Now that we are down in Winneba we are working with Challenging Heights (CH), an organization that works to rescue enslaved children within the fishing industry and provide support and education to their local community members. One opportunity we have been afforded was a trip to Lake Volta to see the villages where children are enslaved. Janaan (Honors College staff), Eric and Kaleigh (students), and myself ventured off on this trip. Beth and Christine (another student) stayed behind to continue their work at the Challenging Heights School.
This trip to Lake Volta was very eye opening. We left early on Wednesday, July 14th and it took us over 10 hours to get to our location. We stayed in small town as it was too late to go to Lake Volta on Wednesday. We had to be ready at 5:30 a.m. to drive to Lake Volta (about 45 minutes away, as the hotel we stayed at was safer than the locations closer to the lake). Only to find that the van would not start, we had a slight delay but we finally made it to Lake Volta.
We had a 45 minute ride in the Challenging Heights wooden boat. Just to give you all a little taste of this, imagine two man navigating a large boat just by one handling the motor and the other giving directions from the front of the boat. Mind you, there are a ton of trees in Lake Volta that the men had to avoid!! Just a little history on Lake Volta. It was constructed during the years of 1961-1965 where the Akosombo Dam blocked Volta River to create Lake Volta.
While heading to one of the villages, William (an employee of Challenging Heights, who coordinates the rescues) showed us children on boats that are likely to be taken from their families. It was so hard to watch children working on the fishing boats, when they should be in school. This children work long days and are not being educated at all. What is even more sad is that the fishermen send their children away to go to school, but find it completely okay to take other children and make them work. At one point Janaan said to William, "Can't we just take the children and save them!" William replied, "What would we do with them?" Challenging Heights rescues children only after gaining permission from their parents. The parents will share any information about the fishermen that took the child and other knowledge that can be useful in the rescue. Challenging Heights then will try to work with the fishermen to educate them on why it is not okay to take the children. Once an agreement is settled, Challenging Heights takes the child to the rehabilitation center for treatment (around 50 days). These children are traumatized and are not in the best condition, but the staff work to help rehabilitate the child. Once the child completes their time at the center, they are immersed back into their parents or extended families home. There is no foster care system here. William's response was telling as it revealed how much more progress needs to be made here in Ghana.
We met with the chief of the village to ask questions about his thoughts about what is happening in his community. We found out that the chief even has children that have been enslaved working for him. James Annan (the founder of Challenging Heights) shared on our return that the chief supports this behavior as he makes money with using the children. James was enslaved into the fishing industry from the ages of 6-13, and was able to finally escape.
Before this trip I will admit, I was nervous to see the villages, the fishermen but most of all the enslaved children. We did not go too far on Lake Volta so we did not see the worst parts. While in the village we did see children that were working to untangle the fishing nets and working in the village, which we were informed that these children were most likely enslaved. Some of the children are taken at such a young age they do not even realize they have been taken from their parents (James shared this information with us). Can you imagine? These children are working so hard while other children are sitting next to them working on school work. These enslaved children are not even given the opportunity to receive and education, but rather to just work for the fishermen and his family. We spent about 2 1/2 to 3 hours at the village, but had to return as the weather did not look good. I am glad I went to see the village and get a better understanding of where the children (at Challenging Heights) are coming from. It was hard to take in, but most definitely worth it.
On our return, we were expecting to return to Winneba around 4-5 p.m. on July 15th, but that did not happen. Our van began to have problems, so we had to stop in Kumasi (a large city in Ghana) to switch vans. We drove for over 12 hours to get back to Winneba. There were moments where we were in isolated areas in the "bush" (in Ghana, known as the wilderness/jungle areas). We were told by the Challenging Heights coordinator that there are areas in Ghana that there are armed robberies and we would need to be careful! I will admit I was a little worried after that comment but we made it home safely a little after 1 a.m.
While James works to rescue those children enslaved, he also provides a variety of opportunities for his local community both rescued and not rescued children and their families. One project that CH has created is the Survivor's Support Network. This program is for the child that has been rescued, but also for the mothers. CH provides the child with a desk and chair in their home as well as paying for school supplies. The mothers are also given a grant to help them create some sort of trade/business that can help them get on their feet and support their child. If the student does not go to school, the grant will turn into a loan with a 30% interest rate. This helps to ensure the family is supporting the child's education. Another program CH has created is Skills Training, this is where older kids are out of school, but are learning one of the trade/skill that they can use to support themselves (ex. seamstress, driving, carpentry, hair stylist, welding). In addition to learning the trade, the person will have a literacy course once a week and in the future the plan is to teach about business management.
These are just two of the many programs that Challenging Heights provides to the community of Winneba. Our group was able to spend an entire day with James as he shared the many opportunities for the local community members but also for future service learning opportunities GVSU students.