Africa’s bitter cycle of child slavery

Rebecca Agwu told her 5-year-old son, John, not to cry when she sent him away to live with relatives four years ago. Mary Mootey sent away her 4-year-old son, Evans, telling him he was going off to school. The two boys, now 9, from the same town in Ghana, ended up being forced to work 14 hours a day fishing on Lake Volta and being beaten for the smallest lapse.

Rewind about two decades: Rebecca Agwu was a child herself when her mother sent her away to live with an aunt.

“I cried,” Agwu, 30, recalls. “I didn’t want to go, but my mother deceived me that when I went, my aunt would teach me a trade.” Instead she was forced to be a domestic worker.

“I never trusted her again. I felt very betrayed.”


Evans’ mother, when she was 8, was sent by her father to her uncle, a fisherman on Lake Volta, where she was forced to work from 3 a.m. until dark -- cleaning, carting water, cooking and gutting fish.

“My father never loved me when I was young,” says Mootey, 35. “I hate him, because he caused all the pain and suffering I went through. I hate him.”

For generations, Ghana and other West African nations have served as a hub for child trafficking and slavery. An estimated 200,000 children in West and Central Africa perform unpaid labor. They are given minimal food and clothing, are deprived of schooling and medical care and are often subjected to physical abuse. Recent laws outlawing slavery in many African countries have had limited effect.

Slavery has a long history in these parts. The Elmina Castle on Ghana’s Cape Coast, one of the departure points for the 18th and 19th century slave trade to the Americas, each year draws thousands of African American visitors seeking their roots.

Elmina’s dank, black dungeons lead to the “room of no return,” with its moldy green walls and oppressive atmosphere. “May humanity never again perpetrate such inhumanity against humanity,” reads a plaque at the fortress.

‘I was afraid they would kill me’

But today, thousands of Ghanaian children are in unpaid servitude, having been sold for $30 to $50, nongovernmental groups say. Girls are often forced to work as domestic laborers, carting water, fetching wood, sweeping, cleaning, farming, washing, cooking, and in fishing families, cutting up fish and smoking it. They are often sexually abused.

Boys are mostly sent to fish on Lake Volta, where they are taught to swim by being repeatedly thrown off a boat with a rope tied around their waist.

The stories of two mothers and two sons, forced into servitude two decades apart, are equally painful. Agwu’s memories of 13 years of domestic labor and beatings are as bitter and sharp as if they had happened yesterday.

“I was afraid all the time. I felt I was nobody. I used to cry myself to sleep.”

Her son’s words evoke similar pain. Sent to work for a fisherman, he had to bail out his boat, pull in heavy nets and dive to free snagged ones.

“I always thought I would die in the water, because I was afraid,” the mother said. “My master used to beat me and his wife did too. I cried morning and night. I was afraid they would kill me.”

Mary Mootey’s hands are scarred from the spines of the fish she gutted.

“I always used to cry when I was forced to do something and I was tired and I couldn’t do it quickly so they’d beat me. I used to cry a lot.”

She worked nine years and was raped several times before she managed to escape, she said. Thinking about the past still hurts.

When her brother, a Lake Volta fisherman who also had been a child slave, offered to send Evans to school, she says, she trusted him.

“I was not working and I had a lot of children. I had no option,” said Mootey, who is unemployed. “I never thought he’d use him on the lake.”

Evans felt betrayed when he was forced to go with his uncle.

“My mother told me I was going to attend school but when I got there, there was no school, so I thought she’d deceived me.”

He survived terrifying storms on the lake. He saw three boys drown, he says.

Evenings, they had to empty the nets of fish and load them back into the canoe. “But sometimes when we were tired and hungry we’d lie in the canoe and our master would come and beat us.”

He can’t understand why his “master” -- his own uncle, who had suffered the same torment -- put him through it too.

“He wasn’t educated, so he didn’t want me to be educated. I can’t understand the reason he did that.”

Winning freedom through persuasion

On market day, the town of Dambai on the Oti River near Lake Volta is packed with vendors selling smoked fish.

Ragged children sit in small wooden boats, or carry baskets. George Achibra, slave rescuer, points them out.

He doesn’t forget a child’s face. And when he finds a fisherman unwilling to free his slave children, it only makes Achibra more determined. A former school inspector, Achibra gave up his job in 2006 in Kete Krachi on Lake Volta to rescue children working on the lake. He says he has saved 216 children for various groups, including the Texas-based Touch A Life Foundation and a Ghanaian organization, Pacodep.

“Hundreds of children work on this lake. Their masters don’t have the love to take them to hospitals. They don’t get enough to eat. Their shelter is poor,” he says.

He approaches fishermen and tries to persuade them to free the children and let them attend school. Some get angry and force him to leave, he said. Some move their children to a different place. But sometimes he wins.

His weapons: persuasion and his wide, gleaming smile. “I’ve never sneaked. All my approach is negotiations,” he says.

In a canoe on the shore of the river sits a woman wearing a lime dress and scarf. Near her is a bony child in a red shirt and threadbare shorts. Achibra only has to look at the boy’s face to see that he is a slave.

“I’m here to solve your problems,” says Achibra, approaching the woman, named Amu Kodor, with a grin. She chuckles at Achibra’s jokes. She answers his questions. The boy’s name is Francis. The family has four other slave children.

But her eyes dart about uncomfortably when Achibra tells her that the boy must be freed so he can go to school. Francis Tei, 13, stares at Achibra in amazement, his eyes screwed up in the bright sun. But Kodor’s face has turned serious. She shakes her head.

When she was a child, she says, her parents sent her away into slavery too, selling clothes.

“It was no good. I had to run away,” she says.

When a Times reporter asks why Francis should also suffer, she’s silent for a moment. “I have all my children in school,” she replies. Only “the master” [her husband] can free the child, she says.

“He’s in charge of this boy.”

Achibra plans a trip to rescue Francis and the others.

Going through photos of children he has rescued, he points to one skinny child.

“We haven’t rescued him yet. But we’ll get him.”

Fishermen sometimes tell Achibra they hate what he’s doing.

Difficult choices for freed children

Isaac Saki was 5 when his mother sold him and his brother to a stranger. He worked on fishing boats for two years, saw 16 boys drown, and often dreamed of his own watery death. After two years the brothers were rescued and sent home.

A month later his mother sold them to another man, Philip.

“I thought my mother didn’t love me, because if she loved me, she wouldn’t send me away for money,” Isaac says. “Philip was worse. He used to beat us nearly every day.”

After his older brother escaped, “that was the worst beating I ever had.”

Rescued by Achibra, Isaac, now 10, lives with about 20 children in a refuge outside Accra, Ghana’s capital, run by the U.S.-based City of Refuge Ministries. He is also going to school.

Cases like his have fueled debate on whether rescued slave children are better off with their mothers or in orphanages and refuges.

Gideon Degbe, 12, who also lives in the refuge, remembers the day his mother sold him and his brother Geshon, then 3, to a fisherman. She walked away without looking back.

“I loved her when I was with her. But since she sent me to that man, I never loved her again,” said Gideon, who has scars on his head from his master hitting him with a paddle. “I’d never go back to her.”

But some groups, such as the International Organization for Migration, focus on reuniting children with parents and supporting their education.

Both John and Evans were rescued and returned home, and both are now at school. It was only after Evans was rescued that Mootey learned he hadn’t been going to school, but had been working.

“He cried when he came back,” she says. “I also cried because my son had suffered the same pain I went through. That’s what hurt me most.

“I was really angry because I never imagined my brother would do such a thing to his own nephew.”

To break the chain, she says, one generation must be freed and get an education.

“I believe my son will be the one.”