The local economy relies almost entirely on the decaying fishing industry.
My Mother Sold Me
An inside look into child slavery in the Ghanaian fishing industry.
The Ghanaian coast feels like a war zone, where the majority of children work in very dangerous conditions to earn a living in the fishing industry. Working children are deprived of any rights, and often suffer physical abuse and sexual exploitation. Thousands of them are sold by their families and live in conditions similar to slavery. The law is not enforced. Very few cases are reported. Impunity is the norm.
The law is not enforced. Very few cases are reported. Impunity is the norm.
The most recent government data estimate that 1.5 million children in Ghana work to support their families. That’s about 20 percent of Ghanaian children. Data about child trafficking are scarce but tens of thousands of Ghanaian children are sold every year. However, government statistics about child labor and trafficking, and annual reports by the U.S. Department of State and the International Labor Organization, do not provide an accurate picture of the situation. Like similar stories around the world, so far this crisis remains an abstract statistic that has not permeated public opinion.
We prepared for over a year, and orchestrated a team of 16 professionals (including photographers, journalists, designers, human rights lawyers, and international development experts) to conduct over 100 hours of interviews with every relevant stakeholder.
In the village of Senya about 80 percent of children have been trafficked.
We did our work in three fishing communities: Senya, Fetteh and Nyanyano, representative of a situation infesting the whole region. In these three communities, about 12,000 children work in hazardous conditions. In Senya alone, about 80 percent of children have been trafficked to the lake town of Yeji, where children live as slaves. These communities were identified with the help of a Ghanaian NGO which has been fighting child labor and trafficking in the area for the past six years.
Here is a sample of the faces and voices of trafficked children, child laborers, fishermen, village chiefs, adult women and men who were child laborers or slaves and whose children are in the same situation now, school teachers, and the police.
“Our master was not a good person.”
Joe, 10, and Kwame, 12, are brothers who were sold by their mother to a fisherman in Yeji. After two years they returned home and were adopted by a family in the fishing village of Senya. Joe shares their experience of abuse, neglect and hunger. “Our master in Yeji was not a good person to us. Sometimes he would use the paddle to hit us. Sometimes he would send us to disentangle the nets, and he would hit us. We only ate once a day. One time, we were very hungry when we had to disentangle the nets. When we got it on the boat, we threw the net back into the water. We were so angry.”
“I feel trapped in this life.”
Kobina Amoasi (left) with two of his younger brothers at the shore in Nyanyano. Kobina, 21, is an inter-generational fisherman whose family forced him to drop out of school at age 14. “I don’t like fishing because it is very dangerous. I wanted to be a tailor, but now I am a fisherman. I don’t have any idea how or when I can stop. I feel trapped in this life that I have not chosen.”
Typical scenes on the shore of the fishing village of Nyanyano, where a high percentage of children are hired to work to support their families.
“My daughters hate me.”
Victoria Appah, 48, with her daughter Charity, 27, at the shore in Senya. Victoria sold Charity and another one of her children to traffickers in the lake town of Yeji. “When my daughters returned from Yeji, they had scars from scorpion stings and snake bites. They were malnourished and covered in rashes. They don’t like to talk about what happened there, but to this day they scream in the middle of the night. They cannot fully close their fingers to make a fist because of their work on the nets. They don’t have any respect for me and they hate me. When they are angry with me, they remind me that I sold them. They are also angry at their sisters who didn’t go to Yeji and attended school. It has destroyed our family.”
“Women here don’t have the power to decide their children’s future.”
Efuwa, 65, with her mother Ekuwa, 85, outside their home in the fishing village of Nyanyano. Efuwa is a fishmonger with eight children. Efuwa believes child labor has weakened the role of women in the community. “Women in this village don’t have the power to decide the future of their children.”
“I’ve been beaten brutally so many times.”
Kofi, 20, on the right with a green shirt, boarding his boat on the shore of Senya. Kofi was sold to a fisherman in Yeji by his mother when he was a child. Due to the harsh conditions, he escaped and returned to Senya. He still works under a fisherman today. “I’ve been beaten brutally so many times, frequently by the captain of the boat with the thick ropes we used on the ships. Children don’t complain because they believe the beatings are part of training. If I ever own a boat, I would treat the children on my boat the way I was treated. Authorities are never on the shore, so they don’t really know what’s going on.”
“We feel guilty for hiring children.”
John Ackom, 38, at the bar he manages in the fishing village of Nyanyano. Besides the bar, a social hub for local fishermen, John is a fisherman himself who began working at the age of 15 and now employs two children to work on his boat. “I always hear fisherman at the bar talking about how guilty they feel for hiring children and putting them in danger. We all feel sad. We all regret taking the children to sea. But I don’t think of it as slavery.”
“I carry fish six days a week since I was a child.”
