
As we were about to leave, I saw a malnourished little kitten wandering around the restaurant. I walked back to the table and my plate was still there. I scraped flecks of fish off the bones and fed them to the kitten.

- Mark


Anonymous said...

Hi Mark,
We are enjoying your blogs. You certainly are having quite a lot of experiences.
Love, Mummy and Daddy

Anonymous said...

Hi Mark,
I found it interesting to read about the children sold into slavery by their parents. Last week while doing some ironing I turned on Oprah and I think it was Lucy Lu or someone who had been to Ghana and was showing about the children sold to fishermen and showed a rescue mission to free some of them and showed the rehab school set up for them.