Sold by their parents, around 20,000 children work on the lake, enslaved by the fishermen they call “master.”
Dawn breaks over the water. Adam leads a column of five other boys through the high, golden grass to the softly lapping edge of Lake Volta in Ghana’s central region. The group of boys will spend the better part of the day fishing under a hot equatorial sun.
They’ve come from different towns, at different times, but they all have one thing in common. Each one of them was bought by the same fisherman to come and work as his slave.
Enslaved on the lake
“Every morning we wake up and we go to the lake, we paddle, remove the nets,” says Adam. “Then we come back, remove the fish, prepare the nets for the next casting and around 4pm, we go back to cast the net.”
Adam doesn’t know his own age, but appears to be about 12-years-old. He estimates he’s worked for Samuel, the man he calls “master,” for around three years. “I don’t want to be here,” says Adam. “I want to go to school, but I’m forced to be here.”
Adam is just one of 20,000 children on Lake Volta who the International Labour Organization reports are working for slave masters.
Most of the children come to the lake from hundreds of miles away. They are sold by their desperately poor parents to human traffickers, sometimes for as little as $250, which in this area, is what it would cost to purchase a cow.
CNN joined Adam and five other enslaved children working for Samuel, to witness what a typical day on the lake looks like for them. It started in the pre-dawn hours. The young crew loaded the gear onto a wooden boat and pushed off into the water.
By 9am, they had spent several hours on the boat. At one point, there was a shout from Samuel. Adam’s head lowered. He took off his shirt and swung his legs over the gunwale of the boat, disappearing under the surface of the dark brown, murky water.
“When he says you should dive, you have no option. The fearful part is that you might not come back,” Adam says. “That’s what I fear most. You can be stuck down there and never come up. That’s why I’m so scared and don’t want to work on the lake anymore.”
For children like Adam, diving under the water to untangle fishing nets caught on submerged tree branches is incredibly dangerous. And it’s one of the reasons adults use children on the lake. Their smaller frames and nimble fingers allow them to free the nets more easily.
Of course, there are other reasons as well: since they are smaller than adults, they take up less room on the boats and can be dominated physically by their masters. This in turn, means there isn’t much of a fight when they don’t get paid for their work, which is always.
A flooded land
While slavery may be as old as recorded history, the problem of children being used in the fishing industry on Lake Volta is not.
The lake was only created in 1965, when Ghana constructed a hydro-electric dam downstream, using funds from the Word Bank, the United States, and the United Kingdom. The dam now supplies all of Ghana’s electricity, with the surplus sold to neighboring countries.
Lake Volta is considered the largest man-made lake by surface area in the world. Much of the land that was flooded was forest, and trees still stand just below the surface.
“Some people might think because the lake is so big, it would be difficult to find them (child slaves). But it’s not, and that’s the heartbreaking thing,” says George Achibra, Jr., projects coordinator for the Partners in Community Development Programme (PACODEP).
At 3,283 square miles (8,502 square km), it is only slightly smaller in size than the country of Cyprus or the US territory of Puerto Rico. Source: maps4news.com/@HERE
Search and rescue
PACODEP is a Ghana-based non-profit which rescues the children they meet on the lake, then provides them with shelter and a chance to go to school. Their shelter, called Village of Life, houses roughly 100 children at any given time, most of whom have been trafficked on the lake.
Achibra says, in their experience, it’s nearly impossible to reunite the children with their families, because the parents are the ones who sold them in the first place. Extreme poverty often forced parents into a ghastly choice: whether to sell one child to traffickers, to provide money for their other children to eat.
“We've realized that when we rescue these children and give them back to their family, they don't really take care of them, but end up re-trafficking them,” he says. It was through Achibra, PACODEP and the Polish-based Kulczyk Foundation, which supports them, that CNN met Adam.
Samuel: Fisherman and slave master
Achibra had first encountered the boat with Adam and his master, Samuel, several days earlier. He began speaking with Samuel about using children that are not his, to fish on the lake.
“I try to build a rapport with the master,” says Achibra. “Because he has paid money to the family and he has purposefully brought him here to the lake to work, I can’t take them by force. Anything can happen on the lake.”
Two days later and back at the village, negotiations began in earnest under the shade of a thatched roof. At stake, the freedom of six children. First though, Samuel was asked to explain how he came to obtain the children he now enslaves.
“I normally visit various homes and get these boys to come help,” says Samuel, through an interpreter. “What this typically requires is to sit down with the family, with a mother or father or relative, sit down with them and agree on terms before you take the child. If your son stays with me for three years, the family normally requests a cow.”
When asked how he feels about putting children in danger to enrich himself, Samuel’s answer is startling:
“If one of the children dies while working on the lake, I sit down with the parents and we talk.”
We all know that working on the lake is very dangerous and anything can happen,” says Samuel. “But one thing I can say, is in this world, if you don’t set a trap, you can’t catch fish. So in order to live, you have to find a way.”
In Ghana, the minimum age for workers is 15. But that law is rarely enforced. The US State Department, in its annual report on human trafficking around the world, spotlighted the problem on Lake Volta when it stated “more than half of the children working on and around the lake were born in other communities and many of these children are subjected to forced labor; not allowed to attend school; given inadequate housing and clothing; and are controlled by fishermen through intimidation, violence, and limiting access to food.”
For its part, the government in Ghana is aware of the problem and working, albeit slowly, to remove children. In 2017, the country hosted its “National Child Labor Day” in the lakeside town of Kete Krachi, to call awareness to the issue. There is also an effort to register all the boats on the lake, which could make it easier to track down and punish fishermen using child slaves.
“We haven’t started implementation yet,” says Prince Latif Oyekunle, the Deputy Chief Executive of the Krachi West District. “But we have discussed it at the executive committee meeting and at some general assembly meetings and a go ahead has been given.”
In the meantime, Achibra and an armed local police officer he’s brought with him, continue their work on the lake. Identifying children working for someone who is not related to them, then engaging in sometimes protracted negotiations with the fisherman. With Samuel, it meant listening to the concerns about how we would feed his own family, if he turned over the children to them.
They explain to Samuel, however, he has only two options: the first, is to release the boys peacefully. The second, is to resist. But to do so means he be arrested and go to jail, while the boys are removed forcibly from his custody.
“If you are taking him off the lake ... he can’t go for trafficked children anymore.”
The ultimatum works, as it often does in cases like this.
Samuel agrees to release all six boys, but with a condition. He will turn over two boys immediately, including Adam. He also promises to release the other four boys in the following days, once they’ve finished off a bit more work.
As part of the discussion, Achibra had offered to help Samuel develop an irrigation system around his home, so he can focus on farming, rather than fishing.
“I think this is the best way,” says Achibra. “Because if we give him anything like money or nets, it means we are encouraging him to go for more children. But if you are taking him off the lake into grounds work, it means he can’t go for trafficked children anymore.”
The rescued boys, heading towards the Village of Life
Outsiders might think Achibra could grow frustrated going to the lake before dawn, day after day, meeting with the traffickers individually and then negotiating for the release of just a handful of boys - especially given the thousands of children trapped in slavery here.
But Achibra sees it differently. “There are 78 boys that we help today. That is just a drop in the ocean, a blip on the lake, but for those 78 boys, it means everything.” he says.
After another long, hot day, as the sun arcs its way to the other side of the lake, George says his goodbyes to Samuel and joins a convoy headed back to the lake. Young Adam is once again at the front, this time following another boy, as the group nears the water’s edge, and the boat waiting to take them to the Village of Life.
It may not be the last time these two boys board a boat on Lake Volta, but it’s the first time they’ve done so in freedom.