Regina Addo, 42, at her one-room house in Nyanyano, where she lives with her husband and five other members of her family. She has been a fishmonger since the age of ten. After 30 years of work, she is in chronic pain and remains trapped in poverty. “I carry fish six days a week since I was a child. As a child, I worked twelve hours a day and sometimes had to fight for my fish. I walked long distances without wearing shoes. My feet were often cut and I always had pains and aches in my back and neck. I still feel these pains today. I haven’t felt happy for a long time. I hope my work will help provide a better life for my six children.”
“I regret sending my daughter away.”
Vivian Nunu, 39, with her daughter Helena, 12, at home in Fetteh. Vivian, a widow, sent her daughter to live and work for another woman who had promised to educate her in return. “I visited my daughter a year after she left home. When I got there and saw her, I just bowed my head. I couldn’t believe my eyes. She was very lean and her bones protruded from her skin. I brought her home and she was unable to digest food. She was admitted to the hospital, where she nearly died. As a mother, I really regret what I did. It was a difficult decision for me to send my daughter away, but I thought it was her best chance to be educated. Instead, she was exploited and malnourished.”
“Children at sea can be easily exploited.”
Nana Obrenudabum III, 78, is the Chief Fisherman in the fishing village of Fetteh. He was educated and spent most of his life working in various capacities as a bureaucrat in Accra before returning to his place of birth to assume the inherited role of Chief Fisherman, but hasn’t taken proactive action to end child labor abuse. “We are overpopulated and over-fishing in the coastal towns. The industry is no longer profitable but it’s what people here know how to do. Unless they are educated, they will never know anything better than fishing. When the children go to the seaside, they take any job and can be easily exploited. They need to go to school but poverty and irresponsible parenting, many times from teenage pregnancy, lead to children being sent to work the sea. To end this practice we need support and financing, and new motors for our boats to lessen manual labor. I can’t do anything on my own.”
“Parents don’t report the abuse, so nothing is done.”
George Arthur, 72, is a headmaster of a junior high school in Nyanyano. He has worked for years to reintegrate many trafficked children. “When parents sell their children, the children’s love for their parents goes away. The children do not know that they are going to face such harsh conditions, and they will not understand how their parents did that to them. Children become traumatized. They change from compassionate children into perpetually angry youth. Our children tell us about the abuse, and we tell their parents. But parents don’t report anything to authorities, so nothing is done.”
“I feel blessed.”
Qunachi Seth, 54, is a fisherman who relies on child labor to support his livelihood in James Town, Accra, one of the poorest communities in the country. He employs 20 children, and claims to pay them around 15 Ghanaian Cedis (about USD $4) for a good batch of fish. He does not pay them if they have a bad day. “I would rather have my children working and learning how to fish, instead of going to school with no guarantee of a job. I know fishing is dangerous, but I feel blessed. I just hope God protects us.”
“No one could stop me from taking my nephew back home.”
Philip Baah, 54, at his shop in Senya. Philip is a well-respected tailor in Senya who rescued his nephew from the lake town of Yeji after his sister had sold the boy to traffickers. “My sister sold my nephew when I was working in Liberia. When I returned to Senya, she told me that she had sold him and I immediately raced to Yeji to get him back. No one could stop me from taking him back home.”
“Child trafficking isn’t that criminal.”
Detective Sargent James Achampong, 44, has been a member of Senya police department for the past eight years. “Child trafficking isn’t that criminal. It’s not like someone is assaulted. We are here in case someone reports a trafficked child, but we can’t do anything about it until a report is made. Very few people report the trafficking cases, though. We can only manage the trafficking problem from our office. We cannot do raiding or investigations to enforce the law.”
“There is no justice.”
Efua Abrekum, in her fifties, at her home in the fishing village of Fetteh. She has worked as a fishmonger since she was as a young child. Efua had her first child at fifteen years of age and currently all three of her children work sporadically as fishermen when they are hired as part of a crew. “Every year children die at sea in Fetteh. Despite these deaths there is no justice. When a child dies, fishermen are simply investigated and must pay for the child’s funeral. Life then goes on and the cycle continues. Because fishing is our only source of livelihood we conform to injustice and impunity.”
This project was produced by DAWNING. It is an independent effort, self-funded, non-partisan and non-ideological, in the tradition of social science and journalism in the public service.
Project Director: Raul Roman
Executive Editors: Monica Gumm and Lonnie Schlein
Fieldwork Logistics Manager: Eric Agyemang
Creative Director: Joey Rosa
Research Assistants and Translators: Ahegbebu Freeman and Oppong Nyantakyi
Interviews, Transcripts, and Photography:
Akshatvishal Chaturvedi, Camille Dixon, Ian Ermatinger-Salas, Kelsey Gryniewicz, Monica Gumm, Jackie Plaza, Saurabh Singh, Alex Stambaugh, Brian Wilhemi, David Wilkes, Lonnie Schlein, Joey Rosa, and Raul Roman